Strategic Planning in the Diocese of Milwaukee

I was one of the co-conveners of the Strategic Planning Task Force created by Bishop Miller in 2012. We completed our work earlier this year and issued a report to Diocesan Executive Council. At Clergy Day today, Bishop Miller announced that it will be the task of the Executive Council in 2014 to begin implementation of some aspects of the task force’s findings.

In this blog post, I am going to extract some paragraphs from that report. A full version of it is available here: taskforcereport_revised

From the Introduction:

As we worked together, we began to ask some hard questions of ourselves, of each other, and of Bishop Miller and diocesan staff. These conversations helped to deepen our understanding of our particular religious and cultural context. We began to delineate a series of values that we thought characterized our shared commitments as the Body of Christ in Southern Wisconsin and honored our Anglican and Episcopal roots. These conversations culminated in a values document that is included here.

There are significant challenges facing Christianity in twenty-first century America. The Episcopal Church, like other denominations, has seen significant decline in all numerical benchmarks, from membership and average Sunday attendance to financial support. In the wider context, survey after survey shows that increasing numbers of Americans no longer claim any religious affiliation (the so-called “nones”), with that percentage of the population rising to 20% in some recent polling. The number of young people without any religious affiliation is much higher, nearing 40% in a recent survey. Equally dramatic, the number of Americans claiming to be Protestant has fallen below 50% for the first time in the history of the US.

The trends in the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee reflect these larger national developments. Since 2001, total membership has declined from nearly 14,000 to around 10,000; average Sunday attendance from nearly 6,000 to 4,000. A number of our parishes are struggling financially. As population continues to shift within our region, churches that were built in 19th or 20th century population centers may not be well-positioned to connect with current areas of population growth that reflect contemporary lifestyle patterns.

Our tendency is to interpret these trends as a narrative of decline from a glorious past. But the history of our diocese teaches a different lesson. The Episcopal Church in Wisconsin began with the heroic efforts of Bishop Kemper to plant churches on the frontier. Lay people shared his vision and sacrificed time, energy, and financial resources that built many of the churches and institutions that now make up the Diocese of Milwaukee. Along the way, many other churches and institutions (schools, mission efforts, and the like) were founded. Some thrived for a time and died; others were transformed to meet the needs of new situations and communities. Our history is a story of innovation, creativity, and mission. It is a story of success and failure.

Our greatest challenge in thinking about the future is simply this: we lack signposts and maps that lead us forward. It is fairly easy to read the “signs of the times.” It is much less clear how we might venture into the uncharted territory of the future and create an Anglicanism that is faithful to the gospel and to our tradition and that speaks an authentic gospel clearly, convincingly, and compellingly in our new context.

What is a diocese in the twenty-first century?

We discerned in the initial stages of our conversation that the idea of “diocese” is itself a matter of considerable confusion. When we say “diocese,” do we mean the Bishop and Staff? The congregations, ministries, and entities that are the institutional forms of our life as Episcopalians? Do we mean the clergy? The lay people? Do we mean the geographical borders within which we live? Do we mean all the people who live in our area, or only the Episcopalians? Often, we use the term “diocese” to refer to Nicholson House, Bishop Miller and his staff, and use the term to distinguish between those structures and people and the local congregation.

Our current, perhaps unstated, model of the diocese is based on the life of Corporate America, with Nicholson House as the “home office” and Bishop Miller as our CEO. That model is more a reflection of twentieth-century American institution building than it is of Episcopal history, the history of the Christian Church, or indeed, of Scripture. Are there other models that are more faithful to our tradition and to scripture, and more adaptive to our current context? How can we all, clergy and laity, in all of our congregations, claim our shared identity and shared responsibility to be the Diocese of Milwaukee?

Our conversations about what we mean by “diocese” coalesced in the following mission statement:

As the body of Christ in Southern Wisconsin, the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee witnesses to the love of God in Jesus Christ through faithful, effective, and innovative ministry, carried out by congregations, clergy and laity, worshiping communities and other mission-focused ministries.

The Way Forward: 

We are truly at a crossroads. The path that has brought us here is clear but we cannot turn around and retrace our steps. Looking ahead, in one direction lies a clear road, a journey of decline, irrelevance, and ultimately death. We have resources adequate to oversee quiet and comfortable internments of most of our congregations and ministries, in five, ten, or twenty years. Some may be able to hold out longer but their ends are assured as well.

But we have a choice. In another direction lies an uncharted path, full of possible dangers and completely unknown. The Christian Church, Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church have all faced such crossroads in the past. We are here today because our fore-parents chose the path into the unknown, leaving behind the comfort and certainty of past and present for an unknown, uncharted, and challenging future. We are faithful to their legacy only if we repeat their choice. If we do so, we will be like Jesus’ first disciples who instead of wallowing in fear and sadness when he departed them, obeyed his command to

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20)

Task Force Recommendations:

  • Every member and entity of the Diocese must recognize that together we make up the Body of Christ in this area. As Paul writes in I Corinthians 12:20-21: “As it is,  there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’.” The strong must support the weak, and the weak should not reject help that is offered to them.
  • The Executive Council will accept responsibility for working with challenged parishes to identify current problems and begin thinking about more effective approaches.  The financial stability of some congregations increases the urgency of this task.
  • The Bishop, Diocesan staff, and leadership will encourage and engage in innovative and creative new ministry initiatives.
  • The Executive Council, with the assistance of Diocesan staff, will develop and promote methods by which two, three or more parishes and entities may join to do ministry in a collaborative fashion.
  • The Bishop, Diocesan staff and Executive Council will to creating an atmosphere of trust, collegiality and teamwork as it works with all parishes on these issues.
  • The Diocese will commit to developing effective communications between Diocesan offices and congregations and among congregations, clergy, and laity.
  • The Bishop, staff, lay and clergy leadership will commit to learning from, sharing with, and encouraging conversations with other dioceses engaged in re-imagining and innovating ministries in our changing cultural contexts.

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