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First Lesbian United Methodist Bishop: 'I Felt The Weight Of A Community That Has Been Longing To Have A Voice'

(Photo via Desert Southwest Conference of The UMC livestream)
Karen Oliveto's Consecration Service.

Last month, Scottsdale hosted the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church. On July 15, Reverend Dr. Karen Oliveto was elected by delegates to be the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop.

The church, though, still opposes same sex marriage—just one of the challenges Oliveto faces as she expands her role as a leader.

Interview Highlights:

How did it feel that day in July?

"It was a powerful moment when I was elected, to feel the entire body who was engaged in this time of discernment wrap their arms around me and say 'we feel that God is calling you.' I felt a mantle placed upon me. I felt the weight of a community that has been longing to have a voice at the table, put their weight behind me. It was very humbling. I just remember crying a lot and being surrounded by so much love."

How generally accepting or not accepting is the Methodist faith?

"The United Methodist Church has on record saying all people are of sacred worth. However, we go on to say that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, which then makes some people second-class citizens in the body of Christ. The thing is, we are not of one mind around homosexuality. On matters of homosexuality, we're quite divided. In the United States, I would say, evenly divided. In some parts of the United States, there are gay and lesbian pastors serving openly. In others, people are losing their positions. We've long held a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. So people are seen for their gifts and graces, and said 'yeah, we think you are called to ministry in the United Methodist Church as long as you don't tell all of who God created you to be. So it created real problems in the church, I think. The church ought to be the place where we come and stand with total honesty and authenticity before each other and before God."

How do you reconcile personally when you are in a faith that has not been fully accepting as who you are?

"I am a United Methodist through and through. It's in my bones, it's a part of my DNA. I don't know any institution, any system, that I'm going to agree 100 percent with. I don't know any of us who agree 100 percent with any belief system, any system of faith. But for me, to not be a United Methodist would be taking away a core identity of who I am. So I struggle in the tension of the differences we have with one another, but I think we are called to live into these tensions, that with the differences in belief that we have, God brings us to a place that none of us intended to go."

How important is it that this 'don't ask don't tell policy' is swept away toward something more clear?

"'Don't ask, don't tell,' I think is an abomination to the body of Christ. You can't tell one group of people, 'we love you, we accept you, just don't tell us all of who you are and how you love.' God calls us to be fully who God created us to be. It helps the church to be more honest about who's in the pews, about the longings that people bring, their hurts, their wounds. And it helps people be surrounded by the Holy Spirit that brings us to a place of greater wholeness."

What are some of your greater goals?

"My goal is that we live into beloved community. That this world, which is so fractured by hate, so fractured by poverty, so fractured by intolerance, that we live boldly as the body of Christ. That we love so fully, so completely, that the neighborhoods in which United Methodists Churches stand in are utterly transformed by the love that spills out of these communities. That's my goal."

Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.