By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Before the waiting photographers, before the interviews with Barbara Walters and Anderson Cooper, before he lost his ministry credentials in a church trial, Frank Schaefer was a country preacher with a German accent leading a small United Methodist church in rural eastern Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t just the German accent that set him apart. His conservative social views, mirroring those in his community, started evolving when three of his four children came out as homosexuals.
It was love for his oldest son, Tim, that led Schaefer to violate The United Methodist Church’s law book forbidding clergy from officiating at same-gender unions.
Frank and his wife, Brigitte, were born in Germany. In the early 1980s, Schaefer was living in Germany working as a professional English translator. Brigitte was a highly skilled surgeon assistant. They had three young children, Tim, Debbie and Kevin. Their last child, Jordon Pascal, was not born until they moved to the United States.
Schaefer wanted to go to the United States to improve his English skills — to learn colloquial English, slang. He admits he also was looking for an adventure.
Church was always important to the couple. They met in a youth group at a church in Germany. Finding a church home was one of the first things they did when they moved to Norfolk, Va. They were happy to find what they saw as a “small, lively” church where they got involved in working with young people.
Schaefer started hearing God’s call to ministry. His pastor was so sure Schaefer was destined to be a pastor that he pressed a catalog and application form from Valley Forge Christian College into his hands.
Schaefer prayed about what to do and ended up attending that school. He was a student pastor at Morrisville United Methodist Church while in seminary at Princeton Theological Seminary. While trying to decide on a denomination, he called United Methodist Bishop Susan Morrison. At the end of that conversation, she welcomed him to The United Methodist Church.
He served five years at Avon Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa., and was resident chaplain at Hersey Medical Center while pursuing Clinical Pastoral Education. He was appointed to Zion Iona United Methodist Church in 2002. The four children were “preacher’s kids” and Brigitte a “preacher’s wife.” The family was in love with The United Methodist Church and Zion was a growing, thriving congregation — membership increased from 332 in 2002 to 470 in 2012.
White, hot spotlight
The world descended on this quiet country church and Schaefer after news of the charges and trial. One headline screamed,“Church puts pastor put on trial for loving his son.”
Overnight, Schaefer was on television, radio and in news publications from The New York Times to Al Jazeera America as well as local and statewide news outlets in Pennsylvania. The timing was perfect for the media because several states were debating legalizing same-gender unions and LGBQT rights.
“I cannot be silent any longer. I must speak out for the LGBQT community.” — The Rev. Frank Schaefer, testifying at his church trial.
Schaefer was found guilty Nov. 19 in a church trial and defrocked Dec. 19.
On the second day of his trial, Schaefer said he suddenly felt the Holy Spirit calling him to a new ministry. While testifying, Schaefer put on a rainbow stole and said, “I cannot be silent any longer. I must speak out for the LGBQT community.”
Later in an interview in his home, Schaefer said, “God has taken all my excuses, and just sort of pulled me by the collar, and said ‘This is what you need to do.’”
A church in recovery
Visitors to Zion Iona (Penn.) United Methodist Church enter through doors with warning signs: no photos, no videos, no media allowed anywhere on church grounds.
It is the first clue that this church has been through a trauma.
In many ways, Zion Iona is starting over even though the church has been on this spot since it was started by the Dundore family in 1894.
The congregation gathered on Jan. 5 to say goodbye to its former pastor.
Freezing rain fell outside the large windows behind the altar as the Rev. Charles Rothermel stood alongside Clydette Overturf, pastoral assistant, to offer words of comfort and healing to the congregation. Rothermel has been appointed by Bishop Peggy Johnson, episcopal leader of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference, to fill the lead pastor role for the next six months. He is an ordained elder, chaplain and marriage and family counselor.
Overturf, who was hired during Schaefer’s appointment, is committed to helping the church heal and start growing again.
Frank and Brigitte Schaefer waited until after the 11 a.m. contemporary service before coming through the side doors of the church. The moment Frank arrived he was surrounded and greeted with words of welcome.
