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Q&A: Future uncertain for first openly lesbian bishop in United Methodist Church after controversial vote

After a vote at the General Conference last month, the United Methodist Church has a clear stance on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages.
Credit: KUSA

KUSA - Members of the United Methodist Church now have legislative clarity on the church’s stance on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage but confusion and division abound. 

At the General Conference in February, delegates voted for a plan opposed to ordaining LGBTQ clergy and performing same-sex marriages. 

Mountain Sky Area Bishop Karen Oliveto said the delegates passed the plan despite an overwhelming lack of support from UMC Bishops. 

The vote puts Bishop Oliveto in a unique position. She is the first openly lesbian Bishop in the United Methodist Church. 

9NEWS interviewed her a week after the vote. (Editors note: 9NEWS questions are in bold and Oliveto's answers follow. Oliveto's answers have been edited for context and clarity.)

Tell me about your experience with the United Methodist Church. How did you come to it?

I’ve been a part of the Methodist Church since I was a child. My mom actually brought me to a Presbyterian church as my first church experience. As soon as the church started, I started to wail. I was one of those toddlers, and they couldn’t get me to stop so my mother had to rush me out of the church. She heard the Methodist church had a good Sunday school. As soon as I walked down into that musty church basement, and if you’ve ever been into a church you know that smell, I knew I was home. I loved it. I loved the stories. I loved the music. I got more and more involved. I just loved it! I mean I would have to wake my mom up on Sunday to take me to church.

When I was 11 years old, my music minister said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I said, ‘I want to be an astronomer.’ He said, ‘Well, did you ever think about being a minister?’ It was like my world cracked open and I was like, ‘Of course, where else would I want to be?’ 

This place has taught me about god’s love for me, has taught me about Jesus, has just invested in me as a church that really invests in its young people. Why wouldn’t I want to give back and let others know this love. I preached my first sermon when I was 16, became a student pastor at 18, and I’ve served local churches since I was 25.

So really, your whole life has revolved around this church?

I’ve been a local church pastor, a campus church minister. I’ve served rural churches. I’ve served urban churches. I’ve been an associate dean of a seminary. I’ve taught United Methodist History Doctrine Polity because I want people to get excited about our tradition and really help the next generation be great pastors. Prior to this, I was the only woman serving in one of our top 100 membership churches, Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.It’s one of our largest churches. I was there for 8 years before this call came and I was elected bishop in July of 2016.

What does the church mean to you, and what does it embody?

To me, the best of our tradition is that God’s grace is wide and deep for every person. I love also the fact that the UMC tradition, we’re not a church that takes the Bible literally. We engage it, it’s primary in our life, but we also use experience, tradition and reason to let God continue to open up scripture for us, which means that it’s continually fresh and responding to what’s happening in the world and where we see God at work. So, those are some of the basic things for me that have fed my soul and that I’ve hoped I’ve helped others find sustenance as well.

You are the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. What was it like for you when you first came out in the church setting?

I came out, as many people do, in seminary. I think there’s a connection between spirituality and our sexuality because it’s about who God made us to be. So, when one comes out, it’s a spiritual journey of connecting with God more deeply. You know, I knew something was different about me and I, there was a part of me that was uncomfortable in the world. Once I came out and stopped wrestling with that, I experienced the peace that passes all understanding that God offers us. I just grew more into who I was.

What was hard was I had always been affirmed regarding my call. So God’s love never left me. Suddenly this church that had always said, ‘Yes, we see God’s call in you.' All of a sudden that became conditional, and yet people kept affirming my call. I was examined by my local church, I was examined by boards of ordained ministry, examined by district superintendents, the bishops I served under, the local churches I served. People kept affirming the call, and so I kept being faithful to that call.

Can you dive into what you mean by "conditional?"

The United Methodist Church was created in 1968 with the merger of two churches. From 1968 to 1972 there was a group working on our social principles, which is our kind of social witness in the world. How do we feel about labor, what’s our theological understanding of god’s creation and the care of god’s creation, about war, and about human sexuality?

So, there was this wonderful paragraph being developed because what happened during that time, think about the late 60’s, there were many social movements happening, anti-war, women’s movement, civil rights movement. Well, Stonewall happened in that time and that was the start of the gay liberation movement, so the people writing the social principles knew something had to be said. The church, if it was to be relevant, had a message to offer. So, they created this wonderful paragraph: 'Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are people of sacred worth, worthy of the church’s ministries.' And it was beautiful, it didn’t condemn LGBTQ people, it didn’t condone LGBTQ people, it simply offered a pastoral response to the fact that LGBTQ people were in our churches, in our pews and in our pulpits.

Well, it got to the 1972 General Conference and it passed through all the committees, it got to the floor of the legislative body and a bitter, bitter debate ensued. Someone got up and said, ‘I’d like to put a comma at the end’ and said ‘however, we do not condone homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching.’ So, it turned this wonderful pastoral understanding to one of condemnation, and ever since then increasingly LGBTQ decisions have been made, but it rests on that statement.

When you came out, did you continue to feel accepted and loved by the church?

I’ve always known God’s acceptance of me. I have been blessed to serve amazing churches. We’ve challenged one another to deeper discipleship and faithfulness. So, throughout my ministry, I feel I’ve been blessed to serve the people that God has put in my care. I feel this way in this area, I love the pastors and laypeople, I love what the churches are doing, and I hope I can help them have even greater ministries that can extend God’s love in their communities.

This vote that took place last week. Can you tell me in your own words what decisions were made?

