September 22, 2017


 

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

 

Last weekend at a meeting of the clergy of the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania, Bishop Franklin announced that he will retire on April 3, 2019, as required by the canons of the Episcopal Church. His letter, which you can read here, says he has returned from sabbatical “full of energy and ideas that we will explore together over that time.” Chief among those ideas, as we discussed with the clergy of both dioceses, is the possibility of our dioceses sharing a future.

 

At our upcoming diocesan conventions, we will propose that we spend the next year convening discussions among leaders across our region about how we might create more opportunity for mission by working together. This process will culminate in October 2018, when our dioceses plan to meet together for a joint convention in Niagara Falls.

 

If our discussions in the next year are fruitful, as we hope they will be, we would anticipate that in 2018, the Diocese of Western New York would elect Bishop Rowe as its bishop provisional for five years beginning in April 2019, when Bishop Franklin retires. During the first three years of the partnership, our two dioceses would work together to deepen our relationships and develop shared mission priorities. In October 2021, we would re-evaluate the partnership and then, in October 2024, decide whether we wanted to continue it beyond the five-year mark.

 

In proposing a partnership between our dioceses, we are not seeking simply to save money, although we believe that will be possible, and we are not aiming just to share a bishop. We believe that our dioceses have complementary strengths and challenges, and that together we are well suited to respond to God’s call in our region. Our communities share an industrial past, a Rust Belt culture, and a love for the natural beauty of the Lake Erie watershed, and our congregations are home to resilient people who know that by working together and staying focused on mission, we can weather uncertain times and a changing church.

 

Between now and our conventions—October 27 and 28 in Western New York and November 10-11 in Northwestern Pennsylvania—we hope that you will join us in praying about the opportunity we have before us and thinking about your hopes, concerns, and questions. We look forward to being together soon and to embarking on this year of discernment about the future that God has in store for the people of both our dioceses.

 

Faithfully,

 

 

The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin                                 The Rt. Rev. Sean W. Rowe

Bishop of Western New York                                     Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania

 

 

James Isaac                                                                Jack Malovich

President, Standing Committee                                 President, Standing Committee

Diocese of Western New York                                   Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania




For more articles pertaining to the collaboration between DioNWPA and DioWNY, visit our Diocesan blog, The Forward.

COnsidering a Shared Future

The Rev. Earle King had an organ recital on the books, and he was no more eager than the next busy person to lose two days of rehearsal time to attend a meeting in Erie, Pennsylvania, convened for something called “compression planning.” But he serves on the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Western New York, and Bishop Bill Franklin asked him to be there.

In the end, however, King was glad he went. He joined 43 other leaders from the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania convened by Franklin and Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania to explore possibilities for a long-term collaboration between the two dioceses. The session, held at the Cathedral of St. Paul on October 8 and 9, was led by consultants Donna Brighton and Scott Beilke from the Brighton Leadership Group, and followed a process pioneered by the Disney Corporation. In this kind of meeting, called compression planning in business circles, participants record words, pictures and graphics that represent goals, questions, hopes and limitations associated with a particular idea.

The idea, in this case, is that the Diocese of Western New York would elect Rowe as its bishop provisional for a term of five years at a joint convention of the two dioceses in 2018. Franklin reaches the canonically mandated retirement age for bishops on April 3, 2019, so if Rowe were elected, he would assume the role of bishop of Western New York on that date.

But the collaboration would go beyond simply sharing a bishop. The proposal on the table is for the two dioceses to spend 2019-2024 exploring opportunities to collaborate in ways that would increase operational efficiencies and create more opportunities for mission. In 2021, Rowe would ask the two dioceses for a midpoint evaluation.

It’s the chance to explore opportunities for mission that enthused King, despite the loss of his rehearsal time. “I was happy I was there because, particularly on Monday, I began to get a sense of the great opportunities and the obstacles that we’re facing in the two dioceses together,” he said. “Exploring this could bring us enormous opportunity, but we need to know how we will encourage people in Western New York to explore this with an open mind.”

Rose Sconiers, warden of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Buffalo, agreed. “I thought it was a good exercise, especially since a lot of people in our diocese think this whole concept is a done deal,” she said. “It was good to sit and talk and find out what the real plans are, and also to meet Sean. He really is a nice person and I think that makes a big difference,” she said.

“At our vestry meeting, someone said this was a done deal,” she said. “I was able to say, ‘No, it’s not a done deal.’ I think it is important that we dispel that myth.”

What is a “done deal,” say Rowe and Franklin, is that the two dioceses will spend the next year exploring possibilities for collaboration and hold a joint convention in October 2018 in Niagara Falls.

The bishops began thinking about this idea as early as 2012, said Franklin, “when we met and looked together at where we are going. Both of our dioceses have big challenges, both have big gifts, and both have Rust Belt resilience.”

So far, possibilities for collaboration have been discussed at two meetings that included participants from both dioceses—a joint clergy conference held in mid-September at the Chautauqua Institution, and the compression planning meeting in Erie. Participants generated hundreds of initial questions, organized them by theme and identified those most important to address.

Some, like “Is there a legal or canonical roadblock that is insurmountable?” can be answered definitively, Rowe said. (There is not.) But it is the others, like “What difference will this make?” that most interest him, and will require conversations with people from across both dioceses.

“If all this is going to be is putting two dioceses together, it’s only going to buy more time to decline. It’s not worth doing,” Rowe told the group in Erie. “But if we’re creating an adaptive playground for experimentation, that to me is exciting. It’s prophetic.”

Joyce Gieza, a 38-year member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Erie, agrees. “It reminded me of the parable of the talents. This is our chance to make maybe just a little bit from what we have been given,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s going to work, but I don’t know how we can say no to trying. To me we would be cowards if we didn’t even try.”

Clergy who attended the September clergy conference are feeling hopeful, King said. “I really believe that Bishop Rowe is really good, and his clergy tell me that behind his back. They don’t have to do that. I have a great deal of confidence in him. And as far as Bishop Rowe is concerned, this is about the mission of the church.

“The challenge is going to be how we make that increase in mission happen,” he said. “What does it mean to have that occur, what are the steps, what are the strategies? Are we targeting people in a different way, are we focusing on outreach?”

Sconiers agrees that Rowe’s leadership is an appealing prospect. “I think one of the opportunities is to have someone overseeing the diocese who is fairly young, who is fairly progressive, who has shown he can relate to the older and the younger people. I think he brings a freshness to the whole process, and I think he has a proven track record. But since he will be over two dioceses and his home base will be in Pennsylvania, will we have access to him? Will we be able to get a meeting with him to talk with him?”

Rowe, who has spent the last three years serving as bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem in northeastern Pennsylvania, says that after a six-hour commute between dioceses, the distance between even the furthest parts of the contiguous dioceses will seem modest, and if elected, he would be present in both dioceses regularly.

“My ability to balance this opportunity with my family responsibilities has been an important part of my discernment,” he said. “The last three years have meant a lot of time away from home, but these two dioceses put together are geographically smaller than many dioceses in other parts of the country, and I feel confident that the arrangement is manageable.” Rowe is married to Carly, a Christian educator at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Erie, and they are the parents of Lauren, age 5.

For the Rev. Matthew Scott, vicar of The Episcopal Mission of Warren County, made up of St. Francis and Trinity Memorial Churches in Youngsville and Warren, Pennsylvania, the exploration process is its own reward.

“One of the best parts…was the chance to work with many of the leaders from Western New York in a larger setting,” he said. “I serve on the Joint Board of Examining Chaplains, a ministry we began sharing together three years ago, and while through that I have worked with a couple clergy from the diocese, this helped me to grow a larger picture of the potential fruit of a closer relationship. The energy level of the combined group was contagious and enjoyable, and the real fruit was coming up with questions together as a large group of leaders across both dioceses.”

At the two dioceses’ upcoming conventions—October 27 and 28 in Buffalo and November 10 and 11 in Erie—Franklin and Rowe will present the proposal to the gathered delegates and clergy. After that, they’ll plan a series of conversations and meetings in both dioceses to get feedback, answer questions, and hear concerns.

“Going forward, I would like to hear from those with expertise in the legal and financial areas as to what kinds of options are open to us moving forward,” Scott said. “I would also like some time for us to dream about mission and identity, as I see potentials for broadening the pool of colleagues as we all face the adaptive challenges of the local congregational context.”

Sconiers agrees. “Let’s roll it out to the dioceses and various congregations, and have an honest open conversation and let them know how it will look,” she said. “Change is difficult for people if they don’t understand what is happening; they are going to push back. It’s important to get the input of everybody.”

“If we can generate excitement and curiosity, that would be good,” Gieza said. “That way we’ll see they [the people of Western New York] aren’t any different than we are. They aren’t Pittsburgh and they aren’t Ohio. We are all Rust Belt recyclers.”

Considering a Shared Future.pdf

Printed copies of this article will be provided for congregations at convention. 

Considering a shared future:

frequently asked questions

The Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York are considering a shared future that includes the possibility of sharing a bishop for the next five years. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the process. 


What is the proposal under consideration? 

At our upcoming diocesan conventions, Bishops William Franklin of Western New York and Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania will, along with the presidents of the respective standing committees, propose that we spend the next year convening discussions among leaders across our region about how we might create more opportunity for mission by working together. This process will culminate in October 2018, when our dioceses will hold a join convention in Niagara Falls to consider their futures. 


If our discussions in the next year are fruitful, as we hope they will be, we would anticipate that in October 2018, the Diocese of Western New York would elect Bishop Rowe as its bishop provisional for five years beginning in April 2019, when Bishop Franklin retires.


During the first three years of partnership, our two dioceses would work together to deepen our relationships and develop shared mission priorities. In October 2021, we would re-evaluate the partnership and then, in October 2024, decide whether we wanted to continue it beyond the five-year mark. 


What is a provisional bishop?

