Bishop Earl Bledsoe
Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe
For more than a year, knowledgeable United Methodists have been emphasizing that the denomination's focus on numbers alone won't bring unity and vitality to The United Methodist Church. The personnel case of Dallas Area Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe has driven home that insight with great pain and anguish.
Whatever else happens now, it's clear that Bishop Bledsoe adopted the Council of Bishops' vision that getting the numbers up was the most important task of an episcopal leader. In the turmoil over his performance evaluation, he has clung to the marginally improved statistical reports of the North Texas Annual Conference as the overriding evidence that he is an effective churchman.
In reality, however, the bishop probably shouldn't be claiming success on the basis of those statistics. Many of the church starts cited in this year's reports were begun long before Bishop Bledsoe was elected in 2008. Much of this year's charted improvements are the results of many years of hard work on the part of North Texas clergy and laity.
No, numbers alone don't tell whether someone is effective in his or her job, and that's particularly true of a vocation that's as intuitive as Christian ministry. In the case of United Methodist bishops, they are elected to be both temporal and spiritual leaders. The former requires prodigious skills in organizational administration and personnel management. The latter requires equally prodigious skills in leadership, which is a combination of inspiration, vision, compassion and humility.
According to reports from the South Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy, several events in Bishop Bledsoe's tenure led them to doubt his administrative skills. Top among these were the annual conference reorganization, much of which was overturned by the Judicial Council, followed by accusations of sexual harassment brought against Tyrone Gordon, the former senior pastor at St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church. The latter incident has embroiled the annual conference in a civil lawsuit.
Among many North Texas United Methodists, however, Bishop Bledsoe's leadership skills have been most in question. Clergy morale has been subterranean for months. Even a last-ditch video effort by the bishop to invite clergy feedback failed to win over disheartened pastors. Reports swirled that "ineffective" clergy – those whose numbers didn't stack up -- were being weeded out through a "triad" process that reportedly was more secret tribunal than workplace remediation. Ironically, something very similar happened to Bishop Bledsoe himself.
As this assessment is published, Bishop Bledsoe is reported to be praying about whether he will appeal his involuntary retirement to the Judicial Council, the UMC's equivalent of a supreme court. An appeal would toss the unprecedented hot potato of removing a bishop into the hands of yet another body.
Traditionally, the Judicial Council rules solely on whether an action of a bishop, a general board or agency, an annual conference or jurisdiction complies with the United Methodist constitution and polity. Given the requirements of the current Book of Discipline, it's almost a foregone conclusion that the Judicial Council would uphold Bledsoe's involuntary retirement, unusual and unsavory as it is. That's because the Discipline specifically gives personnel evaluation of bishops to jurisdictional committees, but does not mandate how that oversight is to be conducted. Since the same process evaluated all South Central Jurisdiction bishops, the Judicial Council would be hard-pressed to show that Bishop Bledsoe had been treated in a manner different from that of his episcopal colleagues.
The difference in Bishop Bledsoe's case is not the evaluation itself, but its results, that is, whether any remedial alternatives other than retirement were broached in his personnel discussions. In the private sector, even in not-for-profit organizations, one bad performance review does not a firing make, unless the worker committed some egregious, "zero-tolerance" infraction. However, bishops may be deemed to fall into a separate class, like college presidents and corporate CEOs who can be dismissed by an adverse board vote, fair or not.
As he ponders his appeal, the question now before Bishop Bledsoe is whether he can truly be an effective episcopal leader anywhere with a sadly historic ouster vote against him. His lasting contribution to The United Methodist Church may well prove to have been his willingness to contest his evaluation, thus casting a spotlight on the denomination's entire personnel process, exposing areas that clearly need improvement. If he discerns such to be the case, then accepting retirement could be the best decision for all concerned.