SPRING CITY, Pa. — The Rev. Frank Schaefer, pastor of the Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa. was found guilty by a jury of his peers for violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Schaefer, an elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, faced two charges. The 13-member jury deliberated for about one hour before announcing their verdict. The exact voting by the jury was not released, though nine votes were needed for a conviction.
The same jury will now decide the penalty for Schaefer, who could face losing his ministerial credentials. That decision is expected to be deliberated tomorrow (Tuesday) morning. All jury members are ordained Elders or Deacons from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.
The two charges Schaefer faced included presiding at a same-sex wedding, and disobedience to the order and discipline of the church. Both Schaefer–the respondent– and the church agreed before evidence was presented that Schaeffer had in fact performed the wedding in April 2007. However, Schaefer’s defense counsel, the Rev. Robert G. Coombe, built a defense on the fact that the wedding Schaeffer conducted was for his son, Tim and his partner, Robert Francis Petullis, Jr.
In his opening argument, Coombe, said that Schaefer performed his son’s wedding out of love. “His actions were rooted in his love for his son,” he said. “Frank made the loving father’s decision, and for that, we are here this week.”
The Rev. Dr. Christopher Fisher, counsel for the church, presented a copy of the signed marriage license and passed it out to the 13-member jury during his opening argument.
Schaefer, who pastors Zion UMC in Iona, Penn., has served the congregation for the past 11 years. A long time member of that congregation, Jon Boger, on active duty in the Navy, filed the complaint against Schaefer, and was church counsel Fisher’s only witness.
“I was dismayed to learn that my pastor had violated the (Book of) Discipline,” Boger said. “He never told the church.”
Boger said that a “rumor” had surfaced about Schaefer’s doing his son’s same-sex wedding, and that he said that he began investigating that rumor earlier this year.
“When pastors take the law into their own hands, it undermines their credibility and the integrity of the church as a whole,” Boger said. “A lot of integrity and trust are placed in our pastors.”
Fisher questioned his witness about the fact that his mother – a long time musician at the church – had been asked to resign by Schaefer around the same time he filed the complaint. Boger said that that had no bearing on his decision to check into the story.
“She was the organist,” Boger said, “and he requested my mom’s resignation.” However, he added, that fact was “irrelevant” because the wedding took place in 2007, not in 2013.
“He (Schaefer) kept it silent and nobody knew,” Boger said. “This is not a vendetta. This is about integrity, honesty and trust. The past six years have been a lie.”
When asked how he feels about his pastor today, Boger replied, “When I see him, I see a clerical colar with ‘shattered’ across it.”
Boger said that Schaefer had baptized all his children at the church, even though he had only been able to attend Zion UMC about once a year. Schaefer also conducted the funerals for his grandparents and the wedding of his brother. Currently living in North Carolina, Boger said he had been deployed to San Diego for four years, and Norway for two.
Boger said that as a member of the military he knows the conflicts that can arise between one’s family and one’s commitment to serve.
“The past 27 months have been rough,” he said. “I didn’t get to see my daughter’s first steps. Imagine not being there for your family. It’s sacrifice, but I am committed to the oath I took.”
Under cross-examination by Coombe, Boger reiterated that he was not a frequent attendee at Zion UMC, but that the church was important to him. Coombe asked him almost immediately about the timing of the complaint.
“It was in close proximity,” Boger said. “We were upset as a family, but there was internal unrest in the church.”
Boger said that he didn’t want to believe the rumors were true. “I was taken aback,” he said. “Why would you even go against the covenant?”
Boger admitted that he believes that marriage is between one man and one woman.
“There are three things that you don’t touch,” he said. “Gun control, abortion and gay rights. I’m in the middle of a big one right now.”
After Boger left the stand, Fisher rested the case for the Church. Then, Schaefer took the stand as the only witness for the respondent.
Schaefer talked at first about his call to ordained ministry, and how he found The United Methodist Church after arriving in the United States from Germany 22 years ago. It was a pastor at a small church in Virginia that saw in him, he said, the gifts of God and asked him if he would consider the ministry.
At that point, Schaefer said, he went to Valley Forge Bible College in Pennsylvania and discovered United Methodism at a nearby church.
“When it came time to decide which church to seek ordination in,” he said, “I called the Valley Forge office (of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference), and spoke with Bishop (Susan) Morrison. I told her of my love for the church, and she said, ‘Welcome to The United Methodist Church.’”
Schaefer served as a student pastor in 1993, and by 1994 was a certified candidate and appointed to the Morrisville UMC. He was ordained a Deacon in 1996, and an Elder in 1998 – by Bishop Morrison.
