Costs are in, implications still debated, in Bishop Bledsoe controversy

The arguments go on about whether the victim in the failed effort to oust Bishop Earl Bledsoe was accountability for bishops or Bishop Bledsoe himself.

Bishop Earl Bledsoe, now leading Northwest Texas and New Mexico Conferences, speaks at a clergy retreat earlier this year.

What’s beyond dispute is that the episode came at a cost, including financial.

The South Central Jurisdiction recently paid nearly $100,000 to cover legal fees and other expenses of Bishop Bledsoe, as ordered by the UMC’s Judicial Council, which reinstated him last November.

That money comes from apportionment payments—in other words, from people in the pews across the South Central Jurisdiction.

Highland Park UMC in Dallas contributed another $75,000 for Bishop Bledsoe’s legal defense, from a benevolence fund.

The South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee, which sought to retire Bishop Bledsoe for ineffectiveness, went about $14,000 over budget due to extra meetings over his status.

“It is what it is,” Bishop Bledsoe said by phone recently. “Obviously that money could have been used for other things. I’m not so sure, given the realities of the situation, it could have been any different.”

The UMC encourages amicable resolutions of church conflicts, but this one went the opposite direction, even including, at one point, a private investigator.

That may represent another first for the UMC in an episode all agree was unprecedented, one that continues to reverberate with accusations of conflict of interest and warnings of dangerous precedents established by how things played out.

***

The Bishop Bledsoe saga is painfully familiar to many, but here’s a refresher.

Delegates to the 2008 South Central Jurisdictional Conference elected him to the episcopacy, and he was assigned to lead the North Texas Conference, at the request of delegates from there. He was the third consecutive African American to lead the conference.

Bishop Bledsoe would earn admirers, including pastors at Highland Park UMC, one of the denomination’s largest churches. They saw him as a change agent, willing to take flak for instituting long-overdue organizational reforms, and willing to support creative approaches to ministry—including their own.

But deep tensions developed between Bishop Bledsoe and other North Texas clergy over his reorganization of the conference, choice of district superintendents and handling of clergy evaluations and appointments. It didn’t help that he was in Liberia on a mission trip when a scandal broke at St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas, and went days before releasing a statement.

Don House

The South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee was led—still is—by Don House, a Ph.D. economist in Bryan, Texas. His oft-stated argument is that the long steady decline of the UMC in the United States means ineffective clergy, including bishops, can no longer be indulged.

Under Dr. House, the committee last spring used a three-part system for evaluating bishops of the jurisdiction. Bishop Bledsoe got the lowest scores, and went into a May 24, 2012 meeting with the committee knowing that, Dr. House said.

That meeting, according to Dr. House, did not go well.

“We wanted from him an acknowledgement that there were weaknesses, and we wanted to know what his plans were for improving,” Dr. House said. “His answers were way below par.”

After meeting with Bishop Bledsoe, no committee members wanted him to lead their conference, Dr. House said. He added that the committee decided it would be willing to hold a hearing on involuntary retirement, if it came to that.

Next, Dr. House and another committee member met with Bishop Bledsoe, giving him the option of retiring voluntarily or facing an involuntary retirement hearing.

The process had been private to this point, and Dr. House said the committee hoped to spare Bishop Bledsoe the embarrassment of a public airing of the poor evaluation. The committee also wanted to find him another church position, possibly as a bishop-in-residence, that would better use his talents and keep him at the same pay level.

On May 31, 2012, Bishop Bledsoe told the North Texas Conference by video that he would be taking voluntary retirement. He smiled as he said it, but gave no reason.

Some black clergy (as well as others) began to question what was happening, and at the North Texas Conference’s annual gathering they formally asked Bishop Bledsoe to reconsider.

In closing remarks of that meeting, on June 5, 2012, Bishop Bledsoe dramatically reversed course, saying he’d been evaluated unfairly and promising to “fight like the devil” to keep his job. He noted the North Texas Conference had begun to see improvement in worship attendance and other key statistics. He also reported his pain at hearing that someone in the conference had said, “When are we going to get a white bishop?”

Later, Bishop Bledsoe would write that he did not consider the effort to retire him to be racially motivated.

The episcopacy committee followed through, holding a marathon closed-door hearing in Oklahoma City on July 16-17, just before the South Central Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Bledsoe was accompanied by clergy advocates.

Outside the hearing room, he had working on his behalf a Dallas lawyer, Jonathan Wilson, who specializes in employment disputes. Mr. Wilson provided the committee videotape depositions of North Texas Conference clergy speaking for Bishop Bledsoe, and submitted documents attacking the fairness of the committee’s evaluation and questioning whether the committee had followed church law.

Bishop Bledsoe would lose in Oklahoma City. The committee voted to retire him involuntarily (24 in favor, four against and two abstaining), and delegates to the full Jurisdictional Conference affirmed the decision by an 82 percent margin.

Dr. House had appeared before the larger group, choking back tears as he described how hard the process had been, but also reiterating the committee’s conclusion that Bishop Bledsoe was an ineffective administrator. He added that the committee had, through its dealings with him, come to question Bishop Bledsoe’s trustworthiness.

Bishop Bledsoe also took the microphone, again raising the fairness question and angrily defending his integrity against what he described as Dr. House’s “zingers.”

***

In retiring Bishop Bledsoe, the committee had used paragraph 408.3(a) of the Book of Discipline, the UMC’s law book. The paragraph says an episcopacy committee can retire a bishop “for performance,” if it’s in the interest of the church. But it doesn’t define an unacceptable standard of performance or give many details for how a committee should proceed in doing an involuntary retirement.

Jon Gray

While Bishop Bledsoe wasn’t the first bishop quietly encouraged to retire, he was the first to be subject to a 408.3(a) forced retirement. In Oklahoma City, Dr. House said an appeal of the committee’s action would at least provide clarity from the Judicial Council on how episcopacy committees can use the provision.

Bishop Bledsoe obliged by promptly appealing. Jon Gray—a Kansas City, Mo., attorney, former state court judge and former member of the Judicial Council—took over as counsel, filing a brief challenging the committee’s action generally, and specifically arguing that 408.3(a) violated other parts of the church constitution.By late summer, Bishop Bledsoe and his wife, Leslie, had moved out of their episcopal residency into temporary housing in Dallas, and awaited his day in court.

 

 

***

The first key Judicial Council action came in October. The Council had been asked by South Central Jurisdiction bishops to decide the constitutionality of 408.3(a). The Council ruled tersely that “the requisite number of votes needed for establishing unconstitutionality of 408.3(a) was not obtained.”

The paragraph remained constitutional. But the absence of affirmative language did not bode well for the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee.

The Judicial Council heard Bishop Bledsoe’s appeal in November, in Phoenix, with Mr. Gray arguing for him and Dr. House defending the episcopacy committee. Within a couple of days, the Judicial Council ruled that the committee had committed “numerous violations” of fair process against Bishop Bledsoe, and had failed to follow specific requirements of 408.3(a). The Council ordered him reinstated as an active bishop, given an area to oversee and “made whole” financially.At the same Oklahoma City gathering where Bishop Bledsoe had been voted out, delegates had elected new bishops, and the episcopacy committee had made bishop assignments for all conferences. But one spot was left open—the episcopal area encompassing the Northwest Texas and New Mexico Conferences.

Early this year, Bishop Bledsoe and his wife moved to Albuquerque, headquarters for that episcopal area, and he began his new assignment.

***

Once reinstated, Bishop Bledsoe got back pay and benefits through the General Council for Finance and Administration, which handles bishops’ pay. The amount was reduced by donations Bishop Bledsoe received for living expenses while awaiting his Judicial Council hearing.

But the South Central Jurisdiction also recently wrote checks totaling $98,930.68, to cover Bishop Bledsoe’s legal fees and other expenses, said the Rev. David Severe, executive director of the jurisdiction.

They include $58,542.53 to Shook, Hardy & Bacon, Mr. Gray’s law firm; and $15,895 to the law firm Haynes and Boone, for the part of the defense overseen by Mr. Wilson. (He has since moved to another firm.)

A check for $12,596.25 went to GCFA. That’s to cover Bishop Bledsoe’s move from the North Texas episcopal residency to temporary housing as he awaited appeal. GCFA picked that up, but insisted on reimbursement from the South Central Jurisdiction once the Judicial Council had ruled against the episcopacy committee, Mr. Severe said.

The South Central Jurisdiction also paid Bishop Bledsoe $9,625.92 directly, for other expenses incurred, and paid travel expenses for the Rev. Zan Holmes ($847.73) who accompanied Bishop Bledsoe in the Oklahoma City hearing and the Rev. Larry Pickens ($1,423.25) who joined in strategy development and arguments for the  Judicial Council hearing in October on 408.3a.

That totals $98,930.68, and represents about a third of the reserves the South Central Jurisdiction keeps in case it has to have an emergency meeting, Dr. Severe said.

He noted that the controversy’s costs include the episcopacy committee going $14,000 over its budget.

Dr. Severe and the Rev. Jim Welch, who heads the Mission Council of the South Central Jurisdiction—the group responsible for decision-making between quadrennial jurisdictional conferences—agreed to the Reporter’s request to see billing records for the $98.930.68. They said that since apportionment dollars were involved, the records should be open.

The records show Mr. Gray charged $400 an hour for some work. Other services were not broken down by hour.

Mr. Gray said by phone that confidentiality requirements would keep him from sharing how much he charged.

“I think I’m OK to say that a significant reduction from my standard rate was offered,” he said.

***

Mr. Wilson is a member of Highland Park UMC, and met Bishop Bledsoe through the Rev. Paul Rasmussen, associate pastor at the church. With last summer’s drama unfolding, Mr. Rasmussen said he got a call from Bishop Bledsoe, asking for help in finding a lawyer with expertise in employment disputes.

Mr. Rasmussen would give a videotape deposition for Bishop Bledsoe, strongly defending the bishop’s work in North Texas. So did the Rev. Mark Craig, senior pastor, who complained that the episcopacy committee had not sought his input as leader of one of the denomination’s largest churches.

Mr. Craig and Mr. Rasmussen said in a recent interview that they did not commit early on to helping underwrite Bishop Bledsoe’s defense. But by August, they had learned from Mr. Wilson of mounting expenses. On Aug. 21, Highland Park UMC sent a $75,000 check to Haynes and Boone.

“I said, ‘You know, he’s going to need a defense fund,’” Mr. Craig recalled. “The bishop didn’t ask us. . . . It was just a good faith gesture to a person we thought was abused.”

Mr. Craig said the money came from a fund for the needy that he controlled as senior pastor.

“We felt the bishop was needy,” he said.

Mr. Craig emphasized that the fund comes from a single donor.

“That did not touch our budget,” he said of the $75,000. “It did not cost our congregation a dime.”

***

In describing his efforts for Bishop Bledsoe, Mr. Wilson shared with the Reporter that he had used a private investigator. He would not name the investigator, and said the cost was under $5,000.

The investigator looked into Dr. House’s professional background and found he had collaborated on church-related research projects with the Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, in Washington, D.C.

That interested Mr. Wilson, because Dr. House had enlisted Dr. Weems to help the episcopacy committee. At Dr. House’s request, Dr. Weems studied a questionnaire the committee used in getting input on bishops’ performance from clergy and laity in their conferences. Dr. Weems ranked the questions he thought were most important in episcopal leadership.

The episcopacy committee report detailing Bishop Bledsoe’s poor evaluation included his scores as calculated under Dr. Weems’ ranking.

On June 29, Mr. Wilson wrote the UMC’s Judicial Council, arguing that by bringing his associate Dr. Weems into the process, Dr. House had created “an inherent conflict of interest,” and tainted the evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe.

Dr. Weems, reached for this article, said he was only asked to help with the questionnaire, which was used with all bishops. He said he did not look at Bishop Bledsoe’s scores or advise the committee on Bishop Bledsoe.

“All that Don and I have done is public,” he added when told about the private investigator. “All they had to do is ask.”

Mr. Wilson said the cost of the private investigator was ultimately covered by the donation from Highland Park UMC. He said he made the decision to hire the investigator, and didn’t tell the Highland Park pastors or Bishop Bledsoe about it.

Bishop Bledsoe confirmed that he had not known an investigator was part of his defense team. He said he might not have taken all the steps Mr. Wilson did, but praised his work generally. 

“I think Jonathan was trying his best to find the truth and defend me in terms of that,” he said. “He’s a great attorney, and he was concerned about justice.”

When asked recently about Highland Park UMC having paid, unwittingly, for a private investigator, Mr. Craig said he was not upset, given that the investigation focused on possible conflicts of interest and not personal matters.

Mr. Craig continues to feel deeply that the episcopacy committee stacked the decks against Bishop Bledsoe. And if Bishop Bledsoe has backed away from race as a factor, Mr. Craig has not.

“This never would have happened to a white bishop,” he said.

***

Meanwhile, from the episcopacy committee side, there have been allegations of a conflict of interest involving Mr. Gray.

Dr. House and Jay Brim, another committee member, raised the question in a recent, unsuccessful petition for reconsideration of the Judicial Council decision reinstating Bishop Bledsoe. (They weren’t seeking to re-retire him, but rather to challenge other parts of the ruling.)

In their petition, they said that Mr. Gray had, with another former Judicial Council member, been paid to help lead a training session for the newly elected Judicial Council late last July. This was just after Mr. Gray had filed an appeal to the Judicial Council for Bishop Bledsoe.

Letting Mr. Gray do that training while he had a case before the Judicial Council “constitutes a clear and obvious conflict of interest, by implying an unmistakable bias toward that attorney and the party represented by him,” Dr. House and Mr. Brim wrote.

The Rev. William Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology and president of the Judicial Council, confirmed that he arranged for Mr. Gray to help with the training and did not ask him to withdraw after the Bishop Bledsoe appeal was filed. He said Mr. Gray volunteered his time, though his expenses were covered. He noted that the training was all theoretical, not grounded in real cases.

Otherwise, Dr. Lawrence declined to comment on the conflict of interest charge.

Mr. Gray disputed it. He said Judicial Council members have an obligation to recuse if they feel themselves to be biased for whatever reason. And he noted that it’s not uncommon for Judicial Council members and parties who come before them to know each other.

“It doesn’t honor our process to suggest that members of the Judicial Council would fudge, based on who they knew,” he said.

***

Dr. House would not elaborate on his and Mr. Brim’s allegation of conflict of interest. But he was eager to talk about what he sees as the dangerous implication of the Judicial Council’s awarding of legal fees to Bishop Bledsoe.

That move encourages bringing lawyers into the church legal process, he said, and will create a chilling effect on episcopacy committees, causing them to avoid trying to retire ineffective bishops for fear of incurring large legal fees.

“The episcopacy committees are paralyzed,” he said.

Mr. Brim, a lawyer himself, foresees a legal “arms race,” and other committee members, such as the Rev. Don Underwood, worry aloud that lawyers will take Judicial Council cases on a contingency basis.

Part of the buzz about legal fees owes to a letter Mr. Gray wrote to U.S. bishops on May 14, 2012, offering his legal services on a “cost effective” basis. In the letter (a copy of which the Reporter obtained) he notes his Judicial Council background. He says he can help bishops “survive Judicial Council review” in answering questions of church law and can help them meet Book of Discipline requirements in processing complaints against clergy.

Mr. Gray confirmed by phone that he did write the letter seeking for-pay work from bishops, and considers the effort a ministry to the church.

“We would have far fewer problems if more bishops took advantage of sound legal advice,” he said.

Mr. Gray emphasized that when he wrote the letter, he did not anticipate he would get hired by Bishop Bledsoe. And in fact, he wrote it before Bishop Bledsoe’s fateful May 24, 2012 meeting with the episcopacy committee.

As for the Bledsoe case, Mr. Gray argues that the episcopacy committee bears the blame for a deeply flawed effort. It’s inconsistent with United Methodist polity and values, he said, for the same group to investigate, evaluate and decide the fate of a bishop.

“If he had robbed GCFA at gunpoint, he would have had more rights,” Mr. Gray said.

Nearly a year out, strong feelings and rhetoric are still the rule in the Bishop Bledsoe matter.

The calmest voice may be his.

“We’re just ready to put that behind us and do ministry,” Bishop Bledsoe said. “Sorry it happened.”

 shodges@umr.org

 

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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Join the conversation....

  1. methodistpie says:

    Thank you for this excellent reporting. I can't help but think of the void that will be created when THE REPORTER is no longer around. Rule by Judicial Council was already a concern; but this comes across as border-line corrupt. I'm reminded of those who leave government and take "consulting jobs," calling in favors from Congress on behalf of whoever they're now lobbying for. This is bad enough in government; I consider it a scandal in the church. Who judges the judges?

  2. Good article. Thank you for it. What has gone on with Bishop Bledsoe smacks of the tactics that the federal government is using against Conservatives. Wake up church! Wake up country!! Time is much shorter than any of us realize.

  3. lonnied says:

    The fact that Judge Gray wrote his letter to the bishops offering his services for hire in UM judicial processes before his involvement in the Bishop Bledsoe dispute and, perhaps, before he was retained by the Judicial Council for the training and/or orientation of its newer members is not an ameliorating factor, but an aggravating one. It means that the Council knew beyond reasonable doubt he would almost certainly be arguing cases to be decided by the very people to whom he was represented by their peers on the Council as an expert. If that's not a clear conflict of interest it would be impossible to define one.

    The Church has not been well served by the Judicial Council in this matter, and I have no opinion on the merits of the case against Bishop Bledsoe.

    Lonnie D. Brooks
    Anchorage AK

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