EPISODE 004: Bishop Oliveto Oliveto serves as Bishop of the Denver Area. She was elected to the episcopacy in 2016, as the first openly lesbian bishop in The United Methodist Church. Before her election, she was senior pastor of the 12,000-member Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. She is the first woman to serve as senior pastor in one of the denomination’s 100 largest U.S. congregations. Her wife, Robin Ridenour, a nurse anesthetist, is a deaconess in The United Methodist Church.
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- Bishop Karen says: “Whenever the Holy Spirit shows up in the gospels, whenever the Holy Spirit shows up, the community widens.” What examples of this can you name from scripture? From your experience of church?
- Bishop Karen suggests two ways congregations can do more to better include LGBTQ+ people in our churches: listen to young people, and create visible signs that you are an LGBTQ+ affirming community. Where are either of those things happening in your church? What more could you do?
- In limiting the roles that LGBTQ+ people can take in our churches (e.g. not celebrating same-sex marriages, or ordaining gay clergy), our UMC (alongside others in our Christian family) has attempted to put limits on God’s unconditional love and the Holy Spirit’s blessing. But it hasn’t worked: Bishop Karen’s leadership demonstrates that another way is possible. The Holy Spirit can show up, in spite of the church rules. Where else have you seen this happen?
- Bishop Karen describes her experience of her election and consecration as a Bishop. She did not enter into this role alone, but was supported by a diverse community. What is special about her story? What spoke to you?
- Bishop Karen describes how we are called to continue extending God’s love to those outside of our community; she suggests that we are called to extend love to people who make us uncomfortable. What can this look like in your community?
Molly: Westwood United Methodist Church is a Christian community that welcomes all people and focuses on becoming and making disciples committed to justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God. We welcome and affirm our ministry with all persons, regardless of age, race, ethnic origin, economic status, ability, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, from first-time visitor to lifetime member. We seek to understand and carry out God’s will bearing witness to Christ’s compassion, and embracing the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
We affirm that a God-filled perspective understands and embraces diversity and radical inclusivity. For that reason we embrace and affirm the full inclusion of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We explicitly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who have been marginalized and diminished within the larger United Methodist tradition. We commit to embracing the responsibility of pushing for a more open and inclusive United Methodist Church.
You are welcome here. You are supported here. You are included here.
I’m Reverend Molly Vetter, the Senior Pastor at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. It’s my joy to welcome you back for episode 4 of our podcast series: “Where Do We Go From Here, UMC?”
The words I read at the beginning of the episode are a part of our congregation’s Reconciling Ministry statement. Crafted and adopted by our church, they help form our identity and the values of our congregation. Because we believe that the Gospel calls us to be people of inclusion, we work to change the Church. In this moment of our United Methodist Church, when the General Conference has been further delayed until 2024, and it’s impossible to change the statements in our Book of Discipline, we believe that there is still work for us to do to move the church forward, starting from our local communities.
I’m thrilled that for this episode, I was able to interview Bishop Karen Oliveto. Elected to the Episcopacy in 2016, Bishop Oliveto serves in the Denver area, as Bishop of the Mountain Sky Annual Conference – the first “out” Lesbian bishop, elected and commissioned in our denomination.
She served, prior to election as a Bishop, as the senior pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.
Not only as an out Lesbian, she also was the first woman to serve in any of the largest 5 congregations in the United Methodist Church in the US. Bishop Oliveto’s mere existence is a witness to the Holy Spirit’s movement, calling and equipping all persons for ministry. I’m thrilled that she took time to sit down with us to think about what it means to be people called to work for full inclusion, in this moment in the life of our church.
So I invite you to jump in with me to my conversation with Bishop Karen.
Molly: Thank you for taking time to talk today. I am continually grateful for your leadership in our Church, and every time I see your name, you’re doing something of value that speaks to the Gospel that is such a gift to us. Your mere being does that, but your words so often do too, so: thank you. I appreciate your taking time out to talk to our congregation and anyone else listening.
I hoped that we might talk a little bit about why LGBTQ+ inclusion is important to the church. So from your position, I wonder if you see where the value lies. Or, why do you persist in giving yourself and leadership in this denomination that still has a ways to go?
Bishop Oliveto: Yeah, it certainly does have a way to go first. Thank you so much for this time.
Always great to see you and wish we had a lot more time than we’re going to have.
It’s really personal for me in one sense but in another sense it’s a gospel mandate, right? I mean it’s inclusion. Here’s the thing: whenever the Holy Spirit shows up in the gospels, whenever the Holy Spirit shows up, the community widens. It never shrinks, right? The doors are literally busted open. We continue to make our “box” of community too small. We in the United Methodist Church have actually legislated how small we’re going to make it, by literally legislating against a whole group of people like me, [saying] we can’t have a valid ministry from God. Our very being is incompatible with Christian teaching.
And so: let the Holy Spirit do its thing. Let the Holy Spirit breathe in our church again.
And what I love is: once you focus on one group of people, you start to see who else you’re leaving out.
I served one church that had been inclusive of LGBTQ+ people for decades. I mean decades, before there was even a Reconciling movement. When we really dug into it, we realized, well, you know, we were leaving out people who have disabilities. People can’t come into our sanctuary. They can’t come into our sanctuary, because we’ve built a community “box” that doesn’t include them, and I think that…
Molly: The stairs work for us, so…
Bishop Oliveto: Right, so it works for everybody. Or “I can read that typeface, you know. So why can’t everybody?” Or, “I can hear without a microphone? Why do I need a microphone?” It’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s about: Who else is sitting out there? Where are we creating stumbling blocks or creating doors? And walls where it should be open?
Yeah, so I just think it’s a really exciting thing when communities really dig into that word “inclusion.”
Molly: If you’re willing, I’d love to tell a little story. My son Jonah is 11 now. On family road trips we like to listen to RadioLab–he’s old enough that we can wrestle with big issues in the world.
We were listening to an episode on a recent trip that centered on the story of a Gay man in San Francisco, who saved President Ford’s life, and then was outed in the process. As we were talking about it afterwards it became clear to me that my son didn’t know how anti-gay the policies of the United Methodist Church are, because he’s been raised in congregations that valued inclusion. He’s literally and metaphorically been held in the arms of queer kin since he was a baby, and he was appalled. He said, “Mama, that doesn’t sound like the gospel.”
And then he said, “Why do you spend so much time going to church stuff, if that’s the kind of church we are?” Then he said, “If you’re going to church meetings, it better be to change that,” which is playing in the back of my head constantly, these days. About how we are responsible for squaring the gospel we’re preaching with our values and our behavior in a way that makes sense to our kids and grandkids. The sort of urgency of lining those up–our understanding of expansive grace in our practice of inclusive ministry.
Where do you see pockets of hope in the church right now?
Bishop Oliveto: Well, it’s funny, because when you were talking about your son … I love that story. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to difference. We do adapt to difference, and see it as something valuable, as opposed to something strange, which it might feel at first.
You know, when I came to the Mountain Sky Conference, I got this, “I’m not sure this person is a real Bishop.” A lot of people left. A lot of people were angry and it’s one of the reasons why I have visited almost every single church in my conference.
I knew I knew that they had to know me, but more importantly, as a leader, I had to know them. And so you know, some churches were hurting because they lost members when I came, and we need to think of creative ways to support those churches. So in some ways we had that exodus that’s happening in the larger denomination, in 2016.
But 2019 happens. So 3 short years later, 2019 happened. The more restrictive language (even more restrictive if that’s even possible.) And I had people writing from across my Conference: “How dare they? The church I love is not exclusive!” And I’m like, well, yeah, it is. The thing is, we all have to come to terms and confess: the Church we love that helped us experience God’s generous, wide, unconditional love–this Church has made it an exclusive gift.
