Further Reflections on Bishop Bledsoe and the Nature of Grace

Further Reflections on Bishop Bledsoe and the Nature of Grace July 21, 2012

The Nature of Grace

I’ve got the whole concept of grace heavy on my mind today.  In a world held together by a gracious God, I am more and more aware that we don’t always receive what we want and never receive what we deserve.

Others have written eloquently about this subject, particularly Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ,”  and Philip Yancey, “God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell… In the bottom line realm of ungrace, some workers deserve more than others; in the realm of grace the word ‘deserve’ does not even apply.”

Troubling Events

I will not write with such eloquence, but I do write with these things in mind: the troubling events of the last week where Bishop Bledsoe was involuntarily retired and then not given the an episcopal appointment he expected assuming an appeal of the ruling for the involuntary retirement.

According to the reports, the committee who had the responsibility of evaluating Bishop Bledsoe’s work chose to take the path they saw as most compassionate and most gracious:  encourage him to take voluntary retirement so he could go out with honor and with reputation essentially intact.  Then he could assume, without stain or question, some of the responsibilities and privileges that are awarded to retired bishops.

Bishop Bledsoe indicated that he would have rather this be fought by people filing formal charges against him and duking it out in a church court.  Those charges may now be filed, so he may have his wish.

Which Option Most Gracious?

Now, which of those choices most fully represents the kind of grace we hope to receive from God?

I will readily tell you that my sympathies are with the first options–an honorable way out, reputation intact, and damage control beginning.  But there is a major downside:  truth will not fully be told and rumors will abound.  Real healing does not take place in an atmosphere of secrets and partial truths.  And there is a bundle of healing that needs to take place here.

This is an important issue, not just for us, but for the larger world of Christianity.  I’ve written more about that here.

The second option troubles me because it means drawing sides, determining winners and losers, and the introduction of lawyers into the mix.  There is a reason why the Apostle Paul was horrified nearly 2000 years ago to learn that Christ-followers have taken their conflicts to courts.  Lawyers have important functions, but bringing out healing truth is not among them.  Rarely does graciousness invade the courtroom.

We Must Acknowledge Sin

So I go back to the nature of God and what it means that God is gracious to us.  I know that when I don’t acknowledge my own sins, I am simply unable to gain freedom from them.  I must name them in order to find forgiveness.  I must repent in order to move in a different direction.

When grace permeates that process, my confessions are done with a combination of hope and tears, but without fear of a punitive response from the hand of God.  Nonetheless, I will indeed experience human results of choosing sin over righteousness.

Why?  Because God must also hold with gracious tenderness those who have been hurt by my sin.  Sin is never an individual act. It always affects the larger community.  Even so called “victimless” sins stain the soul. A stained soul, particularly one laden with secrets that must not be disclosed for fear of repercussions, cannot freely move within any relational activity, be it family, church, friends or workplace.  There are always wider ramifications.  Always.

The Necessity of Church Discipline

Since God must hold with grace those in the larger community as well as the individual, and since all want the fullness of grace (even if not knowing those words or having a real understanding of the concept) restoration becomes a communal act.  Sometimes that restoration means that the individual, especially one who will not acknowledge wrongdoing, must be sent from the community.  This is what the Scriptures mean in the passages about church discipline.

I have heard horror stories about people being kicked out of churches for the most trivial of reasons. I have talked with numerous deeply wounded people who have experienced the worst of a rigid, judgmental, and apparently hate-filled churches.  The decision to ask someone to leave a community must be done with multiple safeguards and with careful awareness of our own need for grace.  Sometimes, however, like it or not, expulsion is the most gracious of all acts.

Let’s go to the behavior of children for an illustration.  When children are not taught how to conduct themselves in a manner in which they recognize the rights of others as well as their own, they are set up for a lifetime of rejection.  It is not gracious to let rude, insensitive bullies have their way.  It is not gracious to refrain from teaching children self-control so they have the tools to navigate schools and workplaces.  It is not gracious to reward or even ignore tantrums and selfish acts, for the child not properly corrected and taught more healthy ways to deal with human interactions will grow into an incompetent adult. Sometimes, we need to expel children for a time from the community until more adequate decisions about behavior are reached and implemented.

