Episcopal Diocese of Western New York

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.”

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