Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Thoughts On Power and Privilege Post-Charlottesville

Much has been written about white supremacy and white nationalism since this weekend’s deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, and rightly so. We must condemn this evil that is seeking to fray the beautiful tapestry of American society. The hatred and racism that sustain these movements are literally life-threatening and must be confronted and dismantled.

But it is all too easy to point fingers and not do the hard work of personal soul searching, to be honest about the “every day racism” we whites participate in and benefit from. As a white woman, I have to confront my privilege, and the fact that my walk in the world is much easier because of my race than persons of color. Every day, I must confess my racism. Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture and entangles all of us in its web of inequity. I have to consciously reject it every day and the main way I do that is through the power of empathy, listening deeply to how those of color have a much different experience of the world than I do. I must understand that doors that open up automatically for me because of my whiteness open with difficulty—if at all—for persons of color. My race affords me places of safety not granted to those of other races.

I am not frightened of police officers. I don’t worry that by putting on a hoodie, I will be perceived as dangerous. I have never given my nieces and nephews “the talk” about how they should behave if ever stopped by a police officer. I have never been followed in a store by the owner because he or she automatically assumes that I am a suspect for shoplifting simply because of the color of my skin. I have never had to look very far—in books, movies, television, or church meetings—to see people who look like me. In white America, the color of my skin grants me power and privilege.

Racism isn’t an inconvenient social construct.  It is a deadly way to control others.

Racism permeates all corners of American society. Even the church is not immune from its cancerous presence. My own denomination’s history reveals a theology once held that supported the outrageous belief that owning another person and treating them less than human was in line with Christian values. Racism fueled segregation in the church through the creation of an all-black non-geographic jurisdiction in order to preserve (white) “unity”.

If we are to effectively oppose and defuse the movements of white supremacy and nationalism, the starting point must be with our own collusion with racism. Until we do this hard work, we will keep in place the social fuel that will allow these movements to flourish.

My white friends, we can no longer remain silent. We can no longer pretend we live in a post-racial society. We can no longer deny the privilege we possess. We can no longer believe that racism no longer exists.

With eyes wide open, may we dismantle the sin of racism, in our own lives and in the systems and institutions of which we are a part. May Love guide our work, focus our anger and fear, and lead us all into the promise of Beloved Community.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

One Bishop's Reflection on the First Anniversary of Her Election

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight. (Proverbs 3:5)

One year ago today, I was elected a bishop in The United Methodist Church in the midst of what was the closest experience of Pentecost I have ever had. Delegates and episcopal nominees of the Western Jurisdiction entered into a time of deep discernment and prayer. Truly, there was a profound sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

There are some who have said we in the West were drunk with new wine. But as Scripture and history show, that is often the case when those who weren’t present try to dismiss the movement of the Holy Spirit, which seeks to make all things new.

We were simply trusting in God with all our hearts.

I continue to lean into that trust.

I lean into that trust as I bring my gifts, skills and experience to this new ministry.

I lean into that trust as I surrender my life to God, who will guide my steps.

I lean into that trust as I sit at the Council of Bishops table, bringing a voice that has never been present to our common life and work.

I lean into that trust as I listen to those who are angry about my election and commit myself to remain in relationship with them.

I lean into that trust as a vision emerges for our denomination’s future.

I lean into that trust as we sit at Cabinet meetings and seek God’s guidance as we make appointments.

I lean into that trust as we in the Mountain Sky Area commit to the vision of Beloved Community, God’s desire for humanity.

I am so thankful for new and old companions--both within the Mountain Sky Area and throughout my life--who have enriched my life, sustained my soul and informed my ministry during this past year. I am especially thankful for my colleagues on the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops who have generously welcomed me and offered me their wisdom and insights, as well as the members of the Mountain Sky Area cabinet, as we have sought to care for and equip the clergy and laity of our area so our churches’ ministries might be vital and transformative.

It is humbling to have been entrusted with this ministry.
May Your will be done, O God, in all I say and do.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Western Jurisdiction Post-Judicial Council Hearing Press Conference Remarks

My name is Karen Oliveto and I am the Bishop of the Mountain Sky Area of The United Methodist Church. I stand here with my colleagues of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, the cabinet of the Mountain Sky Area and delegates and leaders from the Western Jurisdiction as well as my siblings in Christ, the Queer Clergy Caucus of The United Methodist Church. Also standing with me today is the childhood pastor who helped me hear my call into ministry, Rev. Ken White, my mother, Nellie Oliveto and my wife, Robin Ridenour.

I want to thank Rich Marsh for his hard work as counsel over these past many months, for Llew Pritchard for his assistance as co-counsel, and for the prayers from across the connection and around the world, that have sustained Robin’s and my souls.

I love being a bishop in The United Methodist Church. I have been moved by the faithful ministries within the churches of the area I serve. I love the relationships we have formed and the vision for our future that has prayerfully emerged in these nine months. It is as if everything I have done throughout my vocation has brought me to this position where I can best serve God as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy. And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking.

In the Gospel of John it is written:

John 15:16  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name God will give you.

This is a pivotal moment in the life of The United Methodist Church as the Judicial Council deliberates on those whom God has called to bear fruit in the world-- specifically, the role gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people have in ordained ministry.

In fact, lgbtqi people have been serving faithfully as ordained ministers and yes, even as bishops, in The United Methodist Church since it was created in 1968. And we have done it at great personal cost, serving in the silence of closets, in order to be faithful to God’s call.

Making heterosexuality a requirement for ordained ministry instead of asking whether someone possesses the gifts and graces for ministry denies God’s infinite imagination that is evidenced through the lives of God’s diverse children. One part of Christ’s body cannot say to the other, “We have no need of you.”

Since 1972, The United Methodist Church as a human institution has been divided about homosexuality. We are not of one mind. What we know is that God loves us all unconditionally. We’ve come to an impasse. The legislative process and the decisions we’ve made have not allowed us to get to know each other, understand each other, hear how the Holy Spirit is working in our lives, and love each other deeply as God would have us do.

This is why I support the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. Some have said that my election was ill-timed. As people of faith, we know we can’t give deadlines and timelines to the Holy Spirit, who moves in our lives in surprising and unexpected ways and compels us to follow.  I strongly and prayerfully support the work of the Commission. If my election does anything, it highlights the urgency of their task. Because God has and will continue to call faithful United Methodists who happen to be lgbtqi to serve their church. This helps move the conversation away from debating homosexuality as an issue, to talking with people in The United Methodist Church who are lgbtqi whose lives bear the fruits of the Spirit that enrich the community of faith. In this way, we are bringing gay and straight together to build up the body of Christ in a way we have never experienced before.

I believe this is what John Wesley meant when he said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” He wove into the very fabric of the Methodist movement a vigorous tension of difference that enlivens unity, not detracts from it.

This is what I know to be true: the Holy Spirit will continue to move in the lives of lgbtqi United Methodists. Some will be called to ordained ministry. Boards of Ordained Ministry will find them to possess the gifts and graces for ministry. And there will be those to whom God calls into the episcopacy. I am not the first gay bishop, and I won’t be the last.

May we let go of fear of an unknown future, and live into love’s demands.

Bishop Karen P. Oliveto
Resident Bishop of the Mountain Sky Area
April 25, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Thank you, Pacific School of Religion!

It is an honor to receive this recognition today. Pacific School of Religion, you and I have had quite a relationship. I have been your student, field education mentor, associate dean of academic affairs, and adjunct professor of United Methodist studies. In all things, I have found that PSR kept helping me come back to myself, to a place of wholeness and integrity, reminding me of who I am and whose I am.

I heard my call to ordained ministry when I was 11 years old and began preparing for this vocation from that time on. I was blessed to grow up in a church that wrapped me in unconditional love and acceptance.

Yet, even with that love and acceptance, I grew up feeling as if there was something different about me, that there was something that kept me from full community with others. I didn’t have a name for it. But it made me feel like that woman at the well. Alone. An outcast.

Then I came to PSR and this strangely warmed heart got even more strange.

At first I contributed it to that classic seminary experience of how seminary deconstructs one’s life and faith, pulling the theological rug out from under you and leaving you to rebuild. In the brokenness, I had to face parts of myself that I had long suppressed. I listened to the stories of gay and lesbian students—Deb and Marcy and and Gloria and Fred and John Sam and so many others--and recognized myself. I struggled mightily with this new self-awareness, and when I was finally able to claim my identity and say, “I am a lesbian”, I experienced that peace which passes all understanding. I was made whole, and discovered within me the capacity for community that had always eluded me.

The thing about coming out at PSR meant that there was no real closet. Even when the United Methodist Church demanded that of its queer clergy, PSR taught me to live authentically. Professors like Karen Lebacqz and Roy Sano gave me the intellectual and spiritual tools to live with integrity in an unjust system.
My vocation has included parish and campus ministries in rural and urban settings on the East and West Coasts. I love this calling. I love the invitation to share life with others seeking to understand faithfulness. I love the questions that faith bubbles up within us. I love the daily challenge to risk it all for the sake of love and justice.

