Are We A Racist Conference? Response to The Rev. Dr. Henry Masters, Sr.

Are We A Racist Conference? Response to The Rev. Dr. Henry Masters, Sr. August 30, 2012

A racist conference? I don’t think so. This is not the career path of a man who has been held back by race. It is the career path of very, very few clergy in our connection. It is a path of privilege and of increasing prestige, responsibility, and financial comfort. If race has ever been a factor, it was a factor in his favor, not against it.


Are we a racist conference?Are we a racist Conference (North Texas) and Jurisdiction (South Central)? An extraordinarily incendiary article recently published in the United Methodist Reporter by the Rev. Dr. Henry L. Masters, Sr., the current pastor of St. Luke “Community” UMC, makes that accusation.

Masters wrote:

Under the guise of “increasing accountability” lurks a “plantation politics” riddled with paternalism, white male chauvinistic elitism and protectionism. The minds of SCJ members seemed made up regardless of what was presented. The SCJ Episcopacy Committee Chair led the delegates through a litany of self-serving innuendos and “possible charges and complaints.” I was so offended by his implication that they were doing this for the Bishop’s own good. Black people know all too well how it feels to have overseers say “we know what is good for you.

In a later paragraph, we read, “One more black man has been made ‘homeless.’ This action has turned back the clock on race relations farther than any of us ever imagined it could go.”

So, is Dr. Masters correct?

Bishop Bledsoe’s Career

I researched Bishop Bledsoe’s career. According to the biographical information, Bishop Bledsoe wrote when he was in the running for the episcopal seat, he graduated from SMU Perkins School of Theology in 1985. He doesn’t give the date of his ordination as Elder, but let us assume that took place within the next couple of years, say by 1987. After a few years as Associate in a large church, and a three-year term overseeing the Teaching Ministries of the Texas Conference (he did not appear to be appointed to a particular charge during that time), Bledsoe was appointed Senior Pastor of the very large Cypress UMC.

So, approximately six years after ordination, Rev. Bledsoe took a giant leap up the clergy career ladder. Another promotion seven years later takes him to an even larger, more prestigious church. Two years after that, he is named District Superintendent and finally elected Bishop in 2008—around 20 years after his ordination.

This is not the career path of a man who has been held back by race. It is the career path of very, very few clergy in our connection. It is a path of privilege and of increasing prestige, responsibility, and financial comfort. If race has ever been a factor, it was a factor in his favor, not against it.

The Fallacy of Metrics

But things went bad during his years at Bishop at the NTAC. Morale plummeted, complaints mounted. Masters mentions “objective evidence” of increased worship attendance, apportionment payments and church starts to support his contention that the decision to remove Bishop Bledsoe from active Episcopal leadership was based entirely on race, not on his effectiveness.

I’ve stated this before, but will do so again. The vast, vast majority, if not all of the church plants which were responsible for that increase had been in the planning and working stages several years before Bledsoe took office. The pointing out of those statistics as proof of effectiveness both by Bledsoe and by others indicates a huge gap in their understanding of basic administrative principles and also indicates character problems. The credit for those increases does not belong to Bishop Bledsoe. Insistence on using them points to incompetence and hubris, not effectiveness.

It’s Called “Christian” not “Racist”

The Episcopacy Committee evaluated every Bishop in this Jurisdiction. Bishop Bledsoe was not singled out for punishment. He was, however, singled out in this respect: he was treated in the way that the members of the Episcopacy Committee themselves would have like to be treated when faced with similar circumstances. He was offered a gracious way through this.

Dr. Masters, this is called “Christian,” not racist. This is called living out of the Spirit of the Law—the higher calling to which we are all subject.

Yes, we have our courts. But to go to them as a first resort rather than our last resort is so profoundly unbiblical that most of us recoil from the thought.

Courts do not bring out truth. They bring out the bullies and the twisting and obstruction of the truth. What happens in most courts is exactly the type of thing that Jesus railed about in his condemnation of the lawyers of his day: they got the letter of the law right, but totally forgot about charity, kindness, generosity, and the biblical awareness that loves covers a multitude of sins.

Bishop Bledsoe was offered charity. That’s what we do for one another. He himself may not have modeled it to many in this Conference, but it was still offered to him, because that was the right thing to do. That’s what Christians do.

What Constitutes Healing

Masters speaks of healing for this conference. So have many others.

But what will healing look like?

Must a Conference acknowledge racism that didn’t exist for our brothers and sisters with different skin colors to be able to find peace? That would be stating a lie, and healing needs truth.

Will Bishop Bledsoe have to be restored to his episcopal position in the North Texas Conference for some to find healing? What about those who find such an option anathema? Will they be denied healing then?

“Lord, Have Mercy”

One commentator wrote this about Dr. Master’s article:

Plantation politics. One more black man made “homeless.” White male chauvinistic elitism. Perhaps the contributor is expressing loyalty to the bishop who has appointed him to a mega-church. But if this in any way, shape or form represents Bishop Bledsoe’s own attitude, it helps me understand why the Jurisdictional Conference voted for his removal. A white pastor using this kind of inflamatory [sic] language regarding minority persons would, quite properly, be brought up on charges.

Dr. Masters has brought harm upon us with this kind of rhetoric. His words bring greater racial division—surely deeply grievous in the sight of our Holy God who has called us to oneness and unity. I assume, however, that Masters wrote this with the best of intentions, seeking justice for one who has been a friend, and who brought him back to this Conference and to one of the most prestigious pulpits in the nation. He writes what he sees. That’s what we all do.

Our positions often determine our truths. There is no one “objective” truth here any more than there is an objective standard for clergy or episcopal effectiveness. All we can do is sit around the table, seeking holy discernment, knowing that all of us have been betrayed by just about everyone else and say, “Father, forgive them—and forgive me—because we really don’t know what we are doing.

Until we can all say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” and quit standing in the prominent spot in the temple proclaiming our innocence, we have no hope.

But I agree with the commentator: no white pastor could, or should, get away with writing something like this. So, is racism alive and well in this conference? Yes, it very well may be, but not in the way described by Dr. Masters.

Yes, Lord, have mercy upon us, sinners all.


Photo credit: levork on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA


 


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  • Don Wiley

    I profess and confess to being brought up in a racist world. There, I said it. My grandparents used the ‘N’ word as an everyday noun, not an epithet. Theirs was a world of ‘separate but equal’, when things were certainly separate but never equal. That is not the world in which we, Bishop Bledsoe and Dr. Masters live. It is irresponsible, hateful speech to summon the visceral images of plantations, slavery, and a ‘homeless black man’ to this discussion/dispute – a dispute which the Bishop himself has made a particular point of saying is not racist or race-based. I must ask what the purpose of such untrue (per Bishop Bledsoe), divisive and hateful speech might be.

    People have made and will continue to make race-based decisions, on everything from pew mates to cellmates. Race is a decision factor in everyday life – from how our tax dollars are distributed to selecting who is given preferential treatment in college admissions, employment and promotion opportunities. Race-based decision making is a major factor in politics – just look at the polling data from the previous election and listen to the fear-based appeals from those seeking election.

    The United Methodist Church is hidebound in gender, race and ethnicity based employment and promotions. We have clearly put women and men in positions for which they were not suited, all on the altar of ‘inclusivity’ (we can talk about that false idol some other time): how is this ANY different than promoting an ill-suited middle-aged white male elder over a deserving Latina elder because he was white or male or both? Short answer – it isn’t.

    I am not talking about people growing into their positions – gender, ethnicity and race-based decision making has a very mixed record for us. When we leave all doors open to all people, we do well. When we open a side door and have a separate shortcut available to persons based on skin, not skill, color, not calling, we are telling God ‘we have a better plan, You can take a break and sit this one out’.

