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DIOCESE OF WESTERN MICHIGAN: The Inglorious Reign of Bishop Robert Gepert

DIOCESE OF WESTERN MICHIGAN: The Inglorious Reign of Bishop Robert Gepert

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue
March 16, 2011

The lineup of disastrous bishops in The Episcopal Church continues to grow with each passing year. One wonders if there is an end to the Jo Mo Dosses, Orris Walkers, Charles Bennisons, Jack Spongs, Michael Garrisons, Otis Charleses and Rob O'Neills of this church who inhabit a diocese, watch as it plunges like a penny stock and then bail out with fat pensions.

Hardly a single old guard liberal bishop is making it to the compulsory age of 72. They are pushing the eject button in their mid to late 60s, not wishing to be around when their dioceses finally sink into oblivion. How much money from dwindling mission budgets and trust funds are they willing to spend before they notice there is nothing left obliging them to cut deals (as they have in Pittsburgh and New Jersey over property disputes) despite fierce opposition from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

In the Diocese of Fond Du Lac this week, seven parishes that are basically unsustainable alone are finding creative ways of doing ministry to stay afloat. It is what is euphemistically called "sharing resources" or, more loftily, forming a "new covenant." Bishop Russell Jacobus is hedging his bets. In his "bishop's chat" a blurb on the diocesan website, he says he may or may not respond to all questions and concerns. "He'll try to answer personal questions about himself, but will not discuss individual clergy of the diocese. He will answer generic questions about congregations, but will not debate issues or struggles that a particular place might be going through. He may respond to these by talking in general terms about what a healthy congregation ought to do and be." One thing he won't do is to say that his parishes are withering and dying and, in time, God will be calling him to a golf course in Florida.

In the Diocese of Western Michigan, the continuing saga of Bishop Robert Gepert, whose ability to run a diocese only matches a failed Wall Street brokerage firm dealing in derivatives, has once again showed himself to be the master of ineptitude and stupidity.

Gepert reared his shepherd's crook over St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo looking for money for his strapped diocese. Instead, he managed to turn a brewing mess into a total screw-up that resulted in a priest's resignation after said priest had a showdown with the church. He left, shoving an elderly and influential parishioner who later turned around and filed charges against him.

Until a few years ago, St. Luke's was the largest parish in the diocese. Not anymore. Now the parish is in turmoil, staff has been fired and the bishop has taken over the parish. Julie Mack, a reporter with the "Kalamazoo Gazette" has brilliantly followed this saga documenting (in four parts) the bishop's interference, the priest's departure and overall parish anger.

Problems in the parish began to surface last fall when church leaders turned to the bishop for resolution. In response, he called in an investigative team.

St. Luke's had an ongoing dispute with the diocese over two matters - the church's contribution toward diocese operations and the diocese's requirement for using a certain health insurance plan for church employees -- that appeared to have colored the investigation.

Last month, four members of the vestry met with diocesan officials revealing that the church consistently shows a deficit in its operating budget; between 2000 and 2009, the church's operating deficit collectively totalled more than $500,000.

However, financial records showed a more complicated picture once gifts and investment income were added in. The bottom line is that pledges for 2011 were down substantially - 122 pledges totaling $229,000 compared to 181 pledges totaling $452,000 in 2010 - but the congregation had $1.9 million in investments at the end of 2010, its highest total ever.

So the bishop intervened. He sent them a five-page letter outlining his "Godly judgment": He put the priest, Jay R. Lawlor on four-month paid leave. He took over as head of the congregation, for now, and appointed his own lay board.

"The removal of the rector would be a simple fix," Gepert wrote, "but that would neither restore the congregation to the past nor form you into an authentic community based on cooperation, mutual caring, forgiveness and accountability."

The letter rebukes the church community for "retribution, name-calling and dissent" and adds, "Some of you might feel compelled to leave the congregation and, if that's what you choose, may God bless your journey."

The letter also stated the parish staff was being downsized as a result of the drop in pledges. On March 3, Lawlor laid off the church secretary, the facilities manager and the music director, effectively immediately. It was a harsh blow for a church with a large choir and a long history of music in their worship service.

Many members of the congregation were stunned by Gepert's actions, with some members complaining that the bishop had a reputation for overseeing parishes with an iron fist. Last summer, Gepert executed a similar takeover of his largest congregation, Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, the church where former President Gerald Ford was married.

"If you were to look at the story of what happened to Grace, you could substitute the words, 'St. Luke's,' and you wouldn't have to change anything else in the story," said one parishioner. In August of 2010, Grace Episcopal Church, once the strongest, largest, most successful, historically low church parish in the Diocese of Western Michigan with the highest diocesan pledge for years, reduced its pledge to the diocese prompting Bishop Robert R. Gepert to dissolve the vestry and appoint a new "leadership Team" until funds were restored.

The parish had reduced its pledge to the strapped diocese for the second year in a row. Gepert's intervention did not help matters.

Gepert also has a history of doing nothing first. A number of parishes in the diocese have been left dangling for a long time, waiting for him to make a decision that by canon law only the bishop can make.

He also over-reacts. One incident concerning poor judgment among young adult counselors led him to shut down the church's summer camp, fire the staff, and move it to another location after a year interim.

The number of churches he's assumed control over and the number of vacant rectorships during his reign are stubborn facts that cannot be denied. Matters will go astray in a few churches, from time to time, but the track record of parish instability on his watch would give anyone pause, wrote one blogger familiar with the diocese.

In April 2007, Gepert sent a "pastoral letter" to the diocese saying he was forced to sell the Kalamazoo-based Cathedral of Christ the King, built by his predecessor Charles E. Bennison.

After consecrating its new building just over five years ago, the congregation at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Paw Paw vacated its $1.2 million building in August of 2010, as they were facing foreclosure, a victim of the struggling economy. The Rev. Rebecca Crise, church rector, put the best face on the closing saying St. Mark's was not about closing. "The church is not a building. The church is the people," she said.

In 2007 Gepert put a year-long diocese-wide moratorium on all confirmations until he could decide how to do the classes. This resulted in a number of high school students going off to college without being confirmed. He did this because he didn't think he could trust his own clergy to teach confirmation classes.

A VOL reader who specializes in diocesan statistics painted this picture of the state of affairs in the diocese. From 2002 through 2009 (Gepert was consecrated in 2002), the diocese lost 20.7 percent of its members, lost 18.1 percent of ASA, and lost 15.8 percent of Plate & Pledge (inflation adjusted). The diocese ranks at 67 of 95 considered. They also sold the cathedral. In 2009, they were in fair shape by TEC standards with 34 of its 57 churches having an ASA of 66 or less and 40 churches with Plate & Pledge of less than $150K. The long-term stats for 2002 through 2009 truly look dismal with marriages down 39.9 percent and Infant Baptisms down 44.0 percent. These are shocking figures. It is one thing to say that Members and Infant Baptisms have dropped, but this took place in just SEVEN YEARS.

Is it any wonder that the Diocese of Western Michigan is in the state it's in? Apparently, one can be both an apostolic successor to St. Peter and a textbook example of the Peter Principle. It is clear that behind the meltdowns in particular parishes is a fearful bishop, whose diocese is strapped for cash, doing everything he knows how to keep him from taking a financial hit.

He knows full well that as parishes lose members, owing to age, zero evangelism and the, we-won't-speak-about-it moral changes in church teaching, it will only result in a drop in plate and pledge, parishes start withholding their funds to the diocese. Bishops like Gepert are in deep trouble. More and more Episcopalians are showing mutinous tendencies these days as they deal with incompetent and inept priests and bishops who have no imagination, little theology and no evangelistic zeal. And God help the bishop if a parish or two should decide to flee for spiritual safety to ACNA, CANA or the AMiA. He has nothing to fight them with. David Booth Beers and the deep thinkers in New York will only compound his misery.


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