Committee votes to retire Bishop Bledsoe

OKLAHOMA CITY – The South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee voted Tuesday night to retire Bishop Earl Bledsoe involuntarily, citing concerns about his administrative abilities. Such a move by a jurisdictional episcopacy committee apparently is a first for the United Methodist Church.

The committee’s decision followed a negative performance review it gave Bishop Bledsoe for his four-year tenure in the North Texas Conference, and a request that he retire voluntarily.

The vote for involuntary retirement was taken on a secret ballot, with 24 in favor, four against, and two abstaining, said committee chair Don House.

Mr. House described wrenching, closed-doors deliberations that went on much of Monday and well into Tuesday evening.

“It was very, very hard,” he said. “A lot of tears, a lot of prayer.”

But he said the committee had serious concerns about Bishop Bledsoe’s administrative abilities. He emphasized that the committee felt the decision was in the best interest of the UMC.

“We believe it is a strong statement about accountability” for church leaders, he said.

Bishop Bledsoe, 61, said late Tuesday night that he and his wife, Leslie, were disappointed by the decision, but not angry.

“I just want to say thank you to God and to my savior Jesus Christ for the North Texas Conference and the wonderful people that faithfully serve Christ in their local settings,” he said.

Bishop Bledsoe emphasized that he holds no ill will toward the committee.

“The committee was doing its job,” he said. “They were very diligent in terms of the work they were doing … They’re good people.”

But he continued to question the fairness of the evaluation, and noted that under him the conference has  shown gains in average worship attendance and payment of apportionments, and has started 20 churches.

“If you looked at what we were trying to accomplish in North Texas, I would put my record, my numbers, against any other conference,” he said.

Bishop Bledsoe also said he and his wife are praying about whether to appeal the committee’s decision to the UMC’s Judicial Council.

Mr. House said he expects and welcomes an appeal, believing it would bring clarity to church law about supervision of bishops.

If  Bishop Bledsoe does appeal, he’ll remain an active bishop until the Judicial Council rules, though he could be assigned to another conference. A Judicial Council ruling is unlikely to come quickly, given that the council doesn’t meet again until October and has set that meeting’s docket.

The episcopacy committee’s decision comes on the brink of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference, which runs Wednesday through Saturday here in Oklahoma City, and will include election of three bishops. When elections are done, probably late Thursday or Friday, the episcopacy committee will go back to work, recommending to the full conference where bishops will be assigned.

Bishop Bledsoe will be part of that process, unless he decides not to appeal the committee’s decision to retire him. He said he would prefer to remain with the North Texas Conference, but understands that’s not his call.

Methodist historians said the episcopacy committee’s decision Tuesday appears to be a first.

“To my knowledge, without further research, I am not aware of any example of a jurisdictional episcopacy committee placing a bishop on involuntary retirement,” said Robert Williams, top executive of the UMC’s General Commission on Archives and History.

Mr. House said he too believes the move is unprecedented. Bishop Bledsoe himself noted the rarity of what has happened, and acknowledged that makes an assessment of fairness difficult.

“As far as I know, no bishop has been subjected to this type of decision, so it’s hard to compare,” he said.

Bishop Bledsoe was a district superintendent in the Texas Conference when he was elected bishop at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference four years ago. He was the first chosen in episcopal balloting.

Assigned to the North Texas Conference, he made strong reorganizational moves early, including adoption of a strategic plan.

But a decision by the Judicial Council in October 2011 found that part of his reorganization violated church law. Meanwhile, his appointment of a pastor from outside the conference to be a district superintendent displeased some North Texas clergy, who felt the job should go to one of their conference colleagues.

More recently, Bishop Bledsoe had to deal with high-profile trouble at St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas. The pastor there, Tyrone Gordon, left amid accusations of sexual harassment. The conference eventually was named in two lawsuits that alleged insufficient supervision of Mr. Gordon.

Bishop Bledsoe communicated with North Texas Conference clergy in a video this spring, acknowledging complaints about how his administration handled appointments and “triad” evaluations. He asked those who were concerned to come see him.

The episcopacy committee went through a lengthy, two-part evaluation of all active bishops in the jurisdiction, looking at “metrics” but also drawing on interviews with conference leaders, said Mr. House.

After meeting with Bishop Bledsoe on May 24, the committee voted to ask him to retire. Mr. House said he and another committee member delivered that message to him on May 29.

On June 1, Bishop Bledsoe did another video for North Texas Conference clergy, announcing his retirement and giving no indication he was pushed. But on June 5, at the end of the conference’s annual gathering, he reversed course, dramatically informing the crowd of clergy and laity that he would fight to keep his job.

Bishop Bledsoe openly questioned whether he was being evaluated fairly, and noted improving statistics for the North Texas Conference.

With the dispute out in the open, Mr. House said in a June 8 statement that the evaluation showed Bishop Bledsoe has “some skills as a spiritual leader” but that “his administrative skills, relational skills and style remain in question.”

Bishop Bledsoe is the third consecutive African American to lead the conference, and in his remarks at the end of Annual Conference, he said he had been hurt by hearing a report that someone had asked when the conference would get a white bishop.

But he later used his blog to say that the dispute over whether he should retire was not about race.

“For me, the single issue is about fairness and due process in assessing leadership and procedures that lead to more effective ministry at all levels of the church,” he wrote.

Bishop Bledsoe repeated Tuesday night that he did not consider race to have any role in the episcopacy committee’s decision.

In recent days, Bishop Bledsoe drew vocal backing from the Rev. Mark Craig, pastor of Highland Park UMC in Dallas, one of the denomination’s largest and wealthiest congregations.

About 100 people came to Oklahoma City Monday to show support for Bishop Bledsoe – an effort sponsored by the North Texas Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

But Bishop Bledsoe clearly faced opposition from clergy within the conference, something confirmed by Richard Hearne, who just finished a term as conference lay leader.

“He lost the clergy,” Mr. Hearne said, adding he felt Bishop Bledsoe could have avoided the committee’s action by acknowledging mistakes and promising to do better.

Bishop Bledsoe said Tuesday night that he had made mistakes, but sized them up as typical of a first-term bishop, and added that he’d learned from them. And he was quick to tick off positive developments on his watch, including creation of a young clergy leadership program, the turnaround of Munger Place church and the growth of Christ’s Foundry church in an Hispanic part of Dallas.

Mr. House said the committee was aware of “great things” in the North Texas Conference, and praised Bishop Bledsoe as “a gifted man, a dedicated Christian man in the church.” But he said the committee acted in the interest of the denomination.

“We need excellent administrative skills, and that’s the primary motivation behind this — the health of the church,” he said. “Although Bishop Bledsoe has excellent skills in many areas, we were concerned about some of his administrative skills.”

The episcopacy committee’s action comes soon after a General Conference in which delegates approved ending guaranteed appointment for clergy – something deemed necessary to remove ineffective clergy as the UMC tries to reverse numerical losses in the U.S.

The Rev. Ted Campbell, associate professor of church history at Perkins School of Theology, said the episcopacy committee’s move seems in the same vein.

“In recent years Methodist conferences and other groups have begun to implement stronger means of accountability and evaluation for church leaders,” he said. “This process has been far from consistent across the range of church institutions, and it’s not surprising that as new standards are implemented, we run into very big issues about how fairly these processes and evaluations are being applied.

“It’s kind of parallel to the situation of implementing new standards of accountability in schools. In a sense, everyone agrees that we ought to have high expectations. When it comes around to actually implementing evaluative standards, especially in new situations, it gets much more complicated. I think that’s, in general, what we’re seeing now.”

The Rev. Zan Holmes, well known as a preacher, teacher and civil rights advocate in Dallas, accompanied  Bishop Bledsoe as clergy advocate in the Monday and Tuesday sessions with the episcopacy committee.

