The Future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin

Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best. There have also been enormous changes in society and the church since 2003. The debate over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, a debate that was intensified by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. From time to time, Bishop Miller reminds us that consents to his election were voted on at the same General Convention that voted on Bishop Robinson. Since then, we have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US and the approval by General Convention of rites for the celebration and blessing of same-sex marriage.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American achievement mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. The Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American … mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. I’m told that the Diocese of Eau Claire currently has 3 self-sustaining parishes with full-time clergy. An effort some years ago to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac failed when it was voted down by a single vote in the Diocese of Eau Claire. Its current bishop, retired from a previous diocese, and serving part-time, is facing mandatory retirement in 2021. At its convention last weekend, the diocese was unable to commit itself to a plan moving forward; instead it will continue to study its options.

With the mandatory retirement of Bishop Lambert of the Diocese of Eau Claire, and Bishop Miller’s announced retirement in 2020, it seems to me that now is the perfect time for Wisconsin Episcopalians to ask some difficult questions and move courageously and creatively into the future. Unfortunately, it seems no one is interested in addressing these questions.

I have no idea who could facilitate or even compel the conversations that we need to have across the state and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. I am about to step down after six years on our Diocesan Executive Council. I am not sure whether I can offer any leadership on the diocesan level. My energies are focused locally—on building relationships with our neighboring congregations and with their clergy, and ecumenically—on helping our declining mainline denominations strategize about how we might work together toward a new future for our ministries.

Sometimes, I wish there would be someone from the denomination who could come in and compel us to have the difficult conversations. More importantly, someone to help us imagine a new future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin. I feel like we are about to squander an incredible opportunity to do something quite new and something that might give us new energy and new spirit to face the future.

If I were able to shape matters, I would require conversations among the Dioceses of Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and Fond du Lac before allowing the Diocese of Milwaukee to begin its search process for a successor to Bishop Miller. Such conversations might help us all to discern a vision for a future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin.

I pray that in the months to come Episcopalians in Wisconsin have the courage and faith to think boldly and to invite the Holy Spirit to lead us in new directions.

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