Nadia Bolz-Weber installed as ELCA’s first pastor of public witness

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, left, is installed as Pastor of Public Witness, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, by Bishop Jim Gonia, right, of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA, in a service at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. Video screengrab

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, left, is installed as pastor of public witness on Aug. 20, 2021, by Bishop Jim Gonia, right, of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a service at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. 

[Religion News Service] The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber was installed this weekend as the first pastor of public witness for the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States.

Bolz-Weber, who has often attracted controversy, is perhaps best known for her New York Times bestselling books, including “Shameless: A Sexual Reformation” and “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint,” the prayer- and profanity-filled memoir of her journey from alcoholic stand-up comic to Lutheran pastor.

She was called to the role of pastor of public witness by the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, whose bishop, Jim Gonia, she said has supported her ministry since she first applied to seminary.

Pastor of public witness may be a new position for the ELCA, but other denominations have called clergy to similar public-facing roles. For instance, the predecessor to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as an evangelist for television, noted Gonia during Bolz-Weber’s installation service Aug. 20.

Bolz-Weber laughed at the comparison to the beloved children’s TV host, calling it “counterintuitive.” But, she said, it works.

She’d seen “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the popular 2018 documentary about Rogers and his show, the day after she left the church she founded, House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, to pursue her current work as a public theologian. The film brought tears to her eyes, she said. It also made her believe maybe it was possible for her to do the new ministry she had upended her life to do.

“The motivation comes from having a pastoral concern and wanting to have a broader reach than a single congregation,” she told Religion News Service.

That work, which is self-funded, won’t look any different from what she has been doing since leaving House for All Sinners and Saints.

“I still pay my health insurance,” she said. “It’s not like I got a new job. I get to still do my job, and have my denomination say, ‘This work is pastoral in nature.’”

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber discusses forgiveness in a video on her website. Video screengrab

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber discusses forgiveness in a video on her website. 

In addition to her books, Bolz-Weber’s public ministry includes hosting a podcast from PRX and The Moth called “The Confessional,” in which people confess their worst moments and the pastor offers a personalized blessing in return. She will also continue speaking, writing an email newsletter called “The Corners” and leading an “experimental gathering of spiritual misfits” online called “The Chapel.”

Her work often centers on a message of grace and compassion — a message, she said, she herself needs to hear. She’s referred to her style of leadership as “screw it, I’ll go first,” sharing her struggles so others feel comfortable admitting their own.

That message is grounded in Lutheran theology, she said, which is why it’s important for her to remain connected with the ELCA.

“Almost everything I say is just a translation of really basic Lutheran theology, and they’re the ones who gave me that language in the first place,” she said.

Bolz-Weber also offers quarterly messages at several ecumenical ministries in Denver, which issued her call alongside the Rocky Mountain Synod. They are St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver; New Beginnings, an ELCA worshipping community inside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility; and Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Denver that hosted Friday’s installation service.

“We give thanks for our friend Nadia, who is bringing us together. She has a way of doing that in the world,” the Rev. Clover Reuter Beal of Montview said during the service, which was livestreamed by the church.

In his message, Gonia noted this was Bolz-Weber’s second call to ministry in the ELCA and “a long time in coming to fruition.” The entire conference of bishops of the ELCA had to sign off on the newly created position, which he said he has discussed with the pastor since she left House for All Sinners and Saints.

“Certainly for our Rocky Mountain Synod — one of 65 synods in the ELCA — we’ve never had a calling like this one before, where we are acknowledging that Nadia has a ministry that goes far beyond the walls of any one church,” the bishop told RNS afterward.

That ministry brings a “particular articulation of the gospel” to people who may not otherwise be connected with Christianity, he said. Not so unlike Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

This story was originally published by Religion News Service and is republished here with permission.

