Left photo courtesy United Methodist News Service
By now you have likely heard what happened at the Western Jurisdiction meeting of the United Methodist Church. In our church, jurisdictions have many responsibilities, primary among them to elect new Bishops. My jurisdiction had one slot to fill due to the retirement of Bishop Brown. Last year I was elected from my conference as a voting delegate to the conference. I was one of the 100 people responsible for what happened.
Leading up to the conference I was called or emailed by representatives from several of the candidates for Bishop. Each time I laid out for them what I was looking for in a candidate to support, and top of my list was my concern for the vitality of our local churches. The strength of United Methodism as a whole is directly linked to the health of our local churches and no one can claim that we don’t have an unfolding crisis in local church health.
It has always been my assertion that the Annual Conference exists primarily to support local congregations not the other way around. This is something I believed as a local church pastor and something I continue to claim now as a conference staff person. The whole institution of the church succeeds when our local churches do.
At the same time I have been at best a sideline observer on the quest for full LGBT inclusion in the church. This has never been my personal cause. I’ve never been a vocal advocate. I’ve never preached on the subject in my church. I have been quick to claim that I do have “gay friends” when discussing the issue with my more progressive colleagues. In private I am supportive, but publically I have been silent.
Four years ago I cautioned our previous delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conferences to not go to fast. I was afraid my center-right leaning congregation would be left behind and be deeply divided if we moved to change the churches stance on LGBT inclusion. I didn’t want to cause harm to my people or my church. So I know many are feeling the same way now about this year’s conferences.
So, how did I get from there to here? From the sidelines to actively, and publicly, embracing my small role in electing the first “out” Bishop. The full story, unfolding over the last few months, is too long to share. So instead let me share about the last few days. I came into Jurisdictional Conference uncertain about who I would support. I had my top three but Rev. Oliveto was not one of them.
As part of the process our delegation met with all the candidates for about 30 minutes each. First up was Rev. Oliveto. In her speech to the whole conference the day before she had said something that perked my interest a lot, “We have allowed our differences to be a distraction from discipleship.” Yes! Yes we have. So I was eager to hear more.
In her time with us she responded eloquently to the questions we had prepared. She reminded us that our job was to “Keep showing up, stay rooted in love, and remember we have no need to be defensive.” Amen. She then talked about how we as clergy have the unique responsibly to give our skills away. We should not use our expertise to hold ourselves above our congregations but instead use our knowledge to equip everyone for the work of the church. Amen again!
Finally, in response to a question about the role of the annual conference she stated, “the primary purpose of the annual conference is to equip local churches.” In that moment I didn’t just want her to be a bishop in the church, I wanted her to be my bishop. A very good friend leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m guessing she has your vote.” Yes. Yes she did.
Rev. Oliveto, in my opinion, is the best candidate we had before us in this election by my own criteria. That became more and more clear the better I got to know her. Her love of Jesus, the church, and her passion for making disciples was evident in everything she said and did. She is a person of wisdom and joy. I am an unapologetic progressive evangelical and as I got to know Rev. Oliveto I feel I have found a kindred spirit. Even though I don’t think she would embrace the label as I do.
All of this leads to what was the most personally shameful part of this whole process. As I prayed and discerned my part in this moment one thought would not leave me, I wised Rev. Oliveto wasn’t gay. I wished we could be blessed by all her obvious gifts and graces without the baggage. I wished the story could be about how an amazing episcopal leader had been found who was going to take the church in a new direction and that’s it. I didn’t want to make history. I just wanted the best person for the job. This is my sin in this process and I need to repent of it.
Because here is the thing. Rev. Oliveto would not be who she is if she wasn’t who she is. Being gay is part of the package. It is one of the gifts God gave her to shape her into the leader we need her to be. It’s inseparable from the other parts of her I already adore. We need her to be her complete, true, self.
One small, often overlooked, part of the fight for full LGBT inclusion is this: By denying people full participation in the church we are denying ourselves their gifts and graces. Today, when fewer and fewer even care about what the church does, we need joyful and dedicated leaders to help us take the good news into new places. In Rev. Oliveto I firmly believe we have one of those leaders and I expect the Holy Spirit to move in amazing ways in the months and years to come.
We are being blessed by God through our new Bishop. I am doing all I can to allow that blessing to cast out my fear. Yes, some will reject what we’ve done. Yes, some members and clergy may leave our churches. I know this. But I also know that the election of Bishop Oliveto was not simply a parliamentary process, it was a Pentecost moment. A moment where the Holy Spirit moved in a rare and palpable way.
I claim my part and my responsibly in this decision. I am open to discussion with any who have questions or concerns (firstname.lastname@example.org). I fully embrace the rocky road that lays ahead because I know we have chosen the narrower path that leads to life.