Yesterday the Episcopacy Committee of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church voted to involuntarily retire Bishop Earl Bledsoe who has been serving the North Texas Annual Conference. This is somewhat of an unprecedented move and what it means for the church and the future is still not entirely clear.
The committee had already voted once on this issue and told Bishop Bledsoe earlier in the year that he should either retire or would be involuntarily retired. At that time he agreed to retire and even released a statement and video announcing that retirement. But then at the end of his Annual Conference he changed his mind, told the conference he was being forced out and that he would "fight like the devil" to remain a Bishop.
From that point, the committee then released all the reasons why they had done what they had done and what it was based upon. They said that while he clearly had spiritual gifts, they questioned his ability to be an effective leader. As part of their vote they also asked if there was any other annual conference which would be willing to take Bishop Bledsoe as their bishop, and none of them were.
For the past two days, the committee again met with Bishop Bledsoe, then spent considerable time in deliberation before letting him know last night that they had voted 24 in favor or removing him, 4 opposed and 2 abstained. This was more than the 2/3 required to move him to involuntary retirement. Bishop Bledsoe said before this that if he lost that he would appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Council which has the right to do by Discipline. It has not yet been announced if he will in fact appeal or not.
If he does challenge he will remain as a bishop until the Judicial Council can hear the appeal, which would be October at the absolute earliest. That means that some conference, probably North Texas, is going to be served by a Bishop whom few are going to want to follow or even listen to. In addition, the jurisdictional conferences are meeting this week to elect new bishops which means that his position could not be replaced. If the judicial council upholds the committees decision, which I would guess would be likely, a special jurisdictional conference would have to be held costing the church an additional $50-$100,000. Finally, if he were to win at the judicial council I don't know how he could be effective in his leadership role. I certainly would not want him to be appointed to New Mexico, and in conversations with my colleagues here I know that he would have little support or respect. How can you be an effective leader or Bishop if few people respect you?
The church has been talking a lot about effectiveness lately, including the possibility of removing guaranteed appointments for clergy (this is awaiting a judicial council decision as well). If you want to prove that you're serious about effectiveness, you don't go after those at the bottom, you go after those at the top. Firing a janitor does not send nearly as big of a message as firing the CEO, and I think the same is true in the church. Now let me say that I do not believe in any way shape or form that that is why the committee made this decision, but it certainly sends a message.
But, it should also be made clear, and I know it isn't to some, that no formal charges were brought against Bishop Bledsoe and so he is not being defrocked. If his retirement is upheld, he will still be a bishop of the church, with everything that comes with that, it's simply that he will be retired rather than active. He could still serve as a bishop in residence someplace. In addition, it should be noted that I really doubt that elders who are charged with ineffectiveness will be given the same appeal time or possibilities that he received.
I know nothing about Bishop Bledsoe except what I have read in the news stories that have come out about this issue. But I do know three of the people on the committee and trust them to have done what they think is right and appropriate for everyone involved. I truly pray that Bishop Bledsoe takes the committees recommendation and simply retires rather than challenging this. I, and many others, will be praying for the church over this situation knowing that God can bring wonderful outcomes even out of the worst situations.
As a church historian I just have to add that this is not the first time that a bishop has been significantly challenged. Bishop Coke, one of the first bishops in the church, had has hand slapped and his power significantly limited by the conference of the church. In light of the decision about Bishop Bledsoe I am seriously considering writing an article for the Methodist history journal on this subject.