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Fall 2012 Judicial CouncilMembers of the Judicial Council William Lawrence and Angela Brown review evidence at the October 2012 session. UMNS Photo by Anne Marie Gerhardt.
Fall 2012 Judicial Council
The case of involuntarily retired Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, who has now been restored to active status by the United Methodist Judicial Council, can be seen as a microcosm of the denomination's current state of dysfunction – particularly because the bishop's appeal was decided not on the merits of his personnel evaluation, but on technicalities of process.
Specifically, the Judicial Council didn't rule on whether Bishop Bledsoe is truly an ineffective general superintendent. Instead, as shrewdly argued by Bledsoe's counsel, attorney and former Judicial Council member Jon Gray of Houston, TX, the Judicial Council opted to decide the case solely on whether the process was carried out appropriately. The United Methodist Church's "supreme court" ruled that Bledsoe did not receive the denomination's equivalent of a speedy trial in which he could face his accusers and the evidence against him, as all United Methodist clergy are entitled to receive.
In citing the lack of "fair process" and "timeliness" in the Bledsoe personnel process, the Judicial Council underscored what many rank-and-file United Methodist clergy have experienced for years: The denomination has no truly fair, objective and transparent process for evaluating the performance of its ordained ministers.
Social media chatter confirmed this hypothesis after the Bledsoe decision was announced. While some clergy defended the concept and the application of "fair process" as outlined in the Book of Discipline, others acerbically and even cynically asserted that once someone files a complaint against an ordained clergyperson, he or she is more likely to get "the bum's rush" out of ministry than a timely, fair and impartial hearing. How ironic that a bishop should at last experience what so many clergy under episcopal appointment have faced!
So where does this leave United Methodists after the second-most painful episode of this year (ranking after the 2012 General Conference, viewed by many as largely a failure)? Consider the following:
The Judicial Council has returned to active duty a bishop whose qualifications are publicly tainted but not resolved. Those in the North Texas Conference who have experienced this episode directly may speculate on the bishop's fitness as a "spiritual and temporal" leader as required by the Discipline, but public hearings at the South Central Jurisdiction Conference provided little concrete evidence of the bishop's performance.
The Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy, using the same process to evaluate the performance of all South Central bishops, felt justified in requesting Bishop Bledsoe's retirement when he scored "significantly lower" than all other bishops, in the Judicial Council's words. Clearly, these are not the performance standards by which Bishop Bledsoe expected to be evaluated, based on his initial defense back in July. Bishop Bledsoe took his marching orders from episcopal interviews in 2008 when candidates were urged to "get the numbers up," presumably by any means necessary. Thus Bledsoe resisted when the rules changed on him mid-term.