[Episcopal News Service] The bishops of the dioceses of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont announced on May 14 that they will serve as assisting bishops in each other’s dioceses as part of an effort to increase collaboration in the region.
Maine Bishop Thomas J. Brown, New Hampshire Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld and Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown will continue to serve as diocesan bishops – and therefore ecclesiastical authorities – in their respective dioceses. However, starting in September, each will be able to “preach and teach and provide sacramental rites … but not to exercise governance authority” in the other dioceses.
“Assisting bishops serve at the invitation of the ecclesiastical authority — in this case, bishops inviting other bishops,” the three bishops wrote in an email to their dioceses. “Through preaching, teaching and presiding, we look forward to exercising our ministry in ways that will allow us to get to know each other’s dioceses, learn more about The Episcopal Church across our region, and discern how we might learn to collaborate with one another for the sake of God’s mission.”
The three bishops have been meeting regularly over the past year to consider options for collaboration. The dioceses are relatively small and Vermont faces serious financial challenges. Due to declines in membership and giving, the diocese has an unsustainable long-term budget deficit, with a financial consultant predicting that “diocesan expenses will far exceed revenues” by the first quarter of 2023.
MacVean-Brown told Episcopal News Service last year that there were no plans to merge the northern New England dioceses, but they were exploring the possibility of sharing staff. Currently, Katie Clark is the communications director for New Hampshire and Maine, but no further staffing changes have been announced. The bishops’ announcement said the move will not affect their full-time diocesan ministries or their diocesan budgets.
The dioceses’ plan continues a trend in The Episcopal Church of sharing resources among small dioceses. The leaders of Wisconsin’s three dioceses – two of which already share a bishop – announced in October 2021 that the dioceses will take steps to combine, returning to a single Diocese of Wisconsin. Since 2018, the dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York have shared a bishop, combined administrative functions and pursued joint ministries. The Dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan share a bishop, and the Episcopal Church in North Texas is pursuing reunion with the Diocese of Texas.
“We are not the only ones in the church having these conversations and likewise there should be more dioceses who are curious about how this time in the life of the church has urged us to consider how we can build our capacity to participate in God’s mission,” MacVean-Brown said in announcing the partnership during the Diocese of Maine’s Spring Training Zoom event over the weekend.
“As we have talked about ways that we could collaborate in ministry, it has stirred in us a holy curiosity to understand and imagine who we are in God’s eyes,” the three bishops wrote. “We believe that serving as assisting bishops in one another’s dioceses will feed that holy curiosity and creativity, and we are eager to begin this new chapter in our ministries.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.