Off the Cuff: Frank Schaefer, former United Methodist pastor and LGBTQ advocate
Frank Schaefer is a former United Methodist pastor from Lebanon, PA. After performing the marriage ceremony for his gay son in 2006, Schaefer was stripped of his credentials and excommunicated from his congregation. Schaefer has since become an ally and advocate for LGBTQ Christians and delivered a lecture at the Oberlin First Methodist Church yesterday evening titled, “Defrocked: Still Faithful”. He sat down with the Review to discuss his road to religion, the Bible and his next steps.
Can you talk about your road to the Meth- odist Church? How did you end up there?
It was a long trip. I have a very eclectic background. I grew up, for most of my childhood, in a Baptist church. Later on, I became a charismatic believer. And during my college time [when] I was going for a ministry degree, I did an internship at United Methodist Church, and I loved the experience. I loved the church and the ministry, and so I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to ask the bishop if there’s room for me.’ And [at the time] it was Susan Morrison, and I actually called her up — which is very unusual — and at the end of the conversation she said, ‘Welcome to the United Meth- odist Church.’
Can you talk about the experience of hav- ing your credentials revoked?
I’ve really stood in the tension between the love for my son and the love for my church, my career and my job. When my son came out to us, it was a very dramatic experience, because he also shared that he had considered suicide — he cried himself to sleep many times and prayed to God, ‘Make me normal, I don’t want to be homosexual.’ When that didn’t happen, he actually had a plan in place to kill himself, and it was only by [the] fact that he had a friend he could confide in, a girlfriend, that we believe his life was saved. And from that moment on, two things were clear to us: First of all, this was not his choice; he obviously didn’t choose to be homosexual. [And secondly] he just needed our love and affirmation. We immediately hugged our son and said, ‘We love you no matter what, and you are our son.’ We started to affirm him theologically by saying, ‘We believe you’ve been created in the image of God just like everybody else. This is how God created you; this is who you are.’ It took him many years to accept that for himself, and [to] accept himself as a gay man. When he asked me in 2006 [to perform his wedding] there was no way in hell I was going to say no. It would have negated all of our affirmation. I didn’t want to [say no]; I love him so much [and] I was honored. I decided at that point that my love for my son was more important, because I knew that my church forbade gay marriage, and I decided ‘if this means I lose my job, so be it.’ I let my bishop, know and my cabinet, but I didn’t tell my congregation. I didn’t want this to be a statement of any sort; it was an act of love.
I had the wedding about 300 miles away in Massachusetts where it was legal, and it was a beautiful wedding, and I never heard anything until six years later — not from my bishop or my superintendent. It was within a conflict in my local congregation that someone who had heard about the possibility that I had performed that wedding drove up to Massachusetts and got ahold of the court document and lodged a complaint against me, and I faced a trial about four months later. I was defrocked eventually in the trial. It was interesting because the church basically told me, ‘You can no longer be a minister in the United Methodist Church.’ However, there was another part of the church that saw things differently and said, ‘Not so fast.’ One day after I was defrocked, someone called me on my cell phone and identified herself as the bishop of the California [Pacific] Conference [of the United Methodist Church], and I’d never met her before [and] never even knew she existed. She said something like, ‘Frank, I’ve talked this over with pastors and we as a conference believe that you have done the right thing to marry your son to another man. Jesus would have done the same thing. We believe that taking your credentials was wrong, and we want to invite you to our congregation as a Methodist minister.’ I’m still in process. The appointment process can be quite long. But I’m looking forward to going to California and being a United Methodist minister again.
Also, the grassroots part of the church involved with LGBTQ rights has really reached out to me, and I am speaking at a different United Methodist Church every week. I am preaching every Sunday for the next three or four months; my schedule is totally filled up. And this is another way in which the church is saying, ‘Not so fast: We don’t believe that your credentials were taken — by God, anyway.’ That just goes to show that people in the United Methodist Church are really making a difference. The movement is growing by leaps and bounds. … It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Before you learned your son was gay, did you have a position on homosexuality? And how did that evolve?
It was an evolution for me. I was raised mostly in the Baptist Church in Germany, which was rather evangelical and conservative. I was taught that homosexuality was a sin, and that’s what I believed. It started to change when I met for the very first time an openly gay person. I remember thinking of him, that he was just the nicest guy; I could be friends with him. And that was the first time I was at odds with what I was taught. [I thought] If gay people are evil, then why is he so nice? Then began a long evolution. When I went to seminary for my ministry, I became tolerant of gay people, and I no longer saw homosexuality as a sin or a choice. I studied the scriptures that are always quoted in this context … and I came to the conclusion that those passages in the Bible weren’t talking about committed, loving homosexual relationships. And I became tolerant, but I still wasn’t a supporter. When my son came out, that’s when I became a supporter, and it was still a hard transition. This was back in 2000, when the world was different. And then of course, through the trial, I was really outed. I had been keeping quiet about it, and when all this came out through the complaint and the press wanted to know my stance I couldn’t lie, and I had to tell the whole world how I really felt about homosexually. And that’s when I became an advocate. I was sort of pulled into it; I never meant to be an advocate. But I think I’m in the right place, because I feel that this is a calling from God for me.
Your talk emphasizes faith, and I’m curious as to how you personally maintain your faith amidst all this rejection from your former congregation?
I’ve got to be honest, it really affected my faith. There were points when I was so frustrated and depressed over everything that transpired that I doubted whether I would go back to [the] church if they took my credentials. What made the difference was the support of the LGBTQ community. They reached out to my family and myself, even ahead of the trial, during the trial and after the trial. It’s amazing to see hundreds of Christians gathered Sunday after Sunday — Christians that are gay or allies or just members who are for gay rights. It’s amazing to see their support and love as we continue in this fight.