Source: Episcopal News

After court loss, displaced North Texas congregations settle in school chapel, former bank, other churches

All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth is now worshipping at its school. Photo: All Saints’ Facebook page

[Episcopal News Service] One Episcopal congregation started worshiping this summer in a former bank drive-thru in Hillsboro, Texas. In Wichita Falls, Episcopalians secured space in a Disciples of Christ church so they could continue holding services, on Saturday evenings instead of Sunday mornings. Members of a congregation in Fort Worth chose to close their church and worship apart, but they continue to keep in touch, including through online prayer services.

It has been four months since six congregations were evicted from their worship spaces after the former Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth lost its 12-year legal battle with a breakaway group affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA. The Episcopal diocese has since changed its name to the Episcopal Church of North Texas, and all but one of its evicted congregations have found temporary homes and resumed worship.

“People have been trying to take time to settle and get over the shock that is still reverberating and come to terms with this unimaginable new reality we have found ourselves in,” Katie Sherrod, the diocese’s communications director, told Episcopal News Service. “And at the same time, we know we have to go into some kind of discernment about what we do next.”

Sherrod and other church leaders provided ENS with the following updates on the status of each of the six displaced congregations:

  • All Saints’, Fort Worth: The congregation began worshiping in the chapel at All Saints’ Episcopal School on a separate campus from the congregation’s former church property. The school was not part of the lawsuit. An ACNA congregation moved into the church building and has begun worshiping there.
  • St. Luke’s in the Meadow, Fort Worth: Worship services moved to a building on the Fort Worth campus of Texas Wesleyan University, which also accommodated the congregation’s 4Saints Food Pantry, a joint ministry with four other congregations. ACNA has begun removing fixtures from the old church but has not held worship services there.
  • St. Christopher’s, Fort Worth: While the old church sits empty, the Episcopal congregation’s parishioners have begun worshipping Sunday afternoons at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.
  • St. Elisabeth and Christ the King, Fort Worth: The congregation chose to disband, and members dispersed to worship at other Episcopal churches in the area. ACNA now is working with a developer who plans to tear down the church and build 20 single-family homes there.
  • Episcopal Church of Wichita Falls: Worship services now are held at Park Place Christian Church and scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Saturdays, to not conflict with Sunday morning worship of the Disciples of Christ congregation that is sharing the space. The Episcopal congregation previously worshipped at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which now sits empty.
  • St. Mary’s, Hillsboro: This is the congregation that now worships in a former bank drive-thru. After the 2008 split, it had received permission from the breakaway group’s leaders to share the worship space with an ACNA congregation, but when the decision came this year in the court case, the ACNA congregation changed the locks on the doors, forcing the small Episcopal congregation to relocate.

As difficult as it was for St. Mary’s to leave, the congregation of about a dozen worshippers counts itself fortunate for finding a suitable new home, said David Skelton, St. Mary’s senior warden.

Initially, Skelton and other members worshiped in the back room of a real estate business for nearly four months. A friend of Skelton’s had purchased the vacant bank drive-thru with the intention of eventually moving his auto repair shop there. Skelton asked if the shop owner would let the congregation worship in the bank building in the interim if St. Mary’s committed to fixing up the property.

Church members swept and scrubbed the 1,600-square-foot space, replaced old ceiling tiles, resurfaced and sealed floors, repaired Sheetrock and upgraded the air conditioning. The Diocese of West Texas donated church furniture, as well as altar linens, prayer books and hymnals. The building’s two rooms now serve as a worship space and parish hall in a central location, Skelton told ENS, though the congregation is trying not to focus solely on the physical structure.

“The build is a building. It’s not the church,” Skelton told ENS. “The congregation is the church. I’m really sorry we lost the building, but we didn’t lose the church. We, the congregation, moved somewhere else.”

St. Mary’s and the other displaced congregations are grateful for the hospitality they have found, but eventually, they will need to find permanent homes, said Sherrod, who is a member of St. Luke’s in the Meadow. “All of our congregations feel the need for a more permanent place for their ongoing ministries, to say nothing about their worship,” she told ENS.

