The majority of the “supreme court” of the United Methodist Church, the Judicial Council, has affirmed the re-instatement of Frank Schaefer, an Eastern Pennsylvania pastor who was defrocked last year for performing a same-sex wedding. The UMC’s governing Book of Discipline affirms the biblical teaching that sexual relations are only for the covenant of man-woman marriage, and forbids our ministers from blessing or our churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
As noted, I am disappointed with this flawed decision, but the implications are much narrower than many think. Indeed, the Judicial Council itself acknowledged that in this decision, “Some may see a flagrant disregard for parts of the Discipline,” but insisted that it was simply doing its job to uphold the letter of the law.
In fact, the Judicial Council did not rule directly on any part of the church’s stand on marriage and sexuality, and did not at all prevent any United Methodist clergy from facing a future trial for blessing a same-sex union.
The bottom line is that, according to the Judicial Council and the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals, it would have been perfectly fine for the trial court to have automatically defrocked Schaefer, but this trial court made a fatal error in seeking to give him a gracious second chance. In this decision, the Judicial Council has rather unhelpfully undermined trust in its own credibility, and by extension, in our Council of Bishops as a collective body.
What follows is some clarification of how this came about.
Schaefer performed a same-sex “wedding” service in 2007. Several years later, a member of Schaefer’s congregation found out about this and filed a complaint against him.
Schaefer was offered a chance for a pre-trial “just resolution” that would have avoided any punishment for himself and stopped the process from dragging out any further, if only he would agree to abide by the standards of the Book of Discipline in the future and apologize for breaking trust.
Schaefer chose to reject this gracious offer for a path that made him into a national celebrity, at the price of costing the church as much as possible.
While openly acknowledging that he had indeed conducted the service, in knowing violation of his ordination vows, he chose to forcibly drain huge amounts of time and treasure from his annual conference for there to be an “investigation” and then a trial to examine the “evidence” and determine if he had done what he already confessed he did. Because in our system, if a minister accused of wrongdoing insists on escalating the process to the level of a trial, as Schaefer did, the trial court is the only body really empowered to impose penalties for wrongdoing.
The trial court basically chose a creative way to defrock him that was intended to make him take responsibility for his own penalty, after a 30-day (paid!) period for personal reflection and an offer of a second chance.
After being defrocked, Schaefer refused to accept accountability graciously, but instead insisted on needlessly draining more of the church’s time and resources to appeal his case to the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals. As everyone expected, this traditionally liberal-stacked body, presided over by a lesbian activist, over-ruled the penalty of the trial court to re-instate Schaefer without any meaningful accountability, based on alleged technicalities of church law.
Immediately after the trial, and well before she had all the facts, the Committee president had very stridently, publicly denounced the trial court for upholding the UMC’s standards, but then did not recuse herself from the case. If I was a party to a case in a secular court, I would have excellent cause to seek the recusal of a judge from my case if he had similarly publicly denounced my side well ahead of time. This is yet another example of the secular world following far higher standards of ethics and integrity than progressive United Methodism.
Based on the composition of the Committee, the fact that they would come up with some reason to reinstate Schaefer was a foregone conclusion. Its June 24 decision replaced Schaefer’s original penalty by saying that Schaefer’s punishment was to be suspended without pay for a token thirty days following the trial (a period that had already passed by that point), and forcing the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference to pay Schaefer all the salary he had lost after that point.
Rev. Dr. Chris Fisher, the Easter Pennsylvania clergyman appointed as “counsel for the church,” fulfilled his responsibility to defend our church’s standards by then appealing the case to the Judicial Council. And on Monday, the Council announced that it accepted the argument of the Appeals Committee and Schaefer’s legal team that the precise terms of Schaefer’s punishment violated some technicalities of church law. So now Schaefer is restored as a United Methodist elder in good standing, but remains liable for another trial if he conducts another same-sex “wedding.”
It worth noting that, unless they chose to write a dissenting opinion (which they are not required and may not have time to do) the opposition of minority members of the Judicial Council is not publicly recorded. Thus, we will likely never know the actual vote of the nine-member court on this decision.
Such personal details that people have raised as the “wedding” in question being for Schaefer’s own son, the subsequent dissolution of that relationship in divorce, and unfair insinuations against the motives or character of those bringing complaints against Schaefer are all very interesting and could make great material for a made-for-TV drama that may someday be made about this case (following the documentary and the play). But details like these are not immediately relevant for the actual decisions that the United Methodist accountability bodies noted above had to make.
Key Questions at Issue
Schaefer made clear his commitment to continue living outside of our denominational covenant by conducting further same-sex unions. Thus it seemed that any punishment short of a full defrocking would make it only a matter of time before all the same time and treasure was expended to put Schaefer on trial all over again. But there was also an understandable desire to not seem overly harsh, given the sympathetic narrative of Schaefer’s simply doing “an act of love” for his son (even though encouraging someone’s ultimately self-destructive sin is no favor in the long run).
