Dioceses of Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, Eau Claire vote to combine as Diocese of Wisconsin

By ENS staff
Posted May 6, 2024
Wisconsin votes

Leaders from the dioceses of Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire gather May 4 in Baraboo to approve a reunion agreement that will go before the 81st General Convention for final approval in June. Photo: Graicey Van Spankeren/Diocese of Milwaukee

[Episcopal News Service] The dioceses of Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire voted on May 4 to finalize a merger that would re-establish the historic Diocese of Wisconsin, which dates to 1847, a year before Wisconsin became a state.

A merger agreement under the canonical process of reunion was overwhelmingly approved by the clergy and lay orders of the three dioceses and now heads to the 81st General Convention for final approval.

This is the second diocesan merger that bishops and deputies will be asked to affirm at the June 23-28 General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. In March, the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan voted to combine through a similar process known as juncture, building on a cross-diocesan partnership over four years involving ministry collaboration and some shared leadership.

Wisconsin’s three Episcopal dioceses roughly divide the state into thirds. Image: Diocese of Fond du Lac

The three Wisconsin dioceses endorsed their Joint Agreement of Union at a special joint convention held at the Ho-Chunk Gaming casino in Baraboo. The agreement received nearly unanimous support from the clergy and lay orders of the dioceses Milwaukee and Eau Claire. The Diocese of Fond du Lac’s votes were somewhat closer but still largely supportive, with 76% of the laity and 88% of clergy in favor.

If approved by General Convention, the reunited Diocese of Wisconsin will include 101 congregations and more than 11,500 baptized members. It would be led by the Rt. Rev. Matthew Gunter, who currently serves as bishop of Fond du Lac and bishop provisional of Eau Claire, while also serving as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Milwaukee during its leadership transition.

The Diocese of Fond du Lac was established in 1875 in response to population growth in northeastern Wisconsin, and the remaining diocese changed its name to the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1886. Then, as more people moved into the northwest part of the state, the Diocese of Eau Claire was carved from parts of the other two dioceses in 1928.

In today’s Wisconsin, a state of about 6 million residents, church membership has steadily declined in all three of its Episcopal dioceses – down overall by a third in the past decade. The Diocese of Eau Claire, in the northwest third of the state, and the Diocese of Fond du Lac, in northeast Wisconsin, are two of The Episcopal Church’s smallest dioceses. The larger Diocese of Milwaukee spans the southern third of the state and includes six of the state’s 10 largest cities.

Leadership transitions in Milwaukee and Eau Claire were a key factor in opening the door to reunion. The Rt. Rev. William Jay Lambert retired in November 2020 as Eau Claire’s part-time bishop, followed a month later by Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller. Eau Claire elected Gunter to begin serving as its provisional bishop in January 2021. Milwaukee welcomed retired Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee as its provisional bishop in April 2021, and he served until July 2023, after which the diocese’s standing committee will become the ecclesiastical authority.