That is especially true as congregations respond to the diocese’s emphasis on “looking outside ourselves” and “focusing on the needs of the communities around us,” Sherrod said. “That has been what has anchored us and kept us all going in the midst of all this.”

Relocating to Texas Wesleyan University is a “stopgap measure” for St. Luke’s in the Meadow and the 4Saints Food Pantry, Sherrod said. The pantry “never missed a day of food distribution” but lost some of its regular clients after the move, partly because the new location isn’t as convenient for public transportation. The congregation’s discernment process will include seeking a new location that can adequately accommodate the church and its ministries.

The diocese lost more than $100 million in diocesan property to ACNA in the court battle, and its membership has dropped from more than 17,000 to fewer than 4,000 since 2008 when the diocese’s leaders persuaded a majority of Episcopalians to leave The Episcopal Church over the church’s ordination of female and LGBTQ+ clergy.

The diocese still has 14 active congregations, but that list no longer includes St. Elisabeth and Christ the King Episcopal Church. With the latest ACNA evictions looming in April, the congregation of about 35 to 40 worshippers decided against looking for a new location.

“We were just too small and not enough energy to start again somewhere else, so we just sort of closed,” said the Rev. Sandi Michels, who had served as priest-in-charge since 2011. She maintains contact with her former congregation by phone and email and invites them to join her for brief Compline services on Zoom three evenings a week. Usually, at least a half dozen former members of the congregation attend.

While the recently displaced congregations consider their long-term options, the diocese’s other nine active congregations have followed a range of paths since 2008.

  • Three churches never lost their buildings in the split: Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Keller and St Luke’s in Stephenville.
  • St. Mary’s in Hamilton bought an existing church building and moved in, while St. Stephen’s in Hurst leased and renovated space in a shopping center. Church of the Good Shepherd in Granbury raised money to build a new church.
  • Church of the Resurrection is a church plant that opened in a historic church building in Decatur in 2015.
  • St. Alban’s settled in a theater in Arlington. As it outgrows that space, it now is looking for a bigger facility, Sherrod said. St. Alban’s averaged about 95 worshippers on Sundays in 2019, according to the latest parochial report data, up from 50 a decade earlier.
  • St. Andrew’s in Fort Worth had been worshipping in a chapel across the street from Texas Christian University, but services moved online at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The congregation has yet to return to in-person services.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Source: Episcopal News

Diocese of Albany calls Michael Smith as assisting bishop during transition

The Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith. Photo: Diocese of Albany

[Diocese of Albany] Bishop Michael G. Smith has accepted a call from the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Albany to serve as assisting bishop during the interim period before the election of the next diocesan bishop. While the Standing Committee will remain the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese, Smith will provide episcopal ministry focusing on sacramental and pastoral responsibilities, including regular regional confirmations.

Smith previously served as bishop of the Diocese of North Dakota for 15 years. Since then, he has served as part-time assistant bishop of Dallas, where he teaches “Ascetical Theology and Spiritual Practices” through the Stanton Center for Ministry Formation. He is also a part-time assisting bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission, where he organizes the Navajoland Iona Collaborative, working in the formation of Indigenous leaders from the Four Corners region and the Diocese of Alaska.

Smith is the chair of the Communion Partners Steering Committee, a fellowship of ordained and lay Anglicans from the U.S., Canada, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Indigenous First Nations who are committed to engaging the ministry of reconciliation by helping to keep theological conservatives and theological liberals in the discernment processes of the Anglican Communion. He was a guest and participant in the most recent Global South conferences held in Egypt and Thailand.

An enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma and a Benedictine oblate of St. John’s Abbey, he lives in Minnesota when he is not on the road. His wife, the Rev. Lisa White Smith, is the rector of a parish there and they are the parents of three grown children and grandparents of nine. “I look forward to discerning and supporting what God is doing in the next chapter of the history of the Diocese of Albany,” says Smith.