    If we want to be brothers and sisters in the faith, we must see, treat and respect each other as we are where we are – not as life ONCE was, not as an incendiary sound bite with which one can summon centuries of pain and anger and certainly not as media negotiating tools. The sad thing about this entire journey is how it has become all about ‘rights’ and ‘fairness’ – very legal and highly individual concepts. How is it that the best interest of the CHURCH, the role to which a bishop is called and the reason why he/she is given an actual shepherd’s crook as a tactile and visual reminder of that role, has gotten lost in all this discussion?

    • Don, your words brought back to me my years in the fundamentalist world of Christianity that was so completely male-dominated. I finally figured out that a female, no matter how well qualified, called and gifted to a ministry position would be supplanted by any male, no matter how little qualified, or lacking in necessary calling or gifts, just as long as she showed up. Yes, discrimination takes many forms. You have hit it clearly here.

  • Glenda

    Thanks for speaking out. Glenda and Brian

  • John

    This situation is complex and certainly painful for those in the North Texas Conference and for those of us in other parts of the South Central Jurisdiction who have been affected by the action of the Jurisdictional Conference. (To my knowledge, the North West Texas and New Mexico Conferences are losing their bishop effective September 1 and the Council of Bishops has taken no action to appoint an interim bishop or bishops.) There seem to be a few points that are evident. First, if we define racist as making decisions (at least in part) based on race, then we are racist. Races are arbitrary combinations of physiological and ethnic characteristics that people have created to influence their decision making. When racism disappears so do races. (Does anyone even remember the” Irish race” that was so strongly discriminated against in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?) Was Bishop Bledsoe a victim of the Peter Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle) who might have been a more effective bishop if his career path had included more experience at lower levels in the hierarchy? Would a bishop of a different race with similar weaknesses have been understood better and considered more effective? There is no way to know the answers to these hypothetical questions.

    One thing that appears certain is that mistakes were made. How could someone who was considered to have the gifts, graces, and charisma to be elected a bishop have become so ineffectual in a mere four years? Something seems clearly wrong with our criteria for bishop selection, evaluation, or both. What were members of the Episcopacy Evaluation Committee thinking when they implied that chargeable offenses by Bishop Bledsoe had been covered up in the interest of “grace”? Such allegations were potentially unjust to Bishop Bledsoe, who was forced to try to defend himself against vague allegations, and undermined the credibility of our church leadership in general. If chargeable offenses had been committed, where was our leaders’ compassion for those victimized? It seems that there is a need for a small group of uninvolved laity and clergy, including bishops, to investigate the entire situation to see what lessons can be learned to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

    • I really like the idea of an outside group taking a look at what happened here and doing so in a non-condemnatory stance. If it could be done with only this thought: “what did we do wrong and how can we improve the process the next time around?”, instead of “what did you do wrong and how can we hang you in public and in the courts?”, then perhaps this could be a powerful learning experience for all of us.

    • “What were members of the Episcopacy Evaluation Committee thinking when they implied that chargeable offenses by Bishop Bledsoe had been covered up in the interest of “grace”? Such allegations were potentially unjust to Bishop Bledsoe, who was forced to try to defend himself against vague allegations, and undermined the credibility of our church leadership in general. If chargeable offenses had been committed, where was our leaders’ compassion for those victimized? It seems that there is a need for a small group of uninvolved laity and clergy, including bishops, to investigate the entire situation to see what lessons can be learned to prevent something like this from ever happening again”.

      This comment from John above is right on target. This aspect of the crisis has been really ignored. Those victimized are yet to hear a word regarding restitution or accountability related to other Conference leaders who were complicit in the run up to the final chapter, etc. This is far from simply a “Bishop Bledsoe effectiveness issue”. There was systemic wrong doing by others in leadership positions in the North Texas Conference, but the verdict is still out on weather any other folk will feel some of the heat that the Bishop got. I’m sure these leaders are working feverishly to avoid the search light, and so far they seem have done that.

  • This blog post twists my heart.

    I’ve been in an interracial relationship for 16 years. I’m caucasian.

    It’s through this relationship that I have encountered my own racism — and there is a lot of pain associated with that. This relationship confronted me with the privilege I never knew I had.

