Bishop Franz Schäfer will celebrate his 95th birthday on March 10, 2016. From 1966 to 1989, he served as active bishop of The United Methodist Church in Central and Southern Europe. Today, he lives in Zürich-Wollishofen, Switzerland.
In our time, there is little interest to grapple with history. This is also true for The United Methodist Church. Nevertheless, we do not want to miss the traces and blessings, which our forerunners have left as faithful servants and witnesses for Jesus Christ. There are many memories that come back to life when writing this brief statement. As a young pastor, I had learned in conversations with Bishop Dr. Franz Schäfer to judge our times of great changes not only from the new «agendas in the world» but to hold first and last the «agenda of God» in the center of the ministry in the church and in this world. The agenda of God leads us to the true needs of the people in church and society.
Bishop Schäfer characterized his time as an active bishop as follows: «In the period between 1966 and the spring of 1989, when I accompanied congregations and conferences in two Western European and six Eastern European countries, Eastern and Western Europe were ideologically separated. But my service was also tainted by the time of the hardest struggle of a divided continent: it was the time of the Cold War, of the daily increasing nuclear threats, the ideological hardening, which caused mistrust between East and West. We knew in the West where the «devil» is and how we had to defend ourselves. The Eastern rulers knew this as well – with the roles reversed of course! Was it possible at that time to take responsibility for the church activities in East and West without ideological compromises, which could call our own credibility in question?
Professor Jan Milic Lochman (Prague) later wrote that my episcopal area was ecumenically unique. It required the service to churches and communities in East and West. This episcopal office made a man a traveler between two quite different social and ideological systems, which was a tricky thing. Marked by Western experience and habit, one could, for instance, consider the situation of the church in the East in a rather patronizing way, certainly sympathetic but without really showing solidarity; or one could even fall into the opposite and unrealistically idealize the fate of the people in the East.»
Bishop Schäfer was thus a border crosser. He himself saw it this way: «I tried to free myself from the fear of structures, systems and ideologies. These are vessels, as such important, but only as long as they serve the people. This approach is basic in church, state, and society. It was often difficult to meet people closed up behind the hardened protective walls of ideologies. But where it could be achieved, every encounter became a deep experience.»
When, right at the beginning of Bishop Schäfer’s tenure, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to form The United Methodist Church, his full commitment was required in Switzerland and in France. There was a great need of understanding and trust in those who were responsible for the unification of ecclesiastical authorities. It was a busy time, which stressed the church staff not only in their thinking, but also emotionally. The challenge of this union came first at that time, many questions concerning the larger episcopal area were not, or not yet, present among the leaders and the staff.
Bishop Schäfer always focused on people and was ready to meet with every person – and whether this person was United Methodist or a member of another church, whether it was a politician or another leader, Bishop Schäfer was honest, friendly, respectful and full of appreciation. This brought fruits over time. In 1985, the Comenius Faculty of the University of Prague awarded him with the title of a Honorary Doctor of Theology. This was in recognition of many years of service to build up the church in the East and the West as well as for the ecumenical cooperation with Churches in Eastern Europe.
The contribution of Bishop Schäfer to the global family of Methodist Churches (World Methodist Council) and the ecumenical movement has not been sufficiently described till now. He served as one of the Presidents of the World Methodist Council. Serving the General Board of Global Ministries, he was involved in the development of a new understanding of mission and also of affiliation with the Methodist Churches overseas. In Europe, he took initiative for the coordination of the mission boards in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. The foundation of ECOM (European Commission on Mission) was one of the fruits of this commitment. Bishop Schäfer was president of this commission for more than 20 years.
We think of his long life and ministry with deep gratitude, and we wish him the experience of God's loving presence. Greetings and best wishes to our brother and predecessor in the episcopacy.
Author: Heinrich Bolleter, Bishop retired
Date: March 3, 2016
Note: At the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe in March 2006, Prof. Helmut Nausner was commissioned to collect memories about Bishop Schäfer. He wrote a booklet entitled: «A witness of unconventional humanity — Bishop Franz W. Schäfer». This booklet is - IN GERMAN ONLY! – still available in the Office of the Bishop of The United Methodist Church in Central and Southern Europe.