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On Sept. 1, The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto began her tenure as bishop of the Mountain Sky Area of the United Methodist Church, which includes Montana.

Oliveto, 58, is the first openly gay pastor in the denomination to hold the leadership post in the second largest mainline denomination in the United States.

She will take part in an installation service Saturday at the Bozeman United Methodist Church. Then, based in Denver, she will begin her first four-year term working with churches in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and a sliver of Idaho.

Those in the Western Jurisdictional Conference who elected her in July simply say she was the best person for the job. But they also realize her election is a watershed moment for the UMC.

The liberal side of the denomination calls her election the culmination of a hard-fought battle to fully include LGBTQ people in the life of the denomination. Conservatives are disappointed in both the action and its timing, saying it violates the UMC’s governing policies.

One thing most agree on is that her election could be one more step toward schism in a denomination that finds it increasingly difficult to call itself the United Methodist Church.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the church to stay together because the theological divide is so deep and so wide,” said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Texas-based Good News. The unofficial evangelical United Methodist organization strives to keep the UMC faithful to the traditional understanding of Scripture.

Although the Book of Discipline, the UMC’s law book, considers all people of sacred worth, it calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. It also says that “self-avowed homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

The logical conclusion, opponents to Oliveto’s election say, is if gay people in committed relationships can’t be ordained as clergy, they can’t be elected as bishops. Those in favor say it’s time for that to change.

Previously Oliveto served as senior pastor of the progressive 11,000-member Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. She is the first woman to serve as senior pastor of one of the 100 largest UMC churches.

“It was tough breaking that stained-glass ceiling," Oliveto said in a recent interview in Billings.

Oliveto is no stranger to standing up for the rights of others. As pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco, she learned “that the Gospel demands us to take risks on behalf of God’s beloved community.”

At Bethany, she began to advocate on behalf of the homeless population. She was willing to do whatever it took to help the most vulnerable people, including getting arrested if that was required.

“If you want street credibility, you better be willing to show you stand up for something,” Oliveto said. “If we’re not willing to risk, are we being faithful?”

Oliveto stood up in other ways. In 1996, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, she and her congregation agreed to be a distribution site for medical marijuana, even though it was illegal. They also committed to being a place of compassion for those who came to buy the drug.

“What would Jesus ask of us?” Oliveto said. “Jesus always sought to relieve suffering.”

The decision radically changed the congregation, she said, and caused them to think more boldly about who God was calling them to be.

In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared marriages of gay and lesbian couples legal, Oliveto presided over nine marriage ceremonies for couples she pastored.

A complaint was filed with the denomination’s Judicial Council over her actions from someone outside the church. It was eventually resolved.

Oliveto left the church and was recruited to teach at her alma mater, the Pacific School of Religion. She spent four years there.

Then she was hired as pastor of Glide Memorial Church, where she continued her advocacy work, partnering with the congregation to help people living in the margins. It was, at times, “chaotic, crazy-making,” she said, but she also saw the Holy Spirit work in the lives of people.

A candidate

When people started to approach her about the possibility of putting her name in as a candidate for bishop, Oliveto initially resisted, saying she didn’t want to harm the church, herself or her relationship with Robin Ridenour, her wife since 2014. She also said fear was a factor.

Then at the 2016 General Conference in Portland in May, the legislative body of the denomination that meets every four years, Oliveto’s thinking began to shift. Maybe instead of causing harm, she’d be “bringing a gift to the conversation.”

She woke up one morning at the conference and learned of the mass shooting at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando. That moved her to act.

"It confirmed that this was the right thing at the right time," she said.

At the same time, she didn't want that to be the only reason for her candidacy.

"I'm not there as a single issue," Oliveto said. "I'm there to bring all of who I am, my passion for the Gospel, love of God, and my faithfulness of following Christ to this work."

At the general conference, where more than 800 delegates from the U.S. and around the world gathered, tensions were high as committees discussed the fraught issue of homosexuality.

Delegates eventually took the unusual step of asking the Council of Bishops to give guidance when it looked like any kind of agreement was impossible. A decision was made to put all debate on homosexuality on hold.

Instead, the delegates voted to allow the Council of Bishops to create the Commission on a Way Forward, representing all sides of the denomination, to scrutinize and possibly recommend revisions to the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality.

It was a way of trying to find a solution to the deep divisions within the church, Lambrecht said.

“The commission was presented as an opportunity for the church to pause and allow us to pray together and try to discern the way forward,” he said.

Fast action

But that pause didn’t last long. Within a week, some jurisdictions in the denomination approved resolutions saying they would not comply with provisions of the Book of Discipline that discriminate against LBGTQ persons.

