Karen Oliveto has dedicated her life to the United Methodist Church (UMC) despite the denomination’s stance against same sex marriage and its rules against ordaining LGBTQ members into its clergy.
Oliveto is also he first openly gay bishop to be elected in the UMC, serving both the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences
This dissonance in Oliveto’s life — a place of leadership within a denomination that, at least in its bylaws, claims she has no right to leadership because of her sexuality — is the dissonance of the United Methodist Church at large. After months of discussions — with Methodist clergy from around the world, lawyers and world-renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg — the UMC will likely split later this year over LGBTQ rights within the denomination.
Oliveto has clearly found a home in the UMC despite her sexuality, ordained as a deacon in 1984 just before the denomination created “a harder line on LGBTQ clergy” in its intensely named Book of Discipline, she says.
“I really began to wrestle with how can I do this?” Oliveto says. “My calling hadn’t changed; the church rules had.”
Though she considered other professional avenues, she says the Methodist church always offered her “a path forward,” and it seemed to uphold her, even when she married a woman in 2014. She was elected as a bishop just two years later.
While Oliveto is happy that so many Methodists want to take a stand for inclusion, she finds it “troubling” that the UMC “can’t figure out a way to live together.”
“The United Methodist Church, the way we do theology has allowed us to have a wide difference of opinion as we engage the Bible, and I think at a time when the United States is so highly polarized, the fact that we can’t bridge the chasm of all that divides us as a church really, really makes me sad.”
She also worries about the echo chambers such a split will create.
“The value I have found as a United Methodist is being in churches where people don’t all think alike,” Oliveto says. “And I know my greatest lessons have come from people who aren’t like me, who don’t think like me, but who expand my understanding of God and what God requires of us to do in the world. And that’s my concern, that we become too narrowly focused.”
One of the nearly 400 churches Oliveto oversees as a bishop is Boulder’s Mountain View Methodist Church, which recently voted to become a member church in the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). RMN is a collection of Methodist churches that have voted as individual congregations to support people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, in both marriages and inclusion in clergy.
With church membership across the United States in steady decline, and the congregations aging, there is concern over the business of running churches, says religious historian and CU-Boulder professor Deborah Whitehead.
“It’s also very much about money,” Whitehead says. “If we only have three members and they’re all in their 80s, we can’t survive as a congregation because we’re going to go out of business. And this is a real worry, especially for mainline Protestants who are really aging out there.”
Mountain View pastor Stephanie Kidwell can understand how practicing inclusion could also bolster membership, but becoming a Reconciling Ministry was about making a statement about the congregation’s core values.
“I think we’re moving to a place as a church that we’re not afraid to talk about pressing issues of the day, and that’s where I think we need to be,” Kidwell says. “People are talking about being relevant, but it’s not just about being relevant, it’s being able to talk about controversial and difficult issues.”
Their own choice to be inclusive, regardless of the larger UMC schism, allows Mountain View to focus on other important issues, Kidwell says.
“People think that faith-based means closed-minded,” she says. “And for us to say, no, it’s not about that at all, it’s we are people of faith who want to look at the world through the lens of what would Jesus have us do, how we are supposed to love and be in this world. We have a really active green team here who looks at environmental issues. We have a group of women who look at immigration issues. So we want to continue to grow and let people know that we want to talk about all of those things, not just inclusivity.”
The vote on whether to split the UMC is scheduled for the UMC’s General Conference in May. However, a vote was scheduled for March 18 to determine whether to postpone the conference due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The results of that vote were not available before press time.