He said he felt Bishop Bledsoe made a good case, offering testimonials and positive statistical evidence.

“I’m very disappointed that the committee decided to retire this bishop at this time, in spite of the fact that he really worked hard to be a change agent in the North Texas Conference, for the good of the church,” Mr. Holmes said.

He added that he would go along with Bishop Bledsoe’s assessment that race wasn’t an issue in the committee’s decision.

“But I call it a grace issue,” he said. “And one of the questions I raised is where is the grace in this process where we minister to one another and affirm one another and help one another grow.”

Erin Hawkins, top executive of the UMC’s General Commission on Religion and Race, monitored the episcopacy committee’s meetings Monday and Tuesday. She issued this statement:

“This has been a difficult situation for all involved.  GCORR’s presence in this matter was at the request of the SCJ Committee on Episcopacy 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.”

In preparing for the episcopacy committee meetings, Bishop Bledsoe was assisted by Jonathan Wilson, a Dallas lawyer (and Highland Park UMC member) who said he was working pro bono.

But Mr. Wilson, even as he gathered testimonials and marshaled other evidence, pointed toward an appeal.

“From a legal perspective, we believe the committee actually does not have jurisdiction, and is not the proper forum for which this should be presented” under the church’s Book of Discipline, he said.

 

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8 Comments on "Committee votes to retire Bishop Bledsoe"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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border_ruffian
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dvhps: do we know for sure that there has been a vacuum of feedback and consultation during the Bishop's 4 years?

christythomas
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I believe it is a serious mistake to separate administrative gifts from ones effectiveness as a leader. I have written more about that here: http://thoughtfulpastor.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/

dvhps133
Guest
This appears unfair for a committee to vote to terminate a Bishop based on administrative performance. Unless there was a zero-tolerance infraction, the committee is obligated to provide formal and informal feedback at six or twelve month intervals. The committee should help coach for success. For a committee to make an unprecedented conclusion of termination, in the abscence of proper and nuturing feedback, is counter to our Methodist principles. If the 24 that voted in favor of termination saw evidence of egregious administrative errors over the years, the committee should have a formal way of noting such corrective events before… Read more »
methodistpie
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I can only imagine how painful this has been for all involved, including the bishop and members of the committee. While appreciating the concern about grace (or lack thereof), I think it's reasonable to expect that persons elected to the high office of the episocpacy will be "finished products" in terms of leadership style. After all, United Methodist Bishops are given enormous power over pastors and congregations, and this hardly seems the place for on-the-job training. I get the sense of a fine man and powerful preacher who may have been miscast. Too bad. I suspect he could give outstanding… Read more »
leonard
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I support the church and its leaders, but also have a strong belief in, and a commitment to, "Total Transparency" — when you try to hide something, whether it is wrong or not, the impression of wrongdoing is created, and speaking in generalities, or "broad-brush" statements, is, in my opinion, totally inadequate. To say that a person's actions " . . .were contrary to the BOD, . . ." somehow is a bit less than substantive . . . To expect a person to be a part of The Church, and yet, be kept apart from the true reasons for… Read more »
razor
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Perhaps our VETTING process for new bishops needs to be evaluated as well??

bfrconsulting
Guest

I have no personal knowledge of this situation but I am quite disturbed about forcing a seated Bishop to retire. There is more than meets the eye concerning this action. I also pray for the entire North Texas Conference.as well as te Bishop and his family. God will be victorious in this and its final resolution as well. Grace and Peace.

redlawyer
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Considering that this was his first assignment as bishop, and that he had admitted some mistakes and wanted to work in some areas of growth, I had hoped that we could give Bishop Bledsoe a second chance. Sadly, I think our church has missed a golden opportunity to express grace in a situation that called for grace. I realize that the UMC is concerned about loosing members, and that the committee felt like forcing the bishop to retire was in the best interest of the church. But, it almost seems that there is no time for grace and forgiveness in… Read more »
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