Today Bishop Karen Oliveto becomes my bishop and my boss. In the weeks since the election reactions, inside and outside our area, have been strong and emotions are running high. A debate long simmering in the church feels close to boiling over again and the emails, letters, and phone calls are flying. Not even going to comment about what’s happening on Facebook.
I work with churches across theological, ethnic, and economic spectrums in my role as a congregational developer and I see their efforts to be more relevant to their communities. I see a renewed longing for disciple making and a refreshing willingness to let go of old systems from the past. Local churches all around are striving for a deeper relationship with God and the Holy Spirit.
It is a great time to do what I do.
If I have a concern it is this. In my experience, the task of disciple making gets downplayed in my jurisdiction. While I’m proud that the West is a leader on issues like immigration and combating racism, we have often fallen short in our primary task to promote personal and social holiness. And yes, I’m well aware that working for social justice is a disciple making activity. Anyone who takes the example of Jesus seriously can’t deny he calls us to be seekers of justice. But, that is also not enough on its own. It is a slice, but not the whole discipleship pie.
This is what truly gets me excited about the addition of Bishop Karen to the mix. As I have listened to her interviews on NPR, read the material she has written, and had a few conversations with her one on one, it is clear she is no token Bishop. She was not elected to simply represent a specific group or because of any specific line in her demographic profile.
She was elected because she loves Jesus.
She was elected because she has the skills and talents to make disciples.
She was elected because she is the prophet we need.
The West needs a wakeup call about what it truly means to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need to be reminded and challenged that we are called to be Christ’s witnesses. We need our local churches to move from their comfortable, inwardly focused, place of slow decline back into their communities and towards vitality. Bishop Karen herself has said,
“I think the church is best when it goes to the margins or to where the people are, rather than waiting for people to come through the doors. I don’t believe that if you build it, they will come — people are building their lives and we’re supposed to come to them.”
Yes, that is when we are at our best!
I know many congregations who are already striving to make disciples. I know many who embrace both justice & advocacy and intentional witness to God’s transforming grace. The work is well and truly underway in most corners of our jurisdiction. However, everyone should also agree that it has not taken as deep a root as we need it to. We need exponentially more disciple making and community transformation if we are going to effectively reach our mission field.
No one person can do all that needs doing. No one bishop can magically make things better. However, all over the bible we see that one person, who is bold and brave enough to take on the mantle of prophet, can change the course of a whole nation of people.
While many are excited about the prophetic possibilities having an out LGBTQI bishop can be for the church outside the West, I for one am more excited about the possibilities for us ourselves.
Jesus was clear about what he was after, we are to love God and love our neighbors. Bishop Karen might just be the prophet we need to reclaim our mission of love in a new and bold way right here in the heart of the none-zone. I believe she can call and challenge us in a way nobody else really could. This is why she earned my support and vote at Western Jurisdictional Conference. If what we are truly after is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, I honestly believe what we need in the land of the nones and the dones is somebody exactly like Bishop Karen. Someone with the love of Christ deep inside her who’s progressive identity is beyond reproach.
Anyone brave enough to follow Christ on a path of discipleship will no doubt be asked to sacrifice along the way. For those who care deeply about the mission of the church but our concerned about the election and appointment of Bishop Karen let me respectfully say this. Perhaps the sacrifice you are being asked to make is to let this move forward for the sake of the mission. So, that the West can have the prophet we need.