With trepidation I enter the lists on the topic of the reinstatement of Bishop Earl Bledsoe.
(For anyone possibly unaware, Bishop Bledsoe was involuntarily retired by action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy with ratification by the SC Jurisdictional Conference. This move was unprecedented. Bishop Bledsoe appealed to the Judicial Council, who overturned the decision.)
Full disclosure – I got acquainted with Earl while we were episcopal candidates in 2008. I have good memories of sitting around a lunch table or over a cup of coffee as we waited our turn to interview with various delegations. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him and other candidates. Earl Bledsoe is a man of deep Christian faith and conviction, with a vision for a renewed United Methodist Church. I feel great sadness for how things turned out.
Because of that personal connection, I also feel deep reservations about jumping into this painful situation. I think it offers us a good moment for some corporate self-reflection, so I’ll risk it. If we don’t try to learn from this moment, we will wind up thinking only in strictly organizational terms. Is the process fair? Is the Book of Discipline clear?
I want to ask some questions. They’re hard ones. I wish they didn’t sound so personal, because they aren’t. They’re not about Earl Bledsoe. They’re about our collective vision. But they obviously involve Bishop Bledsoe, so they sound, well, awkward. I wish they didn’t.
What were delegates looking at (and for) when they decided that Earl Bledsoe would make a good bishop? What did they see in his resume, his record, that said, “This person will make a good bishop?”
If you consider how much attention we have paid to changing our structures, did we give too much weight to structural experience? To membership on boards? To serving on the cabinet? On the one hand, cabinet experience suggests that the candidate understands the appointive process. But then, when you listen to how people complain about the bishop and cabinet not understanding, does it really matter if a person has cabinet experience?
Does the candidate demonstrate deep, broad and useful (effective) understanding of our doctrines and disciplines? We are generally so averse to doctrine in our denominational life that even the most general of references to something “Wesleyan” seems to satisfy people that this criterion has been met by a candidate. We assume, I suppose, that, since all the candidates are elders in good standing, demonstrated effective, useful knowledge of doctrines and disciplines already has been proven. This is a mistake.
Furthermore, in the calling to teach and defend the faith, does the candidate understand how doctrine and disciplines actually guide our church’s life and mission? Some may think, “What in the world does this ability have to do with leading the mission of the church?” Well, pretty much everything. We seem not to understand just how practical doctrine actually is. Or should be.
Then, is the candidate a good listener? Can s/he absorb and digest diverse and competing perspectives and find common ground and a workable way forward? And can s/he do this in a way that keeps us in touch with our doctrines and disciplines while engaging in the nuts and bolts of leadership? Can s/he listen as an effective pastoral theologian?
Finally, is the candidate known as one who listens intently, with an open heart? And having listened, does the candidate then demonstrate the courage of her/his convictions? Can the candidate handle criticism? Conflict? Does this person thereby demonstrate wisdom? Or, to say it differently, can we trust them as astute, morally sensitive, gentle, courageous leaders? Leaders must lead. Leaders must make controversial and difficult decisions. Only if we trust them will we follow them.
What were we thinking when we elected Earl Bledsoe as bishop? What are we thinking when we elect any bishop?
Remember, my questions are not about Earl. I make no judgment here about him. My questions are about us.
One thought on “A Bishop Reinstated”
What we need to learn from that moment in UMC history is the risk of financial corruption within the Church, and the need to vigilantly manage that risk. Bishop Bledsoe’s termination was rooted in the financial corruption of Episcopacy Chair Donald House. According to the UM News Service, House “want[ed] to enlist bishops and district superintendents to help identify churches for the plan”, in which House was planning to extract millions in consulting fees from local UMC churches through his firm RRC Inc. Also according to the UM News Service, two of the three bishops elected days following Bledsoe’s termination (Bishop McKee and Bishop Harvey) years later publicly endorsed House’s plan. Donald House was thirsty for money, which thirst led him to ignore the Book of Discipline and move Bishop Bledsoe out of his way.