United Methodists

Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto Becomes United Methodist Church’s First Openly Lesbian Bishop

by Matt Berryman

Reconciling Ministries Network celebrates with great joy the election of the first openly lesbian bishop in The United Methodist Church (The UMC). This is an historic moment in the movement of LGBTQ persons for spiritual and civil equality both in the church and the public square.  The election of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, CA breaks through anti-LGBTQ law in The UMC and carries queer people to the highest levels of church leadership. Officially barred from so many churches and positions of spiritual leadership, queer persons may now see themselves as leaders of the body of Christ in the largest mainline protestant denomination in the United States.

Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto brings a treasure trove of experience from both the academy and the church to the office of bishop.

A lifelong United Methodist and ordained elder, she pastored local churches while earning degrees from Drew University and later she led congregations in the San Francisco Bay area including Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district. In addition, she taught students at the Pacific School of Religion as an adjunct professor and filled numerous positions within United Methodist denominational agencies.

She has served several terms as a board member of Reconciling Ministries Network and currently is on the Advisory Board of The Forum for Theological Education. Her passion, intellect, and skill are widely recognized and admired as is her ability to articulate a vision of mission and ministry at the intersection of faith and social justice.

The election of Rev. Dr. Oliveto is cause for ongoing celebration for many reasons, but it is important to note that her consecration as bishop occurs despite current policies that drive injustice and oppression against LGBTQ people in The UMC. A 40 year movement to end codified discrimination against LGBTQ persons is reaching a tipping point that hardly any rational-minded observer can deny. Since LGBTQ people have long been denied access to public spaces, homes, and churches, today’s news represents the breaking down of a long-standing barrier that has prevented queer people access to the fullness of Christian vocation on the grounds that they are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

It seems that unjust policy is finally subject to the winds of the Spirit.

We interpret Rev. Dr. Oliveto’s election as a sign of God’s overflowing love for LGBTQ persons and God’s particular interest in those who are oppressed, afflicted, or in need. Let this decision stand as ample proof that life cannot be defeated, that love cannot be overcome, and that justice is stronger than inequity. The church cannot fence-out LGBTQ persons from the Welcome Table of Christ.

While today’s news makes history in The UMC and adds significant weight to forces of justice working beyond the doors of the church, we are also aware of the many LGBTQ bishops whose identities remain hidden but whose life and witness are shining examples of Christian leadership and discipleship.

As many know, Christian leadership would scarcely resemble itself without the ongoing and brilliant spiritual presences of so many queer people. As we honor God’s work in Rev. Dr. Oliveto, we similarly honor those saints both living and dead who grace us with their lives and spirits.

Today is cause for great celebration and joy in the lives of LGBTQ people and United Methodists everywhere.

Not only has God seen fit to raise excellence in leadership to the level of a bishop in Rev. Dr. Oliveto, but we are all privileged to be living witnesses to the work of the Spirit who is animating resurrection in the body of Christ—a sign of great joy and great hope. It’s Time.

Photo via Reconciling Ministries Network