And now, I love this moment in my vocation. It feels as if everything I have done, including my time at PSR, has prepared me for the episcopacy as the first openly lesbian bishop. Robin and I have fallen head over heels in love with the people of the Mountain Sky Area, which encompasses 470,000 square miles, and they have embraced us with an enthusiastic hospitality and welcome.

I don’t know what the future holds. At the end of April, the Judicial Council of the UMC will rule on the legality of my election. But PSR has taught me to be bold in my witness, trust the Spirit, and make sure that in all I do I am not only seeking my own liberation, but working in partnership for the liberation of others as together, we live into Beloved Community.

In these days we are living in, when injustice, intolerance, racism, sexism and transphobia and all the -isms that seek to shackle the souls of our siblings seem to multiply with each passing day, may we continue to stand with the most marginalized and seek justice, walk with compassion on this earth, and always be guided by the One who loves us with a love that will never let us go. There is no going back, my friends, from this shared calling we have been given.

 Pacific School of Religion
Berkeley, CA
March 18, 2017

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2017…Bring. It. On.

When the clock struck midnight last night, 525,600 minutes stood before you and 2018.  Minutes that have yet to be unwrapped. Minutes that hold untold possibilities. Minutes that could reveal heartache or healing. 525,600 minutes. How will you use them?

I have never been keen on New Year’s resolutions. Mainly because I manage to break nearly all of them by the end of the first week! But each new year, like each new day, is an opportunity for me to recommit to the things that matter most to me, to recalibrate my inner moral compass, to realign myself to the things that offer life to me and others.

As 2017 unfolds like the precious flower it is, here are the things I am recommitting myself to:

·       Stay connected to God. I try to turn to God as soon as I wake up, and before I go to bed. To say YES to the possibilities of the new day God has set before me, and to say THANK YOU for all that the day as brought me.  My conversations with God are the first and last ones I have each day. Through them, I am reminded that no matter how bad my day may have been, no matter how much I may be dreading what may be in store for me in the new day, “in all things God works for good.” My task is to join with God to co-create the good.

·       Stay grounded in love. This is related to staying connected to God. If God is love, and love is of God, it is critical to remain loving in all that I do. This is what heals the world. This is the power that overcomes hatred. This is the impetus for justice.  

·       Remain open-hearted to others. Hostility cannot be met with more hostility. An open heart is necessary if relationships—especially with one’s enemies—are to forged in order to change the world. This requires a willingness to be vulnerable and experience pain, but the rewards to be reaped always outweigh the costs.

·       Not confuse diverse opinions with division. Diverse opinions are needed and necessary in a healthy community. Diversity of thought stretches us to a fuller experience of life and helps us all have bigger dreams for this life we share. Division occurs when we stop offering each other mutual respect, shout each other down, and fail to recognize that we are not the only ones to possess truth.

·       Take time to laugh each day. This is as critical to me as my morning workout. Others need coffee in the morning, I need a good cardio workout. Laughter is an aerobic workout for my soul. Laughter reminds me not to take myself so seriously.

·       Stay vigilant. Every year begins with the promise of countless possibilities, yet also carries the potential for trauma and tragedy, pain and pathos, not only for ourselves, but for others. 2017 is no exception. My task is to listen to lives that are different from my own, to hear their challenges and concerns as they encounter the world. Together, we can protect each other’s humanity, rights, and freedoms. Together, we can stand for peace and justice. Together, we can push back the forces of hatred and inhumanity.

So, in 2017, I am recommitting myself to creating Beloved Community, to seek right relationship with God, others, and Creation. I will extend the energy of joy in a world that often feels joyless and lacking in hope. I will seek to offer my best self in every situation, and create the space for others to do the same.

525,600 minutes.

2017…Bring. It. On.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016...What a Wild Ride!

When I think back to 2016, I am surprised by the tears that fill my eyes. How does one sum up a year of so many emotions, changes, challenges, and new possibilities? How does one heart hold the prayers, hopes and love of so many? How can the mind comprehend the tectonic shifts that have occurred, both within one’s own life, the church and the world?

2016 began with my dad’s death. His health declined sharply at the end of 2015 and with the new year, he decided enough was enough. He died the way he lived: totally on his own terms. My relationship with Daddy was complicated, yet I am so aware of the gifts he imparted to me—my love of the outdoors, a mind that constantly questions, and a voracious appetite for reading and learning. Perhaps the greatest gift he gave was in his dying: it drew my sisters and brothers together in a deeper way than ever before. Divided by age (there is a nearly 30 year difference between me and the youngest), different mothers, and different upbringings, we found ourselves learning more about one another and delighting in our commonalities more than ever before.