Simply, grace sometimes means we don’t get what we want, but means we get what we need to move to maturity, be it spiritual, social, physical or intellectual.

We Don’t Get What We Deserve

The other side of grace is that we also don’t get what we fully deserve.  Those who are willing to receive grace, and the correction, teaching, instruction and shaping that comes from grace, begin to gain eyes and develop sensitive souls that perceive the Kingdom of Heaven. They find the entrance to that holy place.

Do any of us deserve entrance?  Certainly not.  We are given an invitation–but we do need to be clothed in the proper clothes. Those clothes are given in the acts of repentance coupled with willingness to receive correction.

To go back to this situation with Bishop Bledsoe, it appears that some seek did offer correction and that he received them as those who either had different opinions or were operating out of sour grapes.  Could they have spoken more strongly?  Perhaps.  I think there is a language issue here, and I’ve written about it here.  But why would that become necessary?

At some point, the habit of not listening to correction becomes ingrained in human hearts, minds and souls. People become like hardened soils where the seeds are eaten by birds and the blessing of rain just runs off, unable to sink in.  Then the sweet invitation to confession, repentance, restoration and adjusted paths can no longer find response.

Was the Resolution Gracious?

So, has what happened been gracious to all concerned?  I am saying a qualified yes.  I suspect the original decision to encourage the Bishop to retire without the necessity of disclosing more fully the problems moved a bit close to cheap grace, although done with the best of intentions. The Bishop’s refusal to receive it this way ended up moving us closer to real grace–because some things have had to be disclosed.  The decision to remove him from episcopal leadership for the present shows a wider grace to the larger connection as well as to Bishop Bledsoe, for it would not be possible at this time for him to serve without significant shadow and for genuine trust relationships to build.

The more full manifestation of grace will appear as every participant or observer of this very tough situation seeks greater capacities for self-reflection and lovingly-given, truth-based accountability.

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  • Angie Hammond

    I’m still unclear even after reading everything you’ve posted and what I can find online just exactly what Bishop Bledsoe did or didn’t do that caused the issue with his trustworthiness. If you can explain it in a way that someone unfamiliar with the working of the UMC could understand, that would be great. If you can’t add more to what has been said then I understand. I do have one question that still rattles around in my head about all of this. It is kind of like the pink elephant in the middle of the room that everyone sees, but doesn’t see if you know what I mean. It is the question about the lawsuits over the Tyrone Gordon sex issues and what the Bishop knew or didn’t know and what he did or didn’t do. I keep remembering him just dropping the whole issue after Gordon gave up his UMC credentials to avoid church discipline or so it seemed at the time. I keep asking could this have some bearing on the whole trustworthiness issue? Whatever the reasons those on the committee chose to involuntarily retire him , I agree with you that grace is what is needed in this whole situation along with repentance and forgiveness. Only those who know the whole truth know what sins need to be confessed to God. It is up to the rest of us to have faith that God will not only forgive us all our sins but offer to all his Grace as well. Thank you once again for writing about the hard issues in a way that glorifies God Calling us to examine our own motives and challenging us to live as children of God.

  • Angie Hammond

    I’m still unclear even after reading everything you’ve posted and what I can find online just exactly what Bishop Bledsoe did or didn’t do that caused the issue with his trustworthiness. If you can explain it in a way that someone unfamiliar with the working of the UMC could understand, that would be great. If you can’t add more to what has been said then I understand. I do have one question that still rattles around in my head about all of this. It is kind of like the pink elephant in the middle of the room that everyone sees, but doesn’t see if you know what I mean. It is the question about the lawsuits over the Tyrone Gordon sex issues and what the Bishop knew or didn’t know and what he did or didn’t do. I keep remembering him just dropping the whole issue after Gordon gave up his UMC credentials to avoid church discipline or so it seemed at the time. I keep asking could this have some bearing on the whole trustworthiness issue? Whatever the reasons those on the committee chose to involuntarily retire him , I agree with you that grace is what is needed in this whole situation along with repentance and forgiveness. Only those who know the whole truth know what sins need to be confessed to God. It is up to the rest of us to have faith that God will not only forgive us all our sins but offer to all his Grace as well. Thank you once again for writing about the hard issues in a way that glorifies God Calling us to examine our own motives and challenging us to live as children of God.

