By Linda Bloom*
PHOENIX (UMNS) — The Dallas Area bishop who was involuntarily retired in July is to be “immediately reinstated to his rightful status as an active bishop of The United Methodist Church,” the denomination’s top court has ruled.
In its Nov. 10 decision, the United Methodist Judicial Council overturned the action of the South Central Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy and “the affirmation” of that action by the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference regarding Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe. The council cited “numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process” and “the inability to articulate” what the “best interests” of the church or of the bishop or of both would be.
One council member submitted a written dissent from the majority position on the ruling and another offered a partial concurrence and partial dissent. The Rev. William Lawrence, Judicial Council president, also filed a concurrence.
Bledsoe, 62, a first-time bishop who had overseen the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference for the past four years, was forced to retire Aug. 31. His status had been in limbo pending the results of his appeal to Judicial Council, which was considered during a Nov. 9-10 special session in Phoenix.
In its ruling, the council said Bledsoe is entitled to an immediate episcopal assignment in the South Central Jurisdiction; to restoration of all status, salary and benefits and to compensation for costs “incurred by him in defense of this action.”
Judicial Council will “monitor compliance with the terms of its decision,” ensuring action by the South Central Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy and the jurisdiction’s executive body “in a prompt and timely manner.” The committee’s chair, Don House, was directed to provide a report by Feb. 17, 2013.
House appeared before the council during a Nov. 9 oral hearing on the appeal. Bledsoe, who was present with his wife, Leslie, was represented by Jon Gray, an attorney, lay member of the Missouri Annual Conference, and Judicial Council member from 2004 to 2012.
Because of the number of questions asked by council members — mostly on matters of process — the hearing stretched to nearly three hours.
Gray argued that the actions resulting in Bledsoe’s involuntary retirement were “unprecedented” because those actions were unlawful and unauthorized by the Book of Discipline. He told the council that “numerous prejudicial errors of church law” were committed by the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference and the jurisdiction’s college of bishops.
The situation involving Bledsoe arose during the committee’s evaluation process of the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopal leaders. Concerns over his leadership led to the push toward retirement. The bishop initially announced his plans to retire and then changed his mind. The committee responded with a public letter about the mixed results of his evaluation.
On July 16-17, the committee on episcopacy conducted a hearing on the issue before deliberating for about nine hours. The decision resulting in Bledsoe’s involuntary retirement was backed by the jurisdictional conference.
The decision to vote for involuntary retirement was extremely difficult, House said during the hearing. Although two abstained from voting and four committee members were in opposition, “not one member out of 30 said we did not have merit” to make the decision.
House said the criteria the committee used in assessing Bledsoe included information on worship attendance and professions of faith. The question, he explained, was whether the bishop could lead North Texas “in a turnaround” on declining numbers in both categories. “It is our opinion that if we do not grow the church…there will be a day when we collapse in the United States,” he told the council.
House said they had hoped to find a way for Bledsoe to use his spiritual gifts in a retirement position but pointed out he had lost the confidence of the clergy in his conference and elsewhere in the jurisdiction.
“We believe it would have been a train wreck for him to go back to North Texas,” he told the Judicial Council. “We did not find a place that would welcome Bishop Bledsoe.”
Bledsoe, who spoke briefly during the hearing, said that, contrary to House’s assertions, there has been growth in North Texas. However, after the action of the committee on episcopacy, “I felt like the work I had done the last three and a half years was all for nothing.”
The appeal was heard “under the directives” found in Paragraph 408.3(a) of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s lawbook. That paragraph, amended by the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, provides some specific guidelines on placing a bishop in retirement involuntarily.
Judicial Council, which had ruled in October that the paragraph “remains constitutional,” said in its decision that arguments “about whether the process was constitutional are now deemed to be irrelevant. We reviewed the process in light of fairness, equity, justice, legality and timeliness of the process.”
Gray argued the committee on episcopacy misapplied the paragraph’s provisions. He pointed out that neither the committee nor the jurisdictional conference “is authorized to piece together a process” to involuntarily retire a bishop.
“The fundamental issue you have to decide is whether a bishop can be deprived of lawful life tenure without the referral of a complaint,” he said.
House explained that the committee’s two guiding principles for its actions were protecting the dignity of the bishop and the dignity of the church. Using a complaint process that could lead “to what we might call the death penalty,” he said, referring to a surrender of a bishop’s consecration papers. That outcome did not fit in with the committee’s principles.
The council’s decision acknowledged the committee’s attempt to ensure fair process for the July hearing on Bledsoe. But because a complaint was not filed, “the committee established its own processes and timelines that are not specifically provided by the Discipline.”
The council found “no specific criteria upon which a decision was made” in the material it received from the committee on episcopacy. Specific reasons for “the recommended action of involuntary retirement” of Bledsoe were not presented in writing and the statement of the committee’s action was not included in the formal minutes of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.
Concurrence and dissent
Kurt Glassco, the second lay alternative member to the Judicial Council, was seated in place of Beth Capen, who was absent because she had been undergoing treatment for Lyme Disease.
Glassco dissented from the decision, writing that the committee on episcopacy had properly exercised its authority and “should be permitted to make deductions and reach conclusions which reason and common sense lead them to draw from the facts which they found to have been established by the testimony and evidence in the matter.”
Lawrence’s concurrence, also signed by the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko and the Rev. Kathi Austin-Mahle, noted that an overwhelming vote by the committee to retire Bledsoe and an overwhelming affirmation of the vote by the jurisdictional conference “do not alter or mitigate the flaws in the process that the committee followed.”
Ruben Reyes dissented from the council’s conclusion regarding the committee’s “numerous errors in violation of fair process,” noting its work beyond the call of duty but concurred with the majority opinion that the “not-so-clear process… cast a shadow on the propriety of the procedure followed.”
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.