For the Rev. Frank Schaefer, the road to losing his church — and finding his new mission — began with a telephone call to his church office.
At the other end of the line was a woman who attended Zion Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where Schaefer preached. Before Schaefer could find out who the caller was, she told him his son, Tim, was gay — and so tormented by keeping the secret from his parents that he had contemplated suicide.
In a daze, the minister drove home, where he and his wife told their son of the phone call. Tim Schaefer told all, of tear-stained nights praying for “normalcy” and confiding his sexuality with only one friend — a woman whose mother eventually called his parents.
“We were in tears, my wife and I,” Schaefer, now 52, recalled of that evening in 2000. “And we told him, ‘We love you, no matter what. You didn’t choose this. We accept you the way you are. This is the way God made you, gay and all.’”
The solidarity of father and son would reach its height seven years later, when Schaefer presided over Tim’s marriage to another man. But the ceremony also brought the pastor into a collision course with United Methodist Church law forbidding the performing of same-sex unions, and led to his defrocking last year after he refused to refrain from conducting future same-sex marriages.
With the exile from ministry has arrived a new role as an almost accidental, yet fervent, marriage equality defender, sharing his story of setting love for a son over the law of his church. Schaefer’s nationwide speaking tour will lead him to Napa’s First United Methodist Church this weekend, where he is scheduled to lead a Saturday panel discussion with local gay rights leaders before leading services Sunday morning.
Schaefer’s clash with the denomination in which he preached for 17 years is centered on the union he performed April 28, 2007, between his son and Robert Protulis Jr., who had met while attending Boston University.
The marriage took place in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriages. But Schaefer’s participation conflicted with the Methodist Book of Discipline, which bars its clergy from solemnizing same-sex unions and states “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Schaefer told his district superintendent within the Methodist church, but only told his congregation members when directly asked. However, a member filed a complaint with the national church’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference in April 2013 — just 26 days before a statute of limitations would have expired — and triggered a church trial for defying the Methodist ban on uniting gay couples.
After a two-day trial in November, a jury of Methodist clergy convicted Schaefer of disobeying church law. The church conference stripped Schaefer, who has two other gay children, of his minister’s credentials a month later after he declined to uphold the Book of Discipline’s gay-marriage prohibition. The expulsion is under appeal.
While expressing hope that the conflict over same-sex unions would not split apart the Methodist church, Schaefer held firm on his commitment not only to gain the faith’s full sanction of the marriages but to remove the church’s statement of “incompatibility” with homosexuality, a clause added in 1972.
“If there is no homophobic language” in the Book of Discipline, he said, “then it’s up to each pastor, each congregation, to decide where to stand on the (marriage) issue. This is ideal; it would give us as a church (with) true religious freedom.”
Schaefer’s battle to stay in the Methodist Church while upholding same-sex marriage — to keep ties with his faith despite its leaders’ efforts to drive him away — holds a special resonance for Ian Stanley, who will speak at Saturday’s forum on behalf of the LGBTQ Connection, a Napa support and advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning people.
“I’ve had fellow Catholics tell me that I can’t be Catholic and be gay,” said the Napa-raised Stanley, the group’s program director, who came out nine years ago. “I’ve also had other LGBTQ people astonishingly ask me why I would want to stay Catholic or Christian when so many churches actively preach against LGBTQ equality.
“His is a struggle perhaps many LGBTQ people and our allies can relate to — facing anti-LGBTQ hostility from congregations that once meant a whole lot to us, wanting to push for justice and change in those same congregations, and meanwhile truly deserving a place that already is practicing the ‘All Are Welcome’ (message) that is on many church signs.”
In February, as the speaking and ministry invitations from sympathetic churches began to line up for Schaefer, First United Methodist reached out to the now-itinerant minister to plan a visit, according to organizers. The Napa congregation was a natural host for the pastor and his message, according to Burke Owens, a pastoral intern at First United and an event organizer.
“Marriage equality is a big part of our working toward social justice and doing Jesus’ work in the world,” he said of the Napa church, which belongs to a ring of pro-gay marriage Methodist congregations called the Reconciling Ministries Network. “Having Frank speak here shows our support for him personally, and at the national level and international level.”
While Schaefer awaits a decision on his future with the Methodist Church, the opportunity to spread his newfound cause nationwide is becoming the greatest surprise to a man who once feared his principles might cost him dearly. A schedule of engagements on the minister’s website lists 31 planned appearances from this weekend through the end of June.
“I thought I’d lost my paycheck, my security, my livelihood,” he said Sunday by telephone from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But it turns out the part of church that is to me the true church, the part that believes we are all children of God, is supporting me financially, emotionally and spiritually and saying, ‘You are still a minister, and we invite you to minister to us.’ In fact I’m busier than ever before.”
Speaking and preaching will not be Schaefer’s only activities during his stay in Northern California. Before his arrival in Napa on Saturday, he said, will be an engagement in San Jose: conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony.