UPDATE – The South Central Episcopacy Committee voted tonight to retire Bishop Earl Bedsoe involuntarily, citing concerns about his administrative ability.
“It was very very hard – a lot of tears, a lot of prayers,” said Don House, committee chair.
But he also said the move was important for the United Methodist Church as it grapples with declines in the United States.
“We believe it is a strong statement about accountability,” Mr. House said.
Bishop Bledsoe couldn’t be reached immediately for comment. Mr. House said he expects the bishop to appeal to the Judicial Council and welcomes that, saying it would bring clarity to church law about supervision of bishops.
The Reporter will have a full updated story about the decision later tonight. Here’s the press release issued minutes ago by the committee:
The South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy held its hearing to consider involuntary retirement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe on July 16, 2012 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City. The hearing was closed to the public, following the required vote of the committee. Bishop Bledsoe was accompanied by Rev. Zan Holmes. By invitation of the committee, representatives from the General Commission on Religion and Race were also in attendance. All thirty members of the South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee were present, representing every annual conference in the jurisdiction.
The hearing began at 2PM on July 16, recessed in the late evening, and concluded at 10:15AM on July 17. At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee began a period of discernment, study, and discussion. Materials presented by Bishop Bledsoe before and during the hearing were reviewed by the committee.
After extensive discussion and prayer, a motion was made to place Bishop Bledsoe in the retired relation as an episcopal leader in the South Central Jurisdiction, as of August 31, 2012. A secret ballot was taken at 7:30PM July 17, with all 30 members present. According to ¶ 408.3 in the 2008 Book of Discipline, a 2/3 majority is required to support the motion. This majority was attained with a vote of 24 in support of the motion, a vote of 4 against the motion, and two abstentions.
Donald House, Chair of the Committee, accompanied by Rev. Charlotte Abram, Vice Chair of the Committee, visited with Bishop Bledsoe, in person, to disclose the results of the vote. Bishop James E. Dorff, President of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops was then informed of the vote.
**** **** ****
OKLAHOMA CITY – The South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee continues to consider whether to retire Bishop Earl Bledsoe involuntarily.
Committee members met for several hours with Bishop Bledsoe on Monday afternoon and evening, wrapping up after 9 p.m.
They resumed meeting with him at 8 a.m. today, and concluded with him at about 10:15 a.m. He left the meeting here at Cox Convention Center, and the committee went into deliberations that will lead, presumably, to a vote on whether to retire him involuntarily.
Committee members ordered in lunch, and planned to continue discussing the matter. A break was scheduled from 1 to 2 p.m., with plans to resume their work afterward, said Don House, committee chair.
“We’re hours away” from a decision, he said.
The committee is considering ousting Bishop Bledsoe based on its negative evaluation of the job he did overseeing the North Texas Conference the past four years.
Bishop Bledsoe is fighting to keep his job, and in the committee meeting he was accompanied by a clergy advocate, the Rev. Zan Holmes.
Rev. Holmes, a legendary preacher, teacher and civil rights advocate in Dallas, left the meeting at about 9:15 a.m., to catch a plane. Asked how things were going between Bishop Bledsoe and the committee, he said:
“He was challenged, and at the same time he was challenging the committee. There was challenge on both sides. I think they have reached a point where they are really beginning to communicate with one another and they’re looking at ways in which all of this can be useful to help them grow.”
Mr. Holmes added: “I don’t know what the outcome will be.”
Bishop Bledsoe requested an open meeting, but the committee voted “overwhelmingly” Monday morning to close the session, said Mr. House.
About 100 supporters of Bishop Bledsoe were on hand Monday afternoon, many of them having come by bus from Dallas. The group spent the afternoon waiting quietly in a hall near where the committee is meeting.
Among them was the Rev. Ron Henderson, pastor of Custer Road UMC in Dallas.
Dr. Henderson said he came in part to show solidarity with fellow African-American Methodists, but also because he believes Bishop Bledsoe deserves to continue as a bishop somewhere in the jurisdiction, even if that means reassignment from North Texas.
“The scope of the jurisdiction, theologically and geographically, is so broad that I cannot comprehend there is not somewhere in the jurisdiction where he could render effective leadership,” he said.
