Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 1230
November 09 2012
In Re: Appeal of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe Challenging the Action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference
Digest of Case
Due to the numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process and the inability to articulate what constitutes “best interests of the bishop and/or the Church” as provided in ¶ 408.3(a) of the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference, the Judicial Council overturns the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the affirmation given by the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference in placing Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe in involuntary retired relationship. These decisions are null, void, and of no effect. Further, the Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe be immediately reinstated to his rightful status as an active bishop of The United Methodist Church. The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to an immediate assignment to an episcopal area within the South Central Jurisdiction with restoration of all status, salary, and benefits, retroactive to September 1, 2012, less any amounts for salary and benefits that may have already been paid pending the outcome of this decision. The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to be made whole for all sums, costs, and expenses incurred by him in defense of this action, including, but not limited to, salary, benefits, pension accruals, health, hospitalization, and major medical insurance for himself and his dependents, seniority and tenure of office, relocation expenses, travel and lodging expenses, fees, costs, and related expenses. This amount will be reduced by any funds already received by any contributions provided for the support of Bishop Bledsoe and his defense. It is further requested that the Judicial Council specifically retain jurisdiction of this cause in order to monitor compliance with the terms of its decision and to ensure that the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the executive body of the South Central Jurisdiction perform and fulfill all acts necessary to effect the full intent of the Judicial Council's decision and to ensure that such acts are completed in a prompt and timely manner. The Chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy is directed to provide this information to the Secretary of the Judicial Council by February 17, 2013.
Statement of Facts
The South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, acting under its constitutional mandate in
¶ 50. Article VI that states in part: The jurisdictional conference shall elect a standing committee on episcopacy to consist of one clergy and one lay delegate from each annual conference, on nomination of the annual conference delegation. The committee shall review the work of the bishops, pass on their character and official administration, and report to the jurisdictional conference its findings for such action as the conference may deem appropriate within its constitutional warrant of power. The committee shall recommend the assignments of the bishops to their respective residences for final action by the jurisdictional conferenceand ¶ 412 of the 2008 Discipline which provides for the Review and Evaluation of Bishops, put in place a process to evaluate formally each active bishop of the jurisdiction. The process used a set of questionnaires and follow-up interviews with each bishop by committee representatives and with the full committee. Questionnaires were mailed to all members of annual conference committees on episcopacy along with selected annual conference core leaders and delegates to the General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference in September 2011 and were returned in November 2011. The questionnaires consisted of three parts: the Bishop’s Questionnaire including the self-evaluation questions; an overview of the episcopal area including demographics; and quadrennial profile including an assessment by persons affected by his/her general superintendency. This last part included both open-ended questions and a numerical assessment of the bishop’s gifts for ministry and leadership. As a part of the evaluation of all active bishops in the jurisdiction, the Committee reviewed responses to these questionnaires. In addition, each active bishop was interviewed individually by the full Committee (February 6-7, 2012, and May 24, 2012, for Bishop Bledsoe who was out of the country in February) and by an assigned team of members. As a result of Bishop Bledsoe’s lower scores in comparison with the other active bishops, the Committee conducted additional interviews. Selected committee members sought personal interviews and/or written statements from members of the North Texas Annual Conference delegation members, episcopacy committee members, pastors, local church lay leaders, and the annual conference lay leader. Representatives of the Committee met with Bishop Bledsoe on March 28, 2012, to share the results of the questionnaire. To complete the evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe, the Committee met with him on May 24, 2012, as had been previously scheduled. As a result of these two meetings, members of the Committee again met with Bishop Bledsoe on May 29, 2012. At this time, the Committee members had been authorized by action of the Committee on May 24, 2012, to suggest the bishop take voluntary retirement or the Committee would schedule a hearing to take action for involuntary retirement as prescribed by ¶ 408.3(a). As result of these conversations, Bishop Bledsoe announced via video on May 31, 2012, that he would retire on August 31, 2012. At the end of the Annual Conference Session of the North Texas Annual Conference on June 5, 2012, he made a statement saying he would not retire. On June 8, the chair of the Committee sent a letter to the bishop announcing the hearing for involuntary retirement on July 10, 2012. A further letter was sent on June 15th delaying the hearing until July 16th. Neither letter contained written reasons for the hearing. On July 16 and 17, 2012, the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy held a hearing to consider the involuntary retirement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe. The authority for consideration of involuntary retirement is provided by ¶ 408.3(a) in the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference.
¶408.3. Involuntary Retirement—a) A bishop may be placed in the retired relation regardless of age by a two-thirds vote of the jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy if, after not less than a thirty-day notice in writing is given to the affected bishop and hearing held, such relationship is found by said committee to be in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church. This action may or may not be taken because of the performance of the bishop, and the reason for the action must be clearly stated in the report of the committee. Appeal from this action may be made to the Judicial Council with the notice provisions being applicable as set forth in ¶ 2716.An elder, Zan Holmes, accompanied Bishop Bledsoe, had voice, and served as the bishop’s advocate. On July 17, 2012, the Committee voted for involuntary retirement with a vote of 24 for, 4 against, and 2 abstentions. All members of the Committee were present for the vote. On July 19, 2012, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference received and affirmed the report of the Committee that included the announcement of the vote for the involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe under ¶ 408.3(a). The vote affirming the report carried by 82%. On July 25, 2012, Bishop Bledsoe filed an appeal under ¶ 408.3(a) to the Judicial Council. On October 27, 2012, the Judicial Council acted on a request for a declaratory decision from the South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops as to the constitutionality, meaning, application and effect of the amended ¶ 408.3(a) of 2008 Discipline. This paragraph remains constitutional. See Memorandum 1229. A special meeting of the Judicial Council was held in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 9-10, 2012, to hear the appeal. An oral hearing was held on November 9, 2012. Participating in the hearing were Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, appellant, Jon R. Gray, counsel for Bishop Bledsoe, and Donald House, Chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy.
We find no instructions in the Book of Discipline or in our review of Judicial Council Decisions regarding process required under the involuntary retirement provision.1 An important objective of the Committee is to extend to Bishop Bledsoe fairness in our process. In fulfilling this objective, the Committee seeks to accomplish the following: 1. Deliver to Bishop Bledsoe this statement at least 20 days prior to the scheduled hearing that offers selected evidence, testimonies, and other materials our Committee reviewed in preparation for the hearing. The statement is to contain the grounds for our decision to consider involuntary retirement and the support we have assembled-2 2. lnvite the bishop to fully respond to the statement in person before any vote on involuntary retirement is taken.3 3. Produce an accurate transcript of the proceedings of the hearing, making a copy for Bishop Bledsoe as soon as possible. 4. Respond, as possible, to the requests of legal counsel representing the bishop a) Produce a summary of the development of the evaluation process administered by the Committee b) Produce copies of Committee meeting minutes c) Produce communications between and among members of the Committee related to the process of evaluation 1 The 2012 General Conference added the sentence in ¶ 408.3: "This action may or may not be taken because of the performance of the bishop, and the reason for the action must be stated in the record of the committee." 2 This condition relates to the 2008 Book of Discipline ¶ 362.b(sic) 3 This condition relates to the 2008 Book of Discipline ¶ 362.a(sic)As noted from the footnotes, the committee referenced two disciplinary paragraphs in developing its guidelines. Further guidelines for the hearing were presented to the bishop in a letter dated June 29, 2012. The Committee also agreed to receive video depositions and transcripts from persons selected by the bishop’s counsel and provided some of the material requested by the counsel including minutes of meetings during the quadrennium and the meetings surrounding the intended action of involuntary retirement. In review of the correspondence provided between the co-counsels and the chair of the committee, it was clear there were different understandings of what constituted “fair process” in this situation. The counsels appeared at points to treat this hearing as a trial format, asking for the opportunity for witnesses and items to be read into the formal record. The request for the delay of the hearing to adequately prepare a defense was denied by the chair of the Committee. In reviewing the principles of fair process, the item noted above (the right to receive notice of hearing that advises the respondent of the reason for the proposed action with sufficient detail to allow the respondent to prepare a response) is in question. Part of the discussion of fair process centered on the timeliness of material presented to the bishop and counsel and a difference of understanding about what was to be provided in a timely way. Both parties seem to be choosing various parts of the Discipline to ensure “fair process.” It was not the understanding of the Committee that a written statement about reasons for the hearing needed to be presented at the time written notice of the hearing was conveyed to the bishop. This statement was only provided 20-days prior to the changed hearing date in conjunction with the statement of hearing procedures. In the brief presented on behalf of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, the following statement was made:
