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With nine congregations it would become the smallest TEC diocese

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
May 13, 2024

The Navajo Nation, colloquially known as the Navajoland, spans across three of the desert southwest's Four Corners region. It spreads across the northwest corner of New Mexico and the northeast corner of Arizona. It then inches into the extreme southeast corner of Utah but the Reservation does not cross into Colorado.

Records have been found showing mention of the Navajo settlements in the desert high country of what is modern day Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. These documents are dated as early as the mid 1600s

The beginnings of what would become modern day Navajoland reservation was originally created following the 1848 Mexican-American War when Mexico ceded the historic Navajo tribal lands to the United States.

However at the time both the Navajo and Apaches were being held hostage by the United States government at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico Territory to keep them from raiding White settlers.


Twenty years later, following the signing of the 1868 Treaty of Bosque Redondo, a Navajo Indian Reservation was, by treaty, firmly established spanning more than three million square acres (five thousand square miles) -- roughly the size of Connecticut -- in the then New Mexico Territory.

The Navajo treaty was ratified by Congress in July 1868 and signed by President Andrew Johnson.

In 1884 the Navajo Nation first inched into San Juan County into what would become the State of Utah. Arizona and New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, at which point Navajoland spanned across three states. Although the Navajos still live in Colorado the southwest corner of the Centennial State was never scooped into Navajoland expansions.

Following the Bosque Redondo Treaty in 1868 more land was added to the Navajo Indian Reservation in 1878, 1880, 1882, 1884, 1886, 1900, 1901, 1905, 1907, 1913, 1918, 1930, and 1934. Today Navajoland has been expanded to encompass more than 17.5 million square acres (27,000 square miles) within three states making it the largest landmass American Indian reservation in the United States.

Today the Navajoland is larger than 10 smallest landmass states including: Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Maryland, and West Virginia. The Navajo Nation has a population of 400,000 of which 174,000 live on the Reservation. The other tribal members live off the Reservation including in Colorado. Only the Cherokee have more registered tribal members than the Navajo.

Since before 1900 the Episcopal Church has provided ministry to the Navajos in the form of medical missions. The first medical mission was established in Fort Defiance, Arizona in 1894; followed by Farmington, New Mexico in 1922; and finally Bluff, Utah in 1942. The Episcopal Church's continuing commitment to the health and wellness of the Navajo people lives on in the Hozho Wellness Center in Farmington.

Until 1978 the missionary efforts of the Episcopal Church to the Navajo Nation was individually overseen by the Episcopal dioceses of Arizona, Rio Grande in New Mexico, and Utah. But it was in 1978 that General Convention created the Navajoland Area Mission to unify episcopal oversight and ministry through the Office of the Presiding Bishop and the Episcopal House of Bishops.

A slice was carved from of the dioceses of Arizona, Utah and Rio Grande to form the Navajoland Area Mission.

While the Navajo Nation tribal office is located in Window Rock, Arizona the chancery of the Navajoland Area Mission is in Farmington, New Mexico. The Navajoland Area Mission overlays the Navajo Reservation crossing into New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah sharing the same borders.


One thing the Presiding Bishop's office is responsible for is to provide episcopal oversight which has occurred through a series of three resident bishops, three assisting bishops, two interim bishops and one bridge bishop -- what the Navajos call their bishop provisional.

The three resident bishops have been: Frederick Putnam, Steven Plummer, and David Bailey. The three assisting bishops have been Wesley Frensdorff (VI Nevada); Rustin Kimsey (V Eastern Oregon); and Mark MacDonald (VII Alaska). The two assisting bishops were William Wolfrum (Colorado-suffragan); and William Wantland (IV Eau Claire). Currently, the lone bridge bishop is Barry Beisner (VII Northern California).

Only three bishops are of tribal Native American roots -- Bishop Plummer (Navajo); Bishop Wantland (Seminole); and Bishop MacDonald (Ojibwe).

What the Navajoland Area Mission is seeking is autonomy over the election of its own bishops. By being elