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Episcopal Wisconsin Trialogue Takes Next Steps

By Douglas LeBlanc

The Diocese of Wisconsin is one step closer to its return. If its three constituent bodies — the dioceses of Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, and Milwaukee — adopt a reunion resolution next Easter, all that will remain is approval by General Convention.

The three dioceses will meet jointly to vote on that resolution. They met independently to approve more discussion with the goal of a binding decision.

Several dioceses have joined their efforts in the past several years, but this would be the first time a reunion affected an entire state.

Under the proposed reunion, Bishop Matthew Gunter of Fond du Lac would become Bishop of Wisconsin and would call for the election of his successor by mid-2028. He would retire by December 2029, when he reaches age 72.

Gunter, who has served in Fond du Lac since 2014, has added the duties of bishop provisional in Eau Claire and assisting bishop in Milwaukee as the three dioceses have discussed their historic reunion. In the summer of 2021, Gunther called on the three dioceses governing bodies to consider what is now called the Episcopal Wisconsin Trialogue.

Other dioceses have made similar steps toward reunion:

  • What was the Diocese of Quincy returned to the Diocese of Chicago in 2013 and became the Peoria Deanery, named for Quincy’s former see city.
  • Since 2019, Bishop Sean Rowe has led a cross-state partnership between the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and the Diocese of Western New York. Leaders of the Wisconsin Trialogue invited Rowe to share his insights in a 90-minute discussion on YouTube.
  • Since 2019, the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan have engaged in “exploratory conversation and intentional sharing.”
  • What was the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth briefly became the Diocese of Northern Texas and then asked to join the Diocese of Texas in 2022. It is now called the North Region of the Diocese of Texas.
  • The dioceses of Bethlehem and Central Pennsylvania are exploring possible reunification.

In a proposal released in June 2023, leaders of the Episcopal Wisconsin Trialogue’s 11-member steering committee called reunion a “theological imperative.”

“We envision a diocese that will be better able to help congregations form committed followers of Jesus, equipping them with the spiritual resources to engage the challenges of life in our times,” the document said. “We long to be a diocese with congregations engaged in our communities and participating in ministries of reconciliation, restoration, and repair.”

An FAQ on the trialogue elaborates on that vision.

“The Trialogue Steering Committee proposes reunion with the conviction that, together, we can realize the vision of participating more fully in God’s mission in Wisconsin; fostering the vitality of our congregations, both large and small; and finding innovative ways to adapt our ministry to the changing needs of the communities we serve. Most of all, we believe that reunion will give us new ways and new energy for reaching people seeking hope and the promise of wholeness for this badly broken world.”

The FAQ acknowledged the difference between describing goals for the reunion and the greater challenge of turning those goals into a fulfilled vision.

“Embarking on reunion will always be something of a risk, just as entering into any long-term relationship or agreement carries with it the possibility of failure,” the leaders wrote. “The Steering Committee is persuaded that we can best be the Body of Christ in the world if we come together to share God’s love with the people of our state. We know that there will be difficult times along the way, and that not everything in the way we envision the reunion will work out exactly as we have planned. But we have faith in our collective ability to discern God’s call and go forward together, risking for the sake of the gospel.”

A reunion of the diocese involves reversing multiple decisions made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Diocese of Wisconsin was formed in 1847. Only 28 years later, the northeastern section of Wisconsin became the Diocese of Fond du Lac. In 1888, the Diocese of Wisconsin renamed itself as the Diocese of Milwaukee. Another 40 years after that renaming, portions of both the Diocese of Fond du Lac and the Diocese of Milwaukee formed into the Diocese of Eau Claire, which today is the smallest of the three dioceses.

The trialogue committee has proposed a graduated assessments system that will pay for the reunited diocese’s expenses while recognizing the numerical challenges of the smaller dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac.

According to the committee’s proposal, this is how the assessments system would be structured:

  • The congregations now in the Diocese of Eau Claire would contribute 9.6 percent of this revenue.
  • The congregations now in the Diocese of Fond Du Lac would contribute 23.4 percent.
  • The congregations now in the Diocese of Milwaukee would contribute 67 percent.

“This new assessment system will result in smaller congregations paying a lower assessment than they currently do. Because the Diocese of Milwaukee’s current effective assessment rate of more than 15 percent is much greater than the other two Trialogue dioceses, all congregations in Milwaukee will pay less than they do now,” the proposal said.

“Eleven congregations — three in the Diocese of Eau Claire and eight in the Diocese of Fond du Lac — will pay more in assessment to a reunified diocese than they do now, and the proposed financial model phases in these increases between the beginning of the new diocese and 2029.”

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