Two northern Wisconsin dioceses approve formation of new diocese

Presiding bishop, Executive Council applaud historic decision
October 24, 2011

The adjacent Episcopal dioceses of Fond du Lac and Eau Claire Oct. 22 approved the formation of a new diocese in northern Wisconsin.

The formal decision was made by the annual convention of Fond du Lac and a special convention of Eau Claire. The dioceses met separately. The votes in each diocese were cast by orders (lay people voting separately from clergy), and the resolutions had to pass in both dioceses. Bishop Russell Jacobus of Fond du Lac and Bishop Ed Leidel of Eau Claire also concurred with the decision.

The two dioceses must now ask the 77th meeting of the Episcopal Church's General Convention next July to approve what is called "junction." A process to organize formally the resulting new diocese would begin in the fall of 2012 with a new diocese formed Jan. 1, 2013, according to a Fond du Lac diocesan press release.

Episcopal Church Canon 1.10.1 lays out the process for junction.

To the applause of the church's Executive Council meeting in Salt Lake City, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori called the agreement "a remarkable development."

"I think it is a very significant example of restructuring, thinking in news ways, looking at ways that will serve mission in the most effective way" in the future, she said.

In a jubilant e-mail later posted on the Eau Claire diocesan website, Leidel said, "Never before have two dioceses in the Episcopal Church 'junctioned' together. So, today we begin a new journey to create a new diocese in northern Wisconsin." He said the diocese would have "a new name and … a new sense of identity."

A diocese incorporating the two present dioceses would include the northern three quarters of Wisconsin. It would extend from the shores of Lake Superior to Lake Michigan to the banks of the Mississippi. It would include some of the most heavily populated and industrialized portions of the state and some of the least populated and wilderness areas in the north woods, the release said.

After General Convention's approval, the process of forming the new diocese would include Jacobus (as the senior bishop of the two dioceses by consecration date) calling the "primary" or organizing convention, which would be asked to approve a process to call and elect a new bishop. Jacobus, 67, reaches the church's mandatory retirement age of 72 in September 2016.

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.

The decision to join the two dioceses was the result of discussions that date back at least four years, according to the Fond du Lac release.

In June 2009, the two dioceses agreed that it would be premature to ask the 2009 meeting of General Convention for junction.

The Diocese of Eau Claire explored the option of remaining autonomous, according to documents filed here. A report of a task force considering that option reported 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 carved out the Milwaukee diocese in 1928.)

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 1875, Fond du Lac grew out of what was then known as the Diocese of Wisconsin, which became the Diocese of Milwaukee in 1886.)

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."

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.

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