So the jury of Schaefer’s clergy peers concluded the trial on November 19, 2013 by overwhelmingly deciding to give him 30 days to reflect on whether or not he really wanted to divorce himself from the UMC clergy covenant in the name of claiming to be “called” by someone to be an advocate for the LGBTQ cause. If at the end of this paid discernment leave he was unwilling to recommit to upholding the Book of Discipline “in its entirety,” then was he to be defrocked. I have dialogued with several close to the case, including one of the jurors, and am not aware of anyone disputing that this was the intent of the trial court.
Here is how they worded the penalty:
Suspend Rev. Frank Schaefer from all ministerial duties effective immediately for 30 days. If there are any violations of the Discipline during the 30 days, his credentials will be surrendered to the annual conference.
During these 30 days, Rev. Schaefer must take the opportunity to discern his newly discovered calling for the LGBT community. If at the end of the 30 days Rev. Schaefer has determined he cannot uphold the Discipline in its entirely, he must surrender his credentials.
The District Superintendent of record shall monitor the progress. Rev. Frank Schaefer will provide a written report to and interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry within 30 days regarding his call and his willingness to uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety.
On December 19, 2013, Schaefer told his conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry that he could not uphold the Discipline in its entirety. So his credentials were taken and he was a clergyman no more.
According to the Discipline and Judicial Council precedent, the regional appeals committees can only lessen a penalty in cases in which the trial court committed serious errors of church law actually affecting the penalty.
At the heart of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals ruling upheld by the Judicial Council were four major questions related to our church law:
- When a clergy have been found guilty of violating the Discipline, can a penalty condition any future punishment upon whether or not they recommit to upholding the Discipline?
The Appeals Committee basically argued that this is impermissible, since there are precedents in our church law against punishing clergy “for what they may or may not do in the future.” But the trial court did not invent any new standard for Schaefer. They simply asked him to make the same commitment to uphold the Discipline that he and all United Methodist elders are required to make at their ordination. In our system, any clergy candidate who refuses to make this commitment is not to be ordained, even if, according to the Appeals Committee’s logic, such withholding of ordination is a form of punishing candidates for what they may do in the future.
Just imagine a couple visiting a pastor’s office for marital counseling in the aftermath of the husband committing adultery. And let’s say that so far the husband has been completely unrepentant, and has pointedly refused to pledge to not do it again. According to the Appeals Committee’s logic, it would be horribly unfair and wrong for the pastor to think or say that the husband needs to recommit to his wedding vows before he can have the restoration of trust needed to heal and save his marriage. Because that would be imposing consequences on the husband based on his present commitments related to future behavior.
The Judicial Council said that “in general, a trial court may stipulate conditions for ending the suspension as part of the discrete penalty of suspension.” But for this case it affirmed the Committee’s invalidation of the trial court penalty.
2. What exactly was Schaefer’s original penalty?
As noted above, I know of no one disputing that the trial court’s intent was to craft a single, “seamless” penalty of Schaefer being given thirty days for reflection, after which point he would be restored if he recommitted to his broken ordination vows or defrocked if he refused to do so.
Immediately after the trial, Schaefer himself told the media that “how I see it” was that the trial court “gave me 30 days to make up my mind,” rather than the 30 days being a separate punishment that was entirely distinct from a second punishment of defrocking.
But the Judicial Council claimed that “[t]his interpretation is not supported by the actual words in the penalty statement,” declaring that there were actually two entirely independent penalties of suspension and then defrocking. The Judicial Council elsewhere suggested that the trial court penalty could have been upheld if only its precise wording was a little different.
3. Can a penalty combine more than one of the punishments the Discipline empowers trial courts to impose?
The Appeals Committee was basically sustained by the Judicial Council in saying “no.”
Both cited a five-decade old Judicial Council case to argue that the Discipline paragraph giving trials courts the right to defrock, suspend, or “fix a lesser penalty,” must be “strictly construed,” which somehow makes these three penalties rigidly separate, mutually exclusive options that no one can “mix and match” (apparently not even when, as in Schaefer’s case, the person is convicted of more than one offense). But for all of their professed concern with “strict construction” of the Discipline, they disregarded how changes to that Discipline paragraph since the 1960s have somewhat lessened the sense of rigid division between the three penalties listed and added a new right for trial courts to have the penalty begin after a delay.
Ironically, some of the very same progressive United Methodists who cheered, for its leniency, a 2011 church trial letting Amy DeLong off with a combined penalty of suspension plus lesser penalties are now cheering a standard that invalidates such penalties.
As someone else noted, imposing such an extra-Disciplinary strait-jacket for trial courts could have wider consequences beyond sexuality issues. If, for example, a minister was found guilty of embezzling from the church, this “no mixing and matching” standard would prevent his penalty from being a combination of a temporary suspension from ministry plus a requirement that the stolen money be repaid. I see no evidence that either the Appeals Committee or the Judicial Council majority considered such wider implications while effectively helping the LGBTQ cause in this case.