Drew Gingrich, 21, was especially happy to be there.
Gingrich, a senior at Penn State Harrisburg, soon will graduate as a teacher. He grew up in Zion Iona. He said he noticed long ago that any conservative viewpoints about the Scriptures were welcome while “liberal opinions were not as warmly received.” That attitude kept him from volunteering to lead children’s Sunday school classes, he said, even though he felt his training in education would help his church.
Gingrich has struggled with what has happened to someone he considers a friend and a mentor. He testified for Schaefer during the trial and spoke passionately about a man who has had so much influence on his life. Like many others at the farewell gathering, he expressed disappointment in the denomination but an open mind about staying.
“You mean so much to me, we will be friends forever in Christ,” Schaefer said, tears flowing, as he blessed the food. Many in the room were also weeping.
“Jesus Christ’s example is love and forgiveness; Pastor Frank personifies that,” said Ellyn Ross, a member of the church since 2004. “He is going to change lives, and I am happy for him but sad for us because we will miss him so much.”
Ross said that after Schaefer came to the church 11 years ago, Zion turned into a thriving, growing congregation. He started a contemporary worship service that pulled in people from the community that hadn’t come to church before, she said.
“Jesus Christ’s example is love and forgiveness; Pastor Frank personifies that.” — Ellyn Ross, as the congregation gathered to say farewell to Schaefer.
Maryellen Martin, a member of the founding Dundore family, said “My mother carried me into this church, and I won’t leave until somebody carries me out.”
Watching Schaefer talking to church members, she said, “I love him. Who are we to judge? Only our Lord and Savior can do that. I don’t understand how some people can be so vindictive. Why can’t they just leave him alone? I’ve shed many tears; my whole family has.”
“We did some wonderful things in this church, in this community,” Schaefer said. The 11 a.m. contemporary service, started in 2005, was growing larger than the 8:30 a.m. traditional service.
“We were very good at it, very successful. We became a really friendly and open church. We were talking about adding a third service in 2013 until the complaint was filed; then everything sort of unraveled.”
Even before the charges, there was discontent. Deb Boger, who had been choir director for more than 40 years, resigned in March 2013, and the praise band left to organize a new congregation in July 2013.
Damaskus Road Community Church is nondenominational, and former Zion Iona member Miles Dissinger is pastor. He declined to talk about leaving Zion but said he worked with Schaefer for three and half years and supported him. Schaefer said the group left with his blessing.
“It was a worship war!” Schaefer said. “I was constantly asked to stop the (contemporary) service and was often accused of spending more time in preparation for the contemporary service over the traditional service.”
Jon Boger, son of Deb Boger, filed charges against Schaefer in May 2013 over Schaefer performing the ceremony for Tim Schaefer.
Schaefer said another group of 30-35 people who were supporters of Boger also left Zion Iona. “There were others that left who were disillusioned with all the problems and the drama as well,” Schaefer said.
Jon Boger, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, is tall, confident and a man who believes in keeping one’s word. He said that in April 2013 he sent Bishop Johnson a copy of Tim’s marriage certificate.
On the witness stand during the trial, he was in tears when he testified that Schaefer betrayed his congregation and the denomination by officiating at Tim’s wedding.
“This was never a personal vendetta but a fundamental theological disagreement. ” — Jon Boger, who filed the complaint against Schaefer.
Reflecting on the trial in an interview with United Methodist News Service, Boger said, “He knowingly and purposefully broke the Church’s policies. I simply filed the complaint. He was convicted and penalized by a jury of his peers.”
Boger said members of his family have been baptized at Zion Iona; their weddings and their funerals have been there.
The timing of his mother’s dismissal and the filing of charges has been a source for speculation as the true motive for Boger’s actions. The charges were filed just 30 days before the statute of limitations would have run out.
“This was never a personal vendetta but a fundamental theological disagreement,” Boger said. “I remain firmly convicted in my beliefs that Frank Schaefer’s actions were wrong, both according to the Discipline and biblical teaching.”