The announcements did not include detail concerning the reason for the hearing since such detail was discussed during the team interview on March 28, 2012 and the full committee meeting on May 24, 2012. A 20-page statement detailing specific reasons for the scheduled hearing was delivered to Bishop Bledsoe on June 27, 2012—exactly 20 days before the scheduled hearing.Verbal notification does not take the place of written notification. Paragraph 408.3(a) is clear that a 30-day written notification is required. Paragraph 362.2 refers to an administrative complaint against a local pastor, associate member, provisional member or full member. It must be noted that the 20-day notice referenced in ¶ 362.2(b) has followed several other significant processes, including a written complaint, a supervisory response, the referral of an administrative complaint, and the setting of an administrative hearing. By the time the 20 day notice referenced in ¶ 362.2(b) becomes mandatory, a minimum of 165 days has elapsed during which time the supervisory response has unfolded. Both parties used parts of the Discipline that are not appropriate in this instant situation. The Committee decided to use part of ¶ 362.2 that refers to annual conference processes that are invoked when an administrative complaint has been filed against an elder, et al. This is not the situation in this case. Counsel for the bishop has invoked ¶ 413, the process used in a complaint filed against a bishop. Further, the counsel for the bishop also invoked ¶¶ 2702ff which are the processes that are used in a trial process once a formal complaint has been referred as a judicial complaint. Requests for information made to the committee and for witnesses and/or depositions appear to fit in a trial procedure. Again, this is not the situation in this instant case. No complaint has been filed. No chargeable offense was named by the Committee. It appears that the Committee was cognizant of trying to ensure fair process for the hearing. However, lacking the filing of a complaint or anticipating filing a complaint, the Committee established its own processes and timelines that are not specifically provided by the Discipline. It provided its own interpretation of the section of ¶ 408.3(a) indicating the 30-day written notice requirement as noted above was merely a notification of the hearing. The counsel for the Church held different expectations about timelines, production of documents and processes as related to the 30-day notice. Confusion and misunderstanding resulted from the lack of clarity of process and the confusion between using the mandated 30-day timeline in ¶ 408.3(a) with the expectation of what is normally understood regarding written notification including time, place and full reasons for the hearing and the Committee’s understanding of 20- day requirement cited in ¶ 362.2. An essential element of fair process under church law is the timely delivery of an accurate statement of the reasons for the action proposed. Neither of the notice letters to the Bishop from the Committee contained a statement of reasons for its intended action. Fair process requires that the reasons be given at the time that the notice of the hearing is issued. The failure of the Committee to provide its Statement of Reasons at the time it gave notice of the hearing was a violation of the fair process mandate and of the required aspects of ¶ 408.3(a) that requires a 30-day notice. A further failure of the principles of fair process is contained in the Chair's Statement of Reasons. The Committee minutes of its meeting on May 24, 2012, recorded the decision of the Committee to begin the process for involuntary retirement. This action was affirmed in the Judicial Council oral hearing. Further, there is a discrepancy between the action of the Committee on May 24th and in the 20 page Statement of Reasons presented to the Bishop on June 27, 2012. The Statement of Reasons does not bring forward or fairly mention the reasons that were actually adopted by the Committee. In fact, the Chair's Statement of Reasons candidly admits the following: "This statement provides a set of opinions with support regarding the effectiveness of Bishop Bledsoe’s leadership. This statement does not necessarily reflect a consensus opinion among members of the committee." The chair of the Committee further stated in the hearing that these were “evolving reasons” over time that were modified by further information gathered by the Committee. The principles of fair process require that the decisions of the Committee as recorded in its May 24, 2012, minutes be brought forward into its Statement of Reasons in order to afford the respondent a fair opportunity to address the Committee's stated reasons for its action. Fair process requires that a respondent be presented in a timely manner with copies of all relevant documents and all documents relied upon. The Committee chose to present the first of the required documents 20 days prior to the hearing. According to the material presented to the Judicial Council, other documents were presented in an unfolding basis at the request of counsel for the Bishop. The Committee’s own timeline violated principles of fair process that state that the production of written documents must accompany the notice of hearing. In this regard, the Committee's effort failed. Documentation and oral hearing testimony show that the Chair did not provide some materials and did not believe that providing the materials was necessary for a fair process. A jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy does not have the power to pick and choose portions of the Discipline that it will follow and portions that it will ignore. The Discipline provides no ability for a committee on episcopacy to make use of "alternative" methods of disciplinary process to ensure fair process. Decisions 26 and 156 stand for the proposition that the definition of process is a legislative function reserved to the General Conference and that neither the committee nor a jurisdictional or central conference has license to innovate upon or supply other