OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS) — In a surprise move, the chair of the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee announced that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe would be “placed in a retired position” as of Aug. 31.
“What we understand is that given the action of our committee… and the affirmation of our report by the conference itself, Bishop Bledsoe would be placed in a retired position,” said Don House, the committee’s chair.
He said the committee made its recommendation after consultation with the jurisdiction’s other bishops.
Bledsoe would remain retired, House continued, even in the event he appealed the episcopacy committee’s ruling to the Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s top court.
“There will be efforts to make sure there is no payment penalty during that appeal,” House said. In other words, Bledsoe’s pay would remain the same as other active bishops in the United States.
The annual salary of a United Methodist bishop in the U.S. is currently $135,880.
Newly elected Bishop Mike McKee has been appointed to the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference, where Bledsoe has served for nearly four years. McKee until Sept. 1 is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Hurst, Texas.
At the start of the consecration service, San Antonio Area Bishop James Dorff announced that the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops would recommend retired bishops Dan Solomon and William Hutchinson to co-lead the Northwest Texas and New Mexico Episcopal Area, which encompasses conferences of the same name. The Council of Bishops needs to approve the recommendation. Dorff said the body was likely to do so in 10 days.
Bledsoe was not present during the announcement of the South Central Jurisdiction’s bishop assignments. The more than 250 jurisdictional conference delegates immediately adopted those assignments with what appeared to be unanimous consent.
How it came to this
The public dispute between Bledsoe and his episcopacy committee — believed to be a first in The United Methodist Church’s 44-year history — overshadowed the entire jurisdictional conference.
The episcopacy committee decided on July 17— by a vote of 24 to four with two abstentions — to place Bledsoe in involuntary retirement. The 30-member committee includes a lay and clergy member from each of the jurisdiction’s 15 current conferences.
After an emotional discussion on July 19, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference delegates overwhelmingly affirmed their episcopacy committee’s decision to compel early retirement. The final tally was 208 to 45.
Bledsoe, 61, is in his first term as bishop. He was the first bishop elected during the 2008 South Central Jurisdiction.
Paragraph 408.3 of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, says that a jurisdictional episcopacy committee, by a two-thirds vote, can place a bishop “in retired relation” if the committee finds it “to be in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church.”
The 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, added a sentence to the provision that said the committee would need to report clearly the reason for a decision to involuntary retirement to the jurisdictional conference. The change took effect immediately.
The Judicial Council already has agreed to review a request from the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for a ruling on Paragraph 408.3.
Changing understanding of church law
Dorff, outgoing college of bishops president, initially told the United Methodist News Service that Bledsoe would remain under appointment as an active bishop if he appealed to the Judicial Council.
Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr., told the jurisdictional conference delegates the same thing on July 19 before their vote on Bledsoe’s retirement.
After the delegates approved the 2012-16 bishop assignments, Dorff told UMNS what led to the change in plans.
“In looking at the disciplinary language and in further conversation, it appeared to us that once the committee took action and the conference took action, that (retirement) became effective Aug. 31,” Dorff said. “Now, there is the appeal process, which could reinstate him.
“We’ve never been down this road before, so we ended up looking at other relevant disciplinary paragraphs,” he added.
Specifically, he pointed to Paragraph 407 in the Book of Discipline. That paragraph states: “In case assignment of a bishop to presidential supervision of an episcopal area is terminated …, the vacancy shall be filled by the Council of Bishops on nomination of the active bishops of the College of Bishops of the jurisdiction … .”
The full text of Paragraph 407 is below.
¶ 407. Vacancy in the Office of Bishop—A vacancy in the office of bishop may occur due to death, retirement (¶ 408.1, .2, .3), resignation (¶ 408.4), judicial procedure (¶ 2712), leave of absence (¶ 410.1), or incapacity (¶ 410.4). In case assignment of a bishop to presidential supervision of an episcopal area is terminated by any of the above causes, the vacancy shall be filled by the Council of Bishops on nomination of the active bishops of the College of Bishops of the jurisdiction or central conference concerned, after consultation with the jurisdictional or central conference and annual conference committees on the episcopacy and the cabinet(s); or, if the vacancy should occur within twenty-four months of the episcopal assumption of presidential supervision of that area, the College of Bishops of the jurisdiction or central conference concerned may call a special session of the jurisdictional or central conference as provided in ¶ 521.2. When a bishop is elected under the provisions of this paragraph, the years remaining in the quadrennium within which the election occurs shall count as a full quadrennium for purposes of assignment. It is recommended that the previous bishop serving the vacant episcopal area not be appointed to serve in the interim.