One conference ordained four openly gay clergy, and the California-Nevada and California-Pacific conferences endorsed two openly gay clergy as bishop candidates, including Oliveto.

“We’re disappointed and angry that the progressives did not give a chance for this commission to work out a way forward before taking precipitous action on their part,” Lambrecht said.

Matt Berryman, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization that works to bring full inclusion to LGBTQ people in the denomination, saw things differently. He compared the struggle of the people he represents to the one that blacks confronted in the United States.

“It depends on what side of the struggle you find yourself on,” he said. “For people living under oppression, the answer to that is fairly obvious: You’re stepping on my toe and it hurts.”

For the past three years, Berryman said, the Chicago-based organization has led the charge for “faithful rule breaking.” If the church’s policies are intransigent and anti-gay, he said, there is no option than to take action to change them.

“We’ve been encouraging pastors and others toward biblical obedience,” Berryman said. “Do the right thing, no matter what the church is saying, and that has had a huge impact.”

It has created a growing pressure, he said, for change in the Book of Discipline whose rules on homosexuality have been in place since 1972. He sees Oliveto's election as a culmination of their efforts.

"In some ways, we're moving to a climax in the story," Berryman said.

For the Rev. Jeremy Scott, Mountain Sky Area vital congregations developer, electing Oliveto at the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., in July was the right thing to do, but for a different reason.

“I was looking for somebody with deep relevant and recent experience in the local church, and we need to have somebody who has a passion for making disciples,” said Scott, who lives in Billings. “And it was clear in our initial conversation that Bishop Karen checks both of those boxes."

Scott said the 100 delegates at the meeting approached the selection of a bishop with a high level of intentionality, taking a lot of time to get to know the nine candidates before making a decision.

Oliveto was elected on the 17th ballot, with 88 delegates voting for her and 12 abstaining. Scott believes if the delegates had used the excuse she was gay not to elect her, “we would have been denying ourselves the best person for the job.”

Split opinions

The delegates were fully cognizant that choosing Oliveto was groundbreaking. But Scott maintains that was never the priority.

“The characterization that we got together and conspired to elect a token bishop is really disheartening,” he said. “No one who was actually there can claim that that’s what we were actually doing.”

Even if that’s the case, Lambrecht said, Oliveto’s election still flies in the face of the denomination’s rules.

“We have nothing personal against Karen Oliveto, she’s evidently done good works of ministry over the years,” he said. “But we feel like she does not meet the qualifications necessary to serve our church.”

Soon after Oliveto’s election, complaints were filed with the Judicial Council, the denomination’s highest judicial body, for a declaratory decision concerning same-sex church leaders. A decision isn’t expected to be rendered until spring.

The tension over her election can be felt throughout the denomination, including in Billings, the Rev. Tim Hathaway said. The UMC prides itself in being a pluralistic church, with great diversity within the denomination, said Hathaway, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Billings.

“So it is not surprising that some people are exceedingly thrilled about this, while others are grieving and find it very challenging,” he said.

Lambrecht said his organization has heard from a number of churches in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences who are at odds with Oliveto's election.

"I think that her election puts orthodox evangelicals in those areas in a real quandary," he said. "And I'm afraid that the actions that have been taken over the last several months are accelerating the membership decline."

A small movement within the denomination is also urging members to divert their tithe money from the Episcopal Fund, which supports the UMC's administration, and toward other areas of ministry. 

Scott, who expects the Judicial Council to uphold Oliveto’s election, believes there is room in the denomination for disagreement.

“We are the church of Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, so the opportunity present in this election is to really remind ourselves of that and to embrace it and be OK with disagreeing about homosexuality,” he said.

Beginning her service

Oliveto is focused on beginning her tenure as resident bishop in the Mountain Sky Area. Her first priority is to meet the people in the congregations she will serve.

She is keenly aware of the tension that exists in the denomination, and she welcomes the continuing discussion and debate.

“We might not agree, but we don’t have to agree, we just have to love,” she said. “And the measure of our faithfulness will be tested by our ability to love each other. And I’m committed to being in love with the people I’m serving.”

Beyond the Judicial Council’s decision, the selection is underway for members of the Commission on a Way Forward. An unprecedented special session of the General Conference will be called, possibly in 2018, once the commission’s work is done.

Berryman is hopeful that the commission will start taking at least small steps toward more inclusiveness. Anything else, he said, would be “a colossal failure.”

Lambrecht thinks it’s more likely the body will come up with some kind of structural realignment to allow the more progressive and evangelical parts of the UMC to go their separate ways.

“There might be some things we can continue to cooperate on,” he said. “But I think we’re going to need to create separate groups for the people who have heartfelt and sincere differences on theology.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.