Source: Episcopal News

New Zealand bishops pause in-person worship as country enters lockdown

[Anglican Taonga] Anglican churches and whare karakia across Aotearoa New Zealand will remain closed to in-person services this weekend as bishops up and down the country direct clergy to move worship online and undertake ministry via phone or other non-contact interactions. The country is entering its strictest level of lockdown due to its first report of a locally transmitted COVID-19 case since February.

Two significant in-person Anglican events scheduled for this week have already been postponed, including ‘The Abbey 2021: A house without walls’ youth leadership festival that was due to happen in Waikanae this weekend, and the Pākehā Deans’ conference that was due to take place in Otepōti Dunedin from Thursday-Sunday this week.

Bishop of Auckland Ross Bay encouraged his people to go back to virtual services this weekend and to plan for online worship again next week, as experience now proves that a slow reduction in alert levels is more likely than a quick return to the “almost normal” of Level 1.

Read the entire story here.

Source: Episcopal News

New network launched to support Church of England ordinands from minority ethnic backgrounds

[Church of England] An independent network for people training for ordained ministry in the Church of England who are from minority ethnic backgrounds has been launched.

The UKME (U.K. Minority Ethnic) Ordinands and Curates group hopes to meet every three months to provide a voice and support for a growing number of UKME ordinands and curates.

The group has been set up by former junior doctor Angela Sheard, who is training at Queen’s Foundation theological education institution in Birmingham and former biomedical scientist Tariro Matsveru, who was ordained in June and is now a curate in King’s Heath, Birmingham.

Tariro, who was born in Zimbabwe and trained at Cranmer Hall in Durham, said the group aims to support ordinands and curates across the country.

“We want to encourage and support the vocations of ordinands and curates of UKME/Global Majority Heritage in the Church of England within dioceses and theological colleges,” she said.

Read the entire article here.

Source: Episcopal News

Episcopal clergy entertain and evangelize in the virtual ‘town square’ of TikTok

The Rev. David Peters, the Rev. Lizzie McManus-Dail and Sister Monica Clare are a few of the Episcopal clergy who maintain a presence on TikTok.

[Episcopal News Service] TikTok, the video editing and streaming app where mostly millennials and Generation Z share funny dance challenges, viral moments and memes, might be the last place you’d expect to find a 45-year-old priest evangelizing. But the Rev. David Peters isn’t your average priest, and his style of evangelism is less about preaching and more about laughter.

“It’s just another way of relating. It’s also the town square,” said Peters, a church planter in Pflugerville, Texas. Peters became perhaps the first priest to go viral on the app when his videos – like “Outfits I’m Afraid to Wear” and “Anglican Priest Problems” – unexpectedly took off in the summer of 2019, garnering international media coverage. He and other Episcopal clergy have made a ministry out of providing an affirming alternative to harmful variants of Christianity and explaining what they love about their faith, often through the offbeat language of memes.

@davidwpeters

Reposting since the sound quit from a copyright. Enjoy my first real TikTok ever! #hotpriestsummer

♬ original sound – ꧁☽ŒWÆŒWÆ☾꧂

Peters, who leads a congregation that meets at a wine bar, as well as online, wanted to reach more people in his community, especially young people. And since the pandemic, they increasingly gather in virtual spaces like TikTok. A November 2020 survey found that 69% of American teenagers use TikTok at least once a month; a 2021 study found that 48% of 18- to 29-year-olds use it.

“One of the reasons I went on TikTok was I felt a real burden for the teenagers of Pflugerville,” Peters told Episcopal News Service. “Teenagers really do live in a separate universe and there’s probably good reasons for that. But as a church planter, I’m thinking of every group in my community – how is this church connecting with them?”

