In the eight years since he took the helm of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, Bishop Bill Franklin has watched membership plummet from 11,000 people to 8,000.
Like other Christian denominations, the Episcopal Church is grappling with its future in an era of falling church attendance. So when Franklin retires on Sunday, the diocese is taking a radical, first-of-its-kind step: Instead of electing a new leader, as it has done for decades, the diocese will begin sharing a bishop with a diocese in Pennsylvania.
The unusual move, which may become a model for shrinking, cash-strapped churches around the country, is an effort to right-size the bureaucracy of a shrinking organization and to realign both dioceses with modern culture, Franklin said. His replacement, 44-year-old Bishop Sean Rowe — already the head of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania — is considered a progressive, reformatory voice in a denomination that has publicly soul-searched for ways to stem its membership and fiscal losses.
“Doubling down on the old ways is insufficient — churches have tried that,” said Rowe, who holds a doctorate in organizational development. “This plan is asking, what can we do for this time and this place, and how do we adapt our organization and our behavior to make a greater impact?”
Church leaders stress the move is not a merger: Differing religious corporation laws in New York and Pennsylvania may actually preclude such a change. But under a plan approved by 90 percent of diocesan leaders last October, Rowe and his staff will oversee both dioceses for at least the next five years, after which local clergy and laypeople will reevaluate the partnership.
No church employees will be laid off, Franklin said, though they may be reassigned to other projects. And the diocese expects to save an immediate $150,000 to $200,000 by avoiding a nationwide bishop search.
Long-term, the two bishops say they hope the plan will save more money as the dioceses find new ways to share resources and staff. And those funds will be directed to new initiatives — including new, more contemporary churches — that better reflect churchgoers’ changing needs and preferences.
“Going to church is not part of the cultural climate here like it is in the south — people go to brunch on Sunday mornings in Buffalo,” Franklin said. That has challenged the diocese to come up with new ways to “reach out to the population of Western New York,” he added.
That challenge is not unique to Western New York or to Episcopalians, points out Bishop Todd Ousley, who leads development efforts for the national Episcopal Church. Nationwide, the percentage of Americans who say they go to church at least once a week fell from 42 percent in 2008 to 38 percent in 2017, according to Gallup polls. Among Roman Catholics, the largest Christian denomination in New York state, church attendance has fallen to 39 percent from 75 percent a generation ago.
Christian churches of several denominations have tackled the shrinkage by closing or combining congregations. At some local Episcopal churches, such as Trinity Church in downtown Buffalo, parishes have begun sharing space with like-minded nonprofit organizations.
But this will be the first time two dioceses voluntarily joined their top leadership, Ousley said — and it has already sparked serious inquiries from other dioceses.
“At first there was some nervousness, there were some questions — this was new to everybody,” said James Isaac, a parishioner at St. Mark's Episcopal in LeRoy who has also served in diocesan leadership. “But I think at the end … everyone was well-versed in what this plan was, and we wanted to go ahead and do it.”
For Rowe, the incoming bishop, that will next mean finding a second home in Buffalo: He, his wife and his first-grade daughter would like to live in the city, he said. They're considering Allentown, a short drive from St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
For Franklin, the journey ends Sunday, when he celebrates a retirement service. From there, he plans to move to New York City to join his wife, who teaches classics at Columbia University.
But the bishop will be watching his old diocese from downstate, he added.
“I think it’s an amazing feat for our people that they’ve been willing to take this step,” Franklin said. “They want to address being Christians and a Christian church in a new and exciting way. And I leave office very, very happy about this.”