Frank Schaefer’s story is one of hope and change. Those expecting a tale of woe or an angry tirade directed at the United Methodist Church will be surprised.
Defrocked on Dec. 19 of 2013 for officiating at his gay son’s wedding back in 2007, Schaefer will speak at the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady next Sunday, June 29.
He will be part of the church’s regular Sunday service at 10 a.m., and will speak as part of the church’s Carl Lecture Series at 3 p.m. The program is free.
“Because this story hit the national news, the progressive part of the Methodist church has been reaching out to me, allowing me to still be in the ministry,” said Schaefer, who was at the Zion United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa., for 11 years before being removed as its pastor.
“The hierarchy of the Methodist church may no longer consider me a minister, but I’ve been busier than ever. It’s been phenomenal, and quite affirming to me. What this ruling has really done is to motivate the progressives in the church.”
A 13-member jury of pastors from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the UMC found Schaefer guilty on Nov. 20 of officiating a same-sex wedding and of showing “disobedience to the order and discipline of the UMC.” He was immediately suspended and given 30 days to renounce his support of marriage equality or lose his credentials.
’Carl Lecture Series’
WHAT: A talk by Frank Schaefer
WHERE: First United Methodist Church, 603 State. St., Schenectady
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, June 29
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 374-4403, www.fumcschenectady.org
“I had come to the conclusion long ago that even if it meant being fired, I was going to perform my son’s wedding,” said Schaefer. “It was a no-brainer for me. And I knew I had to be up front about it. I put it in writing to my bishop and the superintendant, and then I never heard from them.”
But when a member of Zion UMC in Lebanon heard that Schaefer had officiated at a gay wedding, he filed a complaint, and evidently the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference felt they had to act.
“It’s a little bit like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” said Schaefer. “The truth is that a lot of bishops and superintendents around the country are secretly in support of gay marriage but they feel like they can’t act on it. They’re worried about their jobs and they don’t want to rock the boat.”
Following news reports of Schaefer’s story, he was invited to speak at numerous colleges and before interfaith groups.
He also was sought out by many UMC reconciling congregations, such as Schenectady’s, which are “dedicated to the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in both the policy and practices of the UMC.”
“All the Methodist churches that have invited me to speak are reconciling churches,” said Schaefer. “I’m still living in Lebanon. We own our own home so we didn’t have to move out, but it feels like I’ve been preaching every Sunday since it happened, and this has given me the opportunity to really meet this issue head-on, which is something the church has never done.”
The issue of equal rights for members of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community is something Schaefer came upon over time.
“With me it was like an evolution, like it is for many people,” said Schaefer, a native of Germany who became a naturalized U.S. citizen and has been in the country for 25 years.
“I grew up in an evangelical church and I was taught and I believed that homosexuality was a sin. Once I received a call to the ministry my opinions changed, and by the time my son came out I was already something of a progressive.”
By the time Schaefer performed the wedding for his oldest son, Tim, in 2007, he had plenty of experience with gay issues. Three of his four children (he and his wife, Brigitte, have three daughters and a son) are gay.
“I think God wanted me to get the message,” said Schaefer, laughing. “It sounds like a joke, but with our youngest child, a son, we were always wondering if he was straight or gay. He’s probably the first person ever who, when he had to come out, came out straight.”
Schaefer’s oldest son had contemplated suicide before telling his parents about his sexual preference.
“We need to confront this because it’s harming people,” Schaefer said. “My son was told throughout much of his life that you can’t be a homosexual and go to heaven. It devastated him, he thought about suicide, so we need to stop hurting people because of this issue.”
In September of 2016, the United Methodist Church’s General Conference will meet in Portland, Ore., to determine if the church will alter its stance on marriage. Sara Baron, who became pastor at Schenectady’s First United Methodist in July of 2013, explained the governing body’s view, which she disagrees with.
“It’s three-fold in that homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christ, clergy are not allowed to preside over any same-sex marriage or union, and any self-proclaimed, practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained in the church,” she said. “As a reconciling church, we stand in opposition to all three of those.”
Baron’s congregation is one of six Methodist churches in the Capital Region that have declared themselves part of the denomination’s Reconciling Ministries Network. Schenectady took that action in 1996, while the other five are Saratoga UMC (1995), Slingerlands UMC (1996), Eastern Parkway UMC (2008), Christ Church UMC of Troy (2009) and East Greenbush UMC (2011).
A total of 13 churches in the 930-church Upper New York Conference, which includes all of the state except the New York City area and Catskill region, are reconciling congregations.
“There’s a wonderful part of our rules that allow us to stand in disobedience when we feel the rules are unjust,” said Baron. “These rules are written and debated every four years, and what we’re doing is advocating for change.”
Baron said the number of Methodist churches declaring themselves reconciling congregations grows each year, and while the minister might be at risk, the congregations themselves are not reprimanded in any way.
Bishop Mark Webb of Syracuse, who oversees the Upper New York Conference, issued a brief statement regarding reconciling congregations: “We celebrate each and every United Methodist congregation as they seek to live the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
James Fenimore of Saratoga UMC and Alan Kinney of Eastern Parkway UMC, pastors at two reconciling congregations, offered more substantial views on the issue of marriage equality.
“I’ve been ordained in this church since 1991 and it’s extremely sad to see the denomination being ripped apart,” said Fenimore. “These rules have been around for a long time, but they shouldn’t have been. They need to come out, and we don’t need to go through these trials and defrocking as we try to discern and understand the issue.”
Kinney, who has been at Eastern Parkway since 2011, offered this: “I think the church needs to live together under one roof, in the same manner that my wife and I do.”
He added, “We don’t agree on everything but we live together. There is so much that we do agree on, and except for those on the fringe of the left and those on the fringe of the right, I think we could find a path to reconcile ourselves. . . . It’s not something we need to end a minister’s career over.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.