4. Should higher judicial bodies show any deference to the careful decisions which trial courts painstakingly developed to be fair, just, reconciliation-seeking, and in accordance with church law?
A key operating principle a connectional denomination like the United Methodist Church needs to work is that we have a spirit of general cooperation, with different levels of our elaborate structure NOT being out to undermine and undo the hard work done by others.
The Appeals Committee decision upheld by the Judicial Council lacked any sense of such an ethos.
While I have not agreed with them on everything, I believe that both the trial’s presiding bishop, Al Gwinn, and the jurors did an exemplary job of doing their best to handle their responsibilities and the process with integrity, justice, and fairness for all.
Yet all of their careful, fair work was over-ruled on the basis of a very demonstrably biased appeals committee, with the latter choosing to grab as much power for itself while being as destructive of the former’s work as possible. For example, the Committee explicitly rejected the opportunity it had to remand the case to the trial court (whose members were closer on the ground to the realities of the case and the churches that would be most impacted by the result) to craft a new penalty that would match their previous intent with the extra-Disciplinary guidelines the Committee wanted to impose.
To be fair, this question has less to do with what the Committee had the Disciplinary right to do than what would be best for it to do, within its range of its rights, to constructively build a denominational culture of integrity, trust, cooperation, and mutual respect.
At one point, Schaefer, together with his legal team, made a very broad claim that there was “no evidence” of “behavior by Rev. Schaefer that was contrary to the findings of the trial court” after the meeting with the board of ordained ministry, such as him “exercise[ing] sacramental authority.”
Actually, there is.
According to our church law, and our restriction leadership of sacramental services to clergy, Schaefer’s baptizing someone or presiding at communion while he was suspended and/or his case was awaiting appeal before the Appeals Committee would have invalidated his right to appeal.
Such very deliberate and blatant dishonesty on Schaefer’s part is all the more striking in light of it not really being a necessary part of his defense. The Judicial Council declined to review these facts, apparently on the basis that this information was not part of the original trial and appeal records.
Furthermore, after the Judicial Council ruling, Schaefer rather misleadingly told secular media that this highly technical decision by as few as five individuals was somehow representative of “the entire Methodist church.”
Again, the Judicial Council ruled only on technicalities for how we hold wayward clergy accountable, not on any of our UMC’s biblical standards for sexual morality, all of which remain intact.
For his former congregation, Schaefer chose to leave a legacy of devastation, losing at least half of the members, and with some parishioners reporting that “Families and friendships are being torn apart by the discord within the church.”
For the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, Schaefer is mercifully gone. After showing himself to far more effective at media self-promotion than in being a caring, “do no harm” pastor, he moved to the radicalized California-Pacific Conference to serve a church there.
For many United Methodist congregations that had nothing to do with this, pastors are now forced to pick up the pieces of hurt, confused, and angry parishioners. I know of some Pennsylvania United Methodists who have already left our denomination over Schaefer’s “re-frocking,” the sort of thing about which I have seen liberal United Methodists display a callous attitude of “good riddance.” Some UMC denominational officials too often treat numerous faithful sheep as far less valued or worthy of sympathy than a single faithless shepherd.
Future trial courts will need to be given much clearer guidelines. It is wildly unfair to put jurors in the impossible situation of being charged with a very difficult, time-consuming task, only for their hard work to be suddenly undone based on some extra-Disciplinary standard about which they had no warning. This decision will likely force future trial courts into being as punitive as possible, for fear that any attempt to creatively offer grace to the offender will end up like this case.
Across our denominational connection, this will greatly undermine trust in any United Methodist leaders with personal liberal views on homosexuality having enough integrity to do their job and keep their word by upholding our standards, especially if there is the slightest degree of ambiguity. Aside from the very blatant, long-entrenched biases of the NEJ Appeals Committee, a majority of those participating in this Judicial Council ruling are believed to have personally liberal views on homosexual practice, some more outspokenly so than others. For example, Beth Capen was a part of the group that put out a book denouncing evangelical United Methodists, while Tim Bruster, the first clergy alternate member who took part in the decision, was an early signer of Adam Hamilton’s plan to “Episcopalianize” the United Methodist Church.
Go Ahead, Blame our Bishops
It is important to remember that the implications of this decision are not nearly as broad as it may seem. And obviously not every bishop is responsible for the actions of the whole.
But collectively, our bishops bear great responsibility for this flawed, harmful, and trust-straining decision.
It is the UMC Council of Bishops whose nominations help get certain people elected to the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council’s current liberal majority (seen in this and other decisions) can thus be fairly credited to our bishops. Eight of the nine individuals participating in this latest ruling were nominated by them.
This follows a larger pattern of our Council of Bishops again and again using the nominating and appointing powers our Discipline gives them to “stack” key leadership bodies with unrepresentative activists who then eschew even-handedness to use their positions to very harmfully impose their liberal agendas on the church.