June 15, 2014 Updated: June 15, 2014 at 7:34 am
The Rev. Frank Schaefer lost his United Methodist ministerial credentials in 2013 after officiating at his son's same-sex wedding.
Schaefer, speaking last month in Oklahoma City, said he watched his Lebanon, Pa., congregation split over the issue of gay rights in the church. The minister said he also had worried about his financial future and his 20-year career as a Methodist minister.
And yet, Schaefer, 51, told about 200 Oklahoma United Methodists that his regrets are down to one: that he didn't stand up sooner for full inclusion of gays in the life of the Methodist Church.
"Fear of homophobia kept me from speaking out sooner and louder and clearer," he said. "God has no secondary citizens."
Schaefer became the subject of national news when he was suspended and then defrocked for officiating at his son's 2007 wedding to another man at a restaurant in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay individuals. Also, Methodist clergy are prohibited from performing same-sex marriages, and the denomination prohibits gay marriages from being performed at its churches.
A father's concern
Schaefer spoke for about 50 minutes, telling the audience that his story did not start with his 2013 "defrocking" by the United Methodist denomination; instead, it began in 2000 when he received a disturbing phone call.
He said an anonymous woman called him to say that his son Timothy was struggling with being gay, so much so that he was contemplating suicide.
Schaefer said he and his wife didn't know their son was gay. He said their immediate concern was that he would consider taking his own life.
Schaefer said when he confronted his son, the young man said he was gay and that he had been struggling with his sexuality for several years, particularly after he had attended a United Methodist General Assembly meeting where the issue of homosexuality was the topic of an extremely heated debate.
"The message he got out of that was that his own faith tradition was saying if you're that way (gay), you're going to hell," Schaefer said.
Schaefer said he and his wife assured their son that nothing was wrong with him and tried to affirm him in many ways in the subsequent years.
So when his son asked him to officiate at his wedding to another man, Schaefer said, "There was no way I could have said no, and I didn't want to."
Schaefer said he informed regional denominational leaders of his intent, and when he received no response, he performed the wedding.
Message of inclusion
Schaefer said he didn't speak about the wedding when he returned from Massachusetts to his "theologically conservative" congregation and community in Pennsylvania, where he had served for 11 years.
However, he said he did begin to preach more and more about God's grace extending to everyone. Schaefer said he thinks his messages promoting inclusion and grace might have sounded the death knell for his ministerial career at his church - and not just from his officiating at his son's wedding.
Schaefer said several gays began attending his church, and some members of the congregation began to chafe at their acceptance by other parishioners. He said it was at this time that a complaint about his involvement with his son's wedding was lodged against him.
"That was the beginning of the unraveling," he said.
Schaefer was placed on trial by a regional United Methodist group in Pennsylvania and found guilty. He said he was given a chance to speak during the sentencing portion of the trial, but instead of making a carefully crafted statement that was conciliatory to the Methodists' Book of Discipline, Schaefer did the opposite.
"I said I will continue to minister to all people," he recalled.
Schaefer said he also said the United Methodist denomination should stop judging people because of their sexual orientation or anything else.
"I took out my rainbow-colored stole and put it on and said I was making a vow never to be silent again," he said.
Schaefer said he feels that God honored his stand, because shortly after his credentials were revoked, a California United Methodist bishop invited him to become a member of her conference. That invitation did not reinstate his clergy credentials, but Schaefer said it showed him that other United Methodists around the country stand with him.
"I felt elated that the same church that had rejected me a day before was now inviting me back," he said.
The clergyman and several of his family members joined Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., in December. He is appealing the regional ruling regarding his ministerial credentials.
"I encourage all of you: Follow your heart. Take a stand. God will not let you down," Schaefer said.