Peters had been making videos on other platforms and downloaded TikTok mainly for its ability to easily edit short video clips, “and the minute I did that, I was like, this is brilliant. I discovered that it was a very young community, and really funny, really positive. Joyful things really do well on there.”

Peters is especially concerned with young people’s mental health, and he tackles serious subjects, including his own divorce and mental health struggles, alongside slapstick stunts and pop culture parodies – sometimes in the same video. He points out that he was not the first clergyperson to embrace TikTok as a way to meet young people where they are, but his success has inspired other clergy to take up TikTok ministry.

“I had seen some of his videos and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really charming and such a cool evangelism tool,’” said the Rev. Lizzie McManus-Dail. She is the curate at the Church of the Cross, a new church currently meeting online and at a ranch in Bee Cave, Texas, near Peters in the Austin suburbs. Since downloading the app “in the pandemic doldrums” of April 2020, she has developed a following of her own – nearly 36,000 strong – with her mix of affirmations, prayers, Q&As, social justice and cat antics.

@rev.lizzie

Happy National Coming Out Day, Beloved Babes of God ????????️‍???? #lgbtq #progressiveclergy #comingout #nationalcomingoutday #queer

♬ I Write Watermelons Not Sugar by DJ Cummerbund – DJ Cummerbund

“There was a very clear understanding in my mind that this was something I wanted to do as a deacon and then a priest, and as an extension of ministry,” McManus-Dail, who is in her late 20s, told ENS.

Others, like Sister Monica Clare of the Episcopal Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey, stumbled on TikTok ministry unintentionally. The 55-year-old had never heard of TikTok until a friend encouraged her to get on it. Her account, @nunsenseforthepeople, started with observations of an ornery turkey that stalked the convent grounds. Originally intended just for four close friends, her videos – through the mysterious workings of the TikTok algorithm, or perhaps the Holy Spirit – were suddenly reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Many seemed to be endlessly curious about her life, asking everything from her reasons for joining the convent to her skin care routine.

@nunsenseforthepeople

There are actually a LOT of nuns, monks, and friars on social media. Communities have realized it’s a great way to connect! #nuns #episcopal

♬ original sound – Sister Monica Clare, CSJB

She responds with the deadpan humor she developed over the course of a particularly varied life. She studied acting at New York University and moved to Los Angeles, where she “failed spectacularly” at acting but enjoyed doing improv and stand-up comedy. After a 20-year career designing movie posters and promotional materials, she entered the convent at age 46, but she never lost that sense of humor. For her, life as a nun is full of joy and she wants to share it with the world.

“People really responded to the humor,” she told ENS. “Some of my videos are still, of course, serious. I answer serious questions about The Episcopal Church. But I think people are put at ease when somebody is funny because it makes them more human, and I think the church’s public image has been really devoid of humor.”

McManus-Dail was also drawn to TikTok’s upbeat atmosphere “because I think the church is often perceived as really serious and focused on suffering and feeling bad about ourselves, and that’s not how I encounter God. And 2020 was really hard, and I knew that I needed lighthearted things to get me through the day. And I thought that was something that we could offer.”

Many progressive clergy on TikTok, including Peters, Sister Monica Clare and McManus-Dail, focus especially on reaching out to LGBTQ+ people and people who have had bad church experiences.

“I wanted to be very clear from the beginning that I’m a queer-affirming clergyperson, and that The Episcopal Church welcomes all people,” McManus-Dail said. “To say, ‘Not only are you welcome here, we want you here and you belong here; we’re done with the debate.’ I’m so humbled to hear people’s stories of church harm and moved by their bravery to reach out and say, ‘I still care about Scripture. I still care about God. The church has hurt me, but I’m not done with it.’”

Answering viewers’ questions, especially about sexuality, is also a significant part of their ministry.

@rev.lizzie

Answer to @lisamsaps Let’s look at Acts 8! I’m preaching on this text this week ????????️‍????

