Schaefer’s New Book and the Shifting LGBT Inclusion Conversation

Rev. Frank Schaefer’s personal retelling of the events leading up to his trial and defrocking, are detailed in his new book, “Defrocked: How a Father’s Love Shook the United Methodist Church” (UMC). “I never got to tell my side of the story,” Schaefer says on why he wrote the memoir, which officially releases July 26 after first being featured at June’s Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina.

Schaefer is the latest in a line of UMC pastors disciplined for performing same-sex weddings or being open about their own same-sex relationships. In this sense, Schaefer’s experience is not unique. Jimmy Creech was defrocked in 1998 for performing a same-sex ceremony, and Beth Stroud was defrocked in 2005 for being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

Schaefer makes the argument that his case has shifted the conversation again. Since the controversy began, breaking church law for his son is the focus of the conversation at Schaefer’s public appearances.

“Frank chose to honor his call as a child of God and honor his call as a father,” says Rev. Dawn M. Hand from Foundry UMC, Washington D.C., explaining why this case pushed the LGBT question with the church. “Our first call is to love God. Then it is to love and serve our family. Then it is to love and serve his area of calling.” Immediately after Schaefer’s December 2013 trial, he made appearances on national network news, including Anderson Cooper’s show, and has preached most Sundays at churches across the country. During these appearances, Schaefer has heard from people who support LGBT equality, those who do not, and those who are somewhere in between. “When I get very critical questions,” Schaefer says, “I love engaging with those folks and I share my story, my experience.”

A similar case, with far less national media attention, involved retired Rev. Thomas Ogletree, who was also brought under church charges for performing a same-sex union for his son. Ogletree’s case was resolved by the New York UMC conference in March 2014.

Defrocked tells the story of when Schaefer discovered his son was gay. The revelation began with an anonymous phone call alerting Schaefer that his son was gay and suicidal. The notification was followed by tearful conversations with Schaefer’s wife and son. Their conversations resulted in public silence both out of fear for the repercussions in the church and out of concern for their son’s privacy. In 2013, when charges were filed because Schaefer performed the same-sex wedding for his son, Schaefer’s world turned upside down. At trial, Schaefer decided to publicly support his son, the LGBT community, and the movement for equality. “If there is one regret I have, it’s that I didn’t speak out soon enough,” Schaefer says. “I felt totally free,” He recalls while talking about his evolution since the trial, “I felt at peace with God, with the world and with myself.” Schaefer continued, “Living with homophobia in church puts you in a state of fear, and in that moment all of it went away.”

During his testimony before the church, “I felt the freedom too,” says his wife Bridgette Schaefer. Privately, she had urged her husband to become bolder in his public stance. “Being able to speak openly and publicly about my theology,” Frank explains, “and being able to engage in dialogue openly has not only emboldened my witness, but it has actually further changed and widened my theology, especially with regard to God language.”

After traveling for months around the country speaking about his trial experience and his new-found calling to minister to the LGBT community, Schaefer has continued to shift his theology. “The transgender and queer community has helped me gain a new understanding of the importance of using neutral and genderless pronouns for God, as the spectrum of sexual identity and orientation includes people who identify with either or both genders,” he says.

The conversation will move forward, Rev. Hand points out. “We have to learn how to get along with each other, and how to disagree with each other,” she says. “Even as the conversation continues, we all have to practice grace and civility with each other.”

The debate continues with a recent official complaint filed against the 36 UMC pastors who blessed a same-sex wedding at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, in November 2013. The ceremony was performed partly in solidarity with Frank Schaefer, as well as to protest the official church position.

Despite the trial, Schaefer says he has no regrets. “One thing I know for sure is that I will never be silent again…If you proclaim boldly what you feel is a justice issue and what is right, God will not let you down.”


Originally published on July 11, 2014 at the United Methodist Reporter

Defrocked by Franklyn Schaefer

DefrockedThe story of Frank Schaefer’s trial by the United Methodist Church in November 2013 splashed across the regional, national, and international news. Defrocked is the personal story of how Schaefer, born in Germany, came to be a United Methodist Pastor in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The book follows his public and private dispute within his local church, his defrocking after he was found guilty of performing a same-sex marriage for his son, and his subsequent refusal to refrain from performing future ceremonies.

Defrocked, published just six months after the trial’s conclusion and before the appeals hearing set for June 20, 2014, focuses on specific events leading up to the trial and the courtroom drama played out over two days of proceedings.

In a recent interview, Schaefer explained, “I really didn’t get my day in court. I didn’t get to defend myself. I wasn’t supposed to say what I did say.” Parts of the book read more like testimony, giving specific events, names, and actions taken, like the defense case Schaefer would have presented during the trial. The book was a chance for Schaefer to tell his personal story, especially for most people who came to know the saga only after the verdict.

The build up to the case is carefully documented, outlining church disputes. These disputes are almost universal in church life, mostly stemming from worship wars, when the church added a contemporary style worship. Schaefer draws the connection with this long-standing dispute, a subsequent dismissal of the choir director and the official complaint.

Defrocked seems to purposively avoid integrating national and church events happening concurrently to the story. The Proposition 8 Supreme Court rulings on June 26, 2013 are never mentioned. The book also barely mentions the national United Methodist church’s discontent with Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered (LGBT) issues. The book does include statements from both United Methodist clergy and other Christian clergy in response to the case.

Whether these omissions are because they did not play into the actions and thoughts of Schaefer and his family or to show how national stories were eventually distilled in the personal lives of one church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, are left for the reader to decide. But this view of the church as acting alone and outside of general culture dynamics negates the real people within the church as simultaneously within a secular culture, whether that culture be for or against LGBT issues.

The effect Prop 8 and the growing number of states reversing similar legislation had on Schaefer’s trial can only be guessed; however, Schaefer does spend a short section of the book on the common scriptural arguments against homosexuality. While he doesn’t recreate the work of other theologians and pastors, he includes “. . . some general common sense observations.”

He states, “The conflict we are facing in the Christian church as a whole (United Methodist and otherwise) is rooted in our view of our holy writ, the scriptures and the Bible.” He then goes on to explain the literalist versus the contextualist interpretation of scripture as directly influencing the view of LGBT issues.

While the title of the book suggests a social commentary, the storyline keeps the effect of church action at the personal, familial, and local level. This is especially true when Schaefer reveals an anonymous phone call he received at the church office saying his son, Tim, was suicidal and gay.

Schaefer and his wife Brigette tearfully spoke with Tim, hearing how he remembered LGBT condemnation at a church meeting years earlier and was afraid to come out. Given the conservative community they lived in, the family kept this news private, allowing their son to come out to people he chose. So in 2006, when his son called and asked Schaefer to perform his wedding ceremony, regardless of church rules, “There was no way in hell I was going to say no,” Schaefer said.

When asked why his story was important, Schaefer said, “Even people who are conservative were saying, ‘If he hadn’t done this for his son, I would not only think of him as a bad father, but as a bad pastor.’”

I originally published this review on the NY Journal of Books

Author(s): Frank Schaefer
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Publisher/Imprint: Chalice Press
Pages: 128