Boger said he understands Schaefer loves his children but leaders must be held accountable when they break their covenants.
“He chose to violate his oath for the love of his son. It was a conscious choice with consequences.
“Progressive liberals tend to crucify anyone who opposes them. … All the good aspects of those involved get lost in the meta-morality of the issue, where the politically correct trend is for gay marriage, and anyone who does anything to oppose it becomes the punchline of ridicule. If conservative members of the Methodist Church would speak out and take the ridicule, Frank’s movement would quickly become the minority,” Boger said.
There are United Methodists who agree with Boger.
“Throughout this process, Rev. Schaefer was treated with great respect and given enormous latitude to express his perspective, as well as many opportunities to resolve this matter short of a public trial,” wrote the Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo in a commentary. DiPaolo is pastor of Wayne Pennsylvania United Methodist Church and vice chair of the Eastern Pennsylvania conference’s Evangelical Connection.
“There was no spirit of inquisition or oppression; only sadness and seriousness as our church attempted to do something that has become increasingly rare anywhere in our society — and that is, to hold someone accountable to vows and promises once made.
“I believe that we have an opportunity to demonstrate a spirit different than that which characterizes so much public debate in our society, by acting graciously toward one another as we address this, or any other divisive issue, as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Bishop Peggy Johnson is a kind, gentle woman who often dresses in pink and uses sign language as she speaks because of her years of ministering with and for deaf people.
She refused to make any comments before the trial because she was advised anything she said might sway the potential jury. Though it hurt her and made the church seem indifferent to Schaefer’s plight, she kept her promise.
“I regret how badly we appear. … I’m sorry we have looked so narrow-minded and mean, unprogressive. A lot of people are judging us as that, not as people of the book upholding our Discipline being faithful to our covenant — that doesn’t seem to compute as much with folk.”
She lamented that there is so much The United Methodist Church does — such as its campaign to end malaria, United Methodist Committee on Relief’s fast assistance all over the world after natural disasters — that doesn’t get as much attention as the human sexuality issue.
Some thought Johnson seemed to contradict herself when soon after Schaefer’s trial was announced she wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing her support for “my lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters” for an antidiscrimination law in Pennsylvania.
“As a person of faith, I believe we need to protect the rights of all people.” — Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson.
“The Pennsylvania legislation came up a few months ago, and I questioned if I should even get involved in it because the church trial was bubbling up. One senator said his religious rights were being offended because he wasn’t allowed to show discrimination against people that his religion said he needed to discriminate against. So then I said, ‘I have got to say something.’” And she wrote the letter.
For many years she was pastor of an all-deaf congregation, Johnson said, and heard heartbreaking stories about people being denied their rights because they had a disability.
“As a person of faith, I believe we need to protect the rights of all people,” she said.
Johnson said it is difficult but also exciting to be part of the church at this point.
“This is exciting; I really feel privileged to be the lucky person that gets to be the bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference right now — to be part of midwifery of a new day. It is a slow go and will not be without its pain.
“There are so many hard-working leaders who care and want peace and don’t want to see us at each others throats even if we disagree — there are a lot of good-hearted people who are willing to keep working because the centrality of Christ is so important.”
In the eye of the storm
During the Nov. 18-19 trial, Brigitte and Debbie Schaefer, 28, sat in the second row of folding metal chairs behind the defense table watching Frank face questions about his ministry and promises he had made.
When Tim Schaefer, 30, was called to the witness stand, Brigitte bowed her head and covered her face with her hands. Debbie leaned over and put her arm around her mother. It was a poignant moment in two long days of trial proceedings.
Speaking in her home a few weeks after the trial, Brigitte said she was disappointed in The United Methodist Church. “I don’t think anyone should have had to go through this. I don’t think it should be done to any pastor. It was not a crime. It was not anything horrible that he did.”
Tim, who describes himself as a very private person, said the attention has been stressful.
“I felt I owed it to my father to support him in any way I could through this process. That meant testifying publicly (at trial and in media interviews) to my coming to terms with my sexuality and the suicidal thoughts I struggled with along the way — things that even my closest friends had previously never heard me talk about.”
