Rio Texas bishop resigns after admitting wrongdoing

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United Methodist Bishop James E. Dorff admitted to violating his marriage and ordination vows and has voluntarily resigned as episcopal leader of the Rio Texas Conference, effective Jan. 1, 2016. 

Dorff resigned after a complaint was filed, Bishop Michael McKee, president of the South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops, said in announcing the resignation on Dec. 4.

Dorff, who is also surrendering his credentials effective Jan, 1, expressed his regret in a letter to the college of bishops.

"It is so difficult to admit and share, but I must inform you that I did not uphold the sacred vows I made to God at my wedding, at my consecration as bishop, and at my ordination as elder. I crossed what were the clear expectations of relational boundaries.

“For this transgression, I am profoundly sorry. I offer my sincerest apologies to all concerned. My actions have caused pain to many, including my family, the person involved, each of you, members of the annual conference, and the greater church. I am so, so sorry," Dorff wrote.

Interim bishop to be named

McKee said that an interim bishop will be appointed to serve beginning in January. Until the interim bishop is appointed, he will provide episcopal oversight. During the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in July 2016, a new Rio Texas bishop will be appointed to a term beginning on September 1, 2016. The conference serves South Texas with nearly 400 churches.

“This is a difficult situation for everyone involved, but we are confident that the ongoing ministries of the conference will continue under the capable leadership of the experienced, faithful conference staff and laity,” said McKee, who will work with the leaders of the Rio Texas Conference to ensure a smooth transition.

Dorff is resigning eight months before his planned retirement.

Prayers and sadness

He was elected bishop in 2008, after serving as a pastor in the North Texas Conference for 36 years.

As episcopal leader, he oversaw the merger of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande conferences. He also dealt with the controversy that surrounded the clergy candidacy of M. Barclay, who identified as lesbian. The Book of Discipline forbids the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Byrd L. Bonner, who co-chaired the unification steering team during the merger, said he was "profoundly sad" to hear the news. 

"I am praying for Bishop and Mrs. Dorff and all affected. That includes our new Río Texas Annual Conference. Thankfully our new conference is strong and is born of a resilient spirit. It is that spirit that will serve her well in persevering this and any challenges," said Bonner, who is also president of The United Methodist Church Foundation,

"In this season of Advent, we must focus on the future and the promise that God holds for us all, including and especially the Dorffs," Bonner said.

Complaints against bishops are handled within that bishop’s regional College of Bishops under the denomination’s law book, the Book of Discipline.

Churchwide leadership

Beyond his episcopal area, he has provided churchwide leadership through the Connectional Table, which coordinates the mission and ministry of the general church. He has been president of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and a member of Africa University's board. He has been a leader in the Global Health Initiative and the World Methodist Council.

As a member of the Global Health Initiative Executive Committee, he led the former Southwest Texas Annual Conference in becoming the pilot project for the Imagine No Malaria campaign. The campaign to raise $75 million formally launched with a celebration and free concert event at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, on World Malaria Day, April 25, 2010.

"Our entire annual conference embraced the opportunity to lead the way by supporting Imagine No Malaria," Dorff said at the time. "We are excited to showcase this initiative to the Austin community and to the entire denomination."

The campaign was launched simultaneously in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Dorff was part of a delegation of United Methodist leaders who were on hand to help distribute anti-malaria bed nets there.

Higher education impact

A highlight of Dorff’s tenure as president of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry included attending the International Association of United Methodist Schools, Colleges and Universities’ 2014 Conference in Hiroshima, Japan, where scholars and students from five continents focused on peace, reconciliation and human rights. 

During the conference, Dorff emphasized the role that Methodist-related institutions have played for centuries in developing leaders for the church and world. “As we look to develop principled Christian leaders as one of our four areas of focus, it is extremely important that we engage our United Methodist schools, colleges and universities – that we support them, encourage them and challenge them to continue to provide and develop the leaders that we need so much.”

In Texas, Dorff also has served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Methodist Mission Home of San Antonio, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas and the Texas Methodist Foundation.

He married Barbara Langley Dorff in 1975, and they have two sons and three grandchildren.

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. Heather Hahn contributed to this story. 

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