Eight months ago, I sat at my desk struggling to put into words my painful coming-out story. My father, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was about to face an ecclesiastical trial within the United Methodist Church (UMC) for violating the denomination's Book of Discipline when he performed my same-sex marriage. What was missing in the media coverage leading up to the trial was my story of growing up as a pastor's kid struggling to reconcile my sexual orientation with my denomination's abusive homophobic rhetoric. For the first time, I was asked to share with the world how this harmful language of the Church I loved and served as an adolescent had driven me into a deep depression and to the brink of committing suicide. To my surprise, our family's story ignited a chain of events that led me down an unexpected path.
In late November, the day after my dad had been found guilty by a jury of his peers of violating Church law, I sat at the witness table in a makeshift courtroom at a UMC youth camp. This second day of my dad's trial was about determining his penalty, and I was being asked to share my coming-out story in hopes it would explain to the jury exactly WHY my father felt obliged to officiate at my wedding. After years of shame and confusion brought on by the Church, I felt like I was standing up to my childhood bully as I shared my story. As I scanned the crowd, I saw my dad sobbing at the defendant's table. Sitting in the gallery behind him were my mother and sister surrounded by a sea of spectators wearing rainbow-colored stoles--supporters of my father's. It seemed that almost everyone was in tears. It was difficult to get through my testimony, but it was even more difficult to hear the many supporters come to me afterwards to share their own heartbreaking stories of being excluded from the UMC. One man, twenty years my senior, remarked that my story was so similar to his own that he was disappointed to discover nothing had changed in two decades.
The experience of the trial and the show of support from local LGBTQ-friendly United Methodist Churches began to re-awaken feelings that I had not felt in many years. Being the son of a pastor came with the expectation that I would attend church services and Sunday School each week, and I did so without fail. I was baptized in the United Methodist Church at a young age without fully understanding the meaning of the practice. As I matured, however, my view of church began to evolve. I built strong relationships with the members of my church. Many of them became just like family to me, and I grew to love the time we spent laughing, praying, and even crying together. More importantly, I began to experience worship services differently. Suddenly, they became more than a few hymns, prayers, and sermons. They had evolved into a really meaningful time of meditation and contemplation. Going to church became a way for me to ground myself, to talk to God, and to hear God's messages through the inspired Bible readings and sermons. What had once seemed like a chore eventually became the highlight of my week and something I could not live without.
As my understanding of church evolved and my faith matured, I became more and more involved. Through my youth group, I was able to discuss and explore questions of faith with my classmates. Music had always been a passion of mine, so I joined the church's worship band, and I began to introduce my friends to the same contemporary Christian music I had grown to appreciate for its meaningful lyrics. Sharing God's message with others through music brought me joy. I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and the local soup kitchen hosted in our church, and our worship team led worship services in the local prison. I was exposed to these groups of people marginalized by society, and they were so happy and grateful to be served and ministered to. Eventually, I came to realize that I had a passion for evangelism. I felt that God was calling me to be a minister. Despite this calling, somewhere along the way I had convinced myself that I could not live out my passion for helping people and my desire to connect people with God's love through ministry because an openly gay man would not be ordained.
It wasn't until after my father's trial and subsequent defrocking that these emotions would resurface. In the months following his trial, my father traveled the country as an advocate for LGBTQ rights within the Church. Every week he told me about the work being done to fight for LGBTQ rights in another church he had visited. We began to realize that there was a grassroots movement under foot to change the UMC from within and it was growing by leaps and bounds. It was so heartening for me to find out about all kinds of churches fighting for equality, even in the most conservative states. What stuck with me the most was his experience at the Cathedral of Hope, the largest LGBTQ church in the world, located in the heart of conservative Texas. These stories filled me with hope. I was reminded of the volunteer work I had done all those years before, and how much I had enjoyed spreading God's message of grace, love, and hope to those people at the soup kitchen and in the prison. They had been marginalized by society much in the same way LGBTQ Christians are marginalized now. God was reminding me that he had put in my heart the desire to evangelize to those who needed it the most. I had been ignoring God's calling into the ministry because I felt I would be excluded by the Church. God was showing me that even if the UMC didn't want me, I could pursue my calling into the ministry in a denomination that will welcome me.
I sit at my desk again now to answer the question, "Why would I pursue ordination after all the pain my Church has put me and my family through?" The irony is that conservative factions within the Church forced this trial to make an example of my father in hopes it would deter others from performing same-sex unions, but they have only galvanized the LGBTQ movement within the Church. It was the experience of being thrust into the middle of this process that has reminded me of my calling from God. It has opened my eyes to the need for pastors willing to minister to all and share the true message of the gospel. I am so proud of my dad for standing firm in his beliefs and acting out these principles. LGBTQ Christians have been made to feel like second class Christians for far too long now, and the Church needs MORE pastors like my father, not fewer. Throughout this ordeal, I have discovered the many supporters I never knew existed, and that has given me hope for the future of the Church. I don't believe in coincidences. I believe that God has been calling me into the ministry all along, and the experiences I've had along the way have tested my faith and only made it stronger. God is calling me to draw on those experiences to follow in the footsteps of my father--to minister to all equally, to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community, and to change the Church from within. As I begin the process of searching for the right Seminary, I pray that the UMC, my spiritual home for more than 20 years, will someday allow me to be ordained.
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