Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Together at the Table: Diversity without Division in the United Methodist Church” 

An hour-long teleconference with 

Bishop Karen Oliveto

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

1 to 2 p.m.

Mary E. Hunt: Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. So Karen Oliveto and her book Together at The Table: Diversity Without Division in The United Methodist Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) are logical choices for our conversation. Many of us have followed the struggles in the United Methodist Church. Some of the people most deeply affected have sat at this table with tears in their eyes.

The only comfort I can offer as a Catholic is that at least you have public places where these matters can be aired, however, painfully. Catholics have none such. Still, the disappointing decision of earlier this year and the fact that Christian churches still fight over whom to include remain sources of scandal. Hopefully, our conversation today will be an action toward healing and change.

Introduction: Bishop Karen P. Oliveto is new to WATER, so I welcome her with gratitude and warmth. I have followed your work, Karen, and read your book with deep appreciation.

Karen was consecrated as a bishop of The United Methodist Church on July 16, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona, and assigned for the 2016-2020 quadrennium to the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, which includes 400 congregations in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and a small section of Idaho.

She was the first woman pastor of the 12,000-member Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, CA, where she served from 2008 to 2016. She was the first woman to serve as senior pastor of one of The United Methodist Church’s 100 largest congregations. Her stories of life at Glide grace this book.

Bishop Oliveto grew up in her local United Methodist Church in Babylon, NY, where she was active in Sunday School and the youth group. She preached her first sermon as 16-year-old and began serving as a student pastor at 18, a regular theological prodigy I’d say! She earned a B.A. in Psychology from Drew University, Madison, NJ, in 1980. She earned a Master in Divinity from Pacific School of Religion, Berkley, CA, in 1983, a Master in Philosophy from Drew University in 1991, and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion from Drew University in 2002.

Bishop Oliveto has been an academic dean and adjunct professor of United Methodist Studies at Pacific School of Religion, as well as adjunct professor in Prophetic Leadership for the Doctor of Ministry program at Drew University, and adjunct professor in Evangelism and Mission at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX. She is currently an adjunct professor at Iliff School of Theology, teaching “Prophetic Leadership through Pastoral Engagement.” How fortunate these schools are to have you on their faculty.

Bishop Oliveto is the first openly lesbian bishop in The United Methodist Church. Her biography notes that she met her wife at junior high church camp, a sweet detail, giving further credence to the adage “Meet a nice girl in church.” I’m delighted you did. I’m sure your wife’s support and that of so many friends and colleagues has been crucial for your efforts to bring about “Diversity without Division” as you call it, in The United Methodist Church.

Karen says that her talk “will build on her book, Together at the Table, which used the metaphor of table and the theological understanding of communion as a lens to see how human diversity is a sign of God’s divinity and a way to be in relationship with others. However, if “we eat with people we love,” are we willing to love others into their fulness? Are we able to see the full humanity of those who join us at the table? What spiritual violence occurs when we invite some to share from the fullness of their lives and require others to keep parts of themselves hidden.

She will take a look at Methodism’s hidden history of lesbian leaders who helped shape the denomination, and what we can learn from their lives, loves, and their impact on the church.” I noticed you tucked in the lovely detail that Anna Howard Shaw, first ordained Methodist woman, lived with Lucy, the niece of Susan B. Anthony. Welcome!

A BRIEF SUMMARY of input by Karen Oliveto. Her remarks include materials she will publish so stayed tuned for more details on that work.

Bishop Oliveto laid out the context of her work. It is a hard time to be queer in society not knowing if Title VII protects us or not. It is hard to be among the marginalized queer folks in The United Methodist Church who experienced spiritual harm in 2019. The Church suffers a kind of cognitive dissonance insofar as it receives the gifts of queer people, but denies their realities.

The 50th anniversary of the ordination of Methodist women occurred in 2006. It was a bittersweet time to see so many women depicted on posters who broke ground in more ways than one, and, at the same time, to realize their closeted histories. In fact, queer people are not and have never been outside of the church.

In 1732, John Wesley visited a man who was in prison, convicted of sodomy. Wesley tried to help him get out. Such support should be an inspiration to today’s Methodists.

Queer people are made in the image of God and need to live full lives.

Nineteenth century women leaders include:

1. Anna Howard Shaw, a medical doctor and clergywoman who spent most of her ministry as a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Her life companion was Lucy Anthony and she referred to Lucy’s “Aunt Susan,” AKA, Susan B. Anthony. Shaw’s cottage on Cape Cod was a gathering place where women lived a “carefree and unconventional life” and was referred to in the press as “Shaw’s Adam-less Eden.”  These women lived in primary relationships with women. They were financially independent of men. Some lived in what were called Boston Marriages.

2. Frances Willard (partner was Anna Gordon) was known for her Women’s Christian Temperance Union work. In 1880 Willard, was the first woman invited to address a General Conference of the Methodist Church. She was among the first five women elected as delegates to the 1888 conference. The Church debate about whether women could be seated lasted one week; the first were eventually seated in 1904. In her book Women in the Pulpit, Frances Willard called for women ministers. She also wrote about the companionship of many women in her life and about women in committed relationships.