Bishop Bledsoe is here with legal counsel, Jonathan C. Wilson, a United Methodist and an attorney with the Haynes and Boone law firm in Dallas. But the committee has not allowed Mr. Wilson into its sessions.
Bishop Bledsoe, who is completing a four-year term as leader of the North Texas Conference, has been the center of a rare, some authorities say unprecedented, United Methodist episcopal controversy this summer.
The episcopacy committee evaluated Bishop Bledsoe, along with other bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction, and voted to ask him to take early retirement. That request was communicated to him on May 29, according to Mr. House.
Bishop Bledsoe announced June 1 in a video that he would take early retirement, indicating it was his choice. But he reversed course on June 5, at the very end of the North Texas Conference’s annual gathering. He told clergy and laity there about the negative evaluation, said he did not think it was fair, and vowed to fight to keep his job.
With the dispute out in the open, Mr. House said in a June 8 statement that the evaluation showed Bishop Bledsoe has “some skills as a spiritual leader” but that “his administrative skills, relational skills and style remain in question.”
Bishop Bledsoe has had high-profile controversies in his tenure, including the departure of Tyrone Gordon as pastor of St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas amid charges of sexual harassment. In the weeks before Annual Conference, Bishop Bledsoe did a video acknowledging some clergy dissatisfaction with how appointments and evaluations had been made, and encouraging those who were unhappy to come see him.
But in fighting for his job, he has noted that certain statistics, such as average worship attendance, apportionment payments and number of church starts, are positive for the North Texas Conference, especially in comparison to other conferences.
Bishop Bledsoe is the third consecutive African American to lead the conference, and in his remarks at the end of Annual Conference, he said he had been hurt by hearing a report that someone had asked when the conference would get a white bishop.
He later used his blog to say that the dispute over whether he should retire was not about race.
“For me, the single issue is about fairness and due process in assessing leadership and procedures that lead to more effective ministry at all levels of the church,” he wrote.
Asked if he agreed with Bishop Bledsoe that race is not an issue in this case, Rev. Holmes said: ”I’ll have to go along with his assessment of that. But I call it a grace issue … And one of the questions I raised is where is the grace in this process where we minister to one another and affirm one another and help one another grow.”
Mr. Wilson said the legal team has provided to the episcopacy committee affidavits and taped testimony that contradict the negative evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe’s job performance.
“We’ve been inundated with clergy and lay individuals who are willing to participate in the process to ensure that the committee gets the full picture,” he said.
Prominent in that number is the Rev. Mark Craig, pastor of Dallas’ Highland Park UMC, one of the largest and most affluent churches in the denomination, and located right by Southern Methodist University.
“Bishop Bledsoe is the finest bishop I have had in 41 years of ministry,” Mr. Craig said Saturday.
Should the committee vote to retire Bishop Bledsoe involuntarily—a two-thirds majority is required—he can appeal to the UMC’s Judicial Council.
Mr. Wilson helped prepare Bishop Bledsoe to go before the committee. But the attorney questioned how the entire process has gone so far.
“From a legal perspective, we believe the committee actually does not have jurisdiction, and is not the proper forum for which this should be presented” under the church’s Book of Discipline, Mr. Wilson said.
If the committee votes to retire Bishop Bledsoe, and the bishop appeals, the stage would be set for more drama at the Oklahoma City gathering.
With an appeal pending, Bishop Bledsoe would remain an active bishop.
The same episcopacy committee that’s weighing whether to retire him will make recommendations to the full South Central Jurisdictional Conference on where bishops in the jurisdiction will be assigned. Those recommendations will be made once conference delegates have elected three new bishops, a process that begins Thursday morning at Cox Convention Center here.
The committee could recommend that Bishop Bledsoe remain with the North Texas Conference pending a Judicial Council decision, or could recommend he be reassigned.
If Bishop Bledsoe were to lose in the committee, and lose his appeal to the Judicial Council, the jurisdiction could eventually end up having a special conference to elect another bishop.
David Severe, executive secretary of the South Central Jurisdiction, estimated that a one- or two-day meeting for that purpose would cost between $50,000 and $100,000.