In an era of shrinking membership, the Episcopal Church must experiment with options for consolidation. The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe became Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania in 2007 – the youngest bishop in the church, at 32. He additionally became Bishop Provisional of Western New York in April 2019, upon the retirement of the Rt. Rev. Bill Franklin, who had served since 2011. TLC Associate Editor Kirk Petersen recently got a status report in an hour-long discussion with Rowe. This interview has been edited for length, clarity and narrative flow.

TLC: How did you come to be in charge of two dioceses?

Rowe: The experiment with two dioceses comes out of a deep and abiding love for the region, but also a willingness to try to bring our gospel work to a scale where it could have a greater reach.

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and came to know and to love that culture. I come from a family of primarily steel and mill workers. That part of the world is resilient, but it was in the process of becoming what we now call the Rust Belt.

I went to seminary and came back to serve a church, a congregation in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and had a tremendous relationship with the community – the church more than doubled in size in a declining demographic. I was doing ministry in a place I know and love.

When I became diocesan bishop, I saw that Western New York shares a culture with the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and my colleague bishop also was thinking in similar ways.

What adjustments have you made to the diocesan staffs?

The idea was to take two dioceses and have one staff. Eliminating the duplication allows us to create new capacities – to be able to do more social justice work, plant new congregations, put more resources into redevelopment and the sustainability of current congregations. We estimate this will free up maybe three quarters of a million dollars annually for such projects.

Bishop Sean Rowe | Photo: Libby March

We’re still two dioceses, so we’re not dealing immediately with all the identity issues. It’s not a merger. It’s two dioceses who decided to work together. There were no canons that needed to be changed. The fact that it’s two different states really is inconsequential. What we have is a shared culture, or similarities in a culture, and a drive to make a gospel impact.

So: one bishop, one staff, two dioceses. We’re maintaining offices in both places [Erie and Buffalo, 90 miles apart]. We’re maintaining cathedrals. We’re going to have our conventions together, but we’ll be doing business that we have to do separately. Those are all mechanics. What we’ve really been able to do is create new conversation partners. There’s a synergy, a new energy, and greater capacity now.

The staff is 10 full-time equivalents, all working for both dioceses. The canon to the ordinary is Cathy Dempesy-Sims. She was on the staff in Western New York with a different title, but she’s now a canon for both dioceses. We have a canon for administration who works out of Erie, for both dioceses. We have a director of finance and somebody who works with her. One works in each office, but they’re the finance department for both dioceses. Our full-time director of communications – which we couldn’t have before, but now we can as a result of this partnership – she is the director of communications for both dioceses.

This partnership is simply a platform for what can happen next, on a greater scale. We’ve already planted a church. We’ve tried experiments. We’ve also had our share of failures along the way, but those have led to opportunities as well.

We have a congregation in Erie, St. Mark’s, that eight or nine years ago was worshipping with 35 or 40 people, and now has an average Sunday attendance of 180, in an area that has been in decline. It’s run by two lay people and a priest who also has a full-time dermatology practice, but its outreach to the community is tremendous. It’s a mix of conservative and more progressive people. It’s not one political stripe or another, it’s just an example of Rust Belt resurrection.

This is not a suburb where people are going to be moving in. This is a place where people are still leaving. And yet here we see this sign of hope, and it’s not using a traditional model. We also have a traditional church plant in a declining demographic – it’s also growing.

In addition to being in two different states, you’re also in two different provinces of the Episcopal Church. [Western New York is Province II, Northwestern Pennsylvania is Province III.]

Right. We’ve chosen just not to make barriers. We’ll work it out. Both dioceses have the strengths of two different provinces and the flavor of two different states. Sure, it can be a complicating factor, but there’s nothing that keeps diocesan entities from working with each other. It’s mostly our own sensibilities that are in the way.

We said we’re going to try it for five years. And guess what? If it doesn’t work, we won’t do it anymore. This is not rocket science.

People always say, “is the goal a merger?” Well, no. That’s the least imaginative end to this. Probably what comes out of this is something we haven’t thought about yet. Mergers can work, but they are not an end in themselves.

[From 2014 to 2018, Rowe served as Bishop Provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem, headquartered more than 300 miles east of Erie.] This is your second experience now of overseeing two dioceses at a time. At least these two are contiguous.

[Laughs] Yes. With Bethlehem, that was a real learning experience. That was two separate entities really running along their own tracks. But in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania, we have two entities that are going to work together.

This is the third iteration of an Episcopal ministry for me. I’ve been a bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania, then Northwestern Pennsylvania and Bethlehem, and now Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York.

This iteration is not only about sustainability. Both dioceses have either the money or the number of congregations to continue. But at what point do we say, “What’s best for God’s mission in the world?” Instead of, “How do we keep what we have?”

I really believe that the institution of the church is important and that I’m called to be part of its transformation into serving God’s people in the 21st century and beyond.

That’s an interesting segue. I saw a video of a lecture you gave at Virginia Theological Seminary, and you talked about the importance of the institution. And yet there seems to be a tension between that and what we’ve been discussing about not letting the infrastructure get in the way.

I think some of what we perceive as the institution getting in the way is us being in our own way. Certainly, there are institutional structures that have marginalized people, that work against innovation, or make us take some different paths.

Largely they’re issues that we’ve created and have decided to privilege. “How can you be bishop of two different dioceses?” Well, there’s nothing that prohibits that. “How can two diocesan conventions meet at the same time?” Well, why can’t they? You’ve got long-held, hard-won positions about polity and the way the church is governed, and they can be barriers.

And yet the institution gives us a platform to do what we’re doing today. I think we have to transform the institution into something that takes us deeper into God’s mission, but not be naive about needing an institution.

Many people think, the institution doesn’t matter, what matters is mission. I believe that to be a false dichotomy. The institution is part of mission. The institution will allow us to have a greater voice and it will allow us to pursue God’s mission in broader ways at scale. That can’t be done as a bunch of small entities or individuals.

The Episcopal church has some pretty significant brand equity, in terms of historical importance within the country. Eleven Presidents and all of that.

Right. We’ve been associated with those who have exercised leadership. One of the challenges we face in the Rust Belt is that the Episcopal Church has had a more favorable relationship with middle- and upper-class people. We’ve got a lot of white working-class people who feel left out. We’re working to break down those barriers. In addition to the racial reconciliation work that is critical in both of our regions, we’re also working on class issues, and raising that as a variable of diversity that’s important.

You said this is an experiment and if it doesn’t work you do something else. But isn’t this kind of irrevocable? Do you see any prospect that the two dioceses would split apart again?

[Long pause] Neither diocese will be the same again. Neither diocese will be able to go back to pursuing God’s mission in the same way we did before. I’m not sure whether this goes beyond five years. It’s possible we go our separate ways, but I think something in the DNA of both places will have been fundamentally changed. In that way, what we’re doing here is irrevocable.

We’ve interrupted a pattern of thinking; a set of assumptions about the church and how the church is governed; a set of barriers that we thought were there that we found out really weren’t. I think it will give us more freedom to pursue the future God has for us, whether it’s together or not.

At VTS you talked about “undiscussable, third-rail issues.” Near the end you said, if you had done anything more than just list the issues, you probably would have gotten in trouble in the room.

Let’s see if we can get in trouble.

All right.

The first thing you mentioned was unsustainable domestic dioceses. The largest individual church in the Episcopal Church for many years has been St. Martin’s in Houston [with average Sunday attendance of 1,889 for 2017]. There are 20 entire domestic dioceses that each have a lower ASA than St. Martin’s – including one close to your heart, Northwest Pennsylvania.

Yes.

Some of these dioceses are so small it’s hard to imagine how they can maintain a diocesan staff. Should more of them look into partnerships with other dioceses?

I think it’s time for us to rethink how we order ourselves, particularly at the diocesan level. I hesitate to say whether a particular diocese is viable. When we go down that road it always ends in questions like, “Do we not honor the people that are there?”

I think dioceses large and small must begin to ask, “Is this the best way to reach people for the Gospel in our region?” Average Sunday attendance is an important indicator, but it’s not entirely helpful to compare downtown Houston with the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, because of the demographics.

People have said that to me – we have parishes in our diocese that are bigger than your whole diocese. And that’s true as far as it goes. I mean, it’s true. But it only goes so far, we still have to reach the people in these places.

That said, do we want to be funneling fewer resources to maintain a structure that’s often largely inadequate anyway? I think dioceses have to begin to think about other ways that a diocese can be a diocese – besides having its own bishop, and its own staff, as though that somehow makes ministry legitimate.

