Committees recommend Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan merger; also consider value of provinces

By David Paulsen
Posted May 24, 2024
Jen Adams

The Rev. Jennifer Adams of the Diocese of Western Michigan testifies May 23 in favor of a resolution endorsing the merger of her diocese with the Diocese of Eastern Michigan. The resolution will be taken up by the 81st General Convention when it convenes June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

[Episcopal News Service] The dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan are one step away from merging as the combined Diocese of the Great Lakes after committees voted May 23 to recommend approval of the plan when the 81st General Convention convenes next month in Louisville, Kentucky.

General Convention’s committees on Governance & Structure voted unanimously in favor of the merger resolution, C025, in an online meeting after hearing testimony from two deputies from the Grand Rapids-based Diocese of Western Michigan. That diocese and the Saginaw-based Diocese of Eastern Michigan first agreed to experiment with a formal partnership in October 2019 that has involved shared personnel, ministries and governance functions.

“We prayed a lot. We did our collective best to trust the Spirit’s presence and guidance. And in the end our Building Bridges [Committee] came to the unanimous decision that we are better together,” the Rev. Jennifer Adams, who chairs the Western Michigan deputation, said in addressing the bishops and deputies of the Governance & Structure committees.

General Convention divides its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, and the two houses’ legislative committees, though distinct, typically meet together for hearings and to discuss and vote on resolutions. Resolution C025 now advances to votes by the full houses, which will meet in person June 23-28.

“We will be happy to celebrate with you at convention,” said Texas Bishop Suffragan Jeff Fisher, who chairs the bishops’ committee, indicating final approval is nearly certain.

“This means a great deal here, thank you,” Adams said.

If authorized by General Convention, the new Diocese of the Great Lakes would hold its inaugural convention in October. The two dioceses are following a canonical process known as “juncture,” which applies when two dioceses that have not previously been a single diocese together. The state’s other two dioceses, Michigan and Northern Michigan, are not involved in the merger.

A separate resolution due before the 81st General Convention would authorize a canonical “reunion” of Wisconsin’s three dioceses – Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire – after their yearslong discernment over a merger. The Wisconsin dioceses voted earlier this month to request General Convention’s authorization of their merger, and their formal resolution has not yet been assigned to the Governance & Structure’s committees.

The committees’ May 23 hearing also included testimony on a series of resolutions seeking to breathe new life into a less prominent but potentially vital layer of church governance: its nine regional provinces.

The provinces are made up of groups of the church’s 108 dioceses, along with the Navajoland Area Mission and Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. In addition to fulfilling some canonical responsibilities, such as appointing members of Executive Council, some provinces have pursued opportunities for cross-diocese communication and collaboration like the more localized partnerships between the Michigan and Wisconsin dioceses.

The Rev. Terri Bays, a deputy from the Diocese of Northern Indiana, described provinces as a kind of “middle ground” of church governance between the diocesan and churchwide levels. As a member of the Province V board, she spoke in favor of Resolutions C005, C006 and C007.

Resolution C005 would call on each diocese to “discuss the ways it will be in relationship and support the identified ministries of the province of which they are a part.” C006 calls on Executive Council, the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention, to consider how the church can best support provinces, both administratively and financially. Resolution C007 advocates a churchwide budget line with money for provinces. The resolution also requests $80,000 a year for its implementation.

“My experience is that provinces are a wonderful resource for engaging people in the mission and ministry of the church,” said the Rev. Nathaniel Pierce, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Easton, Maryland. “By not including provinces more effectively … we lose the opportunity of engaging more people in the overall life of The Episcopal Church.”

The resolutions, however, faced some opposition. Randall Marks, a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., testified against the resolutions, suggesting that the provinces were no longer relevant in today’s Episcopal Church and that the requested funding could be better spent on other church priorities.

“I don’t think they’re necessary anymore. They were established before we had these communication mechanisms that allowed all of us to get together online,” Marks said. Alluding to this year’s pending diocesan mergers, he added, “dioceses seem to be working together organically, outside of the provincial structure.”

General Convention has grappled regularly over the purpose and effectiveness of provinces, and in 2015, it passed a resolution creating the Task Force to Study Provinces to consider whether the provincial structure could be eliminated altogether.

The task force concluded that provinces still played an important role in the life of the church, and rather than be eliminated, they should be supported, particularly for their regional networking opportunities. Ellen Bruckner of the Diocese of Iowa, who previously chaired the task force, testified May 23 in favor of C005 and C006.

“Most people across the church have very limited knowledge of what a province can be,” Bruckner said. “We have this structure that’s in place. … It’s probably wise to try to use the structure the best we can before we get rid of it.”

Several other resolutions on a range of topics were discussed at the committees’ hearing:

  • A073 would create a Standing Commission on Health and Human Wellness, a permanent body to carry forward and broaden the work of the Task Force on Individuals with Mental Illness. Several task force members testified in favor, though some committee members expressed doubts that such a standing commission was justified.
  • D020 was proposed by three deputies and would create a Task Force on AI in The Episcopal Church. One of the proposers, Kevin Miller of the Diocese of Massachusetts, warned the church is “already behind” in responding to rapid developments in artificial intelligence, given its potential uses and misuses.
  • And the committees welcomed feedback on two new resolutions from dioceses advocating the gradual lowering of churchwide assessments on diocesan revenue. At least six dioceses are now calling for rate reductions. Those assessments make up the largest portion of the churchwide budget – about $30 million a year, or 65% of the $143 million in revenue the church expects to collect in 2025-27.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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