The situation involving Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, an African-American who says he is being pushed to retire, is "a source of significant anguish and disappointment," says The United Methodist Church's African-American caucus.
Black Methodists for Church Renewal Inc., which represents African-American United Methodists and congregations across the United States, announced its concerns Friday, June 15, in an open letter to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the Council of Bishops, the South Central Jurisdiction and North Texas Annual (regional) Conference episcopacy review committees. Bledsoe, 61 and in his fourth year as bishop, oversees the North Texas Conference that encompasses the Dallas metroplex and parts of east Texas.
"Our greatest concern regarding the issues related to Bishop Bledsoe is the process of evaluating bishops of the church; particularly the process that has taken place in the South Central Jurisdiction," said the letter signed by the Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow, the group's chair. "We would like to know what rubric is used to measure the benchmarks of effectiveness."
Miller-Yow also serves in the South Central Jurisdiction as the senior pastor of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church and chaplain at United Methodist-related Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. He also will be a delegate to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference on July 17-21 in Oklahoma City. Jurisdictional conferences have the responsibility of electing bishops.
Conference reports increased numbers
The letter noted that that the North Texas Conference has reported increases in worship attendance, increased giving to apportionments that support general church operations, and 16 new church starts under Bledsoe's watch.
"What other measurements are being used?" the letter asked.
Black Methodists for Church Renewal's statement echoed concerns raised in a June 13 letter by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race that clergy at all levels of the church receive evaluations under "rigorous, consistent and commonly understood policies and processes."
The United Methodist News Service asked representatives of the five United Methodist jurisdictional episcopacy committees, which evaluate and assign U.S. bishops, to share what metrics they use in assessing bishops. Don House, the South Central Jurisdiction's committee chair, was the first to respond with three documents - the bishop's questionnaire, and two episcopal area questionnaires, Part A and Part B.
Also on June 15, House announced that the committee was postponing its hearing for Bledsoe, originally scheduled on July 10 in Dallas, to July 16 in Oklahoma City.
"Our committee needs more time to prepare for the hearing," House said.
The letter from Black Methodists for Church Renewal is the latest turn in a public dispute between a bishop and a jurisdictional episcopacy committee that many longtime church observers call unprecedented in the denomination's 44-year history.
Bledsoe initially announced plans to retire in a video on June 1. But days later on June 5, the bishop stunned many at the North Texas annual gathering when he declared that he was being forced out and he would not stand for it. He said he made his decision after prayer and seeing the conference's positive statistical data, which included a second consecutive year of increased worship attendance.
Episcopacy committee releases statement
Late on June 8, the chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy, which oversees Bledsoe, released a statement explaining why the panel asked Bledsoe to retire early.
"While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question," said the statement from Don House, the committee chair.
Under the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, jurisdictional and central conference episcopacy committees can place a bishop in involuntary retirement by a two-thirds vote. Just as jurisdictional committees assign and evaluate U.S. bishops, the central conference bodies do the same with bishops in Africa, Asia and Europe. Each jurisdictional committee on the episcopacy includes a clergy delegate and a lay delegate from each of that jurisdiction's conferences.
The Book of Discipline says a bishop can appeal a vote for involuntary retirement to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's top court.
*Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville,Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].