81st General Convention finalizes reunion of the Diocese of Wisconsin

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 28, 2024
Wisconsin deputies

Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire deputies celebrate the House of Deputies approving their dioceses’ reunion as the Diocese of Wisconsin on June 28. Photo: Scott Gunn

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] The Episcopal Church again has a Diocese of Wisconsin.

As one of its final acts of its June 23-28 meeting, the 81st General Convention approved the reunion of the dioceses of Milwaukee, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire, after a nearly three-year process of discernment that was celebrated on the floor of the House of Deputies and later in the House of Bishops.

“The timing was absolutely right, and we paid attention,” the Rev. Jana Troutman-Miller, a deputy from Milwaukee, said in describing the diocese’s process to the House of Deputies in a speech after the vote on Resolution D051. She was joined on the platform by deputies from the three dioceses, all wearing matching hats featuring the state’s outline. “Please pray for us as we go from here to begin the real work of this reunion; the living into this call that we have been paying attention to.”

Because the merger was enacted canonically as a reunion, it takes effect as soon as both houses vote and the results are certified by General Convention’s secretary. That is different from the merger of the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, also approved June 28, which followed a different process known as juncture and will not become the Diocese of the Great Lakes until it organizes itself later this year.

Before the Wisconsin vote, Milwaukee Deputy John Johnson affirmed that the three dioceses “are ready to be three in one. … We are going back to the future as the Wisconsin diocese again.”

The original Diocese of Wisconsin was created in 1847, a year before Wisconsin became a state, and was first led by Bishop Jackson Kemper. Over the next 80 years, the original statewide diocese divided into three as Wisconsin’s population increased. Today, about 6 million people live in the state, though church membership is steadily declining in all three dioceses – down overall by a third in the past decade.

In August 2021, the three dioceses launched a formal process “to explore ways to deepen cooperation and coordination” at a time of bishop transition in the dioceses of Milwaukee and Eau Claire. By this week at the start of the 81st General Convention, Fond du Lac Bishop Matthew Gunter was the state’s only diocesan bishop, while also serving as bishop provisional of Eau Claire and assisting bishop in Milwaukee. He now becomes bishop of the reunited Diocese of Wisconsin, which will hold its first diocesan convention in October.

Wisconsin’s reunion and the separate juncture of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan are just two examples of a growing spirit of collaboration among dioceses across The Episcopal Church. Other partnerships are in various stages of alignment and include the dioceses of Indianapolis and Northern Indiana; the dioceses of Central Pennsylvania and Bethlehem; the dioceses of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine; and the two dioceses where Presiding Bishop-elect Sean Rowe currently serves, Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York.

Lee Donahue, an Eau Claire deputy, noted that her diocese had attempted but failed to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac in 2011. They entered this new process with some trepidation, but the three dioceses found a way forward together as willing partners.

“We now come from a place of strength, of determination and still a deep love to be the one diocese that God Is calling us to be,” Donahue said, “for yes, there is a time for everything.”

The Rev. Tyler Richards, a Fond du Lac deputy, acknowledged the distinct cultures that his and the other two diocese bring to this reunion. “As we in Wisconsin are reconciled into one diocese once more, may the prayer that we all may be one be fulfilled in our hearing,” Richards said.

The reunited Diocese of Wisconsin includes 101 congregations and more than 11,500 baptized members. Several deputies from Wisconsin explained that their process of discernment – the Trialogue – received widespread input from clergy and lay leaders in the state, as well as advice from church leaders in other dioceses undergoing similar discernment.

After the House of Bishops voted in favor of Resolution D051, Gunter, joined on the platform by the deputies, addressed the bishops, identifying himself for the first time as the bishop of Wisconsin. He echoed the deputes’ earlier comments about the thoroughness of the process.

“We gave every Episcopalians in the state of Wisconsin the option to engage in this process,” Gunter said. He also underscored that they did not pursue reunion out of fear of membership decline or budget tightening, but rather in recognition that as the church in Wisconsin, “we need to need to form disciples” for the 21st century. Wisconsin Episcopalians agreed that the best way to do so was together.

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