OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS) — South Central Jurisdictional Conference delegates on Thursday afternoon, July 19, overwhelmingly affirmed their episcopacy committee’s decision to compel Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe’s early retirement as bishop.
After an emotional discussion that included pointed questions for the committee, the final tally was 208 to 45.
The episcopacy committee announced that morning it would seek the full conference’s approval of its July 17 decision — 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.
Bledsoe, 61 and in his first term as bishop, has led the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference for four years. He was the first bishop elected during the 2008 South Central Jurisdiction.
Don House, the committee’s chair, told the delegates before their vote that the panel had heard complaints about Bledsoe that could have ended with him losing his clerical credentials.
“We had concerns of complaints coming that would be formal charges, and those complaints if processed would not come out in a very good place,” House told the body. “The end result has the possibility of him being stripped of credentials. So we looked for a compassionate path.”
When the bishop reversed his decision to retire voluntarily, House said, holding a hearing to vote on involuntary retirement was the next “most graceful mode we could find.”
In response to House’s remarks, Bledsoe told the body that any complaint against him under church law should have gone through the denomination’s process for dealing with such matters.
“There have been rumors of a complaint; there have been threats of a complaint,” he said. “But any person within the church whom someone files a complaint against or files a charge against ought to be considered innocent until proven guilty and should be allowed to be able to address that.
“When Don House talks and gives those little zingers, it makes it sound like he somehow is trying to protect me. I want you to know that does not need to happen.”
Bishops typically do not have voice or vote at jurisdictional conferences, but the conference made an exception to allow Bledsoe to address what some delegates are calling a crisis.
The public dispute between Bledsoe and his episcopacy committee — believed to be a first in The United Methodist Church’s 44-year history — has overshadowed the jurisdictional conference.
What happens next
What happens next likely will be up to the Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bledsoe has not announced yet whether he will appeal the episcopacy committee’s ruling. He has 30 days to make that decision.
But, in its next session in October, the Judicial Council already has agreed to review a request from the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for a declaratory decision on the church law provision the episcopacy committee referred to in making its decision on Bledsoe.
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.”
Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr., who presided over the afternoon session, told the jurisdictional delegates that the paragraph was amended at the recently concluded 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body.
The amendment added a sentence 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.
If he appeals, Bledsoe will remain under appointment. The episcopacy committee has clarified that South Central Jurisdictional Conference will elect three bishops at this meeting, just as it planned before the hearing.
“I want you to know that I am honored to serve as a bishop of the church,” Bledsoe told the delegates. “I want you to know I have not violated any of the sacred trust that this conference bestowed on me in 2008 when you elected me, and I want you to know I am available for an assignment.”
San Antonio Area Bishop James E. Dorff, president of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops, said in a statement that the jurisdiction’s bishops “believe and trust that these processes have and will be followed until a final resolution is reached.
“As this unfolds, we intend to be available to all parties for guidance and pastoral support as called upon,” said his statement on behalf of the college.
House initially presented the committee’s report on its hearing with Bledsoe. He repeatedly stressed that this was an arduous process.
The committee’s evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe revealed many strong qualities, House said, but revealed concerns about “his supervision of members of his cabinet, actions that polarized the conference, and concerns about the appointment-making process and protocol.”
The committee’s hearing with Bledsoe stretched for seven-and-a-half hours over two days. However, the bishop “failed to fully answer a number of questions, and some of his answers raised questions for the committee about his integrity and trustworthiness,” House said.
“The committee was not convinced that he could restore trust in his current residential assignment or create trust in a new one.”
As House delivered the report, Bledsoe was sitting on the dais with the committee chair and with other active and retired bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction.
“Obviously I disagree with what was said this morning,” Bledsoe told United Methodist News Service. “He basically called me a liar. I would not do my friends like that.”
Bledsoe said he did not receive a copy of the episcopacy committee’s report before House spoke to the full conference.
“All I have asked throughout this process is fairness,” he said. “We may not all agree, but we ought to treat each other fairly.”
During the afternoon, the committee faced questions from delegates about the process it used to arrive at the decision.
Billy Ratliff, a member of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas, said that as a manager at IBM he has to put employees on a probationary plan before terminating them.
“I understand the committee doesn’t have the authority to do what I just said, to put someone on a plan,” he said. “But somehow, some way, there has to be someone with that authority.”
The Rev. Jeff Lust, a New Mexico district superintendent and episcopacy committee member, told those gathered that the committee wrestled with many of the same questions.
House said that Bledsoe did undergo nine months of coaching through a program offered by Duke Divinity School.
“We did not see growth,” House said. “We did not have high hopes that there would be progress in the next quadrennium, and we did not think for the health of the jurisdiction or any of the episcopal areas that that would be good for the church.”
House, a lay member in the Texas Conference where Bledsoe served before being elected bishop, said he has known Bledsoe for a long time and considers the bishop a friend. At times, House was overcome with emotion while describing the situation.
“There will be a day when I wake up and this is not the first thing on my mind,” he said at the end of his remarks. “I look forward to that day.”