4. Georgia Harkness was the first female full professor at a Protestant seminary (Garrett Evangelical), as well as the first woman to get tenure. She wrote many books on pastoral and practical theology including treatments of ecumenism, war, peace, racial equality, and equality for lesbian/gay people. She was ordained a local elder without Annual Conference voting privileges. She refuted arguments against the ordination of women and pushed for women in leadership positions in the church. She lived for more than 30 years with Verna Miller, to whom she dedicated one book, “To Verna who shares my home/life.”

5. Queer people have been always part of the church, including queer bishops who could not come out because of the church’s rules: if they wanted to keep their jobs to which they felt deeply committed they had to be closeted.

Karen’s call to ministry came at age 11, something she would not refuse. Lesbian ministers found one another over time. The music of Cris Williamson — for example, “Song of the Soul” — helped to identify them to one another. The ones who knew all the words were obviously lesbians!

Why stay in the United Methodist Church? Because it is ours! No other denomination has the same combination of personal piety and social holiness. Young children will experience love through Jesus, and some will hear their own call for ministry in the Methodist Church. They will find a way. Queer people will continue to serve the church.


1. The first caller asked about the current situation in The United Methodist Church.

KO: The Social Principles in 1972 made a beautiful pastoral statement on human sexuality. It was later amended to include “homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian teaching” turning it into condemnation. That approach has slowly and steadily built up against same-sex marriage and whether queer people can be pastors. In 2019, there was a special gathering to discuss homosexuality. By 54 votes out of 1000, the delegates further restricted queer people and their supporters. In the US, studies show that well over 2/3 of Methodists believe in full rights for all.

Moderator Follow-up: Where does that leave Bishop Oliveto?

KO: I still feel called to this ministry. I don’t know. The restrictions go into place in Jan. 2020. There is a regularly scheduled General Conference in May 2020. Lots of groups are working on this. No one knows where it will go.

Moderator: WATER supports our Methodist colleagues!

KO: Lutherans are a sanctuary denomination in solidarity with immigrants. At the same time, The United Methodist Church is arguing over who is on/out.

2. A caller from Boston who grew up Episcopalian and knows about sexism and homophobia in ecclesial structures asked in what ways the church and others can help young people who are suffering trauma because of the church’s problems with sexuality.

KO:  She attended a meeting of United Methodist young people who fell in her arms sobbing, worried that the church might kick them out in January. So, her advice is to show up for young people, make space for them, use privilege so those who would not have voice have it. She has visited many churches where people weep about a trans grandchild, a gay brother, a lesbian daughter. But many people do not want to speak to one another in church. The church is such a ‘nice’ place that people have not been invited to share their trauma and receive holy healing.

3. A participant asked about LGBTQIA seminarians in the Methodist tradition who are experiencing so much angst, so much questioning, yet deep calls to ministry and service. What kind of supports are you offering seminarians and suggest what needs to be offered. How can spiritual directors and counselors help? What advice should we give seminarians?

KO: Seminarians excited about their call still ask if they should move forward with their plans for ministry. I make sure to visit seminaries and speak with queer students. Her area will be a safe harbor so folks can start their ordination process in her area without prejudice. People seeking ordination will be judged not by sexual orientation/gender identity, but by the gifts and graces they hold. Seminarians can transfer into the conference, perhaps do a summer internship, and then continue the process of ordination.

4. Another caller affirmed the Bishop’s spiritualty and singing! “Your words have been a great comfort” to this lay preacher. NY has an affirming bishop and district superintendent.

KO: Loves Upstate NY where she started her ministry.

5. The moderator asked about Georgia Harkness from Harkness, NY. She lived with Verna Miller for many years. Christian ethicist John C. Bennett told the moderator that Verna baked the cookies for students who came to tea. Over lunch at Pilgrim Place with Anne McGrew Bennett and John, as well as Nelle Morton (circa 1976), the three said that Georgia and Verna could not live at Pilgrim Place but bought or rented a house across the way because Verna was not a church worker (she had worked in the business world). The three were deeply and publicly opposed to this policy in the 1970s and made their opposition known to Pilgrim Place, paving the way for now a substantial number of lesbian and bi women there because of the work of such allies.

KO: Pass on details. Lesbians were hidden in plain sight but people did not want to mention it for fear it would harm their reputations. There is a conspiracy of silence because the truth would harm them.

6.  A caller asked if, with possible changes coming in the Methodist Church, will Karen be able to be bishop?

KO: She answered that she feels affirmation of people of the church in the West and will serve as long as possible.

The moderator mentioned M Barclay, a former WATER intern, who is the first non-binary deacon ordained in the United Methodist Church. WATER applauds them.

WATER wishes Bishop Karen Oliveto the best and our support in however we can be helpful.

These notes accompany an audio recording of the call. Information on all WATER activities can be found on our web site at