It’s the equivalent of a parish saying the only way we’re really successful is if we have a full-time priest. Dioceses have to start saying, “what is the best thing for the mission in this region?”

The Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and the Diocese of Western New York have enough endowment to keep on keeping on. Both dioceses produced financial models that could have us running another 40 years just as we were. Even if we continue to lose people. But that is not gospel-centered.

We’ve gotten worried about how many bishops are we going to have. We’re worried about people’s jobs, instead of thinking creatively about how we can do this differently. In this region, it made no sense to have one very small diocese and one relatively small diocese next to each other, not cooperating. And I dare say that’s true in other places in the church.

I don’t want to prescribe what that looks like. What I will say is we better start getting serious about thinking about it. The defensiveness around this issue of sustainability is pretty high.

Talk a bit about the importance of geography in making these decisions.

Well, I think it’s context in general. It’s geography, it’s culture. Erie has more in common with Buffalo than it does with the other cities in its orbit. The whole of Northwestern Pennsylvania has more in common with the whole of Western New York than they do with surrounding areas in their own states. So that’s something to be sensitive to as we think about who partners with whom.

Another thing you mentioned in the VTS lecture was the size of our churchwide governance structure. I wonder if you could say more about that. That’s another softball question.

Yes. [Laughs; long pause] I think that despite the good intentions of well-meaning people, our church governance is not always in alignment with the way that we’re carrying out our mission. There are historic reasons for that. There were times we made pretty significant changes to the way we functioned at a churchwide level, but those adjustments were never made in the official governance, and it never trickled down to the dioceses. We don’t have alignment at every level.

TREC — the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church – tried to bring some clarity to that, and I think the convention made some changes to the governance structures. [Rowe served on the task force.] But we’ve got an unwieldy set of structures. I think the size of them is problematic, but also, what is their purpose?

There are ways we can adjust our governance to be more aligned with our mission – and also deal with the structural inequities and the systemic racism and the other impediments to inclusion that that we’ve inherited – and still have a smaller structure. One that is manageable and has a clearer purpose. I think we’re working toward it, but there are a lot of hard-won positions and opinions, and we have to create a space to talk about them.

One more softball question, and then maybe a true softball to finish up. I mentioned earlier that your two dioceses are in two different provinces. Do you think the provincial structure is useful?

[Very long pause] I’ve talked to many bishops and lay leaders and clergy who really have found their experiences with the provincial structure to be positive, to promote conversation and collaboration. Many of my colleagues and friends have had great experiences. My experience is that the provincial relationships have not been particularly helpful or fruitful. I think it depends on the context, it depends on the province, it depends on how the properties are grouped together geographically.

You look at Province I [New England], it’s a very active province. But they’re all right there. They can all get together within hours. In other provinces, that’s just not possible. And at least in Province I there’s a lot of cultural similarity. Northwestern Pennsylvania is in the same province as the Diocese of Virginia, but not in the same province as Buffalo! Or Cleveland! Where there’s much more in common. [Cleveland is in Province V, in the Diocese of Ohio.]

With all of these “undiscussables,” you go back to creating processes where these matters can be discussed openly and honestly, and people can feel safe enough to talk without fear of being cancelled. Until we tackle those issues head-on, we’ll continue to talk around them.

I’ve been pushing you in this interview, so I want to give you an opportunity to end by talking about something that makes you feel hopeful about the church.

I think for many years people have been saying that this is an Episcopal moment – this is the time for the Episcopal Church. And I think we may be taking that seriously.

We’ve got a presiding bishop who is talking about Jesus in a winsome, compelling way that is getting the attention of the world. Alongside that, we’ve got a group of people in what has been called the Rust Belt — a declining region of the country for more than 30 years – that’s beginning to have a renaissance of sorts, in terms of the economy but also in terms of its faith.

We’ve got two dioceses that have decided to do something no two other dioceses of the Episcopal Church have ever done, for the sake of the Gospel. And believe me, people had to set aside their own interests. They did it to try something new – and they didn’t have to. That to me is hopeful. Something is happening here, and I am just proud to be part of this.

If it can happen here, in a culture that is largely resistant to innovation and quick change, then it can happen anywhere in the church. I am more hopeful now than I have been in a long time.

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