Drew Alum Named First Openly Gay Bishop in United Methodist Church
Karen Oliveto C’80, G’91,’02 elected bishop in the Western Conference in historic vote; Bishop Thomas Bickerton to lead the New York Annual Conference.
July 2016 – The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, who was elected bishop in the Western Conference of the United Methodist Church, is an alumna of both Drew’s College of Liberal Arts and its Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and a former adjunct professor at Drew Theological School.
Oliveto’s election is historic: she became the first openly gay bishop in the church, garnering national and international news coverage and putting her at the center of a global movement for full inclusion of all people in the church.
Meanwhile, Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who was named bishop of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, is expected to join Drew’s Board of Trustees. Per its bylaws, the Board includes the bishops of New York, New Jersey and the Philadelphia area. As such, Bickerton will succeed Bishop Jane Middleton, the interim leader of New York Methodists since January 2015, following the death of Bishop Martin McLee.
Previously, Bickerton was a bishop in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, where he oversaw nearly 850 congregations in the Pittsburgh area. The NYAC encompasses 450 congregations with a collective membership of more than 100,000. The region includes New York City, Long Island and parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and upstate New York.
Oliveto will serve the Mountain Sky Region, which comprises Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and one church in Idaho. Before her election, she was senior pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco—a superchurch with some 11,000 members—and associate dean of academic affairs and director of contextual education at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
“The western jurisdiction has decided that it’s time for the church’s leadership to reflect the church’s message of God’s expansive and inclusive love,” said Javier Viera, dean of Drew Theological School. “Bishop Oliveto’s election is an expression of that, and we at Drew celebrate with her and with all who find hope and healing in her election.”
As an undergraduate at Drew, Oliveto majored in psychology, graduating cum laude in 1980. She later earned a Master of Divinity from Pacific School of Religion (1983) and a Master of Philosophy and a PhD from Caspersen, in 1991 and 2002, respectively. In addition, she taught in the Doctor of Ministry program at Drew Theological School from January 2012 until May 2014.
Oliveto also has a family history with Drew: her sister, Lauren Santa Ana graduated from CLA in 1984, and her niece, Sydney Santa Ana, is about to begin her first year at the school.
When asked to reflect on her time in The Forest, Oliveto said, “Drew opened my eyes to worlds beyond my own. It gave me the capacity for critical thinking, to move between cultures and to see beauty in the world.”
The school’s professors, she added, were “incredible academicians, accessible to students like me and always sought to bring out the best in me.” In particular, she cited CLA’s Don Jones, Jim Mills and Victoria Erickson and the Theological School’s Karen Brown, Janet Fishburn and Catherine Keller, who were influential during her PhD studies.
As an adjunct professor at the Theological School, Oliveto worked closely with professors like Michael Christiansen and Traci West, with whom she had written a book years earlier. Personally and professionally, West is joyous about the news.
“Karen is so committed and can be a voice for ministry that truly reflects a way of expressing how Jesus Christ stands with the marginal of the marginalized. That’s why I’m so excited,” said West, a professor of ethics and African American studies. “She is the embodiment of what it means for the church to truthfully honor gifts and graces of its clergy and in this case, a bishop, rather than heterosexuality, as the primary criteria for its leaders.”
Since her election, Oliveto has been touched by a wave of supportive messages from friends, colleagues and former colleagues. “It has been an overwhelming amount of love. I just start to cry a lot right now because people have been so incredibly gracious.”
So, how does it feel to be part of history?
“That part hasn’t sunk in,” she said, three days after becoming a bishop. “But I’m just trying to be faithful to where God has called me. And I hope I can serve the church well.”
Viera described Oliveto’s election as a “watershed moment” for the United Methodist Church.
The dean added that Drew has a “long history of being at the forefront of movements of social justice and radical inclusion. The fact that one of our alums is at the center of this historic moment does not surprise me at all. It is perfectly consistent with our legacy of prophetic witness that continues even now.”