And to see beyond ourselves, and say: We see the reality of the Church, but that doesn’t mean we accept that. We’re gonna continue to build something so that every child of God will know they’re loved by a God that will never let them go. That’s accepted. God made them who they are and let’s make sure they and we can celebrate that fact.
Molly: For my congregation listening to this and others listening in, do you have a sense about what we could do to be better at both including LGBTQ+ people in our congregations and celebrating them–And, you know, that ongoing work of always widening the welcome beyond the people we know to include? What can a local church do?
We’re in a weird period of time where we can’t change the rules at the General Conference level, but there’s a lot we can do. What do you think, what do you see, that can be done that would be helpful?
Bishop Oliveto: Well, one: let your young people offer testimony. They are seeing clearly, in a way that the rest of us need to learn from. You know, they look at what the rest of us wrestle with in this church, and they say: we don’t get it. This is our lives, our friends. They’re living such a different reality, and if they can help us experience that in the church it’ll be a real gift. So that’s the first thing, let your young people speak their truth.
There needs to be visible signs that your Church does celebrate LGBTQ+ lives. What most people who aren’t LGBTQ+, what most people don’t recognize and understand, is that the church is held suspect. A queer person walking by most churches–maybe your church? I’ll get to that point. [They] would say, “Why would I want to go to a place where I’m not wanted and welcomed where I can’t bring my whole self.” Because that’s the narrative: Christian churches don’t want us.
So what signs do you have, so that when they walk by… and it’s little cues like: is there a rainbow flag somewhere outside your building? Is there an actual thing that says this is a safe place for LGBTQ+ people?
Do you celebrate the anniversaries of people who are in same gender relationships? Do you do renaming ceremonies for people who are Trans? Do your young people have LGBTQ+ role models for them to learn and grow from.
Those are all things that a church can do to let people know they’re loved and valued and welcomed, and can bring all their gifts. And then, keep asking the hard questions. Okay, we’re not done with this, because we keep learning more. But, who else? Who else makes us uncomfortable? Maybe that’s the question: Who makes us uncomfortable? Because my hunch is that those are the very people God wants you to be in relationship with.
Molly: Oof. You’re making us work hard
Bishop Oliveto: You know what: Jesus never said “Oh, you know, come to me, and it’s gonna be a walk in the park.”
Molly: Yeah. Yeah, it was a yoke right? That was easy? Not a lawnchair?
Bishop Oliveto: Lean in!
Molly: I have enjoyed telling people about the story of your election, from my perspective. I wonder if you would share anything about your memory of that season, that day, and what followed?
Bishop Oliveto: Well, yeah, you know, people had for years asked me if I would consider the episcopacy, and I was: “No, no, nope.” I was really clear my ministry at Glide was done–you know, you get that sense. I’ve done what God wants me to do here, it’s complete, but I had no indication of what was next. I had some invitations to look at some things, and to apply for some things, and I was always the number 2 candidate.
So then I was thinking, “Well, okay, God, maybe you’re telling me my ministry is finished, and it’s time to retire. But at General Conference, 2016, when the Commission [on the Way Forward] was formed, I thought, well, maybe maybe maybe maybe… This, as open lesbian [pastor] of the fifth largest church in the denomination, maybe that’s where my voice could be useful. But I wasn’t chosen for that, either.
But people started to come at me and say, “We do think you have the gifts that the Church needs for this time.” And I kept saying, “I don’t want to hurt my church because I love this church. I don’t want to hurt my relationship.”
And so a couple of friends said: You know, we need to know by Sunday, because on Wednesday Annual Conference starts, and so we need to know, so we could bring your name forward if you feel called. Robin, my spouse, and I spent a lot of time discussing it, and I said, “Robin, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of hurting us. I’m afraid of hurting the church.” And she said (those Baptist roots came through!)–she said: perfect love casts out all fear.
