When the Rev. Frank Schaefer took the stand in November 2013, with reporters scribbling down his every word, he knew he'd entered the national spotlight. But he didn't know that in the coming years, his story would become a symbol in the LGBT movement.

Schaefer was on trial in the United Methodist Church for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding, a violation of the church's rules as outlined in its Book of Discipline. After the trial, he was defrocked, but he was reinstated on appeal and continues to minister, now in Santa Barbara, Calif.

His story is the subject of a documentary called An Act of Love, debuting in Philadelphia this weekend. The film has become part of the fight for LGBT rights in the United Methodist Church.

"People will say, 'Gay marriage is threatening my marriage,' but this film really speaks to what's important in terms of family sticking together," Schaefer said. "It shows parents can be very accepting and affirming of gay children, to a point where you stand up to discrimination in your own church, even if that means you lose your career."

Scott Sheppard, the film's director, said releasing the documentary in early 2016 was strategic. In May in Portland, Ore., 864 Methodist delegates are expected to attend the church's General Conference, an event that takes place every four years. It's the only opportunity to formally change the church's stance on LGBT issues, as revisions can be made to the Book of Discipline, which forms the law and doctrine of the church.

Screenings, which will be followed by conversations about LGBT rights in the church, will take place in at least 50 churches around the country. Sheppard hopes that Schaefer's story will resonate.

"He never set out to be advocate for this issue," Sheppard said of Schaefer. "It all started with a simple act of love."

Since Schaefer was reinstated as a minister, the conversation on LGBT rights has become even more hotly debated - as has Schaefer's legacy. Complaints have been filed against dozens of pastors for performing same-sex marriages since then, but few have resulted in trials.

The "Philadelphia 36," a group of ministers who performed a same-sex wedding on Arch Street in late 2013 to stand in solidarity with Schaefer, all saw complaints filed against them. The matters were resolved without a trial.

"Frank's trial was a disaster for the United Methodist Church," Sheppard said. "It just made the church look vindictive and ugly, and showed the public this really bad side of the church."

In the eyes of many conservative Methodists, failing to discipline those who violate the rules sends a message that the church can't be trusted.

"Ministers who make vows of ordination know exactly what the church law is, and they promise to uphold it when they are ordained, no exception," said the Rev. Christopher Fisher, who prosecuted Schaefer. "When someone breaks their vows, they should be able to realize that they should face consequences."

With neither side looking to back down, eyes are turning to the General Conference. Proposals from many perspectives have been submitted, including ones to to encourage more accountability for violations and to lift the ban on LGBT Methodist weddings.

Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania conference, who watched as Schaefer's case unfolded, is hoping for a compromise. One proposal asks for local churches to be able to choose their own positions on LGBT rights. "Then people can decide on where they stand in their hearts," she said.

Some said the controversy will inevitably split the church in two - but Schaefer wants to fight to keep it whole.

"Everywhere I go, at film screenings and at services, I always get asked, 'What are we supposed to do?' " Schaefer said. "Well, my advice is that the LGBT allies are here to stay. This is our church, too."

215-854-2771@Jill_Castellano