I am an ashamed United Methodist! The action of the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) to force Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe into retirement was a sad and shameful day for me. I am a lifelong United Methodist with four decades of pastoral ministry. The unprecedented action of the 2012 SCJ was a painful reality that race is still an unresolved matter in the United Methodist Church.
Bishop Bledsoe said before the SCJ that he saw unfairness in the evaluation of him and in the effort to remove him, but did not see a race issue. Whether, having endured involuntary retirement at SCJ, he still feels that way is a good question. But many of us have from the outset wondered whether race is a factor, and what happened at SCJ gave me a clear answer—“yes.”
The SCJ is by its own admission (see Bishop Robert Schnase’s episcopal address) 90 percent white, while the population of the same geographic area is only 58 percent white. The vote against Bishop Bledsoe was 82 percent! My experience would not allow me to exempt racial overtones in that vote.
It is also common knowledge that in SCJ history there have been several (white) bishops with very marginal administrative skills whose tenure resulted in low morale and threats of complaints but for whom the SCJ Episcopacy Committee always found an assignment. And by objective measures, such as worship attendance, apportionment payments and church starts, the North Texas Conference under Bishop Bledsoe is one of relatively few U.S. conferences to have seen positive results.
Under the guise of “increasing accountability” lurks a “plantation politics” riddled with paternalism, white male chauvinistic elitism and protectionism. The minds of SCJ members seemed made up regardless of what was presented. The SCJ Episcopacy Committee Chair led the delegates through a litany of self-serving innuendos and “possible charges and complaints.” I was so offended by his implication that they were doing this for the Bishop’s own good. Black people know all too well how it feels to have overseers say “we know what is good for you.”
There is meanness afoot in America and the United Methodist Church. The church should be helping to address it—not be a part of it.
While the UMC’s slogan is “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” the denomination is getting whiter and whiter in the face of a U.S. population that’s rapidly becoming more ethnically diverse. And the SCJ Episcopacy Committee seeks to make our leadership even whiter with the forced retirement of Bishop Bledsoe. Should this be the posture of a denomination in decline in the U.S.?
Our church is being hijacked by power seeking, power hungry, vindictive committees and voting blocs. People are being valued by their ability to get elected or to help others get elected to something. Practically every leader is “running for something.” Voices are often silenced by fear of these “power leaders.” I’m not claiming nobility, but I’m not interested in running for anything or from anybody. God did not give us a spirit of fear (II Timothy 1:7). We must continue to speak truth to power and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
The church has been and is at its best when we are focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ among all people and when we stop playing politics with the Lord’s church. It should also be a sobering reminder to all UMC clergy and bishops that the action taken against Bishop Bledsoe could show up at your doorstep next—by those claiming “greater accountability.” Bishop Bledsoe now must consider getting justice where, historically, black people have always resorted—the courts!
One more black man has been made “homeless.” This action has turned back the clock on race relations farther than any of us ever imagined it could go. It will take a long time to get past this hurt—if we ever do. The work so many have done—including Kathleen Baskin-Ball, Bill Crouch, John Miles, Mai Gray, Dr. Bill Farmer and others—seems perilously on the edge of falling away. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s question “Where do we go from here?” is hauntingly invading our time and place.
There are many wounded souls in the SCJ and they are not all black. Some are calling for healing, but serious and vigorous dialogue is desperately needed first, to put us on a path toward healing. That healing must be rooted in II Chronicles 7:14.
The Rev. Dr. Masters is senior pastor of St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas.