[Episcopal News Service] The three Episcopal dioceses in Wisconsin are considering a plan to divide the state into five regions to better connect congregations with each other and with diocesan leaders as part of ongoing talks to merge the three dioceses as soon as next year.
The talks, referred to by the dioceses as the Episcopal Wisconsin Trialogue, are on track to advance to votes this October by the conventions of the dioceses of Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire on whether to pursue reunification. If successful, those votes would pave the way for finalization of a reunification agreement, for approval by the three dioceses in the spring and by the 81st General Convention in June 2024.
The process is known as reunion because each of the three dioceses has historical roots in the former Diocese of Wisconsin. The reunified diocese, likely returning to that original name, would develop new ways of connecting Episcopalians from across the state while taking the cost savings from administrative consolidation and redeploying those resources toward ministry goals.
“The status quo, what we’ve been doing, isn’t working,” Fond du Lac Bishop Matthew Gunter said July 25 in a Zoom town hall meeting organized by the Trialogue Steering Committee. “I’m convinced that the reunion will make it better able for us to be about growth.”
The town hall was one of nearly 20 online and in-person sessions that are scheduled through early October to provide information about the reunion proposal, which was unveiled at the end of June. A map of the proposed five geographic regions was released on July 25, before that morning’s online session.
The regional concept partly addresses a central challenge of reunion: How would a Diocese of Wisconsin expand episcopal oversight to the full state and its more than 100 Episcopal congregations when the number of bishops would be reduced from three to one?
Congregations that had been accustomed to visits from their bishop as often as once a year now might be on a rotation of visits spanning two to three years, Gunter said. Under the reunion proposal, the diocesan bishop also would travel to each of the five “fellowship regions” at least twice a year for extended stays and regional events that would include confirmations and ordinations for all congregations within the region.
The diocese also would assign a missioner to each region, to support and collaborate with congregations throughout the year between bishop visits. That’s “one of the pieces that I’m most excited about,” the Rev. Portia Corbin, a priest in the Diocese of Fond du Lac and Trialogue Steering Committee member, told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview.
Each regional missioner would be chosen from within the region, perhaps a rector of one of the region’s congregations, and would check in regularly with clergy and lay leaders at the other 20 or so congregations in the region. “It’s really looking at a new model that allows us to be more relational than having a diocesan hierarchy,” Corbin said. “This allows us to be a little more grassroots, a little more intentional.”
Separately, the new Diocese of Wisconsin would develop mission action teams, made up of Episcopalians from across the state, to lead efforts on evangelism, formation and discipleship, community outreach, and other mission areas.
Reunion also would entail restructuring of the dioceses’ governance and finances. The proposal includes a plan for graduated assessments, meaning larger congregations would be expected to contribute more of their revenues to support the diocesan budget than smaller congregations.
With Gunter the only remaining diocesan bishop in the state, he would become bishop of the reunified Diocese of Wisconsin if the plan is approved. He thinks the implementation of five diocesan regions and the broader reunion proposal could offer a new, adaptive model for other dioceses in The Episcopal Church to consider.
“Nobody, at least in recent history, is doing what we’re doing,” Gunter said during the July 25 Zoom town hall meeting.
Though the Wisconsin dioceses may be unique in their approach to the proposed reunion, they aren’t alone in seeking cross-diocese partnerships. The dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York have shared administrative resources and partnered on ministry development since 2018. The dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan reached a similar agreement in 2019. The three dioceses in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have been developing their own model of collaboration, which includes assisting roles for the three bishops in each other’s dioceses.
Last fall, two Pennsylvania dioceses, Central Pennsylvania and Bethlehem, voted at their conventions to begin studying a possible reunification, and early this year, the dioceses of Northern Indiana and Indianapolis announced that they, too, were forming a committee to consider a reunion that would return them to one statewide diocese.
The original Diocese of Wisconsin 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.
In today’s Wisconsin, a state of about 6 million residents, church membership has steadily declined in all three of its Episcopal dioceses – down overall by a third in the past decade. The Diocese of Eau Claire, in the northwest third of the state, and the Diocese of Fond du Lac, in northeast Wisconsin, are two of The Episcopal Church’s smallest dioceses. The larger Diocese of Milwaukee spans the southern third of the state and includes six of the state’s 10 largest cities.
Eau Claire has about 1,000 baptized members and 19 congregations. Fond du Lac has around 3,800 members and 35 congregations. Milwaukee has about 6,800 members and 48 congregations.
Leadership transitions in Milwaukee and Eau Claire were a key factor in opening the door to reunion. The Rt. Rev. William Jay Lambert retired in November 2020 as Eau Claire’s part-time bishop, followed a month later by Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller. Eau Claire elected Gunter to begin serving as its provisional bishop in January 2021, and Milwaukee welcomed retired Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee as its provisional bishop in April 2021.
Lee concludes his tenure in Milwaukee on July 31, after which the diocese’s standing committee will become the ecclesiastical authority. Gunter agreed to serve Milwaukee in the interim as an assisting bishop.
More than a dozen people attended the July 25 Zoom town hall. The Rev. Aaron Zook, a parish priest in the Diocese of Eau Claire and its canon to the ordinary, cautioned them that reunion is still in the proposal phase, and much work needs to be done before such a plan could take effect. That said, the future of the three dioceses is coming into sharper focus, and Wisconsin Episcopalians are encouraged to give their feedback and suggestions.
Zook used a cooking metaphor, describe how a soup is never done until the chef finds and adds the right mix of ingredients. “You adjust until it tastes right,” he said. “We’re at the point now where we don’t need too many chefs in the kitchen, but we need a lot of people tasting.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.