  • John

    Speaking as a member of the New Mexico Conference, which was mostly a bystander to this event; but now has no episcopal leader, is likely to have a year of leadership tumult, and may be assigned a bishop who appears to have done harm to the North Texas Conference, I am a bit less certain about the quality of grace here. I also note that some churches in New Mexico who were in the now dissolved Rio Grande Conference, may be dissuaded from becoming part of the New Mexico Conference because they don’t want to be part of this mess.

  • John

    Speaking as a member of the New Mexico Conference, which was mostly a bystander to this event; but now has no episcopal leader, is likely to have a year of leadership tumult, and may be assigned a bishop who appears to have done harm to the North Texas Conference, I am a bit less certain about the quality of grace here. I also note that some churches in New Mexico who were in the now dissolved Rio Grande Conference, may be dissuaded from becoming part of the New Mexico Conference because they don’t want to be part of this mess.

    • Dear John, thank you for taking the time to post. I have wondered at the process that put your conference in this tenuous situation. I fully expected Bishop Bledsoe to be back here in North Texas and had no idea how we were going to survive it. At this point in the process, I have this sense that the church is being held hostage to Bishop Bledsoe’s determination to go forward at any cost, no matter how much destruction comes with it. I do hope the two retired Bishops will offer wise guidance for the time being.

      • John

        Dear Christy, my understanding from a distance is that the Episcopacy Committee understood the harm that could be done if Bishop Bledsoe were sent back here to North Texas and did all that they could to prevent that from happening. When it became clear that one area would be without a bishop, New Mexico / North West Texas volunteered. Rev’d. Rodney Steele, the lead clergy delegate from Missouri Annual Conference posted the following on facebook: “For those of you who have followed the retirement news of Bishop Bledsoe, you know that one episcopal area, the one with New Mexico and Northwest Texas, is willing to not have an episcopal assignment until this is sorted out by the Judicial Council. I do not believe it is a breach of confidentiality to say that when they expressed their willingness to do this on behalf of the church, it was a holy moment of servant leadership that I hope will receive its due honor and appreciation. Thank you to Rev. Jeff Lust, Ms. Donna TeBrink, Rev. Jim Nunn and Judge Ron Enns for their faith and spirit as well as to all the United Methodists of the Albuquerque Episcopal Area. Also, deep appreciation for Bishops Solomon and Hutchinson for serving there in the interim.” I have great faith in and appreciation of Rev. Jeff Lust and Ms. Donna TeBrink, the New Mexico Conference delegates; but am cynical enough to believe that this was also, to some extent, accepting graciously what was going to happen anyway. Another blogger from the Missouri Conference characterizes the New Mexico / Northwest Texas delegation as “too small a delegation to have any impact on the elections. Even voting together in a bloc their collective voice was hardly more than a whisper on the floor of the conference. Stated bluntly, the bigger conferences organize efficiently and end up getting exactly what they want. Again, that’s not a criticism; that’s simply how it works.” North Texas is one of the bigger conferences and certainly did not want Bishop Bledsoe back. I have no concerns at all with regard to the interim bishops. Bishop Hutchinson is an excellent, godly leader and the New Mexico Conference was delighted when he became the first member of the Conference to be elected bishop in the history of our conference. I have more concerns about the longer term. What was done made Bishop Bledsoe a de facto set aside bishop. Since the Council of Bishops could not have a set aside bishop without a constitutional amendment, I am concerned about the constitutionality of those actions. There may also be constitutional issues related to the Discipline provisions permitting bishops to be involuntarily retired. The Judicial Council has never reviewed them. Even if the involuntary retirement is upheld, I suspect that we will have interim bishops for the quadrennium. I can’t see the church spending the money to hold a special jurisdictional conference just to elect one bishop for a small episcopacy.

