Western Jurisdiction Photo
The Rev. Kay C. Barckley, a deacon and delegate from the Pacific Northwest Conference, offers support to Karen Oliveto as her election to the episcopacy is announced at the Western Jurisdictional Conference on July 15, 2016.
‘You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.’
– Psalm 139:13-14 (CEB)
It’s time for The United Methodist Church to learn the real story behind the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto from the perspective of Western Jurisdiction delegates that elected her in July 2016.
When we gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz., to choose a new bishop in the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church we weren’t expecting to experience a monumental movement of the Holy Spirit
A diverse field of clergy – nine eminently qualified people of different races, and ethnic backgrounds, and yes, a gay man and a lesbian – sensed a calling from God to a new experience of service to the church of Jesus Christ as a bishop.
Following two grueling, but deeply humbling and spiritual days of prayer and conversation, we elected the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto. When the presiding bishop read the numbers after the other eight candidates had withdrawn, there were 88 votes for Karen Oliveto, and 12 votes categorized as abstentions.
Some across our church are asking, “how could you ever do that – elect an open lesbian as bishop?” while others are saying “it’s about time.”
For the delegates, it wasn’t a vote focused on sexual orientation. That simply wasn’t it.
We voted to make Karen Oliveto a bishop of The United Methodist Church because we felt God working among us. We felt God pulling, pushing, and nudging us to elect the best person on the ballot as our next bishop.
Our decision wasn’t boastful or spiteful. It was an expression of living out God’s love for all of God’s children as described in Psalm 139. God made us. God knows us. God intends the best of all of us, and has set apart some, like Karen Oliveto, as leaders called to a special level of service.
As a beacon of agape love, Karen Oliveto is unabashedly all about Jesus, all the time. She is evangelical in the best sense of the word. She is a well-known scholar and writer, accomplished preacher, responsible administrator, and advocate for justice for all people. Her leadership ensured her congregations were always strong supporters of our Wesleyan connectional system.
Most of us went to Scottsdale committed to support endorsed candidates from our episcopal areas, but also ready to consider the gifts and callings of other candidates. As the number of ballots mounted, and as candidates slowly dropped out, Karen Oliveto – a reluctant candidate at the beginning of the episcopal election process earlier in 2016 – maintained a lead in the delegate count.
Finally, it was decided we needed a delegates-only meeting. At the meeting, we focused on the question looming over us: Could we elect a lesbian bishop in a church that still bars LGBTQ people from a full role in our denomination?
In the end, the questions came down to: Do we want her as our bishop? Leading our churches? Appointing our pastors? Presiding over our annual conference sessions? Is this the path that God has chosen for this Jurisdiction?
At the 17th ballot, 88 of us voted to elect her, confirming her election as Bishop Oliveto. We respected those 12 who said they could not, due to their own convictions, cast a vote for Karen Oliveto.
It’s hard to put into words the spiritual presence that we felt. The Holy Spirit had swept across the room; its power and presence real and obvious. It was a sacred moment on holy ground.
We’re aware how some have interpreted this action. We know some are angry. Some feel betrayed. We feel the burden of our decision. We take no joy in the turbulence that this has caused in the church. Some say our votes drove our beloved United Methodist Church to the edge of schism. We pray that this does not happen. We love our denomination. We treasure our Wesleyan tradition and history.
In the months since Bishop Oliveto has assumed leadership of the Mountain Sky Area, it’s clear we made the right choice. Our votes in Scottsdale have been affirmed by her leadership of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone annual conferences, and the reception she and her spouse, Robin Ridenour, have received across the area. She is sharing the love of Jesus, and meeting people where they are, no matter who they are, and no matter what they think about her, she loves them.
The Rev. Kent Ingram is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was the first-elected clergy delegate of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference.
Emily Allen was the first-elected lay delegate in the California-Nevada Annual Conference. She is from the San Francisco Bay area, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, Calif., and serves as the director of communications for Los Altos United Methodist Church. Both serve on the Western Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee.