OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS) — By a vote of 24 to 4 with two abstentions, the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee decided by more than the necessary two-thirds margin to compel Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe into early retirement.
“It was very, very hard — a lot of tears, a lot of prayer,” said Don House, the committee chair and a lay church member of the Texas Annual (regional) Conference. “We considered extensive material (with) considerable participation by every member of the committee. … I would say our concern for the church as a whole was paramount.”
House went on to say that Bledsoe, who now leads the North Texas Conference, is “a dedicated Christian man in the church.
“Our only concern about Bishop Bledsoe was his administrative skills,” he said. “But as a spiritual leader, as a dedicated Christian, never any question.”
Two days of hearings
The committee made its decision after a hearing with Bledsoe that stretched over two days followed by about nine hours of deliberations. The 30-member committee includes a lay and clergy member from each of the jurisdiction’s conferences.
“I am disappointed in the committee’s vote, but I don’t want to focus on that,” Bledsoe said. “I just want to say a big thank you to God and to my Savior Jesus Christ for the North Texas Conference and the wonderful people who faithfully serve Christ in the local setting.”
Bledsoe said he and his wife, Leslie, plan to pray before deciding whether to appeal the committee’s decision to the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court.
If he appeals, Bledsoe will remain an active bishop at least until the Judicial Council renders its ruling. However, he will not necessarily remain in the North Texas Conference, House said. The committee will not make its recommendations for bishop assignments until after the South Central Jurisdiction elects its new bishops. At this point, the jurisdiction is set to elect three new episcopal leaders.
The deadline has passed for Bledsoe’s case to be added to the Judicial Council’s docket for its next session in October. However, the church court has agreed to take up a request from the South Central Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops for a declaratory decision on the provision in church law that the episcopacy committee used to vote to retire Bledsoe.
Struggle believed to be a ‘first’
Many longtime church observers have said Bledsoe’s public struggle with his jurisdictional episcopacy committee is a first in The United Methodist Church’s 44-year history.
The committee’s decision also comes on the heels of efforts to increase accountability for church leaders at all levels of the denomination. These moves include the vote at the recently concluded 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, to end guaranteed full-time appointments for ordained elders in good standing.
The committee believes its vote “is a strong statement about accountability,” House said. “Just as we hold clergy accountable, we hold bishops accountable (and) we should hold laity accountable.”
Bledsoe, in his fourth year as bishop, has faced strong criticism about his administrative skills, House said. Those criticisms were reflected in the committee’s evaluations and interviews with leaders in the North Texas Conference.
However, the bishop also has his supporters. About 100 United Methodist clergy and lay people traveled from the North Texas and Arkansas conferences to Oklahoma City to show support for Bledsoe on the first day of his hearing, July 16.
They included Ed Patterson, a member of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas.
“He’s a creative leader, I think,” Patterson said of Bledsoe. “He has done some things that people see as radical but are really rational, and we’ve seen some good results. More often than not, you’ll see acceptance of the status quo. But he has the courage to do things differently.”
Bledsoe was the first bishop elected by the 2008 South Central Jurisdictional Conference, and the North Texas delegation specifically sought him to be the conference’s bishop.
Among the changes he has made in North Texas, Bledsoe noted a program for young adult clergy, the Nehemiah Project to re-envision the role of the annual conference and a strategic plan that includes a center for new church plants.
“I would say the South Central Jurisdiction’s vote will not stop the momentum that has been started,” Bledsoe said.
The closed-door hearing began at 2 p.m. CDT July 16 and continued on July 17, with Bledsoe departing at around 10:15 a.m. CDT on July 17. The committee then deliberated on the case for most of the next nine hours. Early in the proceedings, the panel denied Bledsoe’s request that the hearing be open to the public.
Jonathan C. Wilson, a member of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas and a lawyer with the Dallas firm of Haynes & Boone, represented Bledsoe pro bono.
He was not allowed inside the proceedings, but brought video testimony from clergy and two laity on Bledsoe’s behalf. The committee ultimately decided to use the transcripts and audio from that testimony in its deliberations.
Bledsoe also was permitted representation inside the hearing by an advocate who is an ordained elder. The Rev. Zan W. Holmes Jr., pastor emeritus of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church and a nationally known church leader, took on that role.
Holmes had to leave about an hour before Bledsoe on July 17 to catch a flight. At that point, he said he thought the committee’s discussion about Bledsoe’s future was “heading in the right direction.”
On the morning of July 18, he said by phone that he “was saddened and disappointed about the vote outcome.
“Now we have to regroup in light of this and decided where we go from here,” he said. “We are encouraged by the fact that four voted against Bishop Bledsoe’s removal and two abstained. We know from experience that the majority is not always right.”
Erin Hawkins, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, monitored the hearing of Bledsoe, an African-American bishop, at the invitation of the episcopacy committee.
“This has been a difficult situation for all involved,” Hawkins said in a statement. “(The commission’s) presence in this matter was at the request of the (committee) for the sole purpose of helping provide feedback to the committee about what if any role culture and race played during the hearing itself. It is our prayer that this painful matter may be the beginning of a much deeper and broader dialogue throughout the whole church about what it means to be a community of faith in which many colors, cultures, languages and identities are present and active.”
Bledsoe said he holds no malice or anger toward anyone on the committee.
“I think the committee was doing its job, and they were very diligent in terms of the work they were doing,” Bledsoe said. “They are good people.”
Still, he said it was difficult to answer whether it was a fair process. “As far as I know, no bishop has been subjected to this type of decision before,” he said.
Reversal on retirement
Bledsoe initially announced plans to retire in a video on June 1. But days later on June 5, the bishop stunned many at the North Texas annual gathering when he declared that he was being forced out and he would not stand for it.
He said he made his decision after prayer and seeing the conference’s positive statistical data, which included 20 new church starts during his tenure, increased giving to general church apportionments and a second consecutive year of increased worship attendance. According to conference reports, North Texas since 2009 is averaging an additional 769 people in worship in its local churches.
In terms of metrics, Bledsoe said, he put his record at North Texas up against any conference in the jurisdiction.
“The results of our evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe were mixed,” said the statement. “While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question based upon our own evaluation tools and through conversations with North Texas Annual Conference leaders. We discussed these results, reports, issues and specific examples with Bishop Bledsoe.”
Additionally, the statement said, committee members did not think Bledsoe “would be an effective episcopal leader” in another annual conference.
House said the committee sent out questionnaires about Bledsoe in September 2011 to 50 leaders in the North Texas Conference. The committee received 27 responses from those evaluations. Bledsoe said he learned of the committee’s concerns on March 27, which he said gave him only “a narrow window” to address those concerns.
‘Highs and lows’
In his video announcing his initial decision to retire, he said his four years leading the North Texas Conference have seen their “highs and lows.”
In late 2011, the Judicial Council found that a restructuring plan for the North Texas Conference that Bledsoe implemented did not comply fully with church law.
Bledsoe and his family experienced the death of his 9-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Moran, in an accident in January.
Early this year, Bledsoe faced difficulty when Tyrone Gordon surrendered his clergy credentials and resigned as pastor of prominent St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church. Gordon faced accusations of sexual harassment. Two lawsuits against the church and the North Texas Conference followed. One of the suit’s plaintiffs was among those who traveled to Oklahoma City to show support for Bledsoe.
Bledsoe also was criticized for how consultations for clergy appointments were handled, he acknowledged in a May 17 video.
House said no single event led to the committee’s concerns about Bledsoe’s administrative skills.
As someone in his first appointment as bishop, Bledsoe said he has made mistakes. “But you learn from those,” he said.
The complete statement from the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy is below:
The South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy held its hearing to consider involuntary retirement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe on July 16, 2012 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City. The hearing was closed to the public, following the required vote of the committee. Bishop Bledsoe was accompanied by Rev. Zan Holmes. By invitation of the committee, representatives from the General Commission on Religion and Race were also in attendance. All thirty members of the South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee were present, representing every annual conference in the jurisdiction.
The hearing began at 2PM on July 16, recessed in the late evening, and concluded at 10:15AM on July 17. At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee began a period of discernment, study, and discussion. Materials presented by Bishop Bledsoe before and during the hearing were reviewed by the committee.
After extensive discussion and prayer, a motion was made to place Bishop Bledsoe in the retired relation as an episcopal leader in the South Central Jurisdiction, as of August 31, 2012. A secret ballot was taken at 7:30PM July 17, with all 30 members present. According to ¶ 408.3 in the 2008 Book of Discipline, a 2/3 majority is required to support the motion. This majority was attained with a vote of 24 in support of the motion, a vote of 4 against the motion, and two abstentions.
Donald House, Chair of the Committee, accompanied by Rev. Charlotte Abram, Vice Chair of the Committee, visited with Bishop Bledsoe, in person, to disclose the results of the vote. Bishop James E. Dorff, President of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops was then informed of the vote.