Schaefer said he shares a special bond with his eldest son Tim, who was born prematurely and had to have heart surgery at six weeks of age. “We feared for his life,” he said.
Tim, Schaefer said, struggled in his teenage years, and only “came out” as a gay man to his father after an anonymous woman called the church to tell Schaefer that his son was gay and that he was thinking of committing suicide. That night, Schaefer told the court, he and his wife spoke to their son.
“We affirmed him,” Schaeffer said. “You are a beloved child of God. You are God’s creation.”
Later, in 2006, when Tim called him to say that he was engaged and to ask him if he would do their wedding, Schaefer said that he responded quickly.
“It didn’t take me long to respond,” he said. “Absolutely, I told him, I will do your wedding. I was honored.”
Coombe asked Schaefer at one point if he felt “conflicted” in saying yes to doing something he knew to be against church law.
“There are so many good things about The United Methodist Church,” he said, “except that one rule. I didn’t think of the severity of what I was going to do; my son was asking for help, and I couldn’t pass by on the other side of the road, like the Levite or the Priest.”
The wedding, held in April 2007, was a small, private, family affair at a restaurant, Schaefer said. He wasn’t trying to make waves. “I didn’t want this to be a protest,” he said.
Schaefer said he did tell someone about what he had done, writing his district superintendent after the wedding. He decided not to tell anyone in the church, he said, because he wanted to be “the best pastor I could be and not allow this to be divisive.
Coombe finished his questioning by wondering why Schaefer pleaded “not guilty,” even though admitting he did the wedding.
“I remember the parable of the Good Samaritan,” he said, “and how Jesus admonished us to love our neighbor and our God. My motivation in doing the wedding was love. I may have compromised ritual purity but I acted out of love.”
Under cross-examination by Fisher, Schaefer said that his son Tim was not suicidal at the time of the request to do the wedding. He also asked if Schaefer knew the Book of Discipline’s admonition not to perform same-gender weddings. Schaeffer said he did.
“Aren’t there other ways you could have ministered without doing the wedding?” Fisher asked.
“To have said ‘no’ would have negated all the rest of what I’ve said to him,” Schaeffer said in reply. “That you are of sacred worth. I chose the love of my son over my career.”
During closing statements, Fisher reminded the jury of the charges and relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. He claimed that Boger was “hurt” that his minister had disobeyed the Discipline, and that Boger felt “wronged” and “betrayed.”
He compared the situation the jury was then in to the recent Council of Bishop’s meeting last week in North Carolina. There, the Council issued a response to retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who conducted a same-gender wedding in Alabama last month.
“This is a serious breach of covenant,” said Fisher, referring to Schaefer’s actions. “A response is required. The law is clear, and so are the facts. What you have to decide is what signal you will send to the world at large. Do we take our vows to our Discipline, to our church, before God, seriously?”
Coombe, in his closing statement, reminded the jury that Schaefer’s actions were about a father’s love for his son, and encouraged them to see this as a love story.
“How does so much love get a minister on trial?” he asked, adding that the jury had heard nothing about God’s grace in the trial thus far.
“Clearly, Rev. Schaefer was not making a statement. Frank broke a rule,” Coombe said, “but this is his first and only time of doing this. We recognize that Frank’s blessing of his son’s wedding has brought his ministry under review. Frank has been obedient, to the core.”
In his rebuttal, Fisher wondered aloud if loving someone gives that person special permission to act as they wish.
“The way we treat our children is to be a model,” he said.. “We can’t do everything for our children, just because they ask for it. True love draws boundaries. Scripture says that true love does not rejoice in evil.”
And, he continued, “Cheap grace does not lead to being conformed to the image and likeness of Christ. We ought not turn the grace of God into immorality. Is it true to tell young people that their identity can be determined by something like our sexuality?”
Fisher reminded the jury that, someday, they will have to give an account of their actions, as will all people.
The jury was then given instructions by Bishop Alfred Gwinn, presiding judge for the trial, and sent to dinner and their deliberations. The group deliberated about an hour before they returned with their guilty verdict.
Around 100 supporter of Rev. Schaefer were present at the trial and on the grounds throughout the day, as well as a large media contingent. Bishop Gwinn thanked them as they left for “being in good order” throughout the day’s events.
It’s not clear how the penalty phase of the trial will proceed tomorrow, however Rev. Schaefer has said previously that he hoped to call on experts in UM church law to talk about the conflicts in the Book of Discipline between the call to offer care and the proscriptions against performing same-sex weddings. Bishop Gwinn suggested at the end of the day that there will be additional testimony as the jury determines the appropriate punishment for Schaefer’s actions.