And I went to bed that Saturday night thinking, okay, I’m gonna–I’ll say yes. And I woke up: Oh, my goodness, to the Pulse Night Club shooting, where so many LGBTQ+ folks were massacred. Instead of fear coming up, there was kind of a resolution to let the Holy Spirit do what it was gonna do. You know, here were people in my Conference for a long time, lifting their names up. Well, I was the only one to get endorsed. I came to Jurisdictional Conference, and I loved–Mark Calhoun was the kind of chaplain to the 9 of us–and he really made it such a deeply spiritual experience for us. We weren’t running against each other, we were in prayer. “Who does God need?”
And I was stunned when, you know, my name was always number one. It was like, ahhhhh. And when the election happened, it was just–the whole thing just kind of came to this natural conclusion of the election. But I have no memory at all of the consecration. None. And in fact, people said, “Wow! That–at the end, when you were dancing on the altar…
Molly: “I was dancing on the altar!?!”
Bishop Oliveto: Yeah, I have no memory of that. And I just felt the Holy Spirit’s presence in a way that just has changed my life forever.
Molly: One of my favorite pieces of that 24 hour period between your election and your consecration is hanging out in the hotel lobby bar area that night, afterwards. As you were elected–you know, but folks listening might not–that as it got closer, your name was always at the top of the ballots, and gradually all the other people who we were voting on withdrew from the race, so that in the final ballot we could elect you together.
And so that night we were all hanging out in this sort of like–it was the Hotel Bar-Restaurant-Lobby area, and my memory is that every time someone would walk through who had been a candidate for the Episcopacy, the whole room would, like, call their name and cheer, because everyone who participated got to be a part of this thing the Holy Spirit was doing in your election. It was like the community did it together, and it’s so countercultural in a sort of world of elections with opponents and candidates, to think about the possibility that a community could be led by the Holy Spirit to do a thing together, and to allow you to step into this leadership role with the whole jurisdiction.
Bishop Oliveto: The whole body’s support!
Molly: On your side–and all of us, really, on like Jesus side, right? Like the end of the day, it’s all trying to be obedient to what God’s calling us to…
Bishop Oliveto: But even the College [of Bishops] I don’t know–I’ve been told this, because I have no recollection. They all laid hands, which is not usually how it happens. So it was this entire community saying yes to God, and yes to this new thing that was happening.
And I know other people who weren’t in that room talk about it. And I don’t recognize what they’re talking about because we experienced Pentecost, truly.
Molly: Yeah, amen, amen. That was certainly what it felt like to me. And so grateful for your willingness to step into that role. I know that it’s not been easy that, you know… I know how much that I struggle with how to belong in this institution with its exclusionary rules that I feel like are an obstacle to the gospel. But it’s not my life that’s on the line in this. So thank you for being willing to be in this mean-time leadership in the Church. It’s a real gift to us all.
Are there any final words or advice or guidance you’d want to give to regular church folks out there, in this time of… Well, I see it as both a time of waiting and a time of opportunity.
Bishop Oliveto: Yeah–we’re living into it. I mean, the new thing is – Not only I mean, we have this new thing happening in our denomination, but we but we have this new thing, post Covid.
We are a different people. We saw things collectively from our couches that we can’t turn our back on. Never before has our Christian voice been so needed in the public square. And so let’s do it. Let’s build a church that is so invested in the welfare of God’s people that others will want to be a part of it.
Let’s do it. Let’s do this thing.
Molly: Amen. That’s a beautiful thought, beautiful plan to end on. I want to thank you for your time today, and for your preaching the Gospel, always.
Bishop Oliveto: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Molly: The Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to do the work of welcoming and including, so that we can know and experience God more fully. I’m grateful to Bishop Karen for offering us her witness and insight today. I hope you were inspired by her words.
I invite you to come back again next week, for episode 5 of our podcast. I’ll sit down with Hannah Adair Bonner, to hear and learn some about the roots of the movements that have led to the formation of the Global Methodist Church and the division as we are describing it in this moment in our United Methodist Church.
I encourage you to listen to the previous episodes if you haven’t already; to subscribe and like the podcast on whatever platform you watch (or listen), and to join the conversation from where you are. It’s good to be with you. Blessings.