By Kathy L. Gilbert*
A Nov. 18-19 trial has been set for a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference who officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son five years ago.
A complaint was filed one month before the statue of limitations ran out and word of the trial became public Sept. 20.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., said he “followed his heart” when his son, Tim, asked him to officiate at his wedding in 2007.
“In some sense it was a difficult decision because I knew I was putting my career, my ministry, on the line, but in another sense it was easy because my heart told me I had to do this,” he said.
Schaefer said when his son first told his parents he was gay, he also told them he had contemplated suicide. Schaefer said that as a pastor’s son, the messages Tim received from the church and from the culture in Lebanon, Pa., caused him to feel something was wrong with him.
“He prayed to God that God would change him and make him ‘normal’ and when that didn’t happen he became suicidal,” Schaefer said. “When he came out, my wife and I just loved and supported him and told him there was nothing wrong with him. I said, ‘You were created in the image of God just like everyone else.’”
The wedding took place in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages are legal. The couple lives in Hull, Mass.
Support, other reactions offered
Schaefer said he has received a lot of support from his congregation. His district superintendent called a congregational meeting in May when the complaint was filed. “A lot of support was voiced for me at that meeting … that was a great evening for me,” he said.
He added he is worried about the pending trial and his future as a United Methodist pastor.
“I have been ordained for 17 years … it is scary to think about what could happen to me. I don’t want to lose my credentials of course; I love being a minister, I love ministry.”
Schaefer said he is hoping at the trial the jury will be lenient because “it was my own son I did the ceremony for.”
The trial will take place at Camp Innabah, Pa. Retired bishop Alfred Gwinn will preside over the case. Bishop Peggy Johnson is episcopal leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania area. The prosecutor will be Christopher Fisher, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa.
“The complaint is confidential under our church process and I am not at liberty to provide any comment,” Johnson said. “I am in prayer for all involved in this process, and I urge everyone to join me in lifting up in prayer each of the persons involved.”
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist caucus, and has been following the case.
“Sadly, our church is once again being led down the path of a costly and divisive trial by a pastor who chose to disregard the prayerful and consistent teaching of our church that Christian marriage is the holy union of one man and one woman,” he said. “As a father, I share Rev. Schaefer’s desire to affirm his son, but there are ways of doing so that do not require a pastor to break the Discipline and the covenant that all United Methodist pastors agree to uphold.”
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
The denomination has had several trials for pastors accused of officiating at same sex unions and guilty verdict sentences have ranged from one year to 20-day suspensions.
The most recent case was in 2011, when the Rev. Amy DeLong was convicted of performing a same-sex union.
Three other United Methodist elders are facing complaints — all in the state of New York.
A complaint was filed against the Rev. Stephen Heiss, pastor of Tabernacle United Methodist Church, Binghamton, N.Y., for officiating at his daughter’s same-sex union.
In a letter to Bishop Mark J. Webb, episcopal leader of the Upper New York Conference, Heiss said he has officiated at several other same-sex unions and plans to officiate at another wedding in the future for two women.
Heiss has been receiving letters of support on a blog, letters to the bishop, started in early September. As of Sept. 23, 85 letters have been written, several from members of Tabernacle United Methodist Church.
A statement was issued from the episcopal office in July, and Heiss and Webb met to discuss the issue in August. A second meeting took place Sept. 20 and Webb extended the process for another 30 days.
In October 2012, the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean and elder, officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son. Some clergy in the New York Annual (regional) Conference filed a complaint against Ogletree after his son’s wedding announcement appeared in the New York Times.
The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy is also facing a formal complaint in the New York Conference that she is a “self-avowed practicing” lesbian.
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.