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First LGBTQ+ United Methodist bishop kicks off Gay Ski Week at Aspen Chapel

Kristen Mohammadi
The Aspen Times
Bishop Karen Oliveto (right) with her spouse, Robin Ridenour, who is a deaconess in The United Methodist Church.
Courtesy photo

The United Methodist Church’s first openly-lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto, will speak Sunday morning at the Aspen Chapel to kick off Gay Ski Week.

She will discuss what it means to be “perfectly imperfect,” while extending the church’s ideas unconditional love and acceptance to LGBTQ+ members in attendance, she said.

“I want them (LGBTQ+ individuals) to know that they are an exclamation point on the heart of God,” Oliveto said. “God made them. God delights in them. And, the world needs them.”



She serves as the leader of the Mountain Sky Area of The United Methodist Church, which consists of 378 congregations in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and one church in Idaho, including the Roaring Fork Valley Methodist churches in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt and Aspen.

Before serving as the first openly gay bishop, she was the first to accomplish many things in ministry.



She was the first woman to serve as senior pastor at the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, a congregation with 12,000 members in San Francisco.

While in San Francisco, Oliveto became the first United Methodist pastor to officiate a legal gay wedding, back in February 2004. At the time, Gavin Newsom, then the mayor (now California governor), issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite California law that explicitly prohibited these unions, according to Mother Jones.

“You had to be in San Francisco to see these couples coming from all over the country to line up at City Hall. Days-long lines, and the whole city turning out. People showed up with pizza and doughnuts and flowers and cakes,” said Oliveto.

“The whole city felt like one big wedding reception,” she said. “God was palpable because love was so palpable.”

According to her, nine couples in her congregation asked her to officiate their same-sex unions. Although the United Methodist Church did not recognize same-sex marriage, Oliveto felt a moral obligation those in her congregation looking to build their lives together.

Bishop Karen Oliveto said she felt a moral obligation to officiate same-sex marriages in San Francisco when they were illegal.
Courtesy photo

“How can I say ‘No,’ even though the church was against it? How could I say ‘No’ to these people who I’m their pastor?” said Oliveto. “I work with them. I see their relationship. I see their desire to build a family, and it got me in a lot of trouble.”

Oliveto received a number of complaints from inside the organization, including a formal charge filed against her that was ultimately dropped. Within six months of her decision to officiate same-sex unions, The United Methodist Church “explicitly made performing of same-sex ceremonies a chargeable offense, after Oliveto’s action,” according to The Chicago Tribune.

Despite some within the church seeking to make officiating same-sex marriage a chargeable offense, Oliveto went on to work in a seminary as the associate dean of academic affairs.

She said the seminary told her: “You’re exactly the kind of leader we want our students to learn from.”

“Here I was with a complaint against me and my ministry, and I was invited to teach United Methodist history doctrine policy, the required courses for United Methodist pastors,” she said.

In 2016, she became the lead bishop for the Mountain Sky Area — a title she wasn’t sure she’d ever hold, and, furthermore, a title she was scared to hold.

“I didn’t know what God wanted next,” said Oliveto. “I didn’t think it was to be a bishop. But, a lot of voices were saying, ‘This is when we need you.’

Before accepting the nomination, she sought guidance from God and her spouse, Robin Ridenour, a deaconess in the church. When Robin quoted scripture, reminding her that “perfect love casts out all fear,” Oliveto felt the fear melt away, she said.

The day after she accepted the nomination to become bishop, she woke up to read about a shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This tragic event is currently the second most deadly shooting in modern U.S history with 49 fatalities, according to Business Insider.

“Instead of the fear returning, it made me realize it’s time for an openly-LGBT person to be in leadership in the church,” said Oliveto.

According to Oliveto, she was unanimously elected on the 17th ballot. While the United Methodist Church elected her to this position, the church remains deeply divided about LGBTQ+ rights.

Following the announcement of her role as bishop, she said, she experienced overwhelming kindness from many, some telling her, “I’m alive because of you.” Still, the threat of violence also was overwhelming.

“The problem was the hate mail was really bad, to the point that I needed a bodyguard,” said Oliveto. “I was run out of one town, literally, under the threat of violence. So, it’s been hard.”

Despite the hardships, she said she knows she is carrying both the hopes and fears of many. Through her faith and the kindness of others, she pushed through.

“I’m aware that my presence in that position of leadership has changed hearts and minds, but, more than that, it saves some lives,” said Oliveto. “There are young people who are alive because they see what their life could be like.”

On Sunday, she will speak at Aspen Chapel at 9:30 a.m. and then head downvalley to the Carbondale Community United Methodist Church to speak at 5 p.m. during the church’s outdoor Aprés Ski worship service.

To reach Kristen Mohammadi, call 304-650-2404 or email kmohammadi@aspentimes.com.


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