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Methodist Church Complaint Against Bethany Pastor 'Resolved'
By Erin O'Briant
When Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, then-pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church at Clipper and Sanchez streets, signed a marriage license for a gay male couple in her flock last February, she was doing what ministers usually do: officiate a wedding. The ceremony was the first of 14 such weddings she performed, before the City of San Francisco stopped issuing licenses to same-sex couples on March 12. But soon afterward, someone outside her congregation filed a complaint with the United Methodist Church, and Oliveto had to go through a long supervisory review as a result. In the worst-case scenario, she could have lost her ministerial credentials.
Fortunately for her, that didn't happen. Beverly Shamana, bishop of the United Methodist Church's CaliforniaNevada Conference, announced in October that the complaint against Oliveto has been resolved, though both parties remain closemouthed about what that actually means.
Meanwhile, Oliveto has moved on to a new position. She is now an assistant dean at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, and the pastorate at Bethany has been taken over by Rev. Dr. David Ourisman.
Oliveto: No Regrets
Asked how she feels about the resolution, Oliveto says she is glad it is behind her. Because the proceedings are confidential, she can't reveal details about what happened, except that she and the complainant reached "resolution" after a series of four meetings.
What weighs heaviest on her heart, she says, is the current political climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. "I'm feeling terrible about the fact that 4,000 couples in San Francisco have just had their marriages annulled. In light of what happened with the [Nov. 2, 2004] election, we know we have a long road ahead of us as people of faith and for LGBT people and their allies."
As for her bold stand on same-sex marriage, Oliveto has no regrets. "Doing the marriages was the most faithful act that I did in 21 years of ministry," she declares. "I am convinced that God broke into the world during that time, and I think I responded more faithfully to that movement than at any other time of my life."
Although the complaint against her, which was lodged in response to the first gay marriage she officiated within the Bethany sanctuary (the Feb. 15 wedding of Noe Valley residents Bill Hinson and Dan Johnson), was not easy to handle emotionally, Oliveto says she was always at peace with her decision.
"It was very painful to have a complaint. It was very difficult. But I knew I was doing a faithful act," she says. "When I walked into City Hall in my clerical collar to marry some of my parishioners, I knew I was being given a public pulpit and...here was a chance for a progressive Christian voice and we ran with it."
Her job change, Oliveto says, was not related to the complaint or its resolution. "I knew for a long time that my call was to seminary to teach. Mentoring new people into the ministry has been central to my ministry," she says. "The timing took me by surprise because of the marriages.... It seemed like the right time, though, even though it was hard to leave the community."
Oliveto, who formerly lived in the church parsonage on Sanchez Street, now makes her home in Colma. "When I left, I couldn't afford Noe Valley," she explains. "I miss Noe Valley. I love it. It's the best neighborhood in San Francisco."
Nonetheless, she says she's living happily in her new home. Because of the United Methodist Church's rules about pastors interacting with their former flocks, she no longer has ties to Bethany.
Temporary Pastor Takes Over
Interim Pastor Ourisman, an adjunct faculty member at the Pacific School of Religion, has taken over Oliveto's position at Bethany until July 1, 2005. That's when the bishop is scheduled to place a pastor permanently at the church. "I was a pastor for 16 years before moving to Berkeley in 1992," Ourisman notes. "It's been going very well [at Bethany]. This is an amazing community of people."
Asked if he would have responded as Oliveto did to the city's temporary legalization of same-sex marriage last February, Ourisman says, "We're different people, and we wouldn't respond in an identical way, but I have a commitment to provide pastoral services to my congregation, and in that there is absolute continuity."
He says the mixture of gay and straight congregation members is one of Bethany's strengths. "We all worship together," he says. "I think people are grateful that the matter is resolved."
The church's long-anticipated move to the Castro has been put on hold for now. "We either need to renovate our current building thoroughly or move to a new location," says Ourisman. "We're evaluating the project from a cost point of view and figuring out what really works."
The congregation plans to have cost information in place when the new pastor takes over this summer, so that the new leader can help the church members make a decision.
Everyone at Bethany is gearing up for their traditional Christmas programs, which include a children's pageant and a candlelight service on Christmas Eve. "Right now," Ourisman says, "we're focusing on nurturing the congregation."
Bethany United Methodist Church is located at 1268 Sanchez Street. For details on programs and services, call 647-8393 or go to www.bethanysf.org.