UPDATE – Nov. 19, a.d. 2012
The College of Bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction will take the lead in getting Bishop Earl Bledsoe assigned to an episcopal area, and the goal is to have him in place by January. Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, president of the College of Bishops, did not say in her Monday (Nov. 19) press release that Bishop Bledsoe would be assigned there. But she did say the cabinets and episcopacy committees of the Northwest Texas and New Mexico Conferences would be consulted before the assignment. Reached by phone Monday, Bishop Bledsoe declined to say if he expects to go to the Northwest Texas/New Mexico area, which has its episcopal residence in Albuquerque.
An assignment of Bishop Bledsoe under paragraph 406 of the Book of Discipline – the paragraph most thought would guide this unprecedented process – would seem to have required a special meeting of South Central Jurisdictional conference delegates, at a projected cost of $150,000 to $175,000, with no swift resolution and lots of logistical headaches.
However, Bishop Huie said the College of Bishops has determined, in consultation with Don House, chair of the jurisdictional episcopacy committee, that Bishop Bledsoe would be assigned under paragraph 407 of the Discipline. Paragraph 407 allows a College of Bishops, after consultation with jurisdictional and conference episcopacy committees and conference cabinets, to nominate a replacement.
by Sam Hodges* and Vance Morton**
“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 episcopacy committee voted earlier this year to retire Bishop Bledsoe involuntarily, 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.
Upon hearing the Judicial Council’s decision, Bishop Mike Lowry, episcopal leader of the Central Texas Conference stated, “I welcome Bishop Bledsoe back as an active bishop of the South Central Jurisdiction. I invite all to be in prayer for Bishop Bledsoe, his wife Leslie, for the Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy and for the conferences most deeply affected. May we now be focused on Christ and His healing love.”
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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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.
So, Where Will Bishop Bledsoe be Assigned?
Just as the decision to retire a bishop involuntarily was unprecedented, so, apparently, is the task of assigning a reinstated bishop. “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.
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.
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.”
*Sam is the managing editor for the United Methodist Reporter. Sam Hodges, UMR