#Pride50: Karen Oliveto — United Methodist Church's first lesbian bishop

By Julie Compton

Bishop Karen Oliveto first felt her calling to God at age 11. Now, at 61, she’s celebrated as the first out lesbian to be elected bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Karen OlivetoCourtesy Alain McLaughlin

“For me, being an LGBTQ Christian is claiming my unique identity as a child of God,” Oliveto told NBC News. “I happen to believe that God delights in who I am as a lesbian as God delights in every one of her children.”

The bishop, who lives in Denver, Colorado with her wife, Robin, was first ordained as a pastor in 1983, when she served congregants in New York’s Catskill mountains.

Oliveto’s ordination to bishop in 2016 ignited a debate within the United Methodist Church about LGBTQ inclusion in the church.

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In February, the United Methodist Church held a special session of the General Conference in St. Louis, where 864 delegates gathered from across the globe. They voted along a narrow margin to strengthen the church's ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and performing same-sex marriages.

Oliveto said she’s unsure how the vote affects her, since some jurisdictions, including the U.S. Western Jurisdiction where she serves, have stated they will continue to ordain church leaders regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I’m trying to discern what leadership I can bring to that resistance,” Oliveto said. “How we can help the church reclaim grace for all people? Because I think we got rid of grace with that vote.”

Oliveto, a native of Long Island, N.Y., spends much of her time on the open road, crisscrossing the heartland on her way to churches she serves in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

A prolific writer, Oliveto is the author of several books that encourage the inclusion of LGBTQ people within the church, including “Together at the Table,” “Our Strangely Warmed Hearts: Coming Out Into God's Call” and “Talking About Homosexuality: A Congregational Resource (Holy Conversations).”

Her message to LGBTQ people of faith is one of hope: “I want them to know that God loves them no matter what the Church has to say about them. I want them to know that they are beautiful, that they are beloved, and we need them in this world. They will make a very unique contribution, and we need them.”

What does "pride" mean to you?

“Pride means living in a world that has said many lies about who you and your community are. It means not believing the lies. It means celebrating fully this community that has resilience, that knows compassion, and in spite of what the world has tried to do, we continue to rise up. And pride is a reminder for us of those things.”

This year, we’re celebrating the Stonewall 50 — the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. Where would you like to see the LGBTQ community when we’re celebrating Stonewall 75?

“I want us to be able to continue to claim our uniqueness and the powerful things that lie within our community that we can contribute to the larger communities of which we are a part. I don’t want us to lose, particularly, things that we’ve discovered about ourselves as a community. So, I want greater acceptance. I want us to be able to walk without fear, wherever we live. I want us to be able to have role models for our young people. I want the larger society to understand and embrace and celebrate the unique contributions LGBTQ people make in church and society. I want there to be so much love and acceptance that we can live without fear, that young people can be provided role models, and won’t have to resort to suicide or self harm because they don’t know a way forward with their lives.”

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