Thoughts on Bledsoe Tragedy:
The Southcentral Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee has made the historic decision to place Bishop Earl Bledsoe on involuntary retirement. The Jurisdictional Conference itself voted to uphold this decision. I have not been on the inner circle, so I have not been privy to all the information that members of the Episcopal Committee have had. Looking in from the outside, and in conversation with others here, this has been as messy and tragic as anything I have ever seen at Jurisdictional Conference.
Here are some salient points that have emerged:
1) Problems emerged early on in Bledsoe’s tenure in North Texas. But, formal charges have never been filed.
2) The Episcopacy Committee interviewed all bishops in February of 2012. But, Bledsoe was out of the country and was the only bishop not interviewed.
3) Members of the committee individually met with Bledsoe to address problems that were raised through evaluations. But no formal corrective action plan was put in place.
4) The committee met with Bledsoe in May and by all reports, this was a disaster. The committee considered filing charges, but decided to ask him to retire early. Bledsoe initially said “yes,” and then changed his mind and said “no.”
5) The committee met ahead of Jurisdictional Conference and held 2 days of hearings and voted overwhelmingly 24-4-2 to place him on involuntary retirement.
6) The committee places retirement for Bledsoe at the end of August, apparently, he will turn 62 prior to the forced retirement. While the episcopal retirement package is generous, retiring 8 years early is more than $1 million of lost earnings. There is more than pride involved in this.
7) He is eligible to serve a local church…there is a precedent for that in the NE jurisdiction where a retired bishop is serving. The question would be if these problems would re-surface or if he was just in over his head in the episcopacy?
Here are my random thoughts from the peanut gallery:
I always approach Jurisdictional Conference with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Being from Kansas, it looks for all the world like Texas is in charge…much like the Big 12. They have the big churches and the big money. (Clearly Texas United Methodist are not univocal, but the perception remains from the north.) Since 1992 when Bishop Mutti was elected from Missouri, only Bishop Moncure has been elected from the northern part of the jurisdiction (Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri). My initial take on this Bledsoe mess was the Bishop elected from Houston got crossways with the powers that be in Dallas and has to go. With no formal charges filed and no formal corrective plan, it looks like the good ol’ boy system at work.
My perception has changed for a number of reasons.
1) The vote of the committee was overwhelming. When 24 out of 30 delegates, from all over the jurisdiction vote for him to go, that is no small majority. And, I have spoken with a couple of those who voted no, and their concern was the process, not the result. They agreed he had to go. There are a lot of good people on this committee and a consensus this broad lends itself to credibility.
2) Bledsoe is not being de-frocked. If charges were filed, he would have to either lose his credentials or serve an episcopal area. This solution preserves both his status as Elder in the UM Church and his episcopal title, with all rights and privileges of the retired office.
3) Some of the reports, both what has been officially reported and what people are talking about is that Bledsoe does not “get it” on a very profound level. From my observations, it looks like he really does not get it. He has been fully participating in the conference as if nothing is awry. He served communion in worship the first night. He is on the dais throughout all these proceedings, in fact, he is often the first bishop on the dais. And, when Gary Mueller was elected, he came down to escort him up to the platform. Granted, he has every right to participate, but it feels very awkward, an awkwardness of which he seems not to be aware. If I felt like I had just been hosed by the church…I think I would take the week off and re-group somewhere else.
4) The pain of those with whom I have spoken is palpable. The clergy and laity from North Texas are really devastated by all this. Those who have served on the Episcopacy Committee are visibly shaken by the weight of the decision that they all say, “had to be made.” It strikes me as the humility both spouses give off after an unavoidable divorce. The only one with no visible pain is Bledsoe…and that seems odd. Granted I am not close to him, but his public game-face seems inauthentic…or very tragic.
5) Bledsoe’s speech was troubling. He did not really speak to the gravity of the situation, only that he should be considered innocent until proven guilty. He pointed out that no one has filed charges. He wants a chance to answer the charges. What? He had two days of hearings, two lawyers, 93 exhibits for his defense, and 7.5 hours of interview time with the committee…and he doesn’t know what is going on? But 24 out of 30 on the committee walked out of those same meetings ready to involuntarily retire a bishop for the first time ever? That total disconnect does not add up.
In summary, the overall statement by those involved is, “this is so sad.” Sad in large part because very few find malice in his action. There is evidence of an acute cluelessness that raises profound pastoral care concerns for this man. I would invite all of us to pray for a redemptive end to this drama, and trauma.