In 2016, it was clear the church was in an impasse around homosexuality. We meet every four years to review where we are and put in place new practices and policies. It was clear, it was so divided, that a move was made to remove all of the paragraphs that were under review regarding homosexuality ... to put together a commission to study a way we can remain united in ministry and mission while acknowledging the great diverse opinions that were in the church.

The bishops were strongly supportive of the one church plan that would allow each region to respond contextually. So, we weren’t telling people, ‘You must accept all LGBTQ people, you must ordain LGBTQ people. We were saying, ‘Every region is different.’ We have a large part of the church that is growing in the African continent where being an LGBTQ person comes with a death sentence. A legal death sentence. So, it was really to be more gracious with one another.

A plan that was not accepted by the Bishops, in fact was not fleshed out, was really pushed through, and that was called the traditionalist plan. It was ruled unconstitutional by our judicial council -- our supreme court -- not once but twice, largely unconstitutional. Yet, it was voted in. We don’t know the status of that. It’s going to be reviewed again. It may be viewed unconstitutional, which means we’re back in this kind of limbo place.

What that vote did, it sent a devastating blow to the body of who we are as United Methodist. It sent shockwaves of trauma across the globe because it moved where we’ve always been grounded in a knowledge of one’s grace and seek to offer that to one another. What got passed moved from grace to rigid rules and punishment. That’s not who we are.

It stopped being a traditionalist verses progressive break. What I know in my region, there are progressives, centrists, conservatives, traditionalists, in every single church. Not only that, there are LGBTQ people in every church, or there’s family members in every single church. So, by passing a rigid and punitive plan, it has broken the spirits of so many people.  ... We have a wonderful education tradition. Our schools and seminaries are saying, 'We can’t suddenly tell a whole group of people, you’re no longer wanted as students or pastors.’

... What I saw on Sunday through social media were churches across this country and actually around the world saying that’s not who we are, and they are rising up.

We saw the UMC in Fort Collins display that message this weekend. Are there others in the area doing the same thing?

Wasn’t that beautiful? Almost all of them have made a very public witness because General Conference wasn’t able to affirm what is happening and what is true for our churches. We are not the same. We don’t carry the same opinions in our churches. There are people in the pews who we disagree with, but we are united in a sense of mutual love and god’s mission.

What was your personal reaction when you learned of the vote?

The bishops don’t have a role at General Conference except to preside. So, here’s all of the retired and active bishops on the stage while the delegates from every region, they’re the ones who make the decisions. We get to preside but not direct. I was sitting with bishops who, again, were from around the world who were in tears when the vote happened. 

The pain of seeing us veer from our historic, not only our historic tradition, but our partnerships with mainline churches that we’ve been in partnership with like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, that we have stood together in witness, suddenly we fractured that. So, it was pretty devastating.

Was there a part of you that went back to that feeling of when you first came out in the church?

I feel freer in ministry than I’ve ever felt because voices were revealed. You know, people kept saying this is Biblical truth. But when people started to create amendments and say, ‘Okay, if this is a biblical truth that LGBTQ people are living in sin, Jesus had a lot more to say about divorce and remarriage, so let’s add that to the prohibitions if we’re going to be Biblical. That was voted down which says this wasn’t about being grounded Biblically. There was something more happening here.

You’re a role model to a lot of people. What have you been hearing in letters and phone calls and emails?

Because of being the first openly LGBTQ bishop, I do have a unique place in the church. So, I have been hearing from not just LGBTQ people, but people who love and support LGBTQ people from around the global church. ...

People are coming to me and I’m listening, acknowledging the pain that we are all feeling, and saying, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I think God is leading us somewhere and I understand if you need to leave because it’s so painful, I affirm that.’  ...

We live in an incredibly polarized nation, polarized world. If we in the church can’t find a way to live together in spite of our different opinions, what witness do we have to offer the world? What hope do we have to offer the world? That’s what I want.

What’s next for you? What does this decision for LGBTQ clergy mean for your future in the church?

I’m not sure. I know that my call comes from God and it’s affirmed in community. As long as the community keeps seeing within me a call and that my life keeps bearing fruit on behalf of the church, on behalf of God, I’ll continue to do what I’m doing. When either my call changes or the community says we no longer affirm that call, at that time, I will see what is coming up next. 

You’re married to a deaconess in the church. Were you married by the church?

My spouse and I met at junior high church camp. ... She was the camp nurse and I was the camp program director. We just celebrated 20 years of being together earlier in February.

She’s a deaconess. A deaconess is a lay order. In her work as a nurse, she understands that it’s a ministry of love, justice and service, so it’s a lay order across the church.

I didn’t want to elope because if I’m going to do this I’m going to do this once! In 2014 we were married, and we had pastors involved because all of our friends are pastors. It was wonderful. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought in my life that I would have that opportunity. ...

Our relationship is one of the deepest blessing’s I’ve ever received from God. My life is richer, my ministry is stronger, my capacity to love and have empathy has increased. It’s been such a gift for me.

In a pastoral letter to your congregation, you wrote: “My dream is that we live into beloved community. My dream is that we live boldly as the body of Christ and love so fully, so completely, that the neighborhoods in which United Methodist Churches stand in are utterly transformed by the love that spills out of these communities.” Do you feel that dream is being fulfilled?

I see it happening across the Mountain Sky Area. I go to tiny churches in very remote areas, and I see them serving their communities, making sure hungry people have food, that children are being tutored, and loved, that undocumented people are being protected. I am so moved by faithful ministries and I want to help strengthen that.

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