EAU CLAIRE: Options considered as diocese faces uncertain future

Episcopal News Service. November 21, 2008 [112108-02]

Joe Bjordal

The Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire, without a sitting bishop since April and unable to afford the expenses of full-time episcopal oversight, has launched a process aimed at charting a course for the future.

A resolution passed at the recent 80th annual convention of the diocese, held November 7-8 at Christ Church, La Crosse, commits the diocese to consider five options for Episcopal oversight ranging from the election of a part-time, bi-vocational bishop to merging with another diocese, to dissolving the Diocese of Eau Claire.

The Right Rev. Keith B. Whitmore, elected Bishop of Eau Claire in 1998, announced his resignation in March 2008 in order to become assisting bishop in the Diocese of Atlanta.

The Diocese of Eau Claire, originally carved out of the dioceses of Fond du Lac and Milwaukee in 1927, has historically been a small diocese. Today it is home to 22 congregations with combined average Sunday attendance in 2007 of 952 persons, 45 percent of whom worship in three congregations. Seven churches have Sunday attendance below 20 persons; eight between 20 and 50; and four between 50 and 60. Average Sunday attendance dropped by five percent from 2006 to 2007.

According to statistics published by the Episcopal Church, combined giving in the Diocese of Eau Claire in 2007 was just over $1,407,000. Just prior to the 2008 convention, the trustees and diocesan treasurer reported a "serious budget shortfall and shortage of cash that was not projected to resolve until several months had elapsed without the expense of the episcopate."

Convention delegates considered a 2009 diocesan budget of approximately $130,000, which was sent back to the Executive Committee for possible additional reductions. The diocese is also contemplating selling both the bishop's residence, which is a condominium, and Bundy Hall, a historic estate given to the diocese in 1949 which has been operating as a retreat center.

Despite the challenges and uncertainty that have brought the Diocese of Eau Claire to this point, there is hope and excitement for the future, says the Rev. Leigh Waggoner, a member of the executive council and vicar of St. John's Church, Sparta.

"This is actually a very exciting time for our diocese and this is going to be an exciting process," said Waggoner. "The members of our committees really 'get it' and I am eager to begin the process."

Charting a course into the future

The current process for discerning the future of the Diocese of Eau Claire grew out of a new collaboration organized following Whitmore's resignation. In June, the three primary committees of the diocese -- the Standing Committee, the Executive Council and the Trustees -- began a series of joint meetings focused on four areas of immediate concern: financial status, leadership, identity, and commitment.

As detailed in a report summarizing the work of the joint committees presented to convention, the group agreed that the financial situation of the diocese is dire and the current apportionment system is "inequitable and unduly burdensome"; that there are difficulties in "running an organization by committee"; that there is a need for pastoral oversight and episcopal functions; that going forward as a separate diocese would require the "interest, desire and effort" of the entire membership; and that commitment among the membership may be lacking, citing previous, unsuccessful attempts to "revitalize the diocese."

In preparation for convention, the combined committees engaged the diocese in a series of "Listening Sessions," carried out in four locations during September. Input was solicited around three areas: identity, mission and ministry, and community. Some common themes that emerged, as listed in the committees' report, included:

  • A lack of consensus on the importance of the diocese to a congregation's identity;
  • Perceived deficiencies in the existing relationship between congregations and the diocese;
  • A clear consensus on the mission of congregations: to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to reach out in service to the community;
  • An expressed desire to expand ministries in peace and justice, Christian formation, ministry to youth and young families, and evangelism;
  • Trends in membership mirror those of the communities served -- a few are growing, many are declining;
  • Yet a sense that congregations are a vital and needed presence in their communities.

The group also conducted research on alternative structural models currently in use around the church. These include Mutual (or Total) Ministry, where clerical leadership is raised up out of congregations; sharing a bishop with another diocese; recruiting a part-time provisional bishop; and merging an Episcopal congregation with one of another denomination.

Weighing options

The convention resolution calls members of the Diocese of Eau Claire to consider five options for episcopal oversight. They are:

  • Election of a full-time bishop. (Listed as an option, but noting that the costs associated "are beyond the diocese at this time.)
  • Election of a part-time or bi-vocational bishop. (Such a bishop would also serve part-time in a congregation or even in a secular job.)
  • Hiring an assisting bishop. (In this option, the bishop would be hired by the Standing Committee, not elected, and would serve either in a full-time or part-time capacity.)
  • Junctioning with another diocese. (This is the term for the merger of two dioceses according to the canons of the Episcopal Church. This would form a new diocese and requires the approval of the General Convention.)
  • Dissolving the diocese. (Under this scenario, the dioceses of Fond du Lac and Milwaukee would be restored to their 1927 boundaries; congregations, complete with all assets, would be absorbed into those dioceses.)

