[Episcopal News Service] The “least likely” friendship in the House of Bishops between the Episcopal Church’s oldest active diocesan bishop and its youngest has fostered a first-of-its-kind collaborative experiment that could point to the future shape and feel of dioceses.
Western New York Bishop William Franklin, 71, recently told the House of Bishops that he and Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe were the “least likely of friends.” Franklin called himself “an Anglo-Catholic church historian.” He holds a doctorate in church history from Harvard University and was dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. He has served the Diocese of Western New York for seven years. Rowe, 43, has been bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania for 11 years. He holds a doctorate in organizational development from Gannon University. Franklin called him a “very low church expert in adaptive change.”
However, Rowe said, they “took an idea that came out of friendship” and a common concern for the mission of the church and have been collaborating in new ways. When Franklin and Rowe explained their experiment to the House of Bishops on July 13, General Convention’s closing day, Rowe said that the Great Lakes region is in “an adaptive moment” and that the church ought to be part of that moment by trying a new model that could free up more resources for ministry by eliminating duplication in administrative costs.
For the past five years, Episcopalians in the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania have been sharing certain operations. They have a joint formation process for deacons and a shared board to examine chaplains for the ordination process, and they have held some joint clergy conferences. The dioceses have just started sharing transition ministry functions, and a Northwestern Pennsylvania diocesan staff member is now the intake officer for disciplinary matters in Western New York.
The next step will come Oct. 26-27 when the two dioceses hold a joint convention in Niagara Falls, New York. At that gathering, Western New York will vote on whether to make Rowe its bishop provisional for five years. Rowe has served as bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania since August 2014 while the diocese had what the standing committee called “a healthy, productive period of reflection and discernment about the mission to which God is calling us” after the retirement of Bishop Paul V. Marshall. Rowe will continue to serve as bishop provisional in Bethlehem until the Sept. 15 consecration of Bishop-elect Kevin D. Nichols. Franklin is due to retire April 2, 2019, a milestone that had a lot to do with the proposal.
How the two dioceses got to this point
In April 2017, when he announced his retirement, Franklin asked his diocesan standing committee to consider calling Rowe as provisional bishop. After talking to both bishops, the standing committees of both dioceses agreed to consider the prospect.
The bishops presented the idea to a joint clergy conference in September 2017 when, Rowe told Episcopal News Service, it initially “played to mixed reviews.” Clergy wondered about hidden agendas, and some wished the plan were more fleshed out. Rowe and Franklin told them the only agenda was to put the idea to them and “honestly let people be part of planning it.” There was enough of a consensus to have a small group of people from both dioceses meet to think the idea all the way through.
The results of that process went to both diocesan conventions last October, and both agreed to keep moving forward. More than 500 people in both dioceses came to eight listening sessions last winter to discuss the proposal with its pledge to enhance the collaboration between the two dioceses. In May, the standing committees of the two dioceses unanimously voted to support the idea.
If the Western New York convention elects Rowe on Oct. 26, the collaboration would be just that and not a merger of dioceses. A merger would require the consent of General Convention, and right now neither diocese wants to lose its identity, the two bishops told ENS.
“We’ve never used the word merger,” Franklin said in an interview. “It’s a proposal to have one bishop for two dioceses, and for five years have a provisional bishop.”
Rowe said the experiment “is being driven by a real call to mission and being a missional church and to try to experiment.”
“The only way we’re going to know if these models work is to try them, so it’s a risk. This is not being driven by finances or trying to drive success,” he said. “This is us asking, ‘What do we think is the next best step, given where we are?’ And we’re going to experiment with it. There’s too much conversation about these things in the church and not enough implementation, and this is a big step. We don’t know if it will work.”
James Isaac, chair of the Western New York Standing Committee, told ENS that his attitude is “why not give it a try.”
“The pooled energy of ministry of both the clergy between Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania and the strength of the laity has huge potential,” he said.
Rowe and Franklin met at Kanuga Conference and Retreat Center in 2015. “We realized that we had a very similar vision of the church,” Franklin said. “Even though I’m a historian, I’m pretty radical about wanting to do different things.”
Just don’t call it the Rust Belt
What they have in common is a love of their neighboring dioceses, which are in a part of the United States that has undergone a massive economic downturn. Lake Erie forms the dioceses’ western boundaries. Western New York, with headquarters in suburban Buffalo, comprises 57 parishes in New York located between the borders of Pennsylvania and Canada. Northwestern Pennsylvania, with headquarters in Erie, is composed of 33 congregations.
[The maps above of the two dioceses come from the Episcopal Asset Map. The unnumbered markers point to congregations, while the number ones point to clusters of congregations.]
The presence of coal, inland waterways and a ready labor force once made the area a manufacturing center with steel mills at its core. But those mills eventually became outdated, and as the American automobile industry declined, jobs were lost. Wages stagnated. People left.
The area became known as the Rust Belt, but that moniker is not a happy one for many of its residents. When the two bishops and others set up a website for their effort and called it “Rust Belt Episcopal,” they got a lot of pushback.
“It makes my people angry,” Franklin said.
However, redevelopment is happening in cities in both dioceses. “Both areas have seen the worst, and they’re coming back in a different form,” Isaac said, adding that it is not outlandish to use the word “resurrected” when talking about Buffalo and Erie.
“We’re trying to do church in a way that allows the Episcopal Church to survive and flourish in an area where we’ve had challenges – demographic and cultural challenges,” Franklin said.
Rowe agrees. “This is not a move to save an institution. This is not about diocesan viability. In fact, I don’t like that word,” he told the House of Bishops. “Even the smallest of places might be viable. What this is about is what’s best for the mission of the church in our region and the mission of God.”
Rowe told ENS that he and Franklin talked often about the long-term future of the church in a region like theirs. “We put everything on the table, and we said we want a missional church and we want what’s best for the mission of the Gospel,” he said. “What is the best way to do that?”
Working out the details will take time
Eventually, there will be one staff for two dioceses. Rowe will have offices in both Buffalo and Erie, which are about 90 minutes apart, and will make visitations in both dioceses. Elected leaders in both dioceses will exercise their canonical functions, and each diocese will maintain its cathedral.
During the first three years of Rowe’s tenure as bishop provisional, the two dioceses plan to explore more deeply their relationship and “develop shared mission priorities,” to a set of frequently asked questions here.
“If it’s a complete disaster, we could end it at any time,” Rowe said, but he’s asked people to commit to five years “so that we have a long enough time to try this.”
Both bishops and Isaac, the Western New York Standing Committee chair, point to the possible financial efficiencies that could free up more money for mission. There is the possibility, in Rowe’s words, for “a pile of savings.” First off, a bishop search can cost upwards of $200,000, according to those FAQs.
Combining diocesan staffs will “increase the staff capacity for the same number of dollars” by allowing for more specialized staff, Rowe said. He doubts any staff members will lose jobs because both staffs anticipate retirements and other pending departures.
If some people do lose their jobs, Rowe said, “we’re going to treat people like a church does. We’re going to be good to people and fair and help people find the next thing.”
Franklin, acknowledging that he will be removed from the equation once he retires, hopes that the two dioceses “learn to be a missional church above all, that we cannot do business as usual and that we have to do new things.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.