By Kirk Petersen
The dioceses in the state of Wisconsin have taken another step toward a three-way merger, as an ad hoc leadership group created to discuss the possibility has unanimously endorsed reunification.
The purpose of the “trialogue” among the dioceses “wasn’t necessarily about reunion, but deeper kinds of cooperation and collaboration,” said the Rt. Rev. Matthew A. Gunter, Bishop of Fond du Lac, who organized the meeting with representatives of the Dioceses of Milwaukee and Eau Claire. When the group met in person on September 29, “it seemed pretty clear to those gathered that if we were going to look at cooperation and collaboration, pursuing reunion as a starting point would make more sense” than a more general assessment of options, he said.
“The opportunity is driven by the reality that … there are two episcopal vacancies in the dioceses,” he said. In addition to serving as the diocesan in Fond du Lac, Gunter has been bishop provisional in Eau Claire since the beginning of this year, following the retirement of Bishop William J. Lambert III. In Milwaukee, with the retirement of Bishop Steven Miller, the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee was elected bishop provisional in April. Bishop Lee was the diocesan in Chicago until his retirement last year.
Plans for the trialogue were announced August 18, and participants from all three dioceses said they have seen no hint of any organized opposition to reunion.
That’s a distinct change from 2011, when a proposal to create a “junction” between Fond du Lac and Eau Claire first appeared to have been approved by both dioceses, before the Fond du Lac vote was nullified by a recount. As Episcopal News Service reported at the time, “The clerical order vote of 32 yes, 28 no was confirmed, according to a diocesan press release, but the original understanding of the lay order being 53 yes, 51 no votes was found to be, in fact, 53 no and 51 yes.” In other words, about half the diocese opposed the arrangement.
This year, since the August 18 announcement, “What we have heard is, ‘yeah, of course, this is what we should be talking about,'” said the Rev. Jana Troutman-Miller, head of the Standing Committee for the Diocese of Milwaukee.
“I was met with no resistance” when discussing the possible reunification, said Tim Donohue, a member of Christ Church, La Crosse, in the Diocese of Eau Claire.
Gunter said the closest thing he encountered to opposition was a second-hand report of someone saying, “I don’t really like the idea, but I think it needs to happen.”
Despite that comment, Gunter and others emphasized that the discussions were being driven by opportunity, rather than by immediate need. The dioceses have faced declines in membership and income similar to the rest of the Episcopal Church, but “nobody’s going out of business, nobody’s bankrupt,” Troutman-Miller said.
The former Diocese of Wisconsin was established in 1847 to encompass the entire state, with the legendary missionary Jackson Kemper (feast day: May 24) serving as the first Bishop of Wisconsin. The Diocese of Fond du Lac was authorized by General Convention in 1874 after rapid growth in the northeastern part of the state, and the Diocese of Wisconsin renamed itself the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1888. After the population of the state roughly doubled, the Diocese of Eau Claire was created in 1928 out of parts of both other dioceses.
But as population growth slowed and secularization intensified, dioceses throughout the church began shrinking. All three of the Wisconsin dioceses now fall in the bottom half of domestic dioceses, as measured by 2019 average Sunday attendance. The Diocese of Milwaukee is the largest, ranking 64th out of 111 domestic dioceses. Fond du Lac ranks 92nd, and Eau Claire is 106th. A hypothetical Diocese of Wisconsin would climb into the top half based on 2019 data, tied for 41st with the Diocese of Oregon.
Despite the momentum toward reunification, it’s not a done deal. The trialogue group has no decision-making powers, but represents a fairly broad spectrum of the leadership of the three dioceses. The 11-person group includes Bishops Gunter and Lee, along with a cleric, a layperson, and a staff member from each diocese, all appointed by the respective executive councils. A merger would need to be formally approved by conventions of each diocese and by the General Convention.
“There’s a recognition that even if it seems the right thing to do, there may be some sense of loss,” Gunter said, noting that each diocese has its own heritage, and people who feel comfortable in their current dioceses would have to get used to something new. But “the confluence of things seem to make it an opportune time to hear what God might be calling us to do and be. And if after doing all the praying and listening and conversing and bringing in voices from outside … it seems that [reunion] is not quite where we are, then we’ll find ways short of reunion to collaborate with one another.”
The trialogue participants are the Rev. Canon Kathleen Charles, Donahue, Bishop Gunter, and the Rev. Canon Aaron Zook, all from the Diocese of Eau Claire; Gunter, Matthew Payne, Pat Pfeifer, and the Rev. Canon Wilson Roane, representing the Diocese of Fond du Lac; and the Rev. Canon Scott Leannah, Bishop Lee, the Rev. Jana Troutman-Miller, and John Vogel, representing the Diocese of Milwaukee.