Contested United Methodist Church (UMC) Bishop Karen Oliveto recently spoke on transformational leadership at Yale Divinity School. The primary thrust of this talk was the need for a community focus in the UMC. She also took questions about the current state of the denomination.
Oliveto, who’s married to another woman, was elected bishop in 2016 by the church’s radical Western Jurisdiction in defiance of United Methodism’s prohibition on same sex marriage.
Oliveto attempted to avoid controversy in her Yale comments, though her personal views were visible. When asked about the decline of the UMC in recent years, she obliquely blamed, “All the infighting we’ve been doing” as well as, “an erosion of the grace that’s foundational to who we are.” This idea of an “erosion” of what Methodism originally stood for as a theological movement begun within historic Anglicanism was a recurring theme in Oliveto’s remarks.
In response to a question regarding the internal workings of the UMC in this tumultuous time, Oliveto told the story of her call to the position of bishop and her initial misgivings about letting her name be submitted for consideration. However, when talking about the reaction to her elevation to bishop, Oliveto was hopeful for the future of the church.
“I have received thousands of letters and cards and emails and testimonies from people saying, ‘Thank you…’ and I’ve received very little actual hate mail directly to me. So this says to me that the people in the pews are in a different place than our polity,” Oliveto asserted.
When asked what she thought the UMC would look like in 20 years, Oliveto was cautiously hopeful. She was particularly enthusiastic about new and younger leadership within the church.
“I am so excited about the new leadership that’s coming up in the church… I think church is going to look new. I think that people are really hungry for community. In the way that we’ve grown community can get pretty stale,” Oliveto shared.
Oliveto also lamented how “institutional” UMC polity has become.
“I think John Wesley would be very concerned right now at his movement. It has become too much of an institution. And it has forgotten again that deep personal piety and social holiness. I think he would also be concerned about how we are lessening our understanding of the role of experience in faith,” the Mountain Sky bishop claimed. “We look at Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason, and now people are saying that experience doesn’t mean that much.”
Oliveto did not directly address a schism in the UMC. She skirted around serious divisions in the church by obliquely referring to them as “the infighting we’ve been doing.” This seemingly conciliatory attitude was also expressed in a recent Twitter post she made, writing, “I’ve never called for a split. But it appears that we are headed that way and best be prepared. I grieve that we can’t find a way to live together with our differences.”
This conciliatory attitude juxtaposes oddly with the actions of the Mountain Sky Annual Conference that Oliveto leads. The Mountain Sky Conference has passed aggressively pro-schism resolutions, even proposals to depart the UMC alone if necessary. In combination, this means that Oliveto is either not in step with her Annual Conference or is much more supportive of a split than she will publicly admit.