    In reading this, I have a sensory memory of the moments when I encountered my racism and privilege, even as I denied having either. In my experience, one can enumerate concrete evidence — “observed behavior” — that proves one is innocent of racism. And yet… To make these arguments treads in the uncomfortable territory of naming another person’s experience. My experience insists that if someone calls you out as racist, it’s an indefensible crime.

    I don’t want to name the bishop’s experience. But I do resist the charge of “plantation politics.” Why? Because Bishop Bledsoe was the “owner” of the plantation. (I do understand that plantation politics most likely refers to a system of intimidation, undermining and blaming the innocent. I just see fit to apply the metaphor to the district.”

    This is where we are: A goodly number of United Methodists think the NTAC is racist. All the evidence in the world can’t disprove this, because it’s not so much about proof as it is the perception that the NTAC set up a black bishop to fail in a system tended by privileged white folks. How do you heal a perceived affirmation of malice?

    Asking for forgiveness is one way. Entering into a long, difficult and painful conversation — a covenanted one, at that — is another.

    Either way, we are a racist conference because we are suspected of racism.

    I grieve that we are so divided.

    May god grant us mercy, consolation and the will to reconcile.

    Cindy Breeding

    Krum UMC member.

    • Cindy, you can and do speak so well to this. I also know I come from privilege and work hard to keep that in mind. So when the accusations of ‘racism’ come, I personally feel I need to take them seriously and do some self-examination. The problem is that there is no way to prove that we are not racist–we can’t prove a negative. As one coming from privilege, I’m willing to take hits and go the extra mile here–but sometimes those hits have no basis in my reality and actions, and then I just have to stand up and say, “we need to take another look at this.” **

      • Here’s the thing: I’m not sold on the charge that the NTAC is racist.

        I just don’t know how to meet the accusation and the anger — the rage, really — without confirming the suspicions of those who believe we’re racist.

        I think your points have a great deal of merit — which is possibly why my heart twists up every time I read this post. I think when the cry of racism goes up, authentic dialogue shuts down. The more a group tries to lay out its process to demonstrate the justness of the actions, the more defensive the group can appear to those who feel diminished because of their race.

        Well, now I’m just repeating what you said. My head thinks you are mostly right. My heart is a frightened little rabbit, though. And nothing good comes from fear. I think we have to try to reconcile with those who feel wronged. I just don’t know how. Prayer is where I need to take this conflict.

        Cindy Breeding

        Krum UMC member

  • I’m not clergy, I am a teacher. I’ve been called racist many times by students when things didn’t go their way in my class or they were unhappy. I am a (for lack of a different term) white woman who happens to be Polish as well. I teach at the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco,TX. We have a very diverse group of young people at the school. Many are mixed race and as such are not Black, White, or Hispanic, but instead are listed as something else on the paperwork. So what does all of this have to do with the blog posts? Well, I’ve learned something during my going on 9 years of teaching at the Methodist Home. When I’m called racist, the person who says this is the one crying out for my help. They say this to make me angry and not want to care about them. It doesn’t work because I do care and I don’t stop caring because they call me names. I just keep on loving them and encouraging them and working with them. And you know what? When I do this and they respond and are successful, they are the ones that step up and defend me when the next one calls me a racist.

    So what does this have to do with what everyone is saying about the North Texas Conference being racist? It is a big hurt for many, and this is a much larger group than the one I deal with in my classroom, but the principle is the same. Love those that are doing the name calling because they are the very ones who are crying out for help. Treat them with respect and help and support them as you are able, because you’d want the same. Will it be hard? Of course it will. Loving a child who calls me names or racist is hard. Do I do it well everyday? No I’m human. But I find that everyday that I ask God to help me love and teach my students, that He finds a way for me to reach out to them. Do they always respond? No, but as a teacher I can’t walk away from them. Failure is not an option for me, but we try to put it into positive terms at our school. We say: Success is the only option. And then, we keep on loving and offering hope to those we teach.

