I have been thinking a great deal about the future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin and specifically in the Diocese of Milwaukee. As we begin the search for a new bishop, I am concerned that we ask the right questions and honestly assess our current situation. I hope that we can imagine a future that remains faithful to our past, recognizes our failures, and celebrates our successes, and allows us to move freely forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Having been here since 2009 and serving on the Diocesan Executive Council for the last six years, I know something of the challenges facing our diocese. But there is also a great deal I don’t know. I’ve never visited all of our congregations; I’ve not had substantive conversations with many of my fellow clergy, and the number of lay people beyond Grace Church who I recognize, is quite small. I have little idea what it’s like to be Episcopalian in Racine, Kenosha, Milwaukee, let alone Beaver Dam or Dousman. In fact, I wonder whether we really have a sense of ourselves as a single body of Christ in this area, the Diocese of Milwaukee. We come together once a year for Diocesan Convention. The last several years it’s been a single day, with Eucharist, business meeting, and lunch. There’s no time to get to know each other. Much of this assessment be unique to my situation but I wonder how a successful search can be accomplished if a diocese doesn’t know itself well. Perhaps gaining such knowledge is the important initial phase of a search process.
For some reason, I was looking back over some past pieces I’d written about the future of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Milwaukee. In the course of that, I came across a post I had written back in 2013 in conjunction with the Strategic Planning document I had helped work on for the previous year and a half. Like so many similar projects, it’s often the case that such work is filed away and largely ignored. I don’t know whether that happened in this case. Still it’s worth reading to get a sense of the challenges we were facing in 2013, and to reflect on what has changed since then.
The document talks about decline. Between 2001 and 2011, membership in the diocese fell from 14000 to 10000; average Sunday attendance from 6000 to 4000. That decline has continued. Most recent figures show membership around 8000 and average Sunday attendance closer to 3000. Reference is made in the document to the need to think strategically about parishes and congregations–whether the congregations we have are well-positioned for future growth and sustainability, whether we might need to close a number that are unlikely to survive, and whether we have too many congregations in some places.
All is not negative. The documents reminds us of our history:
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.
Is it a case of a lost opportunity? I’m not sure. As we begin our search for a new bishop, I’m struck that some of those recommendations continue to be relevant, and some of the hopes we expressed in 2013, specifically for deeper relationships among the congregations, the clergy and lay people, seem not to have been realized.
You can read the whole document here: taskforcereport_revised