        • Thank you for shedding light on what happened with the decision to leave the West Texas/New Mexico Conference without an episcopal appointment. Yes, no matter how that happened, it was indeed a deeply gracious offer on their part.

          I, too, wondered if we suddenly had a “set-aside” Bishop with the current resolution. That can’t stand. Again, everyone is trying to make this as easy as possible on Bishop Bledsoe, who seems to be unable to see the efforts that have been expended on his behalf.

  • Don Wiley

    Because this began, legally, as a personnel matter and is/will be a personnel issue for the purposes of legal challenges, certain matters are confidential and leaking those would likely legally endanger the UMC. Having said that, it spoke volumes to me about the nature, strength and severity of the charges when the jurisdictional College of Bishops voted to involuntarily retire him immediately.

    These men and women were his colleagues, not ‘a few disgruntled conference members’ or ‘people working some back room deals’ – images Bishop Bledsoe and supporters had used in his defense. Speculation about the exact matters is just that – speculation or gossip. I am comfortable with the fact that his colleagues, men and women, black, brown and white, chose to support the jurisdictional lay/clergy committee.

    The allegations of deals and ‘a few disgruntled people’ simply don’t square with the _process_ involved. Unless Bishop Bledsoe is telling us he (1) only alienated the 9 or 10 members of the NTCUMC Episcopal Committee and the 24 out of 30 members of the Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee or (2) somehow, the men and women of North Texas did some horse tradin’ (with what and for what I am not quite sure…) with the rest of the jurisdiction to secure their votes, I trust the process because of the people and the PAIN involved. This was never undertaken lightly and would not have been endured over minor, fatuous ‘personality differences’.

    I have faith in the process, I am sorry we had to go through it, I am thankful to the men and women who had the courage to do so, and pledge to do better. I am ready to move forward in grace and reconciliation.

  • Don Wiley

    Because this began, legally, as a personnel matter and is/will be a personnel issue for the purposes of legal challenges, certain matters are confidential and leaking those would likely legally endanger the UMC. Having said that, it spoke volumes to me about the nature, strength and severity of the charges when the jurisdictional College of Bishops voted to involuntarily retire him immediately.

    These men and women were his colleagues, not ‘a few disgruntled conference members’ or ‘people working some back room deals’ – images Bishop Bledsoe and supporters had used in his defense. Speculation about the exact matters is just that – speculation or gossip. I am comfortable with the fact that his colleagues, men and women, black, brown and white, chose to support the jurisdictional lay/clergy committee.

    The allegations of deals and ‘a few disgruntled people’ simply don’t square with the _process_ involved. Unless Bishop Bledsoe is telling us he (1) only alienated the 9 or 10 members of the NTCUMC Episcopal Committee and the 24 out of 30 members of the Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee or (2) somehow, the men and women of North Texas did some horse tradin’ (with what and for what I am not quite sure…) with the rest of the jurisdiction to secure their votes, I trust the process because of the people and the PAIN involved. This was never undertaken lightly and would not have been endured over minor, fatuous ‘personality differences’.

    I have faith in the process, I am sorry we had to go through it, I am thankful to the men and women who had the courage to do so, and pledge to do better. I am ready to move forward in grace and reconciliation.

  • I don’t know much about these cases (Bledsoe or Gordon) but I do know the United Methodist church has a very bad habit of protecting it’s own, investigating it’s own pastors and providing little for the victims of these ministers. I know because it happened to me and I didn’t turn the pastor in since I knew no one would believe me…he was that popular and his Bishop at the time protected him.

    The pattern is there to protect the wrong people.

  • I don’t know much about these cases (Bledsoe or Gordon) but I do know the United Methodist church has a very bad habit of protecting it’s own, investigating it’s own pastors and providing little for the victims of these ministers. I know because it happened to me and I didn’t turn the pastor in since I knew no one would believe me…he was that popular and his Bishop at the time protected him.

    The pattern is there to protect the wrong people.

    • Ellen, I have heard other stories about this situation–yes there apparently has been a pattern. This move to hold Bishop Bledsoe accountable is an important corrective step to stop the good ol’ boy system and bring more openness and health to it.

      Thank you for taking the time to write.