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    First Elected Out Lesbian Bishop of the United Methodist Church Braves Challenges

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    You can dance in a hurricane,

    but only if you’re standing in the eye. -Brandi Carlile, The Eye

    As a lesbian minister ordained in the United Methodist Church (UMC), Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto has been dancing in the eye of a hurricane with grace and humor her entire career. This time the storm she’s headed for looks to be a category 5.

    On July 15, Oliveto was elected to serve as bishop at the UMC Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, AZ. Her election was unanimous, and she was consecrated the following day. This makes her the first lesbian bishop in the history of the United Methodist Church.

    What makes her election a nail biter is that official UMC church doctrine hasn’t yet permitted openly LGBT people to serve as clergy. The 2012 Book of Discipline, the most recent edition of the UMC playbook, states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This language and its resulting bans on LGBT clergy and same-sex weddings was to be reviewed last May at the 2016 General Conference, a once-every-4-years sort of Methodist doctrinal Olympics that gathers delegates from around the world to discuss issues and update church law.

    A week before the 2016 conference, 111 UMC leaders formally came out as LGBT in a “Love Letter” to the Council of Bishops to appeal for open inclusion in the church and to support LGBT youth within the denomination. Oliveto was a lead author of the letter. A second letter signed by nearly 1,600 ministers supported their LGBT colleagues. Facing them off were conservative delegates from regions in the South and Central Plains, from Asia, Eurasia and Africa, where the church is growing. It is generally acknowledged that without the international delegates, the LGBT restrictions would fail.

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    To sidestep a possible schism, the Council of Bishops voted to form a commission charged with exploring over the next 2 years how UMC members from various cultures can respectfully co-exist. While some delegates were disappointed with the vote, Oliveto said allowing time for members to come together was “a very wise thing.”

    “My hope is that we stop creating a wedge issue of homosexuality and freely admit to the difference of theology and culture,” Oliveto said during a phone interview on her drive to the Bishop’s residence in Denver, CO. “Often what’s happened is this wedge issue is used as a way to threaten schism in the church. We are different theologically and culturally depending on where we live, and I don’t want LGBT people brought to the altar or our lives put at risk for the sake of church unity.”

    The cooling off period leaves LGBT restrictions up in the air. Regional jurisdictions have begun to step in. Conferences in New York, New England, Desert Southwest, California-Pacific, Pacific-Northwest and California-Nevada (San Francisco’s region) voted to set aside LGBT restrictions, opening the door for Oliveto’s election as bishop. In the Great Plains Conference, though, a lesbian pastor in Kansas was just involuntarily removed from her post despite support from her congregants. The Southern Georgia Conference formally requested that its bishop uphold the 2012 Book of Discipline.

    Oliveto’s election itself is under review. A member of the South Central Conference questioned the legitimacy of her election (“even before I was elected, actually”) as a “self-avowed” married lesbian. What’s interesting is the Judicial Council, the UMC supreme court, refused to expedite the request, stating it would be reviewed in spring 2017. This gives Oliveto time to participate in the fall meeting of the Council of Bishops and to begin outreach to the churches of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Idaho that make up the Mountain Sky Area where she’s been sent to serve starting September 1.

    “I’m going to hit the ground running,” Oliveto said. “I know that getting to know people is going to be really important. This is a new region for me. So I’ve told the district superintendent … I want you to take me to the margins first, to the people who are overlooked and forgotten, and I want to visit every church. I want to hear what every church is doing to do the work of the church and what they need to do it better.”

    “This region requested me, and I am so excited about serving here,” she continued. “There is theological diversity here, and there are some churches that are struggling with my election and appointment, and you know, I need to hear from them. I need to hear how they’re angry and upset, but my commitment is to stay in relationship with them. But by and large, the welcome has been wide and warm.”

    Although Oliveto has struggled with UMC’s position on LGBT issues her whole career, she was raised Methodist and felt called to its ministry at the age of 11. So leaving the church has never been an option.

    “No human institution is perfect,” Oliveto said, “but what I love that is uniquely Methodist is we say we’re moving on to perfection and that we shall be made perfect in love in this life. And so yeah, it’s not perfect, but there is something powerful about a community that exists to better the world. And that’s why I stay. It helps me know God and it helps me love people better.”

    Although Oliveto is leaving San Francisco, where she’s served as Senior Pastor of Glide Church since 2008, she said her 25 years serving in the Bay Area prepared her to face the challenges ahead.

    “I was a pastor in the Bay Area from 1989,” Oliveto said, “so I grew up vocationally there in many ways. I learned so much from the activist community. I learned so much from a city where diversity is highly valued. And especially the LGBT community that allowed me to be a person of faith that was trusted by the LGBT community. I will take those gifts with me here.”

    Journalist Heidi Beeler is also a talented musician who has been a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991. She is additionally a founding member of the Dixieland Dykes +3. For more information, please visit www.sflgfb.org or www.facebook.com/sflgfb