As younger siblings, Debbie, Kevin and Jordon weren’t aware of Tim’s struggles. But, they said, they have all benefited from seeing how their parents helped Tim through that time. Now, after the trial, they are receiving love and support from United Methodists around the world.
That is a positive thing, said Debbie, who is a math teacher.
“Ironically, I think that this situation has actually strengthened my faith. … When I go to church now, I no longer feel uncomfortable or out of place just because I’m a lesbian. It’s actually been a rather liberating experience.”
Kevin said he realized he was gay when he was 12.
“My faith has definitely helped me through it, all of the tools I have for getting by in life are wrapped up in my faith.” He is 23 and attends the University of California in Santa Barbara where he is in MA/PhD track in linguistics.
Jordon Pascal Schaefer, 19, is studying computer science at Penn State
“The situation affects me because it affects my family. I encourage my family (or anyone else) to fight for what’s right, however I’m not comfortable being a huge political activist and being in the spotlight myself,” he said.
Tim and Frank have started a blog, UMCVoices.com, as a forum for those voices within the church that feel they are not being heard.
“I have been working with my father to encourage groups of pastors from all annual conferences to encourage their respective bishops to issue statements acknowledging that the Book of Discipline contains discriminatory language towards LGBT persons and pledging to stop the trials,” Tim said.
Letters and more letters
Schaefer and his family have received more than 1,800 emails and 700 letters, several books, CDs, rainbow shawls/stoles, pins, pictures, bears and postcards from strangers since his story became public. Eight churches did a card shower for the family, and two sent a check from a love offering they took at their churches.
The Stand with Pastor Frank: Support Equality Facebook page has more than 17,000 likes with about 700 private messages on that account and 350 more on Schaefer’s private Facebook account.
“I only received about 10 or 12 outspokenly hateful messages — I had expected more. I remember one warning me of the punishment of hell, several called me a false teacher.”
Most of the communications from people who disagree with him have been attempts to educate him with long letters full of Scripture, he said.
“We have also received beautifully written letters of support, many sharing songs composed for me.”
Schaefer is quick to smile, laughs often but also lets his tears flow. Through everything, he remains optimistic he will be able to remain a pastor in The United Methodist Church.
“I love the church and I’m in total agreement with most of the positions except for this one. I don’t want to leave because this is my church where I have a lot of friends and people who are looking to me to be their voice.” — Frank Schaefer.
Schaefer and his legal counsel, the Rev. Robert E. Coombe, filed an appeal after the Eastern Pennsylvania conference’s board of ordained ministry “deemed his ministerial credential surrendered.”
The appeal states that “the penalty assessed by the trial court was in violation of Church law, which prohibits trial courts from conditioning reinstatement of a suspended elder on his proof of good conduct and from imposing a penalty based on what a pastor may intend to do in the future.”
The appeal cites Judicial Council decisions 240, 725, 915 and 950 as well as paragraphs 2701, 2715 and 2716 “and other provisions” in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
While waiting on his appeal, Schaefer has received numerous invitations to speak to congregations across the connection. He is booked for almost every weekend through June.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño, episcopal leader of the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, has invited him to become a member of her conference. It is something they are considering.
Schaefer, his wife, and Jordon and Kevin, joined Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington the weekend after he lost his clergy credentials. He is receiving financial support from the churches he visits. Foundry collected $30,000 for the family.
“I love the church, and I’m in total agreement with most of the positions except for this one. I don’t want to leave because this is my church where I have a lot of friends and people who are looking to me to be their voice.
“Would we ever see change if people like myself and other LGBQT supporters all left? This is our church, too.”
Johnson said The United Methodist Church has a “progressive flavor” but is largely a traditional denomination. Conversations are how social issues change, she said.
“It’s kind of like porcupines on a cold night; we prick each other sometimes. But still the grace is there, the warmth of God’s spirit, so I am hopeful. I really am.”
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.