The Future of the Diocese of Milwaukee: Looking back on strategic planning

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

Episcopal Dioceses and rising geographical inequality

October 13 was the date of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee’s annual convention. It’s not an event I look forward to each year and the longer I serve in my current cure, the less I tend to focus my energies on larger Episcopal entities, whether dioceses or General Convention. Still, it’s an opportunity to connect with other clergy and laity and to hear a bit about what’s happening in other corners of the diocese.

Like so much of the US, Southern Wisconsin is seeing growing inequities among regions and races. Dane County, home of Madison, is in the midst of an economic boom and is home to a growing population. Other parts of the region are struggling economically and losing population. The economic boom affects races quite differently especially in Wisconsin, where racial inequities are among the worst in the nation.

Those inequities are not limited to the secular sphere. We see them in the Church as well. The Diocese of Milwaukee is neither large nor wealthy. Grace Church, with an average Sunday attendance of around 170 and an operating budget of approximately 550,000 is the second largest congregation in the Diocese. Many of our congregations are quite small and are served by part-time clergy. A number of congregations, both urban and small-town, have closed over the last years.

It was with this in mind that I read Richard Florida’s piece on City Lab entitled “America’s Worsening Geographic Inequality.” Drawing on a number of recent studies, Florida points out the disturbing trends:

  • the decline of middle-class neighborhoods and the separation of America into “areas of concentrated advantage juxtaposed with areas of concentrated disadvantage”
  • change in prosperity of neighborhoods (1980-2016); suburban neighborhoods most stable; among urban neighborhoods, more upwardly mobile than downwardly mobile; rural neighborhoods the most volatile
  • up to 1980, geographical inequities declined; since 1980; they have grown
  • Today, median household income for the top 20 percent of America’s counties is more than twice as high as the median household income of the bottom 20 percent, while poverty rates are roughly three times greater in the poorest 20 percent of counties, compared to the most affluent 20 percent.
  • America is not only economically unequal: Its inequality cuts sharply across geographic lines. We are becoming a country of have and have-nots that turns on where we were born or where we are able to live. And this worsening winner-take-all geography is bound up with, and reflects, our long running divides of race and class.  Increasingly, our neighborhood, and our zip code, is our economic destiny.

One sees evidence of such growing geographical inequality in the life of our diocese. It’s not just that a relatively small number of congregations account for much of diocesan revenue, it’s that the diocese in turn offers aid to a significant number of parishes. So, in a sense, there’s a redistribution of wealth taking place among parishes.

It seems to me that we don’t take these larger geographical inequalities into account when we think about our common life as a diocese. I doubt very much whether many dioceses do. We are accustomed to think in terms of racial inequality and regional (North and South; the coasts and flyover country) differences. But geographical inequality is also present within dioceses. Many of our struggling churches are in neighborhoods that are struggling as well. This is true of urban as well as rural or small-town communities.

The Episcopal Church with its geographically-shaped structure may be uniquely situated to address geographical inequities like those cited by Florida. To a degree, we already do this with our funding mechanisms. But I suspect we need to go further and nurture the bonds that tie us together as Episcopalians across the divides that separate us, whether those divisions be class, race, gender, or geography.

The Diocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Pittsburgh

The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Milwaukee has recommended to Bishop Miller that he permit clergy to preside over same-sex blessings, as I wrote a couple of days ago. For support, that document appealed to Bishop McConnell of Pittsburgh, who gave such permission in spite of his own reservations.

I was interested to read that Bishop McConnell recently granted clergy permission to officiate at same-sex weddings. Lionel Deimel quotes extensively from the opinion of the Diocesan Chancellor. It seems Bishop McConnell’s concerns centered around whether an Episcopal priest could officiate at a wedding that made use of the trial rite (which isn’t Holy Matrimony). The Chancellor’s opinion is yes, because Pennsylvania law does not stipulate the form of the rite, only that there has to be a marriage certificate. Bishop McConnell’s revised guidelines are here.

Although same-sex marriage is currently on hold in Wisconsin and civil law varies widely from state to state, these guidelines and questions will be helpful as we move forward.

Conversations about Same Gender Blessings in the Diocese of Milwaukee (update)

In November, I posted about the Diocesan Standing Committee’s survey of vestries and clergy. You can read about that here. 

We held a meeting at Grace on November 19. Here’s the letter of explanation I sent to the parish: letteronssbs. About thirty people attended the meeting that was marked by lively conversation and careful listening. The vestry and I sent our separate responses to the Standing Committee after the December vestry meeting. That was all we were asked to do. However, at the November meeting, most of the participants urged that Grace Church make some sort of public statement about our commitment to the full inclusion of LGBT Christians in our congregation and our desire to support their loving and life-giving relationships with the church’s blessing and the congregation’s support and care.

I prepared a draft statement, distributed it to everyone who attended the meeting in November (as well as several who were unable to attend but expressed interest) and to the vestry. We discussed that document at our December meeting as well. I proposed that we have a second meeting where we might discuss the draft statement as well as the next steps we might take. The statement includes the following paragraphs:

There are at least two important reasons for making such a statement. First is a common misconception in our culture that Christianity stands for intolerance and bigotry and that contemporary Christians are united in their strong opposition to LGBT people living out their lives with openness and integrity. The second is that our silence obscures our commitment to the full inclusion of all people in the life of our congregation and our desire to offer the church’s blessing to same-sex couples.


Our silence on this issue means that many Christians and seekers might wonder where we stand. They might not know whether they are welcome to join us for worship or become members of our congregation. Our silence means that our effort to share the love of God in Jesus Christ may be ignored or unnoticed by many of those who are seeking God. Our silence means that LGBT Christians who have been members of Grace may not feel fully welcome or full members of the Body of Christ.


We know that many LGBT people have been deeply wounded by communities of faith that have rejected, denounced, or ignored them. We hope that by speaking out we may extend God’s love to people who need it, that through our witness, we may comfort the broken-hearted and help to heal wounds. Our public statement might be a word of hope to someone in despair.


Even as we express publicly our commitment to welcome and include all people in our common life and shared faith, we acknowledge that there are some among us who have different views. There are some who struggle to understand how the full inclusion of LGBT people is warranted by scripture, tradition, and reason, the three sources of Anglican and Episcopal theology. We want to emphasize as strongly as possible that the inclusion of LGBT people does not mean the exclusion of anyone else. As St. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female.” We believe that Christ calls us to embody an inclusive community of differing views and perspectives, united by our shared experience of Christ’s love and our coming together as one body in the Eucharistic feast. By modeling that inclusion, we may be a witness of God’s love and God’s beloved community in our deeply divided culture.


The entire document is available here: LGBTstatement_revised_01062014

This is a draft and will likely undergo some revision. In addition, we have not decided how the document will be signed: by the Rector, Wardens, and Vestry? By individual members? By a combination of both?

My message to members and friends of Grace Church in response to Bishop Miller’s letter

My previous post extracts several paragraphs from Bishop Miller’s letter and links to the full document.

For whatever reasons, there has not been a great deal of energy around the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church at Grace. I have not been approached by couples seeking the church’s blessing. I received very few questions and had few conversations last year during the run-up to and after General Convention. I do know that parishioners have a variety of views on these issues. Our disagreements to some degree mirror the disagreements in the wider church and in our society. I also know that men and women of good will can and do disagree on these issues as on many others and that the positions we take are in response to our desire and efforts to live out our calls to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

I am your pastor. I seek to be the pastor of everyone who enters our doors in search of God’s grace and love. I know both the power and fragility of the love of two people and I know how important it is that a couple can find support for their relationship in the body of Christ. That there are couples among us whose relationships cannot be acknowledged and blessed publicly saddens me to the core. It goes against my theology, my experience of the Gospel, and my model of our life together in Christ. I will continue to try to welcome, affirm, and be pastor to everyone—singles, couples, widowed, divorced—who seek to find and live out the love of Christ in their relationships as best and creatively as I can while keeping my vow of obedience to the bishop. And I will continue to pray and work for a deeper and fuller realizing of Christ’s love in all that we as a Church are and do.

Please contact me if you would like to talk about this or any other issue in the life of our congregation or in your personal life. As we continue to strive to discern God’s call for us individually and as the body of Christ on Madison’s Capitol Square, my prayer is the prayer of Jesus that we “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Bishop Miller’s letter on the Blessing of Same Sex Unions

On Thursday, Bishop Miller met with diocesan clergy to discuss General Convention Resolution A49 that provides for the blessing of same sex unions. He published a letter yesterday outlining his position. Here are some key paragraphs:
Therefore, I am not authorizing the rite from A049 for use in the Diocese of Milwaukee at this time. However, I have arranged with Bishop Jeffrey Lee of the Diocese of Chicago, for clergy and couples from congregations within the Diocese of Milwaukee to go to the Diocese of Chicago to celebrate the rite, as long as they obtain Bishop Lee’s consent to such an action to take place within the bounds of that diocese. Doing so will result in no punitive or negative response whatsoever from me.
Furthermore, I stated my belief that the right to a civil marriage should be available to all people, regardless of sexual orientation and that I would support those seeking to overturn the ban on same-gender marriage in Wisconsin. I also shared that I have begun to permit partnered gay clergy to preside with the diocese, and that I am open to the potential call of any Episcopal cleric in good standing to a position here.
I am also aware that many of our clergy feel the need to offer a generous pastoral liturgical response to gay and lesbian couples. I have agreed to the formation of a task force within this diocese, comprised of people from across the spectrum on this issue, including openly gay and lesbian people living in monogamous relationships, to consider, and propose the same. At the end of the process, however, as the one given canonical authority to order the liturgical life of the diocese, the decision about the authorization of such a rite rests with me. In our polity, there can be no other way.
The entire document is available: Bishop Miller’s letter
I will have more to say about this anon.

