EAU CLAIRE, FOND DU LAC: Dioceses call merger resolution 'premature'

Episcopal News Service. June 29, 2009 [062909-03]

Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Episcopal dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac, located in the state of Wisconsin, will not ask the upcoming meeting of General Convention for permission to merge.

A June 26 news release from the two dioceses said that presenting the July 8-17 General Convention in Anaheim, California, with a resolution to merge, or junction, the two "would be premature."

Fond du Lac Bishop Russell Jacobus said June 29 in an interview with Episcopal News Service that Eau Claire "is not at the point of being able to do any serious discussions or planning."

Eau Claire has been without a bishop since Keith B. Whitmore left in April 2008 to become assisting bishop in the Diocese of Atlanta.

Representatives of the two dioceses, which encompass the northern two-thirds of the state, met in January 2008 "to discuss common mission opportunities because of similar ministry challenges, comparable demographics and shared heritage of the dioceses," according to the joint news release. The idea of junction came up during this meeting.

In the fall of 2008, both diocesan conventions passed resolutions seeking consent to begin the juncture process from General Convention. Those resolutions were passed "with an understanding that consent of General Convention was the necessary first step in the process of discernment," rather than the immediate creation of a new diocese, according to the release.

Research by the chairs of each diocese's constitution and canons committees showed that the dioceses' understanding of the junction process "contradicted the understanding of our conventions when they passed their enabling resolutions," the joint statement said.

Jacobus participated in a teleconference with David Booth Beers, chancellor to the Presiding Bishop, and others which it was confirmed that a junction resolution from General Convention would create a new diocese, according to the statement.

"At this time neither diocese is prepared to make a final decision regarding juncture" the release said.

Discussions will continue between the two dioceses, however. "Fond du Lac is open to discussing juncture with Eau Claire," the release said.

At the request of the Eau Claire standing committee, Jacobus has performed some episcopal functions in the diocese, including an ordination and confirmations.

If the two dioceses merge in the near future, Jacobus, who turns 65 this year, said he is willing to see the process through before considering retirement. Episcopal Church bishops are required to retire at age 72.

Meanwhile, Jacobus said "we need to start looking at new models for episcopal ministry" such as delegating some diocesan functions to clergy of the diocese, including congregational development and clergy deployment.

In fact, Eau Claire is currently considering five options for episcopal oversight, including electing of a full-time bishop (an option whose costs were described as "beyond the diocese at this time"); electing of a part-time or bi-vocational bishop; hiring an assisting bishop; junctioning with another diocese or dissolving the diocese and having the neighboring Wisconsin dioceses of Fond du Lac and Milwaukee absorb its congregations and assets (Eau Claire was carved out of those two dioceses in 1927). It is anticipated that a report on the relative merits of each option will be presented to the diocesan convention in the fall.

There's been no suggestion, Jacobus said, that Eau Claire and or Fond du Lac combine forces with their neighbor, the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

"Eau Claire and Fond du Lac have similar geographic challenges (to Northern Michigan," he said "But we're significantly in a different place than Northern Michigan is."

That difference centers on the dioceses' view of ministry, the bishop said.

Northern Michigan has developed a model of Mutual or Total Ministry, based on the belief that baptism unites all people equally in ministry and that each person is given specific gifts for ministry. The model attempts to move congregations away from a primary focus on ordained ministry and towards a model in which a congregation is led jointly by a team of people, in which a priest might have only a sacramental role.

It was out of that mutual ministry model that the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Marquette, Michigan, became the only nominee when he was elected February 21 to succeed James Kelsey who died in June 2007. As part of the election process, the diocesan convention agreed to a plan in which Thew Forrester would be part of a team that would share in episcopal oversight.

His election has come under intense scrutiny and it is expected that Thew Forrester will not receive from diocesan standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction the necessary approval of his ordination as bishop.

The discussions in Eau Claire and Fond du Lac are also taking place against the backdrop of a request from the Executive Council at its October meeting in Helena, Montana, calling for the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church to study whether it would be appropriate to alter current diocesan configurations "because certain dioceses are struggling to remain viable."

The Diocese of Fond du Lac comprises more than 6,600 baptized members in 36 congregations with an average Sunday attendance of nearly 2,400 while Eau Claire includes about 2,200 baptized members worshipping in 22 congregations and an average Sunday attendance of about 950, according to 2007 figures (the most recent available).