By Kirk Petersen
The three small-but-historic Episcopal dioceses in the state of Wisconsin, which have considered reuniting for half a century, are entering a formal “trialogue” to consider the best path forward in an era of declining church attendance.
“Each diocese is experiencing challenges of being the church in the 21st century while adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the dioceses said in a joint August 18 announcement.
No decision has been made, but the logic for reuniting the three dioceses is compelling, and the timing is favorable. Two of the dioceses already share a bishop: the Rt. Rev. Matthew A. Gunter, Bishop of Fond du Lac since 2014, became bishop provisional of Eau Claire at the beginning of this year, after the retirement of Bishop William J. Lambert III.
The Diocese of Milwaukee also has a provisional bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee, who retired last year as Bishop of Chicago. Lee was elected in April to lead the diocese on a temporary basis after the Rt. Rev. Steven Miller retired last year.
But perhaps the most obvious reason for considering a reunion is the fact that the three dioceses are small.
- Milwaukee, the largest of the group, had 49 congregations with an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 3,033 in 2019, before the pandemic scrambled attendance records. That places its size just above the lowest third of all domestic dioceses. The diocese has five full-time employees and a couple of part-time.
- Fond du Lac has 34 congregations, with a pre-pandemic ASA of 1,521, and two full-time employees, plus a couple of part-time.
- Eau Claire has 19 congregations, a pre-pandemic ASA of 568, no full-time employees, and a part-time bishop and part-time canon to the ordinary. There are 35 individual congregations in the Episcopal Church that are larger than the Diocese of Eau Claire. The only smaller domestic dioceses are Northern Michigan, North Dakota, Western Kansas, and the Navajo Mission.
The three dioceses originally were part of the Diocese of Wisconsin, founded in 1847 to encompass the state. The first Bishop of Wisconsin was the sainted Jackson Kemper, a pioneering missionary and founder of the Nashotah House seminary, whose feast day is celebrated May 24.
Fond du Lac was spun off as a separate diocese in 1875, serving the northeast. Eau Claire was established in 1928 in the northwest, and the Diocese of Milwaukee is the renamed remainder of the Diocese of Wisconsin, serving the southern part of the state.
“Both the Diocese of Fond du Lac and the Diocese of Eau Claire were formed at a time when those areas of the state were booming,” said Matthew Payne, the canon for administration, and historiographer, in Fond du Lac. For example, Fond du Lac once had 12,000 baptized members, he said. Now there are fewer than 4,000.
Representatives of the three dioceses will meet in late September to begin discussions, with each diocese represented by a staff member and someone from a parish, along with the two bishops.
“Bishop Gunter and I have been talking about it since before I accepted the call to come and serve as bishop provisional,” Lee told TLC. Reunion is an obvious possibility, but the group will discuss other models as well. “My hope is we’ll be very creative and energetic at that point and put everything on the table,” Lee said.
Bishop Gunter was vacationing and unavailable for comment. The Rev. Aaron Zook, canon to the ordinary for Eau Claire, could not be reached for comment.
Fond du Lac and Eau Claire came within a hair’s breadth of forming a “junction” in 2011, when both dioceses appeared to have accepted the proposal. But the election was nullified when “an irregularity” in the counting in Fond du Lac reversed the very close vote in the lay order.
“Financially, all three dioceses are fine,” Payne said, characterizing their financial conditions as “not great” but “not awful.” He said Bishop Gunter intends for the reunion “trialogue” to involve “moving forward in a way that is relational, rather than driven by other factors,” such as finances or timelines.
One important cost-sharing arrangement has already been established. Gunter is still formally an employee of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, but the Diocese of Eau Claire reimburses its neighbor for a third of his salary.
A hypothetical reunion would have to be approved by the conventions of all three dioceses, and then by the triennial General Convention. This cannot be accomplished before the postponed 2021 General Convention is held next summer in Baltimore, because there is not yet any formal proposal for reunion.
“Breakneck speed is not what we’re going for. We’re going for intentional time together to get to know each other, to have open discussions about where we might go,” Payne said.