Northern Wisconsin dioceses discover vote discrepancy precluding junction

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Nov 3, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] The possibility that the adjacent Episcopal dioceses of Fond du Lac and Eau Claire could form a new diocese in northern Wisconsin has been laid aside due to “an irregularity” in the counting of the Fond du Lac vote.

The irregularity appears to have occurred in the reporting of the vote of the Fond du Lac lay order.

On Oct. 22, the annual convention of Fond du Lac and a special convention of Eau Claire appeared to have voted to ask the 77th meeting of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention next July to approve what is called “junction.” The votes in each diocese were cast by orders (lay people voting separately from clergy), and the resolutions appeared to pass in both dioceses. Bishop Russell Jacobus of Fond du Lac and Provisional Bishop Ed Leidel of Eau Claire concurred with the decision.

Jacobus told Episcopal News Service Nov. 3 that while the specific vote totals had not been announced, he knew that the margin of difference in Fond du Lace was one vote in the lay order and two in the clergy order. In the days since the apparent approval he had become “really concerned about the division in the Diocese of Fond du Lac and how to deal with that.”

Jacobus suggested that the fear of change prompted people to oppose junction while other, especially older Episcopalians, could have been worried about loss of the diocesan identity, Jacobus said. Clergy were reporting that some of their congregation members were upset and threatening to withhold their pledges, he said, and some diocesan committee members had threatened to resign.

As a result, Jacobus said, he told the Fond du Lac members of a joint diocesan task force which had explored junction that he was considering a pastoral letter to acknowledge the closeness of the vote and urge unity because “we have to walk together especially if we’re going to be part of a new diocese.” During that conversation, the diocesan treasurer suggested a recount to affirm the totals. Thus, two members of the Standing Committee who voted on opposite sides counted the ballots twice, followed by two counts by diocesan staff, Jacobus said.

The clerical order vote of 32 yes, 28 no was confirmed, according to a diocesan press release, but the original understanding of the lay order being 53 yes, 51 no votes was found to be, in fact, 53 no and 51 yes.

“For the sake of Eau Claire, who is having their convention this weekend, I wish I would have done this shortly after the [Oct. 22] convention, but I did not think about that,” Jacobus told ENS.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who had called the vote a “remarkable development,” said Nov. 3 that the Episcopalians in Fond du Lac and Eau Claire “continue in my prayers.”

“I know there is both disappointment and relief, and pray that the coming months may bring greater clarity about the future in each diocese,” she said. “I give thanks for the witness of all Episcopalians in northern Wisconsin, and know that God’s mission will continue to be engaged there, wherever the diocesan boundaries may lie.”

Eau Claire’s Bishop Leidel, who on Nov. 3 was rewriting his address to this weekend’s diocesan convention and helping rewrite other materials to be presented to the gathering about the diocese’s future, told ENS that prior to the Oct. 22 vote the leadership in Eau Claire had been talking about a “win-win situation,” regardless of how the vote turned out.

“We were prepared to really work on developing a small and alive, bold new kind of diocese,” he said. “We’ve already been doing that these last 15 months and made a lot of progress. We were ready to go in that direction, or to work with Fond du Lac.”

The draft of a report to be presented at convention this weekend suggests that Eau Claire explore ways to connect with both Fond du Lac and the Diocese of Minnesota, its western neighbor; re-imagine interfaith and ecumenical partnerships; re-imagine its diocesan staff and its role; simplify the diocesan structure and re-write its constitution and canons as needed. The report also calls for diocesan congregations to learn from an emergent church planted by the diocese in River Falls, Wisconsin.

And, the report says, the diocese must now prepare to search for a full-time bishop based its new vision of the diocese. Eau Claire has been without a full-time diocesan bishop since Keith B. Whitmore left in April 2008 to become assisting bishop in the Diocese of Atlanta. Leidel, who retired as the first bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Michigan, was elected in August 2010 to a 15-month, one-third-time term as Eau Claire’s provisional bishop. He said he is due to work quarter-time in the diocese next year.

A report of an Eau Claire task force that considered the option of remaining autonomous reported before the vote that autonomy was “not a panacea,” and warned that the diocese would have to make “significant structural and organizational changes” to remain financially viable.

Leidel reminded the diocese earlier this year that it had called him “to find alternate ways for our diocese to live into a viable and sustainable future.” He said that an early idea for the Eau Claire diocese to return to the Diocese of Milwaukee was seen by its Bishop Steven Miller as not workable.

Eau Claire was created by division of the Milwaukee diocese in 1928. Fond du Lac had in 1875 been carved out of what was then known as the Diocese of Wisconsin, which became the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1886. A diocese incorporating Eau Claire and Fond du Lac would include the northern three quarters of Wisconsin.

Leidel told ENS that after spending a week and a half since the apparent approval of junction “gearing towards what looked like the creation of a new diocese,” Eau Claire now has to “rewind ourselves back to where we were on Oct. 22 and get into the excitement of being a new kind of small diocese.”

Leidel said Eau Claire was fairly united on junction. “We saw it as a greater, more difficult task, the outcome of which also could be significant in terms of the church because the church has never done this before,” he said.

This is the second time that a suggestion of a combined diocese in northern Wisconsin has not come to pass. In June 2009, the two dioceses agreed that it was premature to ask the 2009 meeting of General Convention for junction. (Episcopal Church Canon 1.10.1 lays out the process for junction.)

Fond du Lac also separately considered options for its future, according to a report here, and concluded that to continue business as usual would lead to decline.

In September, the two dioceses released a joint report noting that “although there is consensus among the membership of the Joint Diocesan Task Force that the creation of a new diocese is an exciting and viable option, there is also a common resolve that there will be greater sharing of talent and resources between the two Episcopal dioceses in northern and western Wisconsin, regardless of the outcome of decisions at the respective diocesan conventions in October 2011.”

Jacobus told ENS that the two dioceses have already worked together in a number of instances and would continue to do so.

“My real hope is that the two dioceses will keep working together,” he said. “I think the future in northern Wisconsin is a strong Episcopal mission and ministry that would have been done under one structure or is being done together with two structures. Our working together into the future is the real hope here.”

He suggested “this is just a decision for now and I hope that as we work together that people from both dioceses will get to see how valuable a junctioning could be and that maybe sometime in the future a vote will be taken where there is a real unanimity to move forward.”

“We just need a little more time,” he added. “It’s God’s time, not ours.”

The Diocese of Eau Claire has 21 congregations and one summer chapel. Sixteen congregations have an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of fewer than 50 people. Twelve of those 16 have an average ASA under 25. There are three full-time clergy serving congregations, according to the joint report.

The Diocese of Fond du Lac has 34 congregations and two summer chapels. Twelve have an ASA under 50 and eight of those have an ASA under 25. Sixteen congregations average between 51 and 100 people a Sunday and six have an ASA of more than 100. There are 20 full-time clergy serving congregations.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.