Jury deliberating over penalty in trial of PA pastor

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 jury hearing the case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor found guilty yesterday of disobeying church teaching on same-sex unions, is debating an appropriate penalty tonight after a day of testimony from persons on both sides of the issue.

The jury has a wide range of options available to them, from defrocking Schaefer and expelling him from the church, to suspension or some other lesser penalty.

Schaefer was found guilty of violating the Book of Discipline and being disobedient to the order and discipline of the church for conducting the same sex wedding of his son, Tim, in 2006. Schaefer’s actions only came to light last April, days before the statute of limitations were set to expire.

During the penalty phase testimony today, jurors heard for the first time from Tim Schaefer, Frank Schaefer’s son. He testified that he struggled for years with his sexual orientation, and at times was suicidal. After coming out to high school friends, Tim said, he thinks a friends mother called his dad to tell him of his suicidal thoughts. It was then that his parents asked him about it.

“I knew my dad loved me unconditonally, but I was afraid,” Tim Schaefer said. “I had seen others come out to their parents and be thrown out of the house. My parents hugged me and said they loved me.”

Tim Schaefer said that was 99.9 percent sure his father would say yes to doing the wedding. “Saying ‘no’ would have hurt, but I would have understood,” he said.

Frank Schaefer took the stand after lunch, and in a powerful moment, donned the multi-colored stole signifying affirmation of full inclusion for homosexuals in the church. As he put on the stole, he made a covenant:

“From this day forward,” he said, “I vow never to be silent, and to be a visible symbol. This is what i have to do from now on.”

Counsel for the church, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, asked Schaefer under cross examination if he was willing to repent of his actions.

“I cannot,” was Schaefer’s reply.

Fisher then asked if, going forward, he would be obedient to the Book of Discipline. Schaefer replied, “I cannot make that statement.”

“I feel called to minister to everybody,” Schaefer said earlier in his testimony. “This experience has transformed me. I am now an advocate, a spokesperson for a cause.”

Schaefer said that he has embraced this role as a new calling from God.

The jury also heard from two members of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona, located in Lebannon, Pa., where Schaefer served as the pastor for the past 11 years. These members testified how Schaefer’s actions drove them away from the church.

William Bailey, who has been a member since 1977 and said he had held virtually every office at the church, said that after he learned of his pastor’s actions, he and his family could no longer attend church.

“And the sad part,” he said, “was that they took their wallets with them.”

Bailey said that they church is no longer able to pay its apportionments, which is a change from the previous three years when they had paid 100 percent.

“If I violate a rule,” Bailey said, “I expect to be punished. I expect nothing less from my church.”

A relatively new member of the church, Christina Watson, next took the stand and testified that at first Schaefer was very welcoming to them when they arrived at the church five years ago. A retired member of the Air Force, Watson said that at one point (during a time of personal struggle) Schaefer, for some reason, “wouldn’t or couldn’t get close to me. It was painful not having a minister minister to me.”

Watson said that when she found out about the wedding, she was in shock. “My daughter is a young believer,” she said. “And then she was seeing a pastor violate the rules. She helped me conclude that we needed to not be subjected to the teachings of Rev. Schaefer.”

The Counsel for the respondent, the Rev. Robert Coombe, called two witnesses from Zion United Methodist Church who support Schaefer’s ministry.

Dr. John Schlegel has been attending Zion UMC since 1979. He said the church grew under Schaefer’s leadership.

“The faithful are still here,” he said “We are looking forward to his return. A lot of parishoners will feel deprived if he’s removed now, especially with the holiday season coming.”

Drew Gingrich, 21, said that he was born and raised at Zion UMC and has been active in the church’s youth group.

“Pastor Frank conveys the unconditional love of Christ,” he said. “Its evident anytime you see him speak.”

Gingrich said that Schaefer invites everyone to the table, even those whom others might reject. “He is the embodiment of Christ. I could not be more honored to call him my mentor, my hero, my pastor.”

The Counsel for the church also called as a witness the Rev. James Todd, superintndent of the Southwest District of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. He testified that he was Schaefer’s superintendent when Schaefer submitted a ministerial profile in 2006, writing that he was going to perform his son’s same-sex wedding.

Todd said that after receiving profiles from all the clergy in his district, he only reviewed those whom the Cabinet thought might be up for a new appointment. Since Schaefer wasn’t on that list, he didn’t read his profile.

Todd also said that Schaefer’s conducting of the wedding was not the only source of conflict at the Lebanon church, adding at one point that most of the criticism had to do with his handling of the choir director situation. The choir director at the time was Deb Boger, and was asked to resign shortly before the charges were filed. Her son, Jon Boger, is the person who filed the complaint.

The jury also heard expert testimony from the Revs. Paul Stallsworth, Janet Wolf, Leister Longden, Thomas Frank, and Keith Boyette.

The jury has the case and will deliberate until they have a verdict, or until 8 pm tonight, which ever comes first. If not the court will reconvene at 9 a.m. for a third day of deliberations.

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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