[Episcopal News Service] The dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, after more than four years of administrative sharing and ministry cooperation, are finalizing plans for a potential merger that has raised hopes of future stability after a series of leadership upheavals.
The two dioceses, at their joint October convention, received a committee’s recommendation to merge under Episcopal Church canons for “juncture,” a process that applies when two dioceses have not previously been a single diocese together. Then in early January, the two dioceses’ standing committees voted to develop a juncture agreement and scheduled a vote on the agreement at a March 16 special joint convention. That would set up final approval by the 81st General Convention in June when it meets in Louisville, Kentucky.
Also in January, the two dioceses held several in-person and online listening sessions, which will help diocesan leaders draft a new constitution and canons and other documents for the combined diocese, if the juncture is approved.
“We have been heartened by our dioceses’ ability to navigate through recent storms, including the pandemic and two Title IV [disciplinary] experiences with our bishops,” the two dioceses’ Building Bridges Steering Committee said in the report it presented in October 2023 after researching possible next steps for the dioceses’ ongoing partnership. The committee concluded, “We are better together.”
“We are encouraged by the differing gifts and experiences our dioceses bring to this moment and the various cultures that exist within each. We see ways we can be better stewards of our resources, the people, the finances, the properties and the ideas given to us. We are inspired by the mission and vision revealed through our active bi-diocesan collaborations.”
Eastern Michigan, based in Saginaw, and Western Michigan, based in Grand Rapids, are two of four Episcopal dioceses in the state. The Diocese of Michigan includes Detroit and the southeastern region of the state, while the Diocese of Northern Michigan encompasses the state’s more remote and sparsely populated Upper Peninsula.
Western Michigan was founded in 1874 after separating from the Diocese of Michigan, while Eastern Michigan separated from the Diocese of Michigan in 1995. Eastern Michigan has not had a diocesan bishop since 2017, when the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley resigned to join the presiding bishop’s staff as head of the Office of Pastoral Development.
In October 2019, the two dioceses voted at their conventions to establish a formal partnership that included sharing Western Michigan Bishop Whayne Hougland Jr., who was elected bishop provisional of Eastern Michigan. Hougland, however, was suspended for one year in June 2020 after admitting to an extramarital affair. A year later, the two dioceses announced they had chosen not to welcome him back as their bishop.
Instead, they sought a new bishop provisional and elected the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh to that role in October 2021. Singh, formerly bishop of New York’s Diocese of Rochester, began serving the two Michigan dioceses in February 2022 but resigned in September 2023 to face allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wife and two adult sons under the church’s Title IV disciplinary canons for clergy.
Retired Bishop Skip Adams agreed in November 2023 to serve Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan in the interim as an assisting bishop as the dioceses work toward their possible juncture.
“The resignations of Bishops Hougland and Singh and the circumstances surrounding those resignations significantly impacted us all, and the staff of our dioceses incurred particular burdens,” the Building Bridges Steering Committee said in its 2023 report outlining what juncture might look like.
At the same time, the committee and the two dioceses have received encouragement from other dioceses that are experimenting with a range of models for cross-diocese partnership and collaboration.
The dioceses of Northwest Pennsylvania and Western New York, for example, have shared a bishop, staff and ministries since October 2018. And in Wisconsin, a more recent partnership between the state’s three Episcopal dioceses is culminating this year in May with votes on a possible reunion as a single diocese. Like the proposed juncture of the two Michigan dioceses, the Wisconsin merger would need approval of the 81st General Convention.
To help finalize the juncture proposal for Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, the Building Bridges Steering Committee held a Zoom meeting for clergy on Jan. 16 followed by in-person meetings for all in the dioceses on Jan. 20 and 27 and additional Zoom meetings on Jan. 21 and 25. Katie Forsyth, who serves both dioceses as canon for evangelism and networking, said the meetings were well attended, with about 270 participants.
In addition to a draft constitution and canons for the new diocese, the special convention in March will consider a name for the combined diocese, its financial and governance structure, and a possible timeline for electing its first diocesan bishop.
“It’s been a busy and complex many years in the Dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan,” the committee said in a January message to the dioceses. “These years and moments have been spirit-filled and not always easy nor perfectly lived, but we’ve navigated them well with deep care for one another, the communities we tend, and for the future of our beloved church.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.