I had a crisis of faith in the late winter-early spring. I have always been acutely aware of God’s presence and claim on my life. But suddenly, I felt adrift: where was God, and what did God want of my life? I began to hear that still, small voice, and began to follow, but WHOA! Was not expecting to be led THERE! On June 10, when Robin and I discerned together that yes, perhaps God was calling me to the episcopacy, the Holy Spirit burst in our lives in such a profound way and took over. The rest is, as they say, history.

My election meant a very fast transition, saying good-bye to a city that I have called home for 27 years. So many lessons learned there, friendships made, and experiences that have shaped me as a person and a pastor. These past 8 years, in particular, have been filled with so many lessons that have already served me well in my new ministry. The Glide community, so diverse, loving, and hopeful, have taught me so much. Folks invited me to share life with them, and opened my eyes and heart to worlds I would otherwise know nothing about. Daily, I had to confront my privilege. God kept showing up in the margins, and I learned more faith lessons there than in any seminary classroom.

Saying good-bye was hard, and filled our hearts with grief yet again. But it wasn’t the last time. Within days of moving to Colorado, Robin’s mother died unexpectedly. And then her dad had surgery followed by a small stroke. Yet, God kept showing up in the midst of it, surrounding us with a new community that spanned more than four states in the Mountain Sky Area. Robin and I regularly asked ourselves, “How did we fall in love so hard and fast with these people?”

2016…what a wild ride! Yet, through it all, I have only two words: “Thank you.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Sermon preached at St. Andrew UMC in Highlands Ranch, CO, after the US National Election, 2016


Mark 1: 40-45

            Two of the most challenging days I have ever had in my more than thirty years of ministry have been 9-11 and 11-9. when so many came to me for pastoral care. On Wednesday, November 9, the first call came shortly after midnight. An African American pastor called me in tears, her voice barely audible because of the grief that came from deep within her soul, “How am I going to tell my teenage son in the morning? The world has just become that much more dangerous for him.”

            I received an email from another pastor, asking if I can write a note to the queer young people her church serves, who are now afraid that the bullying they deal with on a regular basis will become more pronounced and violent.

            Several friends have talked about how the election has been a terrible trigger for them, surfacing memories of abuse they had hoped they would have long forgotten.

            Teachers told me of how they spent time soothing crying children, who are afraid that one day they will return home from school to find parents missing, having been rounded up and deported.

            Mothers and fathers asked me what they could tell their children, now that someone who has shown such disrespectful behaviors towards women has been elected a world leader.

            At a time when the global village is shrinking, it seems as if instead of feeling a greater sense of community and connection, more and more people are feeling pushed to the margins, outcasts, untouchables.

One of my favorite hymns begins with the line: Open my eyes that I may see.

Open my eyes that I may see.

I use this line as a prayer regularly, because it seems that a part of my human condition is to not keep my eyes open.  There are things I become blind to. There are those around me that I overlook. There are those whose suffering or state is too disturbing, and so I close my eyes. Do you know what I’m saying?

Open my eyes that I may see.

This is a basic and sad truth about human nature. There are things about each other that causes us to close our eyes to the other. Just about everyone in this place knows something about this: Whether it is our skin color, our accent, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have (or don’t have), our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our handicapping condition, our size, our addictions, our tattoos, our piercings, most of us have had the experience of being shunned, ignored, overlooked, not seen.

This is a most painful, dehumanizing, demoralizing experience.  The gifts and skills we possess and can contribute to the greater good go unacknowledged or unappreciated.  The hurts and wounds we carry that can be healed in community fester and cripple us.  We are pushed to the margins, sidelined from participating fully in the world, and our cries and contributions are unheeded.

But there is one who sees. There is one who hears our cries. In the book of Jeremiah, God speaks: Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away.” God hears the cry of resignation, of deep despair, of broken hearts. And how does God react? Jeremiah continues: “For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt. Oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night.” The God who created us is a weeping God. A God who cries. 

A God who cries is one who cares and cares deeply about the world as a whole, and people, too, one by one.  God sees us. God is moved by us.

This commitment to seeing us fully and responding with compassion was embodied in Jesus. This is what made Jesus so dangerous. Jesus saw those who were overlooked. Jesus saw the outcast. Jesus saw the widow. Jesus saw the children. Jesus saw the immigrant.  Jesus saw the mentally challenged. Jesus saw the physically challenged. Jesus saw the physically diseased. Jesus saw those people whom the state had a vested interest in suppressing. Jesus saw those whom the religious authorities wanted nothing to do with. Jesus saw those whom the dominating class overpowered.  Jesus saw the rough and the raw.  Jesus saw the bleeding and wounded.  Jesus saw the crushed and defeated.  Jesus saw, and was moved to compassion and action.  And the most important action was to let those whom he saw know that they were central to God and God’s purposes. They were and are an exclamation point on the heart of God.

