A Non-retiring Vocation
  • Wednesday, April 10, 2013

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

The Diocese of Eau Claire’s new half-time bishop thinks other priests may follow his example by making the bishop’s miter a part of their retirement. The Rt. Rev. William Jay Lambert, 64, was elected bishop in November. In February he retired as rector of St. James Church in Leesburg, Florida.

Before being elected, he was poised to live off his retirement benefits from the U.S. Navy and the Church Pension Group. But his plans to go fishing full time gave way to a new calling when he learned of an episcopal search in northwest Wisconsin. Lambert nominated himself, as did the three other priests on the slate.

Lambert and his wife, Mary Ruth, lived in Mequon from 1990 to 2007, when he was rector of St. Boniface Church. Two of the Lamberts’ grown children live in Wisconsin. His question: May I serve as a bishop and still collect benefits as a retired priest?

“The Church Pension Group said, ‘Absolutely you can,’” Lambert says. “So I said, ‘Well, I guess I should look at doing it.’ … Financially, it added up. And there are other people who could do the same thing.”

Bishop Lambert is also helping blaze the trail of a part-time episcopate, which in his case involves working 20 hours per week. The Diocese of Eau Claire cannot afford a full-time bishop, he says. Its congregations grew accustomed to a part-time arrangement under his predecessor, the Rt. Rev. Edwin M. Leidel, Jr., who served as Bishop Provisional from 2010 until this year.

Keeping the job to 20 hours could be a challenge. The diocese has 2,200 members in 20 churches; only three have full-time clergy. They are spread across the northwest third of Wisconsin, where visiting congregations involves hours of driving.

Yet many administrative tasks are accomplished effectively these days through the internet, Lambert says. And if he manages to keep the role part time, other small dioceses might follow suit by calling retired priests into part-time service as bishops.

“I think you’re going to see it as a trend,” Lambert says. He notes that others, including top officers of the church, have said they are interested to see if this might be a replicable model in other small dioceses.

Lambert plans to reduce diocesan assessments from the current level of 15 percent to 10 percent. If he holds costs down and still finds time to fish on weekdays, he expects to have some imitators.

Other bishops also have taken on additional roles in recent years. The Rt. Rev. Michael P. Milliken, ordained as Bishop of Western Kansas in early 2011, continues to serve as rector of Grace Church, Hutchinson. And the Rt. Rev. Michael P. Smith, Bishop of North Dakota, began serving as dean of Gethsemane Cathedral, Fargo, in early 2011, after the previous dean left the Episcopal Church to become a Roman Catholic. The cathedral is now searching for its next dean.

Image: Bishops greet the newly ordained William Jay Lambert and his family (from left): Jon Feldbruegge, daughter Lydia Lambert, son Will Lambert, wife May Ruth Lambert, Bishop Lambert, daughter Madeline Lambert, and her fiancé, Dave Swanson. Richard Schori/Episcopal News Service photo

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