In December, local Methodist officials stripped Schaefer of his ministerial credentials after he declined to promise not to officiate at another same-sex wedding.
But in an 8-1 vote Tuesday, the church’s Committee on Appeals for the Northeast Jurisdiction ordered him immediately reinstated, with back pay and benefits retroactive to Dec. 19, 2013.
Schaefer’s salary and benefits package total about $65,000 annually.
Schaefer praised the appeals committee’s decision.
“This is very encouraging news for everybody,” Schaefer told PGN. “It’s definitely a big step in achieving LGBT equality within the church. And a big step towards ending the exclusionary policies within the church. However, there’s still a lot of work to do.”
It’s against church rules for Methodist ministers to officiate at same-sex weddings, and the appeals committee left in place a 30-day suspension for Schaefer.
But the appeals committee said his defrocking was too harsh.
“I think the decision will cause more of a rift or division within the church,” Schaefer noted. “It will heighten the tension that’s already there between conservatives and progressives. But it’s wonderful news for the LGBT community. And it will encourage pastors to be more courageous everywhere.”
The appeals committee held a three-hour hearing June 20 in a hotel near Baltimore before issuing its decision.
Advocates for Schaefer argued he was unfairly penalized for behavior he might carry out in the future. But proponents of his penalty argued that Schaefer should stay defrocked.
On July 1, Schaefer will resume his pastoral work in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcano offered him a position ministering to college students.
Schaefer said his wife Brigitte will relocate with him, and he expressed excitement with his new role.
“It’s time for us to move on,” Schaefer said. “We’re going to have a new life and a new ministry. And we’re happy to put this behind us.”
He said returning to his former church in South Lebanon Township wasn’t an option because it has a new pastor.
In a statement, Bishop Peggy A. Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church said the Rev. Christopher Fisher will decide whether to appeal Schaefer’s reinstatement to the church’s Judicial Council.
The Judicial Council is the church’s top court.
“This has been a challenging judicial process, and I express my heartfelt appreciation for the diligent efforts made to ensure due process and uphold our United Methodist Discipline with respect, understanding and compassion for all involved,” Johnson added.
Johnson selected Fisher to serve as Schaefer’s prosecutor last year. He’s known to be very conservative, and has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.
William E. Ewing, an attorney for Schaefer, said Johnson should disallow an appeal.
“From the beginning of this process, Bishop Johnson has been led by bad legal advice into committing gross offenses against the fair process, which is guaranteed by the United Methodist Book of Discipline,” Ewing said. “I hope she will not abdicate her rightful role as bishop in misguided deference to those same legal advisors. She should now step forward to tell [Fisher] that ‘Enough is enough. There will be no appeal.’
“Stop causing schism in the church at the church’s own expense,” Ewing continued. “The decision whether to appeal belongs to the Conference, which Bishop Johnson heads. [Fisher’s] role is to follow the direction of his client, not vice versa. Although the Book of Discipline makes an exception to that rule with respect to the decision to file charges in the first place, it does not authorize [Fisher] to file an appeal on his own initiative.”
Even if Fisher decides to appeal, Schaefer said, he’s optimistic the Judicial Council will uphold his reinstatement.
Schaefer is the father of three LGBT children and one non-LGBT child.
He said the support of his family has helped him get through the ordeal.
He lives in North Cornwall Township and for the past 11 years was pastor of Zion of Iona United Methodist Church in South Lebanon Township.
Prior to his defrocking, he’d been an ordained Methodist minister for 17 years.
Schaefer said his defrocking can be traced to an altercation with Deborah Boger, a former senior choir director at Zion of Iona.
Her son, Jon, filed a formal complaint against Schaefer for officiating at his son’s 2007 gay wedding, six years after the fact.
When contacted by PGN, Deborah Boger declined to comment on Schaefer’s reinstatement.
Jon Boger couldn’t be reached for comment.
For the past six months, Schaefer has been a guest speaker throughout the country. He’s also written a book, “Defrocked,” which will be published in July.
He said he’ll return to Philadelphia in November for the opening of a play that will reenact his trial. Next year, a documentary about his ordeal is expected to be released.
Schaefer has received numerous honors and awards during the past six months that mean a great deal to him, he added.
“Now my family and I can finally put some of the stress behind us.”