Bishop Karen Oliveto: A House Divided, and A Way Forward

Reflections from Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

I have been asked by many people to respond to the election of Karen Oliveto to the role of Bishop in our Western Jurisdiction. Many of those people want to focus on the issue of homosexuality, more than the single election of a self-avowed lesbian. I am wrestling with the many ways that I can respond. I am a Bishop of The United Methodist Church, and I uphold our Book of Discipline. At the same time, I proudly support our processes by which we change and perfect our doctrine and polity – and often this requires acts of challenge and disobedience. The growth and transformation of our Church is often messy. There are not simple, clear ways to change a dynamic, complex system.

What troubles me most is that I am being asked to take a position, or to take a side – to declare who is right or who is wrong, which will not help us move forward, and will do nothing to promote unity and strength as we live into our future. I do not support any call for division or schism. I do not believe this is God’s way. I believe our challenge is to commit to “Living Together… in unity… amid diversity… for ministry.”(our North Central Jurisdictional Conference theme this year.) And this is the basis of true unity: individuals decide to commit to working and being together despite differences to the honor and glory of God. Unity cannot be forced or imposed. Real unity is a choice we make as a people of faith, defined and identified by the baptism we hold in common.

I do not believe the election of LGBTQ persons to leadership in the Church is our most important concern. I can see how distressing and disturbing this topic is with people, and I believe we are in a time of prayerful self-reflection and discernment, and perhaps we should not be so quick to speak, but instead this is a time for listening. Listening to one another, yes, but first listening to God. The challenges that we face to faithfully learn and live God’s will in the world we cannot meet alone, nor can we address them well if we are constantly arguing with each other. A house divided against itself cannot stand. A body badly broken cannot live. As for me, I choose life. I choose unity. I choose to set aside differences so that together God may use us to transform the world.

I do not believe The United Methodist Church should be defined by its disagreements and squabbles. I believe we are meant to be defined by what we are for, rather than what we are against. If we must err, let us err to the side of love, gentleness, mercy and grace.

I invite all my brothers and sisters in Christ in the Wisconsin Conference to step away for a moment from their entrenched position to join me in the “grace margin.” Grace margin is where we stop thinking either/or, win/lose, right/wrong for a time, and we listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Together, we can share the depth of our consciences, and receive each other with integrity and grace. We will not all agree, and we may not have our hearts or minds changed, but we will value one another as gifted children of God. We need to be able to have deep conversations without defensiveness and contentiousness. We need to covenant together to be united, even in our differences.

What is the significance of Karen Oliveto’s election to bishop? There is a range of answers. For some, it is a violation and disregard for our written polity. For some, it challenges and flies in the face of their reading of Scripture. But it is also a statement that many in our Church are not only willing to accept LGBTQ persons as gifted leaders, but they are willing to be led by them as well. We are living through an interesting time in the life of our Church; interesting because there is no one clear path forward, but deeply spiritual and committed men and women point in a vast array of directions.

In the midst of these many options, stands the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not give his life for only one path, only one direction. God so loved the whole, entire, complex and convoluted world, that God gave his Son. God is greater than our squabbles and disagreements. The way of Christ is larger than our limited knowledge. And the Holy Spirit is still at work in us to help us grow and progress. I believe in the transformation of the Holy Spirit to help us become who God wants us to be.

I do not see the election of Karen Oliveto as a bad thing, but as a natural part of our growth and development. Our process is to trust human beings to elect Episcopal leaders. We believe that God and the Holy Spirit are active in our processes. How can we say of one candidate who is elected that this is the will of God, then deny it is God’s will of another? I believe we must take a much larger, longer view than this one instance. We are encountering more and more gifted, effective spiritual leaders who are part of the LGBTQ population. We are seeing more and more of our baptized brothers and sisters step forward to proclaim they are both gay/lesbian/queer and Christian. Instead of condemnation being our first response, perhaps from the grace margin we can withhold judgment and discern together whether God may be doing a new thing. Instead of starting from our conclusions and working backwards, perhaps we can begin in relationship and move forward. This I believe is our only way forward; in unity… amid diversity… for the transformation of the world.

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Hee-Soo Jung

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).