processes. Separation of Powers A violation of the separation of powers occurred when the South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops issued a “decision of law” upon the request of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy officers. Under the long-standing precedent set by Decision 799, a bishop, or in this case, a college of bishops, has no authority to comment on any administrative or judicial process. There is no disciplinary provision for the college to give direction to a jurisdictional committee or for a committee to turn to the College of Bishops in search of advice – to do so violates separation of powers. The College of Bishops lacks the authority to recommend procedural guidelines for the Committee on Episcopacy and the Jurisdictional Conference. See ¶ 16.5. The disciplinary role assigned to the College of Bishops is limited to its cooperation with the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy in the review and evaluation process, the assignment process (¶ 412), and to their presidential duty whereby bishops preside over sessions of the jurisdictional conference (¶ 52). It is inappropriate for the College of Bishops to provide advice, counsel, direction, or assistance to a committee on episcopacy that is considering any involuntary process against an active bishop. Best Interests of the Church and/or Bishop Paragraph 637 of the Discipline authorizes the annual conference committee on episcopacy to report and articulate the needs of the annual conference to the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy and to make recommendations to the appropriate bodies. The reports of the recommendations are to be made through the elected conference members of the annual conference committee on episcopacy. Under ¶ 412 the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy is required to establish and implement processes that provide for a full and formal evaluation of each active bishop. In its evaluation process, this committee may include other persons such as lay leadership, members of conference cabinets, episcopal peers, and other persons affected by the bishop’s leadership. However, ¶ 412 clearly emphasizes the importance of the role of the annual conference committee on episcopacy and mandates the inclusion of the annual conference committee on episcopacy in such evaluation processes. The report of the chair of the North Texas Annual Conference Committee of the Episcopacy indicates that no one had spoken to him about the dissatisfaction surrounding the bishop and the impending action for involuntary retirement. No statement from the North Texas Annual Conference regarding their episcopal needs was submitted to the Committee or as part of the record. The brief and the additional material presented to the Judicial Council for consideration for both the hearing and this appeal describe the way in which the Committee developed its evaluation process and consultations with the active bishops of the Jurisdiction. The evaluation consisted of three parts: Part A, a personal profile submitted and signed by the bishop; Part B, a demographic and factual analysis filled out by someone in the annual conference; and Part C, an evaluative questionnaire including a gifts analysis that was sent to each member of the episcopacy committee of the annual conference, the core leadership team of the annual conference, and other lay and clergy leaders in the episcopal area. There was no specific soliciting of the annual conferences committees on episcopacy to generate the specific needs for episcopal leadership and to determine the “best interests of the church” in each episcopal area. The Committee studied the demographics of each episcopal area and the perceived trends. They articulated a sense of urgency to do things differently in order to effect growth in this jurisdiction, especially noting the more careful evaluation of bishops. It was out of this analysis that the evaluation tools were developed for each bishop and episcopal area. From this analysis, the criteria for “best interests of the Church” focused on two areas of church growth: worship attendance and numbers of professions of faith. Some interpretive data were presented in material from church growth and leadership consultants. However, in the Judicial Council’s review of the material presented, there seemed to be no one uniform statement of how the material would be interpreted for each bishop. There was no timely articulation of the “best interests for the church in the South Central Jurisdiction.” There was no documentation about what would be the acceptable scores for each of the categories listed. All that was presented in the documentation to this body was the comparison between the low scores of the bishop in question and the remaining 10 bishops’ composite score. Further it is noted that the material from one of the consultants was dated June 2012. This material was sought after the process to place the Bishop on involuntary retirement was substantially underway. It was not applied or shared in the evaluation of the other bishops of the jurisdiction. A review of the transcript of the hearing did not reveal any standard of “best interest” that questioners were posing to the bishop. There was no discussion of church growth, worship attendance or numbers of profession of faith. There did not seem to be any place where “best interest” standards were articulated nor was there a statement presented that held up a vision or goals for ministry against which all bishops would be held accountable, let alone in this instant situation. The documentation of the further interview questions that were asked of the leaders of the North Texas Annual Conference were not provided. There was no indication that similar questions were asked of all the participants in the questioning. The material presented by the Committee in their follow up questioning seemed to focus on those individuals and churches that had problems or issues with the bishop, and/or either the specific district superintendent and/or the bishop within the appointment process. The video depositions provided by counsel for the bishop presented more positive experiences of persons in their interactions with the bishop. These responses did not seem to be acknowledged by the committee members in formal questioning during the hearing. However, nowhere in the material that was presented were discernable underlying criteria used to judge what is best for the church or for the bishop involved. In reviewing the material presented, there were no specific criteria upon which a decision was made. Further, the specific reasons for the recommended action of involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe as mandated by amended ¶ 408.3(a) were not clearly presented in writing to the Judicial Council, nor was the statement of the Committee action in the report presented to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference included in the formal minutes of the Conference. The Judicial Council finds this oversight in violation of ¶ 408.3(a) and calls into question the determination of what constitutes “best interests of the bishop and/or Church.” In most instances the Discipline provides a set of rules and procedures that must be followed. However, as was confirmed by the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, there are no instructions in the Discipline or in Judicial Council Decisions regarding process required under the involuntary retirement provision. Hence, said Committee proceeded as it deemed appropriate and expedient. However, the ambiguities and lack of objective standards of the procedures of the SCJ Committee on Episcopacy were so great that all the parties in the instant case had a different understanding of the process. If the proceedings of the SCJ Committee on Episcopacy were validated, it would create a multiplicity and variety of procedures among the several jurisdictions, establishing different standards for involuntary retirement of a bishop. In accordance with Decision 312, although the legislative history of this old paragraph of the Discipline cannot be ascertained, procedures for the process of the involuntary retirement of a bishop is a matter appropriate for further General Conference action. It would not be appropriate for the Judicial Council to supply this legislation. In order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding and ensure clarity to the process, the Judicial Council believes that the following guidelines should be adhered to in any process for the involuntary retirement of a bishop under ¶ 408.3(a): (a) inclusion of the annual conference committee on episcopacy in the evaluation process; (b) the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy’s written notice to the bishop of at least thirty days, with a clear statement of the reasons for such action attached to or placed in the body of the notice; (c) submission to the bishop, at least thirty days prior to the hearing of all records, documents, etc., relied upon by the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy in the statement of reasons; (d) a hearing; (e) finding by the Jurisdictional or Central Conference Committee on Episcopacy that involuntary retirement is in the best interest of the bishop and/or the Church, as clearly defined by the Jurisdictional or Central Committee of Episcopacy.
Due to the numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process and the inability to articulate what constitutes “best interests of the bishop and/or the Church” as provided in ¶ 408.3(a)of the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference, the Judicial Council overturns the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the affirmation given by the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference in placing Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe in involuntary retired relationship. These decisions are null, void, and of no effect. Further, the Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe be immediately reinstated to his rightful status as an active bishop of The United Methodist Church. The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to an immediate assignment to an episcopal area within the South Central Jurisdiction with restoration of all status, salary, and benefits, retroactive to September 1, 2012, less any amounts for salary and benefits that may have already been paid pending the outcome of this decision. The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to be made whole for all sums, costs, and expenses incurred by him in defense of this action, including, but not limited to, salary, benefits, pension accruals, health, hospitalization, and major medical insurance for himself and his dependents, seniority and tenure of office, relocation expenses, travel and lodging expenses, fees, costs, and related expenses. This amount will be reduced by any funds already received by any contributions provided for the support of Bishop Bledsoe and his defense. It is further requested that the Judicial Council specifically retain jurisdiction of this cause in order to monitor compliance with the terms of its decision and to ensure that the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the executive body of the South Central Jurisdiction perform and fulfill all acts necessary to effect the full intent of the Judicial Council's decision and to ensure that such acts are completed in a prompt and timely manner. The Chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy is directed to provide this information to the Secretary of the Judicial Council by February 17, 2013. Beth Capen was absent. Kurt Glassco, second lay alternate participated in this decision.