    So, to the clergy and members of the UMC and the North Texas Conference who read this blog. I say to you all: Success is the only option. Love one another and put that love first and the rest will work itself out in time.

    Prayers for all,

    • Beautifully said, Angie.

      • Don Wiley

        My experience is different, Angie. I find that those with whom I have worked as colleagues who have used the accusation of being a ‘racist’ have done so as (1) a part of a very calculated attempt at power manipulation and character assassination (2) an attempt to silence legitimate questions or disagreement and/or (3) a guilt-based tactic based on the target’s sensitivity and desire to do ‘the right thing in the right way’. This does not mean I am not challenged by my Savior to love them just the same – it just means I DON’T see it as a cry for help.

        • Don, I am so sorry that you had a different experience. Sounds as if your colleagues really need your love. If they are in the ministry, then I am very sad for them as well. If they did as you described then I can see how you would feel the way you do. I too have days when I am challenged to love those I teach. Hang in there, I’m praying for you.

  • Dominique

    Regardless of your opinion, it is important for you to make sure that you realize that your comments are made from a position of power and privilege. Dr. Masters’ point is only being reiterated from the lack of true understanding from educated people about the very deep and real struggles of race and power, even in the Christian church. Furthermore, saying that you are Christian does not absolve you from deeply understanding the topics you are writing about. The original post was about racism– I suggest that before you write an opinion piece in response to a thoughtfully crafted argument that you fully understand the fight. It is clear that you do not from your response. One place to start is by watching a video on YouTube called Unequal Opportunity Race. The link can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBb5TgOXgNY. Before you begin talking about race working FOR someone, be sure that you clearly understand how race has worked against him first. Again, I suggest that you have a deeper appreciation and understanding of topics before you choose to blog about them. Especially in a position of leadership. Shame on you.

    • Good day, Dominique. Given the impersonal medium we’re using, I want to precede my following questions with a qualifier: This is not intended to be a biting, sarcastic comeback. I am genuinely interested in your insight here.

      How do those of us who are not ordained determine when a pastor or lay leader has reached a point of sufficient understanding of how race works against an individual? Rev. Thomas has most likely been a part of dialog on race, racism and privilege by her seminary training, and as a clergywoman in an ethnically diverse community (mostly Hispanic and caucasian).

      As a white Christian awakening to my own privilege, I feel more hunger to be a listener in this conversation. How do I know when my understanding is deep enough to be a participant — one who listens more than she speaks, and one who asks questions? It seems if I ask an ethnic minority to gauge my readiness, I’m requiring something of them that is unfair — while also making them the spokesperson for their race. So how does a white lay leader or pastor take part in this dialog? What if some people think the leader is ready and others do not?

      How should depth of understanding be measured? Is this even possible?

      If you can’t determine when someone knows enough to participate, then should the party whose understanding is in question just remain silent? Can silence ever advance us toward reconciliation in Christ?

      Love,

      Cindy Breeding

      Krum UMC member

      • Dominique

        In all honesty, if the thoughts are not articulate enough to not sound as if they could be easily be interpreted as racist, they most likely are not ready for being shared in a public venue. Additionally, if you are wondering if your perspective could be considered as racist, then most likely it is being considered from a position of power and likely is racist. In fact, for many of the comments from this blog, from the initial author’s commentary, to the responses, many people do not seem concerned with being able to hear and understand the original intent of the position written by Dr. Masters. If the author of this blog and you are concerned with having an honest, accurate understanding of the deep issues raised in his opinion, then work to understand them.

        And yes, silence is better than offending people who have already been marginalized in so many ways. And until one truly understands these complicated dilemmas, silence is definitely better.

  • Dominique

    This blog post does not seem to reflect that of a “thoughtful” pastor…nothing really thoughtful in responding to an argument without really addressing the deep issue of racism and only claiming that something was not fair. Where is the thought in that argument?

  • Dominique

    This blog post does not seem to reflect that of a “thoughtful” pastor…nothing really thoughtful in responding to an argument without really addressing the deep issue of racism and only claiming that something was not fair. Where is the thought in that argument?