[Episcopal News Service] Leaders of Wisconsin’s three Episcopal dioceses announced Oct. 5 that the dioceses will take steps to combine – a canonical process known as reunion – after a period of discernment that will seek input from clergy and the state’s 13,000 Episcopalians.
The agreement to pursue a return to a single Diocese of Wisconsin was approved unanimously by the 11 clergy and lay representatives from the three dioceses who attended a “trialogue” meeting on Sept. 29 at a hotel in Wisconsin Dells. Participants included Bishop Jeffrey Lee, bishop provisional of the Diocese of Milwaukee, and Fond du Lac Bishop Matthew Gunter, who also serves as bishop provisional of the Diocese of Eau Claire.
In August, the dioceses had announced they were launching a formal process “to explore ways to deepen cooperation and coordination.” At the leaders’ inaugural meeting last week, “conversation focused on congregations, specifically how the diocese might better equip them to share the Gospel and serve Christ in their communities,” they said in a press release. “There was enthusiastic discussion seeking new ideas and dreams of what could be developed for the 21st century and beyond.”
With the help of a consultant, the dioceses plan to expand their conversations from the small group of leaders to all church members as each assesses ministry priorities and capabilities. The structure of a unified diocese and logistics of forming one would be left for later discussions, the leaders said.
The diocesan leaders set no timeline for reunion, but conversations with broader groups of Episcopalians could begin in the coming months.
“My own sense is we need to take the time,” Gunter said in an interview with Episcopal News Service. “We need to do it well, to listen, pray, converse and consult, and I certainly want to have a lot of different kinds of voices in the mix.”
Gunter and other leaders told ENS that, while they aren’t ruling out other collaborative models, a return to a single statewide diocese offered opportunities for growth and partnership beyond what would be possible if the three dioceses remained separate.
“What became clear as we met was that, one way or the other, change is happening around us in the world, and we don’t have much choice but to try to engage the change,” Gunter said.
The three dioceses share roots in the original Diocese of Wisconsin, which was created in 1847, a year before Wisconsin became a state. After the Diocese of Fond du Lac was established in 1875 in response to population growth in northeastern Wisconsin, the remaining diocese changed its name to the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1886. Then, as more people moved into the northwest part of the state, the Diocese of Eau Claire was carved from parts of the other two dioceses in 1928.
Today, about 6 million people live in the state. Church membership has steadily declined in all three dioceses – down overall by nearly a third in the past decade. Eau Claire, now with about 1,200 baptized members and 19 congregations, and Fond du Lac, with around 3,900 members and 35 congregations, are two of The Episcopal Church’s smallest dioceses. In the southern third of the state, the Diocese of Milwaukee includes six of the state’s 10 largest cities and has about 7,800 members and 48 congregations.
The leadership transitions in two of the three Wisconsin dioceses helped open the door to reunion talks. After the retirement of Eau Claire Bishop William Jay Lambert in November 2020, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire agreed to share a bishop, and Gunter began serving as Eau Claire’s provisional bishop in January. The Diocese of Milwaukee, facing its own bishop vacancy this year, chose to welcome Lee in April for a two-year stint as part-time provisional bishop. Lee had retired at the end of 2020 as bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Chicago in Illinois.
Looking to the future, it wasn’t clear that having three separate dioceses was a sustainable model for the church in Wisconsin, said the Rev. Jana Troutman-Miller, president of Milwaukee’s standing committee. She serves as a chaplain at the diocese’s St. John’s On The Lake retirement community.
“Being able to start this conversation out of an opportunity rather than a necessity gives us that time and the space to first discern what the purpose of this is, what the mission of it is,” she told ENS. “What do we feel God calling us to be together?”
Tim Donahue, the junior warden at Christ Episcopal Church in La Crosse and vice president of the Diocese of Eau Claire’s Executive Council, said he sees reunion as a way to bolster the small congregations in his diocese and around the state. “They need support, and we need to figure out the best way to give them that support,” he told ENS.
Such support isn’t solely financial, Donahue said. A unified diocese would be able to draw on the interests, skills and expertise of Episcopalians from across Wisconsin to help strengthen congregations and grow ministries.
Gunter echoed those hopes. A single diocese could be more effective at marshaling its broader pool of human resources to promote Christian formation and evangelism and to respond to the problems of racism and climate change, he said.
“I’m not persuaded that our main problem is structural,” Gunter said, though there certainly would be cost savings in returning to a single Wisconsin diocese. “Our real challenges are more missional, and how do we form congregations that are lively and have a deep engagement with prayer and God.”
In 2011, the Diocese of Eau Claire, anticipating budget shortfalls, nearly merged with Fond du Lac, but the latter narrowly voted it down during its diocesan convention.
A lot has changed since that plan failed, said Gunter, who was consecrated bishop of Fond du Lac in 2014. The three Wisconsin dioceses aren’t pursuing reunion now “because we’re all sinking,” he said. “That said, the current trends suggest that sooner or later, some kind of conversation along these lines might become more urgent.”
Increasingly, dioceses across The Episcopal Church are experimenting with partnership models aimed at growing church ministries while sharing resources. In July, the Diocese of Vermont revealed that a looming “financial cliff” was driving consideration of closer ties to the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine. Formal partnerships already are in place between the dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan and between the dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York. In the formal partnerships, the dioceses agreed to share a bishop and combine some administrative functions and ministries while maintaining separate diocesan identities.
The last time two or more dioceses combined was the reunion of the dioceses of Quincy and Chicago in 2013. To Wisconsin’s west, the Diocese of Minnesota has encompassed the full state since 1944, when the state’s two dioceses reunited. The Episcopal Church in Minnesota now counts about 17,600 baptized members.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.