No doubt about it: the UMC’s Judicial Council has overturned Bishop Earl Bledsoe’s involuntary retirement and said he must immediately be given an episcopal area to oversee. But how is that assignment to be made?
Head scratching could almost be heard around the South Central Jurisdiction.
“The circumstances before us are new ground,” said Bishop Janice Huie, president of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops, in a brief, carefully worded statement.
The decision to retire Bishop Bledsoe involuntarily was made in July by the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee, which concluded he had been ineffective in his four years as leader of the North Texas Conference and was unsuited to lead any conference in the jurisdiction.
By an overwhelming margin, delegates to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference affirmed the committee’s work.
Bishop Bledsoe appealed to the Judicial Council and, after a three-hour hearing on Friday, won. The council reinstated him, gave him back pay and ordered that he be given an episcopal area.
But just as the decision to retire a bishop involuntarily was unprecedented, so, apparently, is the task of assigning a reinstated bishop.
And there’s pressure to get it right, not least because the Judicial Council found “numerous errors” violating fair process in how the episcopacy committee handled the involuntary retirement decision. Errors, real or perceived, could land the whole matter back before Judicial Council, should someone choose to challenge how things play out.
Bishop Huie referred in her statement to the part of the Book of Discipline that deals with assigning of bishops. It notes that the jurisdictional episcopacy committee gets to recommend “for final action by the jurisdictional conference” where bishops are assigned.
So the same episcopacy committee that voted to retire Bishop Bledsoe presumably would convene and recommend where to assign him. And, again presumably, a special meeting of the jurisdictional conference would have to be called for delegates from the conference to approve that recommendation.
The Rev. David Severe, director of mission and administration of the South Central Jurisdiction, said a one-day special meeting of delegates from around the jurisdiction would probably cost $150,000 to $175,000. Some have suggested the meeting might be held via Skype, or that voting could occur online; but Dr. Severe said there’s no provision in the rules governing jurisdictional conferences for that to happen.
Who would call the meeting, set the date and determine the location? That too is an issue.
Dr. Severe said he expects the College of Bishops will be giving direction. But he noted that another group called the Jurisdictional Mission Council is responsible for governing decisions between jurisdictional conferences.
The Rev. Jim Welch of Kingwood UMC in Kingwood, Tex., leads that council, and also serves on the jurisdictional episcopacy committee. Asked to sum up the situation, he sounded a lot like Bishop Huie.
“We’re plowing new ground here,” he said.
Mr. Welch said he planned to be in touch with Dr. Severe, and would also be looking for some word from the College of Bishops. But he also said he considers Dallas, with its two airports and multitude of flights, and Lovers Lane UMC – near Love Field airport in Dallas – as one candidate for a location for the meeting.
The one episcopal area vacancy in the South Central Jurisdiction consists of the Northwest Texas and New Mexico conferences, with the episcopal residence in Albuquerque. That episcopal area currently is being overseen by two retired bishops.
But while that would seem the likely place to assign Bishop Bledsoe, Dr. Severe said it will need to be decided whether the episcopacy committee can recommend that without revisiting all the assignments – in other words, going back to square one with the assignment process that occurred in July.
Bishop Bledsoe said Sunday that he and his wife, Leslie, “have always gone where the church wanted us to go. We do truly trust God, whatever that decision is.”
The Rev. Jimmy Nunn is director of mission and administration for the Northwest Texas Conference, and he said he believes the churches there want to cooperate with the process, however it plays out.
“We’re going to welcome whoever is assigned,” he said.
Bishop Huie concluded her brief statement by saying, “All of us in the College of Bishops remain in prayer for Bishop Bledsoe and Leslie, the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.”