Proceeding rapidly

The first step in the Eau Claire's process to evaluate options for the future will begin immediately and conclude by December 31. The Standing Committee and the Executive Council will each select one member to lead a task force to gather information on each option from outside sources. They will investigate experiences with each option in other dioceses. The task force will also research costs associated with each option both financial and "non-financial," including, as examples, possible effects on congregational morale, and clergy recruitment.

Beginning January 15, 2009, the information gathered will be shared throughout the diocese through a series of meetings, including a "Discernment Sunday," to be observed by each congregation.

The process then calls for "extensive, active and honest discussions" to be held at every level of the diocese between February 1 and Easter Sunday, April 12. Feedback from this phase will be summarized into a detailed report.

The entire process -- from beginning to end -- will be supported by a prayer campaign to be led by a team made up of a representative from each congregation.

A final report and likely proposal for action will be distributed prior to the 2009 convention of the diocese.

Preparing for possible juncture

Diocesan leaders say that while all options are on the table and will be fully considered, the dioceses of Eau Claire and neighboring Fond du Lac have begun the necessary canonical preparations for juncture.

Both dioceses passed resolutions at their 2008 conventions seeking consent for juncture from the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which will meet in July 2009.

The Rev. Ward Simpson, rector of St. Andrew's Church, Ashland, who drafted the resolution for Eau Claire, says the two dioceses have had discussions about joining together "on and off" for more than two decades, but that those discussions have been "informal and quiet."

Simpson, a member of the diocesan canons committee and a member of the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, said the discussions became serious after Whitmore's departure.

"Now we are openly and formally asking the questions about whether we would be viable as a diocesan family together," he said.

Simpson says that Eau Claire has never had a very close relationship with either neighboring dioceses of Minnesota or Milwaukee, but that it shares many similarities with the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

"We are both rural with many small congregations. Our cultures seem to mesh," he said.

According to Simpson, junctioning has only occurred twice in the history of the Episcopal Church: in 1944, when the Diocese of Duluth was reunited with the Diocese of Minnesota, from which is was created in 1895, and in 1946 when the Diocese of Western Nebraska was merged back into the Diocese of Nebraska.

Rationale supporting the juncture resolution passed at Eau Claire's convention states that it is not a binding resolution to create a new diocese, but simply the "official first step" in exploring that possibility and a "good faith response to action already taken by the Diocese of Fond du Lac."

On April 12, 2008, 82 representatives of the dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac gathered in Wausau, Wisconsin for a bi-diocesan conference on mission. The purpose of the conference was to explore common areas and interests in mission and ministry and to begin to form new personal relationships across diocesan boundaries.

Talk of juncture between Eau Claire and Fond du Lac comes as the Executive Council passed a resolution 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."

Asked if juncture with Fond du Lac is emerging as the preferred option, the Venerable Jeanne Stout, diocesan administrator, says the diocese will be serious in discussing all the options. "All I can say is that we need to follow the discernment process," she said.

Mission moves forward

Despite struggles at the diocesan level, leaders in the Diocese of Eau Claire are quick to point out that there are many examples of vital mission and ministry being carried out through churches large and small.

Wagner's congregation, St. John's, Sparta, has seen continual growth since her arrival in 2004, due in large part to the congregation's successful efforts in ministry to the Hispanic community. One year ago, St. John's founded a Hispanic community center, called Lugardereunion, for which it received a start-up grant of $195,000 from the Jesse Ball dePont Fund. In its first year of operation, the center served more people than it anticipated in the first three years. St. John's also has a weekly worship service in Spanish.

Stout notes that many congregations throughout the diocese are working together on global outreach projects, such as support for the Blue Mountain Project, which provides social services in Jamaica and sponsoring school children in Haiti.

John Meacham, a lay leader from St. Alban's Church, Spooner, who heads up the Haiti partnership program, reports that the Diocese of Eau Claire has been supporting St. Marc's School, located in the community of Jeannette, 75 miles west of Port-au-Prince, for the past three years. Currently, several congregations have provided tuition sponsorships for 50 children. Meacham expects that number to grow to more than 100 within a few months.

Meacham says his own congregation, as a result of being inspired by the bi-diocesan mission conference, has started a community dinner, which has grown from 15 guests in May to 86 in November.

And, despite its shaky financial situation, delegates to the 80th annual convention of the Diocese of Eau Claire reaffirmed its two-year-old commitment to support the Millennium Development Goals by approving a resolution to disburse $2,025 from the current budget to support the work in Haiti and Jamaica.