A conversation with Bishop Lesley Wheeler-Dame of the diocese of Yukon
By Matt Gardner for Contact
Lesley Wheeler-Dame was elected on the first ballot as coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Yukon on May 4, 2019. She succeeded the Rt. Rev. Larry Robertson as bishop upon his retirement and was consecrated as bishop of Yukon on August 26.
Born in Windsor, Ont., Bishop Wheeler-Dame began her career as a social worker and moved to Yukon in 1996 to work for the provincial government. In 1997, she began serving as a lay minister-in-charge, followed by her ordination as a deacon and then priest. She has a bachelor’s degree in theology and served as an incumbent and regional dean in Alberta and archdeacon in Yukon before her election as bishop.
Contact spoke with Bishop Wheeler-Dame on May 13, 2020, to learn of developments in her diocese and her plans going forward. This interview has been edited for brevity.
Q. What has been the main focus of your episcopal ministry since August?
A. Before COVID-19 hit, the chief focus was looking at our communities that are without clergy and without ministry of presence. I want to strengthen the ministry of presence program—so seeking funding, speaking to different bishops and having conversations with communities. We want to do more training with laity to be able to ensure that we have ministry happening in these communities.[I was also] spending time out in the community of Whitehorse as well, just getting to know the people here more. In order for me to travel out to a community, the closest one is four hours’ drive, so I don’t get out to the community as often as I would have liked. But at the same time, just being a part of the cathedral community has been a benefit to me and to, I believe, the cathedral.
Q. How has COVID-19 affected ministry and mission in the diocese of Yukon?
A. It’s interesting because we’re not travelling out to the communities, we’re not having services, and yet I’m exhausted. I can’t specifically say what I’m doing, and yet it’s non-stop.
For example, I spent a great amount of time yesterday trying to liaison with public health and to find out on behalf of the community of Old Crow what they actually need to do in the case of a death and a funeral. Even though there are standard directions being put out, that doesn’t always fit with a community like Old Crow. So there’s a lot more interaction in that way happening, I think trying to find a balance to be that space of calmness and security.
And I’ve had so many Zoom meetings! But I’m also finding a great deal of joy within it, if that makes sense, because I believe that the church is being forced to take a look at how we do things and how we are the church. I believe that we’re going to have to make some changes, and that’s a good thing.
One of the examples of that is we are doing, from the cathedral on Sunday mornings, morning prayer. It’s myself and the dean and the executive archdeacon who are doing it and maintaining physical distancing. We also have the organist from the cathedral coming in to do a song or two. Our people watching it [totals] way more than we get in the church building on Sunday mornings across the diocese.
I think when we look at statistics, we need to look at why are we seeing such an increase, because it’s a big increase. I think we’re being forced to look at those kind of things as a church, and to maybe stop wasting money on travel…and look at actually doing the work of what we’re called to do.
Q. In an interview with the Anglican Journal following your election as coadjutor bishop, you said major concerns going forward would be finances and lifting up gifted people who haven’t been ordained yet. How are those two areas going?
A. It’s interesting because I was just talking with the executive archdeacon about the finances, and it’s a little hard to tell right now—of course, we’re in the middle of audits and all that kind of stuff—and there’s definitely a little bit of difference. We don’t have as many donations coming in as we normally do, so we are noticing it in the diocese. The parishes are not noticing it quite so much because the individual people are still mailing in their donations.
So finances are still an issue. However, through Council of the North, we were approved for funding to hold an event [on reconciliation] in October. But it’s likely that we’ll have to cancel that event. On the one hand, the finances are staying the same and are still a little bit of an issue, because we don’t have as much money as we’d like to have. However, at the same time, what would we use it for realistically right now? We have an executive [meeting] coming up and that’s exactly one of the things that we’re going to be looking at, [on the subject of] what changes do we need to be making in how we spend.
In terms of raising up local ministry, again, everything’s on hold as we figure out how do we do this in a different way. We’re having Zoom meetings with the clergy and the leadership in each community. We need to be very careful because first off, we don’t have the [internet] bandwidth in Yukon. Second off, the amount that you’re allowed to have is very low, and even though for residences right now, the provider is giving a bit of a break and not charging for overages, that’s not the same for business. So we pay extra every month right now for the amount of Internet that we’re using to host all of these Zoom meetings.
Q. Anything else you’d like people across church to know about developments in the diocese of Yukon?
A. I think what I want people to know is that we are definitely not in a position where we’re about to go under or anything because of COVID-19. If anything, I believe that we’re growing because of it.
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