A Conversation with Bishop Karen Oliveto

July 21, 2016

*By Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr.
 
"I think of myself as one who has responded faithfully to God's call in my life, which has been affirmed by my brothers and sisters," said Bishop Karen Phyllis Oliveto upon her consecration as a bishop in The United Methodist Church (UMC). "I have always seen my life as a life of service. I'm trying to follow the path God has placed for me."
 
Bishop Oliveto says, "We are a people rooted in God's grace.  In the days to come may we model grace in all our relationships as we seek to understand this new thing God has done."  She added, "This is a moment to share the good news of God's love that breaks down all walls."
 
Last Friday evening, July 15, Bishop Oliveto was elected bishop on the 17th ballot during the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, 47 years after she heard a call to ministry at the age of 11.  She grew up in Babylon UMC (New York) surrounded by a village that raised her in the faith.  "They nurtured the gifts that I had, and encouraged me to use all of my gifts in service and love of God." 
 
"I have been blessed with so many mentors." She says the Rev. Ken White, a pastor and musician at her home church in Babylon, New York has been an influence in her life. "He infused in me a love for the Gospel and God's people."
 
Bishop Oliveto preached her first sermon at the age of 16 and began working as a student pastor at the age of 18.  She was ordained a deacon while in seminary in 1982, and has served churches since 1983.
 
She has been overwhelmed by responses to her election and consecration.  "The outpouring of love from around the world, from Norway, West Africa, South America, literally around the world, and the stories folks have shared with me about their own walk with Christ, I have been gifted by them in ways I had not expected."  She added, "It's not about me.  The work we do is to build up beloved community, which means it's about all of us." 
 
On September 1, Bishop Oliveto will become the resident bishop of the Mountain Sky Area which includes the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences.  The Western Jurisdiction just passed a "Mission Shaped Future" petition that will create a new annual conference out of the two annual conferences during the next quadrennium. "I have already fallen in love with the folks (Mountain Sky area) I have met…I can't wait to meet the rest of the family and all that God has in store for us."  She sees an opportunity to, "Help the Mountain Sky area discover ways to share the gospel, and help people transform their lives and communities through the grace of God."
 
Bishop Oliveto originally came to the California-Nevada Conference to serve as a campus minister at San Francisco State.  As she departs the annual conference she reflects, "I've learned how to live into our differences and see that as a gift even when it's hard…these are gifts and help us to understand God is greater than any one of us."  She added, "Thank you for helping me grow as a minister and disciple of the gospel." 
 
For the past eight years, she has been the senior pastor of Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco.  Glide is the largest church in the Western Jurisdiction and one of the 100 largest in the denomination.  "I have learned (at Glide) that the most important work that we do in this world is to love one another and remain grounded in love no matter what."
 
Bishop Oliveto has two scriptures that guide her ministry and life, Romans 8:28, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose," and Deuteronomy 30:19, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." A favorite song is, "Are Ye Able."
 
The advice she would give her younger self, "Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Live into the joy of this vocation, and that will carry you in ways you hadn't imagined."
 
In her spare time, Bishop Oliveto enjoys hiking, cooking for friends, and traveling.  She plays guitar and drums, and is an amateur magician.  She added, "I read a lot.  I love the public library.  It's my second favorite place on earth, second to the church."   
 
*Hygh is director of communications for the California-Nevada Conference serving the 360 United Methodist Churches and 78,000 congregants in Northern California and Northern Nevada.