Lesbian Methodist Minister Charts Road Ahead

by Brian Bromberger

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday August 14, 2016

Karen Oliveto was preparing to move to Denver to assume her new duties as a bishop in the United Methodist Church when she thought about her new calling.

"I began to realize maybe I do have a gift to bring to the church," she said during a late July interview with the Bay Area Reporter right before she left the Bay Area.

During the Methodists' General Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona last month, Oliveto was consecrated as bishop of the Western Jurisdiction. She was the first out lesbian to be named a bishop in a denomination that still forbids ordaining "practicing, self-avowed homosexuals."

Oliveto, 58, has been senior pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco since 2008. Members had been asking for years if her name could be put forward, yet Oliveto said she wasn't sure she was called to be a bishop.

The United Methodist Church declares human sexuality as a gift from God, but doesn't condone homosexuality and considers it incompatible with Christian teaching. The dilemma is that 40 percent of the voting delegates come from outside of the U.S. and most of them are not supportive of LGBT people.

"If it was just the U.S. delegates voting, we would have passed pro-gay resolutions back in 2008," Oliveto said. However, each jurisdiction has its own policy and the Western Jurisdiction has supported LGBT candidates for ministry for many years.

Originally from Babylon, New York, Oliveto came to the Bay Area in 1989 to be a campus minister at San Francisco State University. Since her bishop was far away she could be out. When in 1992 she became pastor at Bethany United Methodist in Noe Valley, she started to go back in the closet, but her church wanted her to be who she is, desiring an out lesbian for the position, so she has been out professionally ever since.

"I was worried by putting my name up for bishop I would be harming the church, but neither myself nor my partner Robin [Ridenour, a deaconess] want to be harmed either. We went out for dinner and Robin said, 'perfect love casts out all fear,' which broke it open for us.

"The next morning was the Pulse Orlando shooting and that confirmed for me, now was the time," Oliveto said, referring to the June 12 mass shooting at a gay nightclub that left 49 mostly gay Latino men dead and injured 53 others.

At the Scottsdale conference there were nine candidates for bishop and voters were earnestly discerning who they needed at this moment in the church. One by one candidates began dropping off.

"One candidate, the first Tongan to be nominated, he and his gay son were both delegates. This was causing a break in his family because his son was voting for me," Oliveto said. "He said, 'I want a church where my son can go, so I'm withdrawing my name.' Finally I received 100 percent of the vote. It was a really profound moment, as it was powerful to have this affirmation and validation with people stating we want you to lead our church into the future."

Positive Reaction

Oliveto has received thousands of emails from around the world, with only four angry responses, "which is amazing as there are so many people churning the waters around this issue," she said.

"I'm getting heartfelt letters saying what a healing moment of hope this is. LGBT Methodists are excited about reclaiming the church," Oliveto said. "These are faithful people who can now say, 'this is truly my church.'"

While other bishops have been supportive, the Southeast Jurisdiction has sought clarification from the Methodist Supreme Court, asking to declare Oliveto's election invalid and strip her of her credentials. Good News, a major conservative Methodist organization, has publicly called for her resignation.

"What is fascinating to me is that the entire Western Jurisdiction is stating we elected her and we believe she is equipped to lead. We want to receive her gifts," Oliveto said. "All these different regions in the West are reaching across conference lines and saying we are going to stand in solidarity with her no matter what. Each jurisdiction has the authority to elect who they want, so who knows what will happen? I'm going to Denver. It's new ground for all of us."

Because the issue of homosexuality has been so contentious for the Methodists - with the threat of possible schism - the General Conference this year tabled discussion about openly gay clergy and appointed a special commission to address all aspects of human sexuality. Oliveto saw the move as positive.

"If we had talked about all these controversial topics, it would have been very bloody and it wouldn't have helped any of us," she said. "So by removing it and addressing it with a smaller representative group, what we will find is that human sexuality is not the issue, but cultural and theological differences such as how we interpret Scripture are, with LGBT people being put on the altar for church unity to drive a wedge between the factions."

Addressing the question of whether her elevation to bishop could result in a schism, Oliveto said there is already a conservative group of people who don't want to be part of the United Methodist Church. They have "their own publishing company, their own mission society, and women's group [and] is well-equipped in structure to leave the denomination," she said.

"This may push them over the edge. What's so sad is I think there is value in living into the tension of difference. I don't want to be only around people who think like me and share the same politics. I want to disagree respectfully but learn from each other. It concerns me that if we in the church can't show the world that we can live together, then where is the hope?" she added.

Oliveto does feel that her work at Glide has helped her prepare for her new role.

"Both theological and racial diversity by staying grounded in unconditional love and acceptance, these are values we live into and are the gifts that I can bring to the episcopacy," she said. "On the books, Glide has 11,000 members, while all the Methodists as bishop that I will be providing for is 10,000, so the administrative skills I learned at Glide to hold tensions across many dividing lines are real talents to equip me to move forward."

The Methodist Church is on record that a marriage is only between a man and a woman. Pastors are forbidden to hold same-sex weddings.

"But there are many clergy, often straight, across the country who are saying, 'I'm not going to create second-class citizens of some of my parishioners. I will care for them and celebrate their love, even if it violates the rules and brings me up for a trial,'" Oliveto said. "They are willing to risk their credentials and see it as a matter of justice. But recognizing same-sex marriage is a long way off for us. My prayer is that we find a way to stay together despite our disagreements on this issue, but unity cannot come at the expense of LGBT folk or anyone who is told they are less than a child of God."

Making History

But being a bishop will allow Oliveto to push LGBT concerns.

"When I walk in the room, I'm automatically an advocate for LGBT people. It is no longer hypothetical," she said. "There are people who are really hurting because of my election, which hits them at the core of their understanding of church. So I see the beginning of my ministry as trying to develop relationships with them, listening to their pain, not trying to debate it, and in respectful ways help us all to grow. One lesson I learned from Glide is to prepare clergy and laity to do ministry at the margins, which is church at its best, to listen deeply to people's needs and try to help them. I want people to walk by a United Methodist Church and say, I don't go to that church but our neighborhood is better because it is here."

Oliveto said she has talked with the retired Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

"We spoke about what a difference 13 years make. I appreciated his wisdom as to how to move through this time of being the first. Yet my election comes at a time when the U.S. has made leaps and bounds in LGBT civil rights. Did we ever think we would see same-sex marriage in our lifetime? I think there is more support from the greater LGBT community as well as the larger straight community, for whom we are a wonderful part of human diversity as well as a social justice issue. I'm walking a more supportive road than Bishop Robinson was," Oliveto said.

Still, she is all too aware of the huge responsibility. She praised Ridenour, whom she married two years ago, and who Oliveto said is committed to this process, "as we continue to be grounded in love and to live through the joy with a solid foundation going into this new adventure together."

But Oliveto is not intimidated at the tasks ahead of her.

"I know a lot of eyes are watching me and what they will see is someone who seeks to be deeply faithful to the Gospel willing to risk much," she said. "My hope is that people will say she is someone who loves us well."

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com