The North Texas Annual (regional) Conference has entered untested waters, and decisions made in the coming months regarding Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe could have a ripple effect on The United Methodist Church.
The bishop announced in a video June 1 that he was retiring voluntarily. But, late on the afternoon of June 5, just before the conclusion of the North Texas Annual Conference session, Bledsoe declared he was changing course. He was being forced out, he told conference members, and he was not going to take it.
"With your help, we're going to fight like the devil to claim the ministry that is here in North Texas," he said. "And we ain't going nowhere unless somebody forces us to go."
His announcement drew cheers and applause from many of those assembled.
He later told the United Methodist News Service that his much-quoted statement was "a bad use of phrase."
"What I meant was to fight the devil to claim the ministry that is alive and vibrant here in North Texas," he said. "We have worked hard over the last four years, and I believe that work is just beginning to bear fruit. To give up the fight and quit in the midst of this is not who I am as a Christian."
Bledsoe's reversal and public defiance of his episcopacy committee is extraordinary in the 44-year history of the denomination, and if the matter makes its way to the church's supreme court, it could set a legal precedent. He told the United Methodist Reporter he would fight all the way to the Judicial Council, the denomination's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, if he has to.
It's a move many longtime church observers say they don't remember happening before.
"We are in uncharted territory here," said the Rev. Don Underwood, senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Plano. He is the North Texas Conference clergy member on the South Central Jurisdictional episcopacy committee.
Jurisdictional Conference meetings to elect and assign bishops will occur in mid-July in the United States. The South Central Jurisdictional Conference will be July 17-21 in Oklahoma City.
Bledsoe, 61 and in his fourth year as bishop, told conference members that the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee had recently "summoned" him to a meeting. There, he said, he was told that the North Texas Conference, which includes much of the Dallas metropolitan area and stretches into east Texas, did not want him back and that his leadership was "so bad" that no other conference in the jurisdiction would have him.
He asked what his options were, he said, and committee members told him that he could take voluntary retirement or they would vote on retiring him involuntarily.
He told conference members that after praying with his wife, Leslie, and seeing positive statistical data - including the second increased year of worship attendance and 16 new churches - he decided to take a stand.
"We're going to serve Christ, and I believe that God is not through with North Texas yet," he told the assembly. "But I need your help."
Under the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, jurisdictional and central conference committees can place a bishop in involuntary retirement by a two-thirds vote. The jurisdictional committees assign and evaluate U.S. bishops, and the central conference bodies do the same with bishops in Africa, Asia and Europe. Each U.S. jurisdictional committee on the episcopacy includes a clergy delegate and a lay delegate from each of that jurisdiction's annual (regional) conferences.
The Book of Discipline says a bishop can appeal a vote for involuntary retirement to the Judicial Council.
Usually, the committee's meetings with individual bishops are completely confidential. Bishop James E. Dorff, who serves the South Texas and Rio Grande Annual (regional) Texas conferences, said the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee typically meets with each bishop once a year.
Underwood, as a committee on episcopacy member, said he could not comment on the process beyond saying he expects the episcopacy committee to have a special meeting before the jurisdictional conferences.
However, he did say that he was "saddened" by Bledsoe's comments at the end of the annual conference session.
"I have so much regard for Bishop Bledsoe personally, and I was really hopeful about him having a very fruitful retirement," Underwood said. "And I felt the comments were divisive."
"Highs and lows"
Bledsoe told United Methodist News Service he is uncertain what led the South Central episcopacy committee to tell him he faced the possibility of involuntary retirement.
"My sense is either the committee only heard from the unhappy and negative voices that presented a chaotic view, or a few persons cut backroom deals to make a change," he said. "I don't know unless those of integrity on the committee come forth to share their story. All of the work is supposed to be done confidentially. All I can say is that there were no formal complaints filed or charges against me. I have served faithfully and lived up to the integrity of the office of bishop. When asked, much of what I get is generalities and opinions."
However, in his video announcing his initial decision to retire, he said his four years leading the North Texas Conference have seen their "highs and lows."
In late 2011, the Judicial Council found that a restructuring plan for the North Texas Conference that Bledsoe implemented did not comply fully with church law.
Bledsoe and his family experienced the death of his 9-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Moran, in an accident in January.
Early this year, Bledsoe faced difficulty when Tyrone Gordon surrendered his clergy credentials and resigned as pastor of prominent St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church in Dallas. Gordon faced accusations of sexual harassment. Two lawsuits against the church and the North Texas Conference followed.
Bledsoe also was criticized for how consultations for clergy appointments were handled, he acknowledged in a May 17 video.
Bledsoe is the third consecutive African American to lead the North Texas Conference, a fact he alluded to at the annual conference session.
"I heard someone say, 'When are we going to get a white bishop?'" he said. "That's hurtful."
What happens next?
If South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee voted to compel Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe's retirement and he appealed, he would remain as the North Texas Conference bishop until the Judicial Council rendered a ruling. If the Judicial Council were to uphold an involuntary retirement, the Council of Bishops, in consultation with the episcopacy committee and cabinet, could fill the vacancy with a retired bishop. Or the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops could call a special session of the jurisdictional conference to elect and appoint a new bishop.
Richard Hearne, who just completed his four-year term as the North Texas Conference lay leader, said he was the one who reported that remark to Bledsoe; however, he said the bishop is taking it out of context.
"I have tremendous personal regard for the bishop," Hearne said. "But this cannot become an issue of race."
He said that discussion turned to the low morale among conference clergy during a conference cabinet meeting two months ago.
"One of the colleagues in the room said, 'Well, one of the problems is that people are mad because we had three black bishops in a row,'" Hearne recalled. "I said, 'That's nonsense.'"
After the meeting, driving to lunch with Bledsoe, Hearne said he brought the topic up again.
"I told him that, 'In all the dozens of calls I've received about your leadership style, no one has ever mentioned race,'" Hearne said. "And then I told him, 'Oh, except for an old redneck man I know (who called) who said to me one time, 'When are we going to get a white bishop?'"
Hearne, who is white, said he has fielded frequent complaints about Bledsoe from clergy, all without racial overtones.
"The laity supports him," Hearne said. "His problem is with the clergy."
It's a particularly unfortunate situation, Hearne said, because the North Texas jurisdictional delegation in 2008 had specifically sought for then-candidate Bledsoe to become the conference's next bishop.
Whatever the episcopacy committee decides, Hearne said, he does not think Bledsoe can come back as an effective bishop in North Texas.
"For whatever reason, and I can't articulate it, but he has lost his ability to lead the North Texas Conference."
If he remains as the North Texas Conference bishop, Bledsoe said he would want to create a bishop's advisory team "who could provide feedback and offer constructive ways of dealing with what may be perceived as contention or concerns."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].