OKLAHOMA CITY--Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe (left) with his advocate, the Rev. Zan Holmes, a retired clergy member of the North Texas Annual Conference, before the start of the July 16 personnel hearing that will decide Bledsoe's fate.
OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS) — The Rev. Zan W. Holmes Jr., the clergy advocate for Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, said he thinks the discussion about Bledsoe’s future as a bishop is “heading in the right direction.”
“I don’t know what the final vote is going to be, but I have been here and I have been an advocate for the bishop,” said Holmes, who had to leave the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee’s hearing early to catch a flight.
“And I think they are heading in the right direction now because they are talking about a process in which they can be more effective even as a committee in working with the bishop. That’s where they are right now.”
Bledsoe, who leads the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference, is fighting to remain an active bishop. The 30-member episcopacy committee, which includes a lay and clergy member from each of the jurisdiction’s conferences, is in a hearing to determine whether it will vote by at least the necessary two-thirds margin to place Bledsoe in involuntary retirement.
Holmes, pastor emeritus of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas and a nationally known church leader, said he thinks Bledsoe is a “gifted, talented, effective bishop” who should be able to continue as an active episcopal leader.
“I think that he is a great gift to the church,” Holmes and, “and it’s a part of the responsibility of this committee to help him continue to develop those gifts and continue to be useful in the light of the church.”
About 100 United Methodist clergy and lay people traveled on July 16 from the North Texas and Arkansas annual (regional) conferences to Oklahoma City to show support for Bledsoe at the start of his hearing.
The hearing continues today, July 17, in a meeting room in Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center, where in two days the South Central Jurisdiction will meet to elect new bishops. At about 9:45 a.m. CDT, the committee recessed for a break.
Reversal on retirement
The hearing 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 United Methodist Church’s 44-year history.
It also comes on the heels of efforts to increase accountability for church leaders at all levels of the denomination. These moves include the vote at the recently concluded 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, to end guaranteed full-time appointments for ordained elders in good standing.
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 new church plants, increased giving to general church apportionments, and a second consecutive year of increased worship attendance. According to conference reports, North Texas since 2009 is now averaging an additional 769 people in worship in its local churches.
“We have worked hard over the last four years, and I believe that work is just beginning to bear fruit,” he later told United Methodist News Service. “To give up the fight and quit in the midst of this is not who I am as a Christian.”
He also said he was not facing any formal complaints of violating church law.
“The results of our evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe were mixed,” said a statement from Don House, the committee chair and lay church member of the Texas Conference after Bledsoe announced he was not going to retire. “While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question based upon our own evaluation tools and through conversations with North Texas Annual Conference leaders. We discussed these results, reports, issues and specific examples with Bishop Bledsoe.”
Additionally. the statement said, committee members did not think Bledsoe “would be an effective episcopal leader” in another annual conference.
What church law says
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.
Reactions across denomination
The situation involving Bledsoe, an African-American bishop, has drawn attention from groups across The United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, the agency charged with monitoring racial matters in the denomination, released a statement on June 13 expressing concern about the dispute. The commission said it was not making an allegation of racial discrimination, but, in its statement, it raised the question of whether clergy at all levels of the church receive evaluations under “rigorous, consistent and commonly understood policies and processes.”
Black Methodists for Church Renewal Inc., which represents African-American United Methodists and congregations across the United States, was more pointed in an open letter released June 15.
“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 and a clergy member of the Arkansas Conference. “We would like to know what rubric is used to measure the benchmarks of effectiveness.”
Miller-Yow was among the supporters outside Bledsoe’s hearing on July 16.
The North Texas Conference chapter of Black Methodists for Church Renewal helped organize the trip of Bledsoe supporters from the Dallas area.
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. House was the first to respond with three documents — the bishop’s questionnaire, and two episcopal area questionnaires, Part A and Part B.
In a blog post on the North Texas Conference website, Bledsoe emphasized “This issue is not about race!”
Bledsoe said, for him, 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.”
Holmes said he has to go along with Bledsoe’s assessment that this is not a race issue. ”But it is what I call a grace issue. My question is: Where is the grace in this whole process where we minister to one another and we help one another grow?” Holmes said.
What could happen next?
The South Central Jurisdictional Conference meeting, which will elect bishops, will follow the hearing July 17-21 in Oklahoma City.
If the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee votes to compel Bledsoe’s retirement and he appeals, he will remain as an active bishop, possibly in the North Texas Conference, until the Judicial Council renders a ruling. If the Judicial Council upholds 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.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.