The election of a partnered lesbian as a bishop in the United Methodist Church’s liberal Western Jurisdiction has resulted in significant fallout in the Denver-based Mountain Sky Episcopal Area. Reports from multiple congregations indicate that membership and financial contributions have decreased since the election, placing some in a precarious position.
In a seeming confirmation of troubles, the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences have launched a “sustenation fund” to compensate for financial “stress.” The fundraising appeal is being promoted on multiple liberal United Methodist websites.
Bishop Karen Oliveto of San Francisco, California was elected to the episcopacy by delegates to the Western Jurisdictional Conference July 15, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The former pastor of Glide Memorial Methodist Church was consecrated as a bishop the following day and later appointed to oversee the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences. Oliveto’s election is being challenged as a defiance of church law against partnered gay clergy. The election is on the docket for review by the denomination’s high court, the Judicial Council, at its April meeting.
United Methodist congregations in the region have been struggling for many years, and the Western Jurisdiction is by far the church’s smallest. This recent spate of losses is worse than the rate of decline that was already occurring prior to the election of Oliveto. The dual announcements of the sustenation fund have been characterized by the urgency of their language.
“This fund is especially needed where a pastor’s compensation is at risk,” the announcement reads. “Allocated funds for equitable compensation support will be exhausted before the need is met. And, importantly, by Discipline, equitable compensation funds cannot be used for part-time pastors in the same situation.”
While the announcement does not significantly cite Oliveto’s election as the cause of membership and giving declines, it prominently leads with her election, consecration, and appointment, indicating that the two are connected. The statement subsequently reports: “As we crossed the threshold, there has been stress in some of our most theologically diverse congregations.”
IRD has heard directly from multiple sources within the local conferences about how the recent accelerated rate of decline is a direct result of the moves to impose Oliveto as their bishop. Negative reports from churches in the region are numerous:
- One congregation has lost 20 percent of its membership in the brief time since Oliveto’s election.
- A member from one church reported that so many of their members had left, and the last key donor had gone, that they could no longer afford a pastor after the first of the year.
- Members from another church said they were planning on going ‘non-denominational’ and planned to discuss costs involved for purchasing their facilities from their annual conference.
- Members from two churches indicated that they were “hand-to-mouthing” bills and were not sure how much longer they could stay open.
- Members from several other churches have indicated that their yearly tithing commitments ended up falling short; some by a large amount.
- One church in a large town reported that it had exhausted its reserves in December.
The extent of discontent with Oliveto’s election and assignment there has come as a surprise to the Mountain Sky Area’s liberal leadership. One person related a conversation with a delegate that voted for the new bishop in which the delegate said, “I was caught totally off guard by the amount of resistance to Bishop Karen’s election.”
Another delegate, explaining their vote for the new bishop, experienced so much push back that the delegate looked “shell shocked” in a church meeting.
Officials in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences appear to be operating within a bubble or echo-chamber in which they assumed United Methodism in their area was monolithically liberal, not expecting resistance at the local level. Attempts by Oliveto to demonstrate enthusiasm from every congregation – and taking names of those who are not – aren’t faring well in the region. The bishop has described United Methodists displeased with her election as “the bad churches” and denounced them as a “destabilizing factor” in the region.
Calls for greater “inclusion” do not appear to have resulted in the including of more people in the life of local United Methodist congregations: there is no corresponding evidence that financial losses brought about by departing traditionalists are being offset by liberal gains.
UPDATE [2/9/2017]: Christian Post has coverage of developments in the UMC Mountain Sky Episcopal Area that can be viewed by clicking here. Notably, the “sustenation fund” has been re-styled a “generosity fund.”