UPDATE 7-19 4:56 PM: After an agonizing hour of questions and remarks, South Central Jurisdiction delegates voted 208 to 45 to affirm the involuntary retirement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe as voted by the jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee. A full report will follow later tonight.
"Questions of integrity and trustworthiness" ultimately led the South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee to vote overwhelmingly to retire Dallas Area Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe involuntarily, according to the committee report delivered to a somber gathering July 19.
In an unusually frank and emotional report from a church personnel committee, chairman Don House outlined a lengthy nine-months' long evaluation process that led up to the committee's ultimate decision to remove Bishop Bledsoe from office. The committee came to its final ruling after a closed-door hearing and deliberations July 16 and 17 at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.
The Episcopacy Committee's report was delivered on July 19, the first morning of business for the South Central Jurisdiction. The report is scheduled to come back before the conference in the afternoon, at which time the delegates will be asked to affirm the committee's report. United Methodist Insight will update this report at that time.
The large meeting hall at Cox Convention Center, where nearly 500 jurisdictional delegates assembled, was completely silent as a clearly emotionally distraught House read the Episcopacy Committee's report. Highlighting the extraordinary nature of the action, House began by commending the members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, a diverse group representing all 15 annual conferences in the jurisdiction.
fThe chairman said the committee took as its authorization Paragraph 408.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. This section gives jurisdictional episcopacy committees the authority to place on involuntary retirement any bishop "for the good of the church and of the bishop."
"The committee found that it didn't perceive Bishop Bledsoe could restore trust in his own conference or gain trust in another conference." -- Don House
House also emphasized that he personally held high esteem for Bishop Bledsoe. House was district lay leader in the Texas Annual Conference while Bledsoe was superintendent of the West District.
"This is difficult for lots of reasons, one of which is, I love Bishop Bledsoe," House said, struggling to speak. "I served with Bishop Bledsoe at [General Conference and the General Council on Finance and Administration].' I have great respect for him as a Christian man."
The human background that House cast around the committee's report gave its report even more poignancy as the chairman began to explain its reasons for voting to remove Bishop Bledsoe from office.
The episcopal evaluation process in the South Central Jurisdiction actually began in September 2011 with questionnaires distributed to the bishops and key leaders in all annual conferences, House said. Thereafter:
- Questionnaire results were compiled in November 2011.
- Bishops were interviewed and further evaluated Feb. 6-7 2012. However, Bishop Bledsoe was attending the Liberia Annual Conference at that time and his interview was delayed until March, at which time a group of committee members discussed his evaluation results.
- Bishop Bledsoe was interviewed May 24, at which time the Episcopacy Committee asked Bledsoe to retire voluntarily on the basis of his performance review.
- Bishop Bledsoe agreed to retire May 29 and announced his decision via video to the North Texas Conference in early June.
- At the close of the 2012 session of the North Texas Annual Conference June 6, Bishop Bledsoe rescinded his voluntary retirement after three black caucuses requested more information about his decision. A week later, the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee voted to consider involuntary retirement.
- The committee prepared a statement on the reasons for his hearing and delivered it to him 20 days before the hearing, as required by the Book of Discipline. Meanwhile, Bishop Bledsoe retained two attorneys, who requested and received all documents related to the bishop's evaluation. In return, Bledsoe's attorneys sent the committee six hours of depositions with nine witnesses from the North Texas Annual Conference, along with 93 other exhibits.
After receiving this testimony in detail, House said, what finally solidified the Episcopacy Committee's decision was Bishop Bledsoe's own witness during the two-day hearing.
"Bishop Bledsoe's evaluation raised serious questions about his residential leadership, especially around trust of laity and clergy and conference administration," House said. "[These included] actions that polarized conference and concerns about the appointment-making process and protocol. The committee thought that the bishop failed to adequately address these issues during his testimony."
Finally, House said, Bishop Bledsoe's testimony and actions raised "questions about his integrity and trustworthiness." The chairman said that Episcopacy Committee members perceived Bishop Bledsoe's threat of legal action prior to the hearing as an effort to intimidate committee.
"The committee found that it didn't perceive Bishop Bledsoe could restore trust in his own conference or gain trust in another conference," House said.
"Bishop Bledsoe demonstrates many gifts. He's a fine Christian man and leader. The committee believes his gifts are best deployed in other forms of ministry and involuntary retirement is best for the church and for his ministry."
Retiring Bishop Ann Brookshire Sherer-Simpson, presiding at the opening session, offered a profound prayer as the conference moved from the report to the start of episcopal elections.
"We are in uncharted waters and we feel uneasy," Bishop Sherer-Simpson prayed. "As we absorb this report, we ask that you will let your love and grace fall on Earl and Leslie, and on the North Texas conference and all this jurisdiction. Give us your wisdom; help us to understand and discern the best way forward. Place within us the capacity to think and pray before our discussion this afternoon. Give us courage, strength, integrity and hope. Hold all of us in your loving hands, and enable us to have this conversation as your people, as people who know, love and are guided by you. In the confidence that absolutely nothing can separate us from your love, made known to us in Jesus Christ. Amen."