♬ original sound – Rev. Lizzie

“People started asking me, ‘Do you think the LGBTQ community is going to hell?’ and they were absolutely shocked when I said The Episcopal Church is fully inclusive of the LGBTQ community,” Sister Monica Clare said. “They just couldn’t believe it. That’s a message that really needs to get out there.”

Other questions range from some of the oldest theological quandaries to more prosaic ones, Sister Monica Clare said, like “How do you do your hair like that?” and “Can Episcopal nuns get married?”

“I have a list of like 30 questions right now,” she said. “Somebody just asked what our cross represents. I’m also trying to throw in a bit of history because a lot of people have no clue what The Episcopal Church is and what we believe.”

@nunsenseforthepeople

The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” www.episcopal church.org #nuntiktok

♬ original sound – Sister Monica Clare, CSJB

“I get a lot of questions about pain,” McManus-Dail said, “about ‘Why does God let me suffer? Why did God let people in the church hurt me?’”

“The one that I think is most common,” Peters said, “is like, ‘My grandfather died’ or ‘I’m going through a breakup’ – not necessarily questions but prayer requests, and to me, that is what the Christian church is really supposed to be doing: being there for people.”

@davidwpeters

The priest’s vow: “You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”

♬ Fire – CHUNNYT

All three agree that TikTok ministry is a form of evangelism – though their goal isn’t necessarily to convert their viewers. It doesn’t have to be preachy, Peters said.

“Progressive Christians today, especially Episcopalians, are so terrified of evangelizing our friends and neighbors and family, or whoever we encounter, that we keep it a secret,” he said. But viewers want to see simple, sincere depictions of people just doing what they love, or what they’re good at.

“How-to videos on YouTube are, like, the most watched thing,” he said. “People are repairing their sinks with them and Christianity needs to do that: to show people how we’re doing our faith and not really talk about why they should.”

@davidwpeters

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of teh cross that EVERYONE might come within the reach of your saving embrace. BCP1979

♬ Delfino Plaza but progressive bass boost – Tik Toker

However, TikTok ministries have brought people into Episcopal churches – at least virtually. Peters’ church now has an active member from Scotland who encountered his TikTok videos and has been attending virtual services since the pandemic started, as well as others who sometimes come to events. In McManus-Dail’s virtual Bible study, about 75% of the participants found her through TikTok or Instagram. Her church also has “a fairly consistent stream” of visitors to virtual and in-person services who found her that way, including about five regular in-person worshipers.

Peters stressed that his goal is not necessarily to get people to come to his services, and reminds them that there is probably an affirming church near them. He recalled when a campus missioner at Texas A&M University told him about a woman who had come out to her evangelical church and been rejected, but after learning that The Episcopal Church is LGBTQ+-affirming through Peters’ videos, she joined the Episcopal campus community.

Though Peters, McManus-Dail and Sister Monica Clare say TikTok ministry isn’t for everyone, they want other clergy to know that it’s not as difficult as it might seem.

“Be approachable,” Sister Monica Clare advises. “TikTok viewers seem to love a person just talking sincerely into the camera. You don’t have to get too elaborate.”

“I think it’s real simple,” Peters added. “Social media is just stuff that you’re interested in. And if you’re not interested in church and you’re a clergyperson, maybe your church isn’t exciting enough to share! And I’m not saying your church should be exciting, but the Gospel should be.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.

Source: Episcopal News

In Church of England, new research shows cathedrals’ contribution to local economies and communities

[Church of England] In 2019, England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals contributed $321 million to their local economies. They provided 6,065 jobs full-time equivalent jobs and volunteering posts for 15,400 people who gave 906,000 hours of their time. They welcomed more than 14.6 million visits, 308,000 by schoolchildren for educational events, and 9.5 million from tourists. 
 
In the same year, cathedrals hosted a rich program of arts, music, heritage and culture – amounting to 9,580 events equivalent to two every three days – as well as providing the venues for film shoots such as “The Crown,” “Doctor Who and “Avengers: Endgame.” 

Read the full article here.

Source: Episcopal News

Wisconsin dioceses to formalize collaboration plans as similar efforts gain steam churchwide

Christ Church Cathedral Eau Claire

Christ Church Cathedral in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is one of only two congregations in the Diocese of Eau Claire that averages more than 80 worshippers on Sundays. Photo: Christ Church Cathedral, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church’s three dioceses in Wisconsin announced Aug. 18 that they are launching a formal process “to explore ways to deepen cooperation and coordination” among the dioceses. It’s the latest example of neighboring dioceses emphasizing greater collaboration as they face the financial challenges and membership decline that are a common concern across The Episcopal Church.

The Wisconsin news comes less than a month after the Diocese of Vermont bishop revealed that a looming “financial cliff” was driving consideration of closer ties to the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine. Formal partnerships already are in place between the dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan and between the dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York. In each of the latter partnerships, the dioceses agreed to share a bishop and combine some administrative functions and ministries while maintaining separate diocesan identities.

Wisconsin’s two northern dioceses, Fond du Lac and Eau Claire, took steps in a similar direction when they agreed late last year to share a bishop: Fond du Lac Bishop Matthew Gunter began serving as Eau Claire’s provisional bishop on Jan. 1.

The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee serves as bishop provisional of the Diocese of Milwaukee. He retired at the end of 2020 from leading the Diocese of Chicago. Photo: Diocese of Chicago

The Diocese of Milwaukee, facing its own bishop vacancy this year, chose to welcome Bishop Jeffrey Lee on April 1 for a two-year stint as part-time provisional bishop. Lee had retired at the end of 2020 as bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Chicago in Illinois.

“Each diocese is experiencing challenges of being the church in the 21st century while adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the three dioceses said in the Aug. 18 joint statement announcing what they label a “trialogue.”

The statement cites the dioceses’ shared roots in the former Diocese of Wisconsin, which was created in 1847, a year before Wisconsin became a state. “Three Episcopal dioceses share a heritage of nearly 200 years after the Oneida brought The Episcopal Church to Wisconsin,” the written statement says. “Ministry and congregations were developed under the leadership of Bishop Jackson Kemper as missionary and diocesan bishop. More recently, the three dioceses worked cooperatively by co-hosting conferences, clergy gatherings and several other events.”

The goal now is to find ways to formalize and expand that cooperation, “to be the body of Christ in this place and time,” the dioceses said. With the backing of the three dioceses’ governing bodies, the bishops and a small group lay and clergy leaders will meet in person in late September for initial discussions about how congregations across the state can work together. They also will discuss ways of engaging broader groups of lay and clergy leaders in future conversations.

“It’s not a new idea, but I think there’s some fresh energy around it,” Lee told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview about the announcement. He called this “an opportune moment, when both Eau Claire and Milwaukee are in between sitting diocesan bishops.”

He already has been fielding questions about whether the dioceses are taking steps toward reunification, but he said that is not the focus of these preliminary talks. “All we’ve agreed to is to sit down and talk about possibilities, and that could be any number of things.”

Eau Claire has grappled with budget shortfalls at least as far back as 2008, compelling diocesan leaders to consider organizational alternatives. The diocese nearly merged with Fond du Lac in 2011, but that plan ultimately was defeated in a close vote by the Fond du Lac diocesan convention.

Milwaukee’s finances have remained relatively stable; plate and pledge revenue increased nearly 5% in the five years ending 2019. Rather than a financial lifeline, Lee said he sees cross-diocese collaboration as a way to expand his diocese’s capacity for ministry.

“Three dioceses running entirely separate shops so to speak, in terms of governance structures, things like diaconal training programs to commissions on ministry to chancellors … Do we really need to maintain three separate versions of all of those things? Could we be more efficient?”

Wisconsin diocese map

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

About 6 million people live in the state. Church membership is steadily declining in all three dioceses – down overall by nearly a third in the past decade. Eau Claire, now with about 1,200 baptized members and 19 congregations, and Fond du Lac, around 3,900 members and 36 congregations, are two of The Episcopal Church’s smallest dioceses. In the southern third of the state, the Diocese of Milwaukee includes six of the state’s 10 largest cities and has about 7,800 members and 48 congregations.

“We are starting at how to best engage diocesan members in conversation,” Matthew Payne, Fond du Lac’s canon for administration, told ENS by email. “We want engage many voices and build relationships before making decisions. This is just the beginning of an intentional process to discern how we can work together to better witness the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Gunter, who has led the Diocese of Fond du Lac since 2014, was unavailable for an interview for this story, but he told ENS in January that he was open to options that would bring the dioceses closer together. “There were historical reasons why those dioceses were formed. Whether or not in the 21st century, given changing realities and numbers, it makes sense to continue [as three dioceses] is a different question,” Gunter said at the time.

Before becoming bishop of Chicago, Lee served in the 1990s in the Diocese of Milwaukee as rector of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in River Hills. Gunter spent 18 years as a parish priest in the Diocese of Chicago, serving under Lee for part of that time. When Lee began leading the Diocese of Milwaukee this spring, their prior experience together helped foster conversations about a mutual path forward for the dioceses.

“There’s a sense of opportunity that we really ought to take advantage of,” Lee said. “It’s the same Jesus we’re proclaiming … this faith we share as Episcopalians, proclaiming the gospel and engaging in God’s mission. That’s our common ground.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Source: Episcopal News

Biden authorizes new refugee funds, fends off criticism from aid groups

[Religion News Service–Washington] President Joe Biden has authorized an additional $500 million to aid refugees from Afghanistan, pushing through the funds as the White House fends off suggestions it failed a moral test to aid those fleeing the war-torn country.

Biden approved the funds in a memorandum Monday (Aug. 16) to meet “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs,” drawing the money from the United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund.

The memo, addressed to the U.S. secretary of state, stressed the funds were for “the purpose of meeting … (the) needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan.”

The president of Jewish refugee resettlement group HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Mark Hetfield, said the move was expected and the fund exists “precisely for this type of situation” — referring to the effort to evacuate Afghans desperate to leave the country after it fell to the Taliban over the past week.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about how the new funds will be used.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that seven C-17 aircraft left Afghanistan over the past 24 hours, each carrying 700 to 800 passengers, most of them a “mix” of people from other countries and Afghans seeking a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, with the U.S.

Psaki also reiterated the claim that “a good chunk” of SIV applicants “did not take advantage of those visas and depart” before the Taliban took control of Kabul, as the president asserted in his Monday address on Afghanistan — although she did not specify how many.

On Monday, in response to Biden’s address, leaders of several faith-based refugee groups disputed this account, saying they spent months urging the White House to expedite the evacuation of Afghans who aided the U.S. government during its 20-year presence in the country.

“We have been in touch with countless SIV recipients who have been desperate to leave Afghanistan for months and have not been able to due to insufficient financial resources and inadequate flight accessibility through international organizations,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said on Monday.

Similarly, Hetfield described Biden’s assertion as a case of “blaming the victim.”

On Tuesday, faith-based groups continued their pressure on the White House to help U.S. allies and other vulnerable Afghans, including Christians and other religious minorities.

Among them, the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable sent a letter to Biden signed by leaders from World Relief, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

“As Christians, we believe that each person is made with intrinsic value in the image of God, and we cannot treat any person’s life as expendable. Our government has a particular obligation to those who are now facing threats upon their lives due to their service to the United States, and to go back on our commitment to them would be a moral failing with reverberating consequences for decades to come,” the letter read in part.

–Emily McFarlan Miller reported from Chicago, Illinois. 

Source: Episcopal News