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Race commission addresses Bledsoe case

by Heather Hahn
June 13, 2012

The agency charged with monitoring racial matters in The United Methodist Church is expressing concern prompted by the situation involving Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, an African-American bishop who says he is being pressured to retire.

The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race said that Bledsoe, who oversees the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference, is not making an allegation of racial discrimination, and thus the agency will not pursue the matter on his behalf.

However, the commission said in an open letter to top agency executives that Bledsoe’s case raises “several denominational issues” that the commission must address. The commission’s letter was signed by Erin Hawkins, the commission’s top executive; Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee, its president; and Phoenix Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño, its vice president.

The issues include the question of whether clergy at all levels of the church receive evaluations under “rigorous, consistent and commonly understood policies and processes,” the commission’s letter said.

“Weaknesses in the system of evaluation can potentially make all clergy leaders regardless of race or ethnicity, gender, age or cultural group vulnerable to inequitable or discriminatory behavior and the church to legal action,” said the letter.

Bledsoe, 61 and in his fourth year as bishop, initially announced plans to retire in a video on June 1. Days later, during the North Texas annual gathering, leaders of the conference’s black caucuses introduced a resolution asking Bledsoe to reconsider.

On June 5, Bledsoe surprised many of the clergy and lay people gathered at the conference session when he declared that he was being forced out and he planned to fight. He said he made his decision after prayer and seeing the conference’s positive statistical data, which included a second consecutive year of increased worship attendance.

Late on June 8, the chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy, which oversees Bledsoe, released a statement explaining why the panel asked Bledsoe to retire early.

“While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question,” said the statement from Don House, the committee chair.

Under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, jurisdictional and central conference episcopacy committees can place a bishop in involuntary retirement by a two-thirds vote. The jurisdictional committees assign and evaluate U.S. bishops, and the central conference bodies do the same with bishops in Africa, Asia and Europe.

The Book of Discipline says a bishop can appeal a vote for involuntary retirement to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.’

The full text of the commission’s “Open Letter” concerning Bledsoe and the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference follows:

To the General Secretaries Table of The United Methodist Church,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The recent announcement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe’s intent to retire and his subsequent decision to rescind that action has been a source of significant discussion and concern in our denomination. As leaders of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) we believe that due to the very public nature of this situation involving an African American Bishop and the fact that race has been raised in media reports as well as in a statement made by Bishop Bledsoe during the recent North Texas Annual Conference session, that it is necessary and appropriate for the agency to offer a reflection about what role, if any GCORR might have regarding these matters.

Paragraph 2008 of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2008 gives GCORR responsibility to:

  • Provide channels of assistance to ensure that ethnic and racial group members of The United Methodist Church will have equal opportunity for service, representation and voice on every level of the Church’s life and ministry.
  • Review, evaluate and assist agencies and institutions of the Church as they seek to develop programs and policies to implement the mandate for racial inclusiveness.
  • Review, investigate and conduct hearings where necessary, in response to written allegations of violation of the Church’s policy of racial and ethnic inclusiveness that have not been satisfactorily resolved in the annual conference, any general agency or other institution of the Church.
  • Provide opportunities for multiracial and interethnic dialogue and meetings throughout the Church.
  • Provide programs of sensitization and education at every level of the Church’s life on the nature and meaning of racism-attitudinal, behavioral and institutional.

The leadership of GCORR has been in conversation with Bishop Bledsoe. He has stated that he is not making an allegation of racial discrimination and does not wish to pursue or to have the agency, on his behalf, pursue this matter as racially motivated. It is the policy of the Commission that any formal inquiry of racial discrimination led by the agency requires the written consent of the person experiencing the alleged discrimination. Therefore, GCORR will not be conducting an investigation as outlined in paragraph 2008 of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2008.

We do believe, however, that this situation raises several denominational issues that the GCORR must give attention to:

  1. The use of racially hostile language and characterizations (often but not always made unintentionally) in response to questions of race raised by communities of color.
  2. The question of whether there are rigorous, consistent and commonly understood policies and processes of evaluation for clergy at all levels of the church including District Superintendents and Bishops. Weaknesses in the system of evaluation can potentially make all clergy leaders regardless of race or ethnicity, gender, age or cultural group vulnerable to inequitable or discriminatory behavior and the church to legal action.
  3. The understanding that despite the many advances made in the Church with regards to racial inclusion, strong racial divisions still exist in The United Methodist Church. While these divisions may lie below the surface of our awareness, they are still present and become apparent and strongly felt when the Church engages in difficult conversations where opinions and experiences differ along racial lines. These divisions are generally, but not exclusively, observed as being most intense on the annual conference and local church levels and not only include relationships between the white community and people of color but amongst various communities of color as well.

GCORR will be working diligently to respond to these issues through direct communication, inquiry and partnerships with other denominational entities that have mandates relevant to these matters. We believe that our role is to provide ongoing education on the issue of race and racism, to monitor and support the implementation of fair processes in the life of the Church and to challenge and equip the Church at all levels to live as the fully inclusive and just body of Christ consistent with the aforementioned responsibilities given by the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2008.

We are aware that leaders of National Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Inc. (BMCR) have also been in conversation with Bishop Bledsoe and are reviewing this matter in light of the mission of that organization.

We respect the role of the racial ethnic caucuses and believe that it is important to note that GCORR’s continuing emphasis will be to focus on the responsibilities given to it as an agency of the whole Church.

Let us continue to pray for all of the people of North Texas Conference including the Conference Episcopacy Committee, the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee and Bishop Bledsoe and his family during this painful time.

Bishop Linda Lee
President, GCORR

Erin Hawkins
General Secretary, GCORR

Bishop Minerva Carcaño
Vice President, GCORR

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or