The Judicial Council of the UMC has reinstated to active status Bishop Earl Bledsoe, finding that his involuntary retirement by the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee violated fair process through “numerous errors” in procedure.
The full text of the decision can be found here.
“We just thank God,” Bishop Bledsoe said Sunday night by phone. “We’re overwhelmed. We’re happy with the decision. We’re looking forward to doing ministry.”
The council ordered that Bishop Bledsoe, 62, be given “an immediate assignment” of an episcopal area to oversee within the South Central Jurisdiction.
The Rev. David Severe, director of mission & administration for the South Central Jursidiction, said he expects the jurisdiction’s College of Bishops will meet soon to decide how to implement the decision.
There’s a vacancy in the Northwest Texas/New Mexico Conferences – two retired bishops are overseeing that episcopal area on an interim basis – but Bishop Bledsoe and Dr. Severe both said it’s too early to say if that’s where Bishop Bledsoe will be assigned.
“We’ve always gone where the church has wanted us to go,” Bishop Bledsoe said. “We do truly trust God, whatever that decision is.”
The episcopacy committee voted to retire Bishop Bledsoe involutarily, based on its evaluation that he was ineffective as leader of the North Texas Conference the past four years. That unprecedented action was affirmed by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference at a meeting in July in Oklahoma City.
Bishop Bledsoe appealed, and the Judicial Council heard from his attorney, Jon Gray, and from the chairman of the episcopacy committee, Don House, during a three-hour hearing Friday in Phoenix.
The council agreed with Mr. Gray that the committee had violated fair process and ordered that he be reinstated with back pay and benefits to Sept. 1 – effective date of his involuntary retirement. That sum is to be reduced by the amount of contributions Bishop Bledsoe has received during the appeal to help with living expenses.
Bishop Bledsoe said he and his wife, Leslie, “really appreciate all the folks who donated to help us through this crisis.”
The council did not rule unanimously in Bishop Bledsoe’s favor. One member, Kurt G. Glassco, dissented, finding the committee had afforded the bishop fair process. Another member, Ruben Reyes, dissented in part.
The majority decision noted various ways in which the episcopacy committee did not adhere to paragraph 408.3 of the Book of Discipline, dealing with involuntary retirement of bishops. Some of the flaws found by the council had to do with timing, some with notice given to Bishop Bledsoe about the reasons for the action against him, and some with the committee’s effort to show that involuntary retirement was in the best interest of the bishop and/or church.
Mr. Gray said after seeing the decision: “We are governed by a Book of Discipline and it is through the Book of Discipline that the General Conference declares the law and processes of our Church. I am grateful that the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has re-affirmed those core principles.”
Mr. House said that though the majority’s decision went against his committee, he was glad to have a ruling spelling out how an involuntary retirement decision can be done under church law.
“There are people that will say this has set us back and there will be no accountability, but I think what has been provided to us by the Judicial Council is a more clear idea of how this is to be done,” he said.
Mr. House promised that he and his committee would do their part to fulfill the council’s decision, including finding Bishop Bledsoe an episcopal area to oversee. But he said he’s not sure what comes next.
“No one really knows how to work out of this, at this point,” he said.
Dr. Severe agreed, noting the absence of precedence.
Mr. House noted that his committee recommends assignments for bishops, but it’s the South Central Jurisdictional Conference that actually makes the assignments. So one possible, perhaps likely, option is a special meeting of the conference, involving delegates from the various conferences.
Whether they would limit their work to filling the one vacancy, or open all assignments to reevaluation, is another uncertainty. Newly elected bishops, including Bishop Mike McKee in North Texas, have just settled into their new assignments and episcopal residences.
During the Friday hearing, Mr. House praised Bishop Bledsoe as a spiritual leader. But he stressed that the episcopacy committee felt the South Central Jurisdiction needed to take the lead in reversing the long decline of the UMC in the United States, and decided that accountability must include the bishops.
Bishop Bledsoe, he told the council, had the lowest score of all bishops in the jurisdiction in 37 of 45 categories in one part of the evaluation process. Committee representatives from the North Texas Conference did not want him reassigned there, and representatives from other conferences also did not want him as their leader, Mr. House said.
The committee decided an involuntary retirement vote was the way to go.
“If we’re going to save this denomination it has to happen in the South Central Jurisdiction and we can’t afford an ineffective bishop,” Mr. House told the council.
Bishop Bledsoe was elected to the episcopacy four years ago, and assigned to the North Texas Conference, at the request of representatives of that conference.
He made major changes in administration, and endured various controversies, including a Judicial Council decision overturning some of his reorganization.
Just before the North Texas Conference’s annual meeting in early June, he surprised many by making a video announcement that he would retire, saying he felt God was leading him in another direction.
At the meeting, some clergy and laity asked that he reconsider, suggesting he might have been pressured into retiring by the jurisdictional episcopacy committee.
At the very end of the meeting, on June 5, Bishop Bledsoe dramatically announced that he had reconsidered and would fight to remain an active bishop, despite pressure from the episcopacy committee for him to step aside.
With the controversy out in the open, Mr. House soon confirmed that the episcopacy committee had evaluated Bishop Bledsoe negatively and was prepared to hold a hearing to consider retiring him involuntarily. The committee held a two-day hearing with Bishop Bledsoe before the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in July, and followed through with the vote, exceeding the two-thirds majority necessary to retire him.
Delegates to the jurisdictional conference affirmed that vote by a large majority, leading to Bishop Bledsoe’s filing of an appeal with the Judicial Council – the denomination’s high court.
Though Bishop Bledsoe attended Friday’s hearing in Phoenix, his case was argued by Mr. Gray, a former member of the Judicial Council. Bishop Bledsoe did speak briefly, after a request by Mr. Reyes that he explain why he’d announced his retirement, then reversed course.
Bishop Bledsoe told the council he ultimately concluded that the evaluation was unfair, that statistics bore out the good job he’d done, and that the episcopacy committee had been unduly influenced by his opponents in the North Texas Conference.
“There was a group within North Texas that just wanted me out,” he said. “I felt like I had to stand in the face of that kind of coercion within the United Methodist Church.”
Mr. Gray said immediately after the hearing that he took some encouragement from the Judicial Council’s recent overturning of General Conference legislation to end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders.
That legislation and the involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe have in common a shorter-than-usual process for removing someone, according to Mr. Gray.
“It’s a choice between giving someone fair process or pushing somebody off the cliff in 30 days … This is against our history and polity,” he said.