Bishop Earl BledsoeBishop W. Earl Bledsoe
Scandal rocked the final moments of one of the most politically powerful U.S. annual conferences June 5 when its bishop rescinded his announced early retirement by implying that racism played a role in forcing his departure.
After playing major roles a month earlier at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, North Texas Annual Conference leaders were thrown into chaos June 5 when first-term Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe told a stunned gathering that he had decided against early retirement. Five days earlier, Bishop Bledsoe had shocked the Dallas-based conference by announcing via videotape his intention to retire after only one episcopal term.
As his wife Leslie stood wiping away tears behind him, Bishop Bledsoe broke the confidentiality of the United Methodist personnel process to reveal the reasons behind his retirement. His remarks came at the behest of North Texas black church leaders, who had submitted a resolution the previous day asking him to stay.
"Two weeks ago I was called before the [South Central] Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee and told that North Texas didn't want me back," the bishop said. "Not only that, the jurisdictional committee told me that because of the North Texas report of my ineffectiveness, none of the other regions wanted me, either.
"I asked what my options were, and the committee told me I could take voluntary early retirement, or they would retire me involuntarily."
Bishop Bledsoe then said that despite both his performance report and his previously announced retirement, he had decided to remain an active bishop. He cited 16 new church starts, increased worship attendance over the past two years and "having treated you fairly" as evidence of his effectiveness as an episcopal leader.
As he prepared to dismiss the gathering with a benediction, the bishop dropped a further bombshell, "because it hurts," he said.
"I was told that someone had asked when North Texas would get a white bishop," said Bishop Bledsoe, who is black.
"I don't know who poisoned the well, but I'm not going out like that," the bishop declared to whoops and applause from black clergy and lay members, while the rest of the conference stood in shocked silence.
As soon as the meeting adjourned, a knot of clergy and laypeople gathered around Richard Hearne of Dallas, the outgoing conference lay leader known for his outspoken challenges to North Texas laity.
"I'm telling you something as a member of the press," Hearne told this reporter. "I'm the one who told the bishop that someone had asked me when North Texas would get a white bishop again. And I told the bishop that I responded to that person that he [Bledsoe] was my bishop and I supported him, and that I wouldn't get into that kind of talk."
When Hearne finished speaking, another in the group asked, "So what do we do now?" and a colleague replied, "Pray hard."
Talking about Bishop Bledsoe's bombshell as they left the Plano (TX) Convention Center, groups of North Texas clergy and laity acknowledged that there had been widespread discontent with the bishop's management. Complaints included a sense of disorganization about conference office operations, particularly a "revolving door" of departing personnel and an inability to get requested information about reorganized conference ministries.
The 2010 reorganization of the North Texas Conference, widely thought to have been engineered by the freshman bishop, appeared to be the chief complaint of many. The Judicial Council overturned that plan in Fall 2011, ruling the North Texas scheme unconstitutional because it did away with several conference boards mandated by the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Because of that ruling, the 2012 session restored the conference boards of Christian Unity, Church and Society, Global Ministries and Ethnic Local Church Concerns.
However, all of the leaders who spoke to United Methodist Insight denied that Bishop Bledsoe's race had played a role in concerns about his ability to lead the annual conference.
The bishop's remarks had one major effect, said a North Texas conference leader who asked for anonymity under the circumstances.
"He just divided the conference along racial lines [with the allegation that racism was a factor in the conference's request for a new bishop]," said the leader. "How is he supposed to lead the conference now? We're supposed to be talking with each other, but now we're going to be talking about each other."
The bishop's last-minute statements brought to a sour end a 2012 conference session that had strived for positive change. Inspiring worship, a special task force on revitalizing annual sessions, and upbeat reports from the four "ministry centers" had stressed energizing clergy and laity to develop "vital congregations" focused on mission. That sense of motivation evaporated instantly with the bishop's remarks.
Ordinarily, deliberations of all United Methodist personnel-related committees, from the local church through regional conferences and general agencies, are held in strictest confidence. In the case of bishops, according to the Book of Discipline, the Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy is the personnel body charged with assigning bishops to their respective areas. The jurisdictional committee consults with conference committees in the same way that district superintendents consult with local congregations about pastoral appointments.
The situation involving Bishop Bledsoe marks the first time in more than 30 years that anything about a bishop's personnel evaluation has been made public. The last such instance came in 1983, when former bishop A. James Armstrong resigned from the episcopacy after admitting to an extramarital affair.
According to an account in the United Methodist Reporter, Don House, chair of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, said the committee will meet in mid-June to decide Bishop Bledsoe's fate. The question of Bishop Bledsoe's status will have to be resolved by South Central leaders before Jurisdictional Conferences begin July 18.
If Bishop Bledsoe remains in office, then the South Central Jurisdiction will elect three new bishops. If he is removed involuntarily or chooses again to retire, the jurisdiction will fill four vacancies. The South Central Jurisdiction will meet July 18-21 in Oklahoma City.
Disclosure: Cynthia B. Astle served as an at-large lay member of the 2012 North Texas Annual Conference.