Our scripture today is one of the many stories we have of Jesus seeing the invisible. Leprosy in Jesus day rendered one an untouchable and forced to the figurative margins of society and the literal edges of the town. They were considered an illness to be avoided, a cancer that could be caught, an affliction from God that forced one out of community.

The leper comes to Jesus and begs to him, “If you touch me, you can make me clean.” People who are invisible or untouchable know what they need in order to be treated with dignity and restored to community. The problem is, most of the time we don’t listen. We tend to our own places of privilege or think we know best. But this leper, like so many marginalized folks I’ve known, knew exactly what he needed. And he wasn’t afraid to ask for it.

Jesus looks to the man. He SEES the man. He takes in his whole condition. He sees in him not only the diseased parts of him, but the parts of promise that are waiting to be loosened within him. Some translations say “Jesus took pity on him”. Other translations say Jesus “had compassion”. I go with compassion over pity any time. Pity keeps someone an object, something instead of someone. An issue instead of a person. A problem to be solved instead of a person worthy of wholeness.

To have compassion…oh, that changes everything. Compassion causes us to open our eyes and see the common humanity we share with another. Compassion causes us to be uncomfortable with assumptions we’ve lived with when we see how some of our life choices are detrimental to another’s life. Compassion moves us to action, because to do nothing would violate a central tenant of our faith, to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus has compassion and even though he has spent a long day healing one person after another, gets it together enough to do it one more time. He touches a man no one else is would touch and the man is cleansed of his leprosy. The very thing that kept him at arm’s length is removed and he is returned to community, a whole man.

We need to do this for each other.

I know some of us have been kicked out, kicked down one too many times.  Love has broken your heart to pieces and you are feeling beyond the reach of love. Your addictions have clouded your vision, keeping your eye on the one thing that will blind you.  Your voice, the work of your hands, your intellectual labor have been ignored, put down or owned by others.  You have been put in a corner where no one can see you for so long you have come to believe that that’s where you belong.

But you are an exclamation point in the heart of God. God weeps with you, for you. We are here to extend a hand to you, to see you in all your fullness, flaws and all, and let you know you are loved. We are here to do the work Jesus begun. To see each other fully. To love one another as completely as we can. To stand with each other. As the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” teaches us: We will stand with each other, we will stand side by side. And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

            As we face the days, months and years to come, Jesus calls to us. Jesus says, live as my beloved brothers and sisters. Care for each other. Heal one another. Protect one another’s dignity. Save each one’s pride. Live out your love so brilliantly so that no one will find themselves lost in the shadows, cowering in fear or languishing in oppression.

            I was speaking at a conference not too long ago, and one of the other speakers was from Zimbabwe. He told me about the traditional greeting in Zimbabwe which he says has no real English (and I would dare say American) equivalent. It is called “Chabadza” and it is always said when you pass someone and it means something like, “Hello, can I help?”

            Unlike here, where we say without even meaning it, “Hi, how are you?” in Zimbabwe they mean it. He said to me,  “When we say Chabadza, what we mean is ‘Greetings! Let me stop a while and help you with what you’re doing. We will work together and we’ll talk a bit and then I’ll be on my way.”

            Chabadza is the sharing of a moment, a participation in the task at hand and an acknowledgment that life is best when it is shared.

            Life is best when it is shared. As long as we live in silos that separate us by our differences, we don’t get to enjoy the best of life and in fact life turns deadly for those who are feared because of differences.

             As this critical juncture in our nation’s history, it is time we practice Chabadza. What would it mean for you to practice it in your office, in your community, as you walk down the street. How would your living change if you took the time to look others in the eye and say let me join you, side by side work with you, so I can learn from you and make your walk in this world a bit easier.

            This is how we heal the lepers of our current age. This is what is needed to heal a fractured nation. This is our task as we work for justice, fairness, and equality. This is what is required of us as children of God.

             So today and in the days to come, I invite you to walk in the world differently. To see people you often overlook. To stop and share life together. For that is when healing happens, That is when community is created. This is what causes compassion to well up within us and compels us to work for justice.

Chabadza. Hello. How can I help?

St. Andrew United Methodist Church
Highlands Ranch, CO
November 13, 2016
Bishop Karen P. Oliveto