Breathing life into Diocesan Convention?

Yesterday, the 165th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee met. Details of the gathering are here.

There were two resolutions: one a change to the canons to permit vestries of six members; the other the annual minimum compensation for clergy. Neither elicited any debate. There were only two contested elections (for a lay member of Executive Committee, and for a clergy slot on Standing Committee).

I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion of the budget but from my twitter feed, it seems that there was little debate on that. In fact, a newcomer to the diocese observed that the explanation of the rules for debate took up more time than the debate itself. It’s as if we were going through the motions–doing things that needed to be done without any energy or excitement.

The only time it seemed the room began to fill with ideas and energy was as we talked around our tables about three questions Bishop Miller gave us at the end of his address. Here they are:

How is your congregation experiencing new life?
How do we, continually ourselves and others to see the new life God is calling forth and deepen our relationship with God?
How can diocesan structures and ministries help you in these efforts?

The questions were oriented toward the diocese’s ongoing strategic planning process in which I participate as a member of the task force.

It got me thinking, though. We’ve been talking a great deal about restructuring the church, on the congregation, diocesan, and church-wide level. Diocesan conventions seem ripe for complete rethinking. Every year, several hundred of the most committed Episcopalian Christians gather in each diocese to elect members to various bodies, debate resolutions, and pass budgets. I’ve never met anyone who said they love the business session of a convention. We do it because we have to do it, because we can’t imagine another way of doing it. But here we are, several hundred of us, gathered to work and worship. We hang out together, rekindle relationships, make new friends. How might we use our time together more effectively: for teaching and learning, for asking big questions and hearing about new initiatives? For praying? Studying the Bible? Instead, we go through the motions of doing business. In our diocese, we hear the Bishop twice, preaching the sermon during the Eucharist and his pastoral address during the business session. Instead of listening, how might we foster more conversation, dialogue, and listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit?

Here’s Bishop Miller’s Pastoral Address to the convention.

The Presiding Bishop’s visit to the Diocese of Milwaukee

This weekend was Annual Convention for the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefforts Schori and her husband Richard Schori were in attendance. Yesterday morning, the PB spent two hours with diocesan clergy while her husband met with clergy spouses. She began her session with us by asking us to meditate on the words Jesus heard as he came out of the Jordan River after being baptized, “You are my Beloved. In you I am well pleased.” After meditation and conversation in small groups about what we heard during our time of meditation, and how we responded to those words, we had the opportunity to ask questions of her.

During that time, and later in the afternoon during an open conversation with clergy, lay delegates, and other interested people, the Presiding Bishop spoke about what she saw as she traveled around the church in the US and the world. One of the things she stressed repeatedly is that the Episcopal Church is a world-wide church. It is not just an American, or even North American denomination.

She was honest about all of the ways Episcopalians do mission, both here and abroad, and she had a lot of positive things to say about the impact of the emergent church on our denomination. But she was also honest about the challenges facing us. One of the greatest may be demographic. According to her, while the average age for Americans is 37, the average age for Episcopalians is 57. Another theme that came back both in her remarks and in questions from the floor was the challenge we face with our aging physical infrastructure. To one question, she answered bluntly that some buildings need to be abandoned, given over to other purposes, while others can be revitalized and can continue to be the focal point of ministry. She also stressed that we have to get out of our buildings to do ministry in new places and in new ways. “Those churches that thrive,” she said, “are more than a worship space; meaningful to the larger community; while some of them are albatrosses.”

There were questions concerning the Anglican Covenant, to which she pointed out that “covenant” can mean very different things in different cultural contexts. For the Maori of New Zealand, who were victimized by a treaty that the settlers labeled a “covenant,” the term is deeply painful.

It was a good visit, an opportunity to hear from someone who has a much wider perspective on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion than we can have in the local parish. It was also a powerful reminder of the challenges that we face as well as the world of possibilities that lies before us.