UMC conference with lesbian bishop approves disaffiliation votes of 38 congregations

Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the United Methodist Church, at her consecration service July 16, 2016, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the United Methodist Church, at her consecration service July 16, 2016, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. | (Photo: Charmaine Robledo)

A Colorado-based conference of the United Methodist Church led by a bishop in a same-sex marriage has approved the disaffiliation votes of 38 congregations leaving the denomination amid a schism over the denomination's stance on homosexuality. 

The UMC Mountain Sky Conference, which has congregations in Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, voted last Thursday to approve the departures of over three dozen churches from the regional body.

Mountain Sky Bishop Karen Oliveto posted a message on Facebook last Saturday, saying that "we want the clergy and members of the disaffiliated churches to know we are holding you with tender prayers."

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"May God bless you as you establish a new identity apart from the Mountain Sky Conference and The United Methodist Church and that God may bless your ministries," stated Oliveto.

Oliveto also acknowledged "the grief we hold in this moment" and clarified that "even as we change because there are some who no longer want to be in relationship with us as United Methodists, there are some things that are unchanging."

"We will continue to serve our triune God. We will continue to follow Jesus Christ. We will continue to be led by the Holy Spirit. We will continue to affirm our faith as Christians," she continued. 

"We will continue to ensure the dignity of every child of God, and make sure they are welcomed in our churches for who God has created them to be, not who we think they ought to be."

According to numbers compiled by UM News, the number of congregations that have left the UMC over the past couple of years over the denomination's debate over LGBT issues stands just below 6,000, with nearly 4,000 having left in this year alone.

Over the past few decades, the UMC has debated whether to change its official stance prohibiting the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions.

Although efforts to amend the rules at UMC General Conference have consistently failed, many progressive leaders within the denomination have refused to follow or enforce the standards.

Oliveto is an example of this resistance, as she was elected bishop of Mountain Sky in July 2016, even though she is married to a woman.

In April 2017, the UMC's highest court, the United Methodist Judicial Council, ruled 6-3 that Oliveto's election as bishop was invalid and called on the regional body to begin the process of removing her from office.

However, as of this month, Oliveto remains a bishop.

In February 2017, Jeffrey Walton of the theologically conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy reported that the Mountain Sky Conference experienced a sharp drop in financial giving and worship attendance since Oliveto's election. 

"What makes the Oliveto election significant is that — in many of these congregations — there has been a sudden accelerated decline in the relatively brief time since she was appointed to oversee the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area in September," Walton told The Christian Post in an interview at the time.

"Ultimately, the problems in the Western Jurisdiction are similar to what plagues many Mainline Protestant churches: a lack of confidence in the authority of Scripture leading to an inability to critique the prevailing culture which surrounds us."

In response, Mountain Sky spokesperson Nancy Cox told CP in 2017 that there was actually "a broadly positive response to Bishop Oliveto's assignment as our bishop."

"There are churches where attendance has increased in recent months because of the biblical message of inclusion that is one hallmark of Bishop Oliveto's ministry," said Cox at the time.

"There are a few places where people have expressed their concerns, but the overall reception of Bishop Oliveto, reflected in giving and participation, has been supportive and positive."

While Cox said the regional body was in "good financial condition," she acknowledged that "a small number of church members have decided to voice their disagreement by withholding funds."

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