Are we a racist Conference (North Texas) and Jurisdiction (South Central)? An extraordinarily incendiary commentary written by the Rev. Henry L. Masters Sr., the newly appointed senior pastor of St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas, and published in the Reporter, makes that accusation. He refers to the involuntary retirement of Bishop Earl Bledsoe of the North Texas Conference, which occurred through a vote by the jurisdictional episcopacy committee, approved by the full body of delegates.
Dr. Masters wrote: “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.’”
In a later paragraph, we read: “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.”
So, is Dr. Masters correct?
I researched Bishop Bledsoe’s background, using the bio he prepared when a candidate for bishop. He graduated from SMU Perkins School of Theology in 1985. The bio doesn’t say, but let’s assume he achieved full elder status three years later.
After a few years as associate in a large church, and a three-year term overseeing the teaching ministries of the Texas Conference (he did not appear to be appointed to a particular charge during that time), he was appointed senior pastor of the large Cypress UMC.
So, not so many years after ordination, the Rev. Bledsoe took a giant leap up the clergy career ladder. Another promotion seven years later took him to an even larger, more prestigious church. Two years after that, he was named district superintendent, and finally elected bishop in 2008—around 20 years after his ordination.
This is not the career path of a man being held back by race. It is the career path of very few clergy in our connection. It is a path of privilege and of increasing prestige, responsibility and financial security. If race was a factor, it was in his favor, not against it.
But things went bad during his four years as bishop of the North Texas Conference. Morale plummeted; complaints mounted.
Dr. Masters mentions “objective evidence” of increased worship attendance, apportionment payments and church starts to support his contention that the decision to remove Bishop Bledsoe from active episcopal leadership was based on race.
The vast majority, if not all, of the church plants had been in the planning before Bishop Bledsoe took office. The use of those statistics as proof of effectiveness both by Bishop Bledsoe and others indicates a huge gap in their understanding of basic administrative principles. It also indicates character problems. The credit for those increases does not belong to Bishop Bledsoe.
The episcopacy committee evaluated every bishop in this jurisdiction. Bishop Bledsoe was, however, singled out in this respect: He was treated as committee members themselves would have like to be treated under similar circumstances. He was offered a gracious way out when the committee, after evaluating him negatively, asked him to retire on his own.
Had he accepted—as he initially did, then reversed course—he and his family would have been spared the stress and embarrassing revelation of his negative evaluation.
Dr. Masters, the committee’s approach is called “Christian,” not racist. This is called living out of the spirit of the law—the higher calling to which we are all subject.
Dr. Masters speaks of healing for this conference. So have many others. But what will healing look like?
Must a conference acknowledge racism that didn’t exist for our brothers and sisters with different skin colors to be able to find peace? That would be stating a lie, and healing needs truth.
Will Bishop Bledsoe have to be restored to his episcopal position, with an area to supervise, for some to find healing? What about those who find such an option anathema? Will they then be denied healing?
Dr. Masters has brought harm upon us with his rhetoric. His words bring greater racial division—surely deeply grievous in the sight of our Holy God who has called us to oneness and unity. I assume, however, that Dr. Masters wrote this with the best of intentions, seeking justice for one who has been a friend, and who brought him back to this conference and to one of the most prestigious pulpits in the nation. He writes what he sees. That’s what we all do.
Our positions often determine our truths. There is no one “objective” truth here any more than there is an objective standard for clergy or episcopal effectiveness. All we can do is sit around the table, seeking holy discernment, knowing that all of us have been betrayed by just about everyone else and say, “Father, forgive them—and forgive me—because we really don’t know what we are doing.”
Until we can all say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” and quit standing in the prominent spot in the temple proclaiming our innocence, we have no hope.
But I agree with one person who posted a comment about Dr. Master’s essay to the Reporter website: No white pastor could, or should, get away with writing something like this.
So, is racism alive and well in this conference? Yes, it very well may be, but not in the way described by Dr. Masters.
Yes, Lord, have mercy upon us, sinners all.
The Rev. Thomas is pastor of Krum First UMC in Krum, Texas. Her blog is at www.thoughtfulpastor.wordpress.com.