Rev. Frank Schaefer is hoping his story can fundamentally change the United Methodist Church—while there’s still time.
“We cannot afford four more years of harming people,” he said. “These are the children of God, and we’re harming ourselves by not accepting them.”
The Methodist minister and father of four is featured in the documentary An Act of Love. The film, which has won awards across the festival circuit, tells the story of how Schaeffer was ousted from the Methodist church in 2013 for marrying his gay son to another man.
“Tim asked me to perform his wedding,” Schaefer said. “I knew that I could get in trouble, but I had to ‘walk the walk.’ When the church finally found out, they put me on trial and promised I’d get off easy if I said I’d never do another gay wedding. I just couldn’t do it.”
Schaefer was defrocked—he lost his position in the church, his livelihood and his career.
This wasn’t the first time the reverend stood for his family. Three of his four children identify as gay. His son, Tim, came out to him in 2000 after he tried to pray his gay away and considered suicide.
While LGBT advocates within the church have rallied around Schaefer and the film, the Methodist church still believes that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” That’s from the Book of Discipline, the rulebook for Methodist ministers across the world.
Methodist delegates gather for a General Conference every four years to consider changes to the Book of Discipline. The next General Conference will be held May 10 in Portland, Oregon. Schaefer and the film’s team are making a final push to get their message out before the conference.
“It’s the only opportunity we have as a denomination to change church law and doctrine,” he said.
Copies of the documentary have been sent to every delegate ahead of the General Conference. If the church, whose U.S. membership has declined in recent years, does not change, Schaefer fears the worst.
“We’re going to be irrelevant in the U.S.,” he said. “Younger people, millennials, they’re leaving because society has stayed ahead of the curve. There are a lot of Tim Schaefers out there—teenagers, young adults, who are discovering their identity and being harmed by the message the church is sending.”
Meanwhile, the Schaefer family has stayed resilient. Rev. Frank was reinstated as a minister, even though he has continued to perform same-sex marriages. Tim was so encouraged by the LGBT movement within the church that he entered seminary and hopes to be a Methodist minister, like his father.
That is, if the church can change.
“We pray hard. We put our trust in God,” Schaefer said. “We’re doing everything can with our story. Still, it’s a matter of faith and trusting God will break through.”