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Bishop vows he’ll fight to stay in post Sam Hodges, Jun 15, 2012
Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
PLANO, Texas—United Methodist Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe announced on June 1 that he was retiring voluntarily, but four days later dramatically reversed the decision, telling members of the North Texas Conference that he was being pushed out and had decided not to stand for it.
“With your help we’re going to fight like the devil to claim the ministry that is here in North Texas,” he said at the close of Annual Conference on June 5, drawing applause from many and a standing ovation by some. “And we ain’t going nowhere unless somebody forces us to go.”
Bishop Bledsoe, in his fourth year of leading the North Texas Conference, told conference members that he was recently “summoned” to a meeting of the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee. He said he was told that he was not wanted back by the North Texas Conference and that his leadership was “so bad” that no other conference in the jurisdiction would have him.
“So with that in mind, I asked, ‘What are my options?’” he recalled. “The committee said I could either take voluntary retirement or they would vote involuntary retirement.”
The North Texas Conference had released a video on June 1, two days ahead of Annual Conference, in which Bishop Bledsoe said he was voluntarily retiring and felt God was leading him in that direction.
But in his address to the conference he said that after praying about the matter with his wife, Leslie, and seeing a positive statistical report on the conference—including a second straight year of increased average worship attendance—he decided not to go quietly.
“We’re going to serve Christ, and I believe that God is not through with North Texas yet,” he told conference members. “But I need your help.”
Bishop Bledsoe’s remarks came at the very end of Annual Conference, as he wrapped up a “sending forth” service for clergy.
“Whether people are supporters or not of the bishop, I think everybody’s pretty shocked,” said the Rev. Eric Folkerth, pastor of Northaven UMC in Dallas.
The bishop’s retirement reversal and vow to fight sets up a showdown with the episcopacy committee that some longtime observers of Methodism said is at least extremely unusual, and may be unprecedented.
Don House, chair of the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee, declined to comment on Bishop Bledsoe’s account. He noted the committee would meet again in mid-June.
“That meeting will be to discuss the situation,” he said.
Bishop Bledsoe told the Reporter that if he’s involuntarily retired by the jurisdictional episcopacy committee, he will appeal to the Judicial Council.
The Rev. Don Underwood is pastor of Christ UMC in Plano and a North Texas Conference member on the jurisdictional episcopacy committee. He said he could not comment now on the committee’s discussions with and about Bishop Bledsoe.
But he did offer an assessment of Bishop Bledsoe’s remarks at the close of Annual Conference.
“I was surprised and saddened by the Bishop’s statement, which I thought was divisive,” Mr. Underwood said. ”He had been so extraordinarily gracious up until now, and I had hoped that he would retire and be duly honored for an exceptional lifetime of service and ministry.”
Bishop Bledsoe’s retirement decision had surprised many. He’s 61, and is finishing his first term as bishop. Episcopal elections for the South Central Jurisdiction are just a few weeks away.
On June 4, African American caucuses of the conference had introduced a resolution asking for Bishop Bledsoe to reconsider. And at a June 5 lunch, the Rev. Jeremiah Booker, chair of the North Texas Black Methodists for Church Renewal, told fellow members he wasn’t convinced Bishop Bledsoe was going voluntarily.
“It just does not pass a smell test,” he said.
A few hours later, after Bishop Bledsoe described the episcopacy committee meeting and announced he would fight to remain, Mr. Booker said: “We were pleased, because now at least everybody knows what happened. And I just can’t think about how much they have experienced, Bishop Bledsoe and Leslie Bledsoe, carrying all that by themselves, holding all that in.”
Mr. Booker added: “Now it’s out on the table and everybody ought to have a response and participate wherever their hearts lead them.” In his retirement announcement, Bishop Bledsoe acknowledged “highs and lows” in his time leading the North Texas Conference.
In late 2011, the UMC’s Judicial Council found that a restructuring plan for the North Texas Conference implemented by Bishop Bledsoe did not comply fully with church law.
Bishop Bledsoe and his family experienced the death of his 9-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Moran, in an accident this past January. In the early part of this year he also faced turmoil through the resignation of Tyrone Gordon as pastor of prominent St. Luke “Community” UMC in Dallas, amid accusations of sexual harassment. Two lawsuits against the church and the North Texas Conference followed. On May 17, the conference released a video in which Bishop Bledsoe said, “It has come to my attention that there is anxiety, fear and even anger among several members of the North Texas clergy.”
In that video, he said he was aware of various concerns, including about how consultations were conducted for clergy appointments. He said he was setting aside extra time to meet with any clergy who wanted to talk.
“I care deeply about you and your families and learning of your distress saddens my heart,” he said.
During his closing remarks at Annual Conference, he emphasized positive statistics, including an improved rate by conference churches in paying 100 percent of their apportionments, an increase in new members and the starting of 16 churches.
“That makes this conference a very, very strong conference,” he said. “And I felt like I had been an effective leader.”
He added, “I don’t know who poisoned the well, but I know when you’re a leader, and you do things a little different, it does make some folk upset.”
Bishop Bledsoe is the third consecutive African American to lead the North Texas Conference, a fact he referred to indirectly at the end of Annual conference. He said he had decided not to mention a certain racial remark, but concluded “I’ve got to get it out there.”
“I heard someone say, ‘When are we going to get a white bishop?’” he told conference members. “That’s hurtful.”
Bishop Bledsoe said he had been fair to all in the North Texas Conference.
“I don’t play favorites,” he said. “I do want to expand the table. And I do want more persons to share in leadership.”
Richard Hearne, who at the Annual Conference finished a four-year term as conference lay leader, said he had reported the incident in question to Bishop Bledsoe and that the bishop was taking it out of context.
Mr. Hearne said that at a conference cabinet meeting about two months ago, discussion turned to low morale in the conference.
“One of the people [in the meeting] said, ‘Well, it’s because we’ve had three black bishops in a row,” Mr. Hearne recalled. “I said at the time, ‘That’s nonsense.’”
Mr. Hearne said that after the meeting, driving to lunch with Bishop Bledsoe, he brought the issue up again.
“I said to Bishop Bledsoe, ‘I have heard dozens and dozens of comments and complaints about your leadership. I have never heard any racial implications at all,’” Mr. Hearne said. “And then I said, ‘Except for one old redneck I know who told me, ‘When are we going to get a white bishop?’”
Mr. Hearne said the man in question was a layperson in his 80s. He added that he had cut the man short. “I told him that I was the conference lay leader, he couldn’t talk like that to me, and I support the bishop,” he said.
Mr. Hearne said he had never had any clergyperson comment on Bishop Bledsoe’s race and had never heard any other layperson do so. “This is not a race issue,” Mr. Hearne said. “It’s being made a race issue by some.”
The Rev. Rebekah Miles, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, said she and many other clergy are feeling “freaked out” by the turn of events.
“The most disorienting piece is now what he did (i.e. changed his mind about retiring), but how, when, where and with whom he did it,” she said by email. “It is extremely rare for any United Methodist elders, especially bishops, to speak in that way about their assignment at a public gathering of the people in their care at the very close of what those people believe to be their last time together as a body with their leader. That’s not something we expect from any elders—especially bishops and especially somebody as kind and good as Bishop Bledsoe.”