United Methodists’ first openly gay bishop ordains first pastor

June 14, 2017
Photos by the Rev. Travis Walker
BILLINGS, MT – Bishop Karen Oliveto, The United Methodist Church’s first openly gay bishop, added to her place in history when she ordained her first full elder on June 9 during the Yellowstone Annual (regional) Conference’s meeting.

The Rev. Sami Pack-Toner, a Sheridan, Mont. native who has been assigned to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Helena, Mont., knelt at the altar of First United Methodist Church in Billings, Mont., as Bishop Oliveto placed her hands on Pack-Toner’s head during the denomination’s traditional rite of ordination.

The ordination service occurred as Bishop Oliveto was presiding over her first annual conference, the annual meeting of lay and clergy leaders from across a region that includes Montana, a large chunk of Wyoming and a small slice of Idaho. She will preside next week over the gathering of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference in Denver, where there are six candidates for ordination as elders and eight for commissioning as deacons.

Photo of Bishop Karen Oliveto and Rev. Sami Pack-TonerAfter the two-and-a-half-hour service, Bishop Oliveto took a deep breath and tears formed in the corner of her eyes when reminded of the historical significance of what had just occurred.

“I was so focused on Sami’s ordination, and the good things that were happening at the conference, that I hadn’t had a chance to let it sink in about what this means to LGBTQ people,” Bishop Oliveto said. “It’s humbling to be able to do this, to be able to say to my LGBTQ siblings that we’ve taken another step forward. This is a movement of the Holy Spirit for all LGBTQ people in our church.”

Bishop Oliveto has been an open, out lesbian for more than 35 years. She and her spouse, Robin Ridenour, a United Methodist deaconess, were married in 2014.

She was elected bishop in July 2016 during the quadrennial meeting of The United Methodist Church’s Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. She was elected on the 17th ballot after the eight other candidates for bishop had dropped out.

Bishop Oliveto was assigned to be the spiritual leader of 400 United Methodist churches in a region comprising Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and a small slice of Idaho. It covers nearly 450,000 square miles. She is based in Denver.

Prior to her election and consecration, Bishop Oliveto had served as senior pastor of Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco. She was the first woman chosen to serve as senior pastor of one of the denomination’s top 100 churches. Glide, with a 2015 membership of nearly 13,000 members, is the denomination’s sixth largest congregation.