UM Pastor found guilty on 2 counts for presiding at his son’s wedding

The Rev. Frank Schaefer is greeted by supporters as he leaves the courtroom. UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert

The Rev. Frank Schaefer is greeted by supporters as he leaves the courtroom.
UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert

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.

 

Erik Alsgaard, UMR Correspondent

Erik Alsgaard

UMR Correspondent The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is a member of the Detroit Conference, on loan to the Baltimore-Washington Conference, serving in the Ministry of Communications there as Editor of the UMConnection newspaper.

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  1. Why didn't Frank minister to his son instead of condoning his behavior? Frank betrayed Christianity, not just the UMC. I hope they dismiss him. The church needs to send a strong message that this isn't tolerated.

    • Not having family in my life, the people who choose to be a part of my life, are the most important to me. I have found a sense of Family among those i have chosen to share Faith and Service to the Community with. My bond with this family is strong but its best summed up with…. Religion is a choice, Sexuality is not, it is a divine gift from God and a law just like Gravity.

  2. This is not about love, and frankly it is not about mere, arbitrary "rules." The GC has openly, thoroughly debated the issues for over 40 years. They have faithfully and gracefully embraced all people and stood by the Biblical definition of marriage. If there are those who do not wish to uphold our covenant, they are NOT forced to do so. They should not make the covenant null and void by ignoring it. If any clergy who freely vowed to uphold our covenant can no longer do so in good consciousness, then they need to have the integrity to find other organizations with which they agree. General Conference has been honoring to people. It is dishonest, dishonoring and intolerant when some bash the UMC when all voices are heard every four years.

    • marty gilbert says:

      Perhaps we should go back even further to the original intent of the Bible as interpreted by man. Back in time to you cannot eat Pork, Get a Divorce, and are free to sell your children into slavery as stated in the Bible.

      For the Church to be relevant in a modern society it must adapt and change or become irrelevant to the majority and relegated to become a Social Club. Sexuality is not a choice, It is a divine gift from God and a law no different than gravity. However you are welcome to continue pushing that rock up a hill untill it destroys you and all the people in the town below it.

      • former_UMC_member says:

        If God tells you not to eat pork, and you are an ordained Elder in one of God's churches, and the BoD in your denomination explicitly forbids you from eating pork, you are free to eat pork, but don't expect your denomination or God to uphold your membership and status as ordained Elder.

        And if you don't like God's abolition of pork as a matter of principle, I suppose you can argue the case with God, but I'm not laying in bets on a favorable outcome for you.

        You may have better arguments than God, and arguments which have been overcome by modernity. I'm rooting for you. Go get 'em!

        • MovedMethodistMegan says:

          not a bad analogy though I'm hoping that it's the medium of the internet that makes the tone non-loving. Paul found himself in that very situation when he found himself called to accept pork rather than following the established protocol of the faith that was accepting his call to ministry. We might turn to the stories of the early church for guidance.

  3. A shameful verdict. The jury obviously values legalism over love.

    • It's the only verdict they could find Jay. The covenant in the BOD would have to be completely different. You want them to throw out the sincere and open efforts, discussions, debates and agreements of GC. Again, if you are a clergy and you can't affirmed the BOD, then go through the due process at GC, or if that still doesn't work find a denomination that has a different view of marriage than the Biblical definition of marriage.

    • former_UMC_member says:

      Sex and love are separate topics. Why is this so difficult for the defenders of homosexuality, gay marriage, and all other forms of extra-marital, heterosexual sex to grasp.

      Nobody on the side of heterosexual-only marriage rejects the ability of two persons, or seventeen persons, of any color or age or flavor or gender, to love each other.

      I love my young son. That love does NOT carry with it permission to have sex with my son. Or my neighbor's wife. Or my pastor. Or my married colleague. Or my unmarried colleague. Or my school teacher. Or the cheerleading team. Or the wrestling team. Or my dog, cat, horse. Colleague.

      That sex and love are separate things should not be so difficult to grasp.

  4. I stand by this minister, and I sincerely hope that if he does get his pastoral duties revoked that he isn't silenced by this decision. Continue to fight for equality and for what is right. That's what Jesus did after all. Best of luck Pastor Schaefer.

  5. It would have been better for a mill stone to be tied around the necks of these "pastors" than to have passed this verdict.

  6. If sexuality is not a choice, why do bisexuals sometimes CHOOSE men and sometimes CHOOSE women? Sex is a behavior; behaviors are learned.

  7. So much ignorance (about human sexuality, about God, about scripture, about Jesus's great commandments of love) in these comments. A church that practices spiritual terrorism is not much of a church. I increasingly doubt that this denomination is worth fighting for. It will continue to be dominated by those who want to cater to the most ignorant of members (both in the US and Africa). I hope someone will negotiate a fair split so that congregations that take seriously Jesus's teachings about love can leave and form a new branch of Methodism.

  8. Why do people insist on trying to change an existing denomination, which has already decided what they believe, and made it a part of their doctrine, to change it to suit others? If they don't like what the Methodist Church says about a social issue, then why would they join. It is not as if this is a new rule. I am not a fan of Justin Beiber, so I do not join his fan club. It is really ignorant to join an organization that you do not agree with and then attempt to change it to match your worldview.

    • So then why did some have to change what existed previously – by adding the terminology that underlies this whole issue? why not have just left the BOD as it was before 1972 – when there was no language that creates harm? I think the rules were just fine the way they were when I became a UM in 1968 – what gave anyone the right to change them after that? The same applies here and now that we have learned so much about sexuality and realize that it is natural for some to be heterosexual and some to be homosexual.

      • Before 1972 it was understood that scripture was sufficient to define sin, but since then scholars with an ulterior motive have attempted to reinterpret what had already been interpreted to meet their own goals. All sexual urges are biological. Just because something is biologically based does not excuse it from scriptural definitions of sin.

      • Oh, and a vote of the General Conference gave them the right to change it.

  9. marty gilbert says:

    Not having family in my life, the people who choose to be a part of my life, are the most important to me. I have found a sense of Family among those i have chosen to share Faith and Service to the Community with. My bond with this family is strong but its best summed up with…. Religion is a choice, Sexuality is not, it is a divine gift from God and a law just like Gravity.

  10. So, the hate and vitriol continue and what good is accomplished? The next general conference will be locked up with it. Why is it so difficult to know that this denomination needs to split?

  11. There is only 1 with the authority to be the judge AND jury all in one and you people haven't met him yet! So many suicides because of ignorant losers preaching hate in the name of Jesus. You may be the ones fearing Hell at the end…not the Pastor. You keep spreading your poison you sicko's. And don't worry about my soul, I'm not going to Hell, Satan still has that restraining order against me.

  12. Ann Perrone says:

    When did the "Biblical definition of marriage" become one man and one woman? Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon (all big shots) had multiple wives. I don't mind people saying that Bible dictates this or that…but get it right. Why aren't we able to face what really bothers people about two men or two women sharing the marriage bed after a covenant blessing….I'll wager most people who object to same sex marriage are, at a basic level, skeeved out by sexual relations between same gender partners. I'm skeeved out at the thought of eating raw oysters, but I'm not gonna say it's incompatible with Christian Doctrine.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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