OKLAHOMA CITY – Bishop Earl Bledsoe took to the microphone in his own defense Thursday, but South Central Jurisdictional Conference delegates voted to affirm an episcopacy committee’s decision that he be retired involuntarily.
“I asked the committee and I’m asking you now: Where is fair process, where at least I’m able to share my side of the story?” Bishop Bledsoe, leader of the North Texas Conference for the last four years, said to delegates.
Still, delegates voted to back the jurisdictional episcopacy committee’s action. The vote was 208 in favor and 45 opposed.
The episcopacy committee’s decision to retire a bishop, based on a negative job performance evaluation, apparently is a first for the denomination.
Bishop Bledsoe can appeal to the UMC’s Judicial Council. He said he and his wife, Leslie, continue to pray about whether to do so.
The episcopacy committee found reasons to question Bishop Bledsoe’s “integrity and trustworthiness,” the committee’s chairman, Don House, told conference delegates Thursday morning.
“Bishop Bledsoe demonstrates many gifts. He’s a fine Christian man and dedicated spiritual leader,” an emotional Mr. House said. ”Yet the committee believes his gifts are best deployed in other forms of ministry and that involuntary retirement is best for the church and best for his ministry.”
On Tuesday night, the episcopacy committee voted (with 24 in favor, four against and two abstaining) to retire Bishop Bledsoe.
Mr. House said then the committee had concerns about Bishop Bledsoe’s administrative skills.
But by Wednesday the committee had produced a document titled “Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee Report” that made plain its concerns extended to his trustworthiness. The document was used Wednesday night in briefings for conference delegations. Mr. House also read from it in his remarks to delegates in the Thursday morning plenary session.
Asked if the briefing document suggests a different set of concerns, centered more on character than administrative skills, Mr. House said in an interview: “Part of your administrative skills is building trust with the clergy and laity.”
Bishop Bledsoe took his place with other bishops on a raised platform in the plenary hall Thursday. He said during a break that he was surprised and hurt by Mr. House’s presentation.
“One of my big values is integrity and honesty,” he said. ”So those who have experienced me over the years and in my ministry know that.”
Jonathan Wilson, an attorney for Bishop Bledsoe, said in an email that the committee report from which Mr. House read is “an attempt to deflect from the flimsy ‘evidence’ upon which they relied to support their decision against the bishop.”
Mr. Wilson also disputed Mr. House’s contention, included in the report, that the Bledsoe legal team tried to intimidate the committee, to the point that committee members perceived a potential threat of legal action against them.
“Chairman House’s reference to an imagined threat of litigation is further evidence of certain members of the committee doing and saying anything to achieve their desired result to involuntarily retire Bishop Bledsoe, regardless of the facts and evidence,” Mr. Wilson said.
The plenary tension only increased Thursday afternoon, as a vote on whether to affirm the committee’s action approached.
Mr. House told delegates he and other committee members felt burdened by the work of evaluating Bishop Bledsoe and ultimately deciding he should be retired.
“There will be a day when I wake up and this won’t be the first thing on my mind,” Mr. House said, choking up. “I look forward to that day.”
But Mr. House was plain in saying the committee saw clear deficiencies in Bishop Bledsoe’s work that had prompted many in the North Texas Conference to decide he should not be reappointed there. He added that episcopacy committee members from other conferences did not feel Bishop Bledsoe would be a good leader for their areas.
Mr. House acknowledged that several positive things, such as improvement in worship attendance, had happened in the North Texas Conference on Bishop Bledsoe’s watch. But he said some of those would have happened regardless of who was overseeing the conference.
He also underscored that the episcopacy committee had asked Bishop Bledsoe to retire voluntarily, hoping to spare him a public airing of complaints. Bishop Bledsoe did agree to retire, and announced June 1 that he was stepping down, giving no hint of trouble. But he reversed course on June 5, saying he would fight to keep his job and questioning the fairness of the commitee’s evaluation of him.
Mr. House referred Thursday afternoon to grievances so serious that charges under church law could have been brought against Bishop Bledsoe. He did not share specifics, the committee having decided to keep such information confidential.
Bishop Bledsoe took the floor and complained of what he called Mr. House’s “zingers.”
“It’s very difficult when you’re trying to fight ghosts or you’re working off of second- or third-hand information,” Bishop Bledsoe told delegates.
But Mr. House said Bishop Bledsoe and his legal team had been given information about all the complaints and that Bishop Bledsoe had failed to provide the committee with satisfactory answers. Some of the answers raised questions about trustworthiness, he added.
While no delegates expressly defended Bishop Bledsoe in plenary debate, some did raise questions about the committee’s decision to retire him. There was a motion to “split the vote,” so delegates could affirm the committee’s work but not its decision. That failed.
Penney Schwab, a member of the episcopacy committee from the Kansas West Conference, told delegates there were “persistent problems” with Bishop Bledsoe’s performance overseeing the North Texas Conference. She defended the committee’s decision to retire him involuntarily.
“It was a fair process,” she said.
Bishop Ann Sherer-Simpson presided at the plenary Thursday morning. She offered a prayer for wisdom, then summed up feelings in the hall as “a sorrow so deep that it is hard to move forward.”
Mr. House said the committee’s action to retire Bishop Bledsoe falls under two parts of church law, one in the UMC Constitution that appears to require jurisdictional conference approval, and another in paragraph 408.3 of the Book of Discipline that doesn’t.
Mr. House said he expects and welcomes a Judicial Council review of the committee’s action, something that would happen if Bishop Bledsoe files an appeal. He has roughly a month to decide.
Pending a Judicial Council ruling, Bishop Bledsoe would remain an active bishop, and could stay with the North Texas Conference or be reassigned.
The South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops has asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality of a paragraph in the Book of Discipline that deals with episcopacy committees and their evaluation of bishops, including the option of retiring them involuntarily.
The College of Bishops supported having the full conference take a vote on the episcopacy committee’s decision to retire Bishop Bledsoe, said Bishop James Dorff, president of the group. He emphasized that the bishops weren’t weighing in on how the delegates should vote, just that they should have a voice in the process.
“I am grateful for the reasonable and faithful leadership of all parties,” Bishop Dorff said in a statement. “All have sought to be faithful to the mission of the church and the mandates of the Discipline. This has been a difficult time for the Bledsoes, the committee, the North Texas Annual Conference, and the church.”
Mr. House, in addressing delegates, said the UMC’s decline in the United States required greater accountability of church leaders, and described the move to retire Bishop Bledsoe as a step in that direction.
Here’s the full document that was used in briefing conference delegations, and which Mr. House read from in addressing the plenary Thursday morning:
Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee Report
The evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe revealed many strong qualities, but it raised serious questions about the Bishop’s residential leadership, especially around the issue of trust by laity and clergy, and his management of the annual conference. This includes his supervision of members of his cabinet, actions that polarized his conference, and concerns about the appointment making process and protocol.
In the 7 ½ hour hearing conducted by the Committee, and after many hours of due diligence spent by committee members in listening to depositions and reviewing exhibits provided by the Bishop and his attorneys, the Bishop failed to adequately address those concerns. He also failed to fully answer a number of questions, and some of his answers raised for the Committee questions about his integrity and trustworthiness.
Additionally many members of the committee perceived the threat of legal action by his attorneys prior to the hearing as an attempt to intimidate the committee and influence the outcome. In the hearing the Bishop refused to withdraw this threat. The committee was not convinced that he could restore trust in his current residential assignment, or create trust in a new one.
Again, while the Bishop demonstrates many gifts, the committee was not convinced that he was willing or able to address these issues. It was the committee’s conclusion that, based upon previous actions and his responses during the hearing, the Bishop would not be able to raise the level of his performance.
These conclusions were shared by 24 of the committee’s members, with four dissenting and two abstaining votes.