A provisional bishop is a bishop, either retired or already serving in another jurisdiction, who serves as the bishop of a diocese during a vacancy. In some instances, dioceses choose a provisional bishop arrangement because they are not yet ready to undertake the search process. The Diocese of Western New York could undertake such a process, but is considering electing Bishop Rowe as its provisional bishop to explore a deeper relationship with the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 


Why is this happening? 

The retirement of a bishop requires any diocese to engage in a process of reflection and prayerful self-evaluation as it determines the qualities it seeks in a new leader. In this instance, the strong relationship between Bishops Franklin and Rowe, the similarities of the challenges and cultures of our two dioceses, and the urgent need for the Episcopal Church to experiment with new ways of organizing and energizing itself for ministry suggested some creative possibilities worthy of exploration.


Dioceses across the church have too much overhead, too few resources to devote to mission and too little experience cultivating deep collaborative relationships with other dioceses. We have an opportunity to change that. 


What decisions have already been made? 

No decisions have been made. We are in hopes that the Diocese of Western New York will elect Bishop Rowe as provisional bishop and explore a deeper relationship with the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania on the timeline described in the first answer above. However, before Bishop Rowe can stand for election, the Standing Committees of both dioceses must consent. Their consent does not resolve the matter. The Diocese of Western New York can decline to elect Bishop Rowe at the joint convention scheduled for Niagara Falls in October of 2018, and initiate a search for a new bishop. If Bishop Rowe is elected as provisional bishop, the arrangement will be reviewed as described in the first answer above. 


What steps in this process have already been taken? 

Bishops Rowe and Franklin and their standing committees have had extensive conversations to consider whether to advance this proposal. It was first shared publicly at a joint clergy conference in Chautauqua, NY, on September 15-16. On October 8-9, some 44 people, drawn from the lay and clergy leadership of both dioceses, gathered in Erie for  a process known as "compression planning." Working in small groups and plenary sessions, they raised scores of questions, identified specific concerns and discussed numerous opportunities presented by the proposal to share a bishop and deepen the relationship between the two dioceses. 


What steps come next? 

The two dioceses will consider the proposal to share a bishop and deepen their relationship at their conventions. Western New York meets October 27-28. Northwestern Pennsylvania meets November 10-11. No votes will be held at those conventions. In 2018 members of the two dioceses will have an opportunity to discuss the proposal and explore the possibilities in a deeper relationship at listening sessions. Working groups including members of both dioceses will be formed to explore various issues raised by the collaboration as those issues become clear. 


What changes will take place if Bishop Rowe is elected? 

If Bishop Rowe is elected, he will exercise the same authority in the diocese that Bishop Franklin and his predecessors did. He will  maintain offices in both Buffalo and Erie and make visitations in both dioceses. Elected leaders in both dioceses will continue to exercise their canonical functions. Each diocese will send a deputation to the 2018 General Convention. Each diocese will maintain its cathedral. Other changes may unfold after a period of exploration and discernment. 


What are the advantages of sharing a bishop? 

To begin with a practical concern: the move will save money by reducing overhead and streamlining operations. Western New York, for instance, will not have to spend the $150,000 to $200,000 associated with the search for a new bishop. Spending less money on overhead means we will have more money for mission and more capacity to help our congregations. 


Because our diocesan and regional cultures are quite similar, and because we face similar challenges, we believe we can be natural companions in ministry, sharing resources, information and wisdom to help build the church and serve our communities. Together, we'd have opportunities to collaborate on building Episcopal institutions like schools and ministry centers. As we explore this relationship more deeply, other opportunities might emerge. 


Rust Belt people are not a prideful bunch, but it's not too much to say that through this partnership, we have a chance to show the church one path out of its institutional malaise by demonstrating how deepening relationships and careful reorganization can refocus our energies on mission, evangelism, pastoral care and spiritual development. 


What are the possible outcomes of this process at the end of the five-year period suggested in the proposal? 

The process itself will flesh out possibilities for shared ministries and creative collaborations. In terms of diocesan governance, the possibilities include, but are not limited to: returning to the previous status quo of two bishops and two dioceses; maintaining two dioceses but with a single bishop and some shared administrative services and ministries; combining to form a single diocese. 


Are there legal and canonical impediments to this proposal?

No. There are no legal or canonical impediments to electing a provisional bishop who also has jurisdiction in another state, nor in another province of the Episcopal Church. If the dioceses move toward shared or combined governance, they will consult with legal experts and the three existing dioceses (Central Gulf Coast, Rio Grande and Spokane) that span two states, and the Church in Navajoland, which exists in three states. 


How will we have input as the process moves ahead? 

After the upcoming diocesan conventions, Bishops Franklin and Rowe will plan a series of conversations and meetings in both dioceses to get feedback, answer questions, and hear concerns. 


The bishops and diocesan leaders, including members of the Standing Committees and councils, will be available throughout the process to receive feedback and answer questions. 


Creating a Shared Future: Frequently Asked Questions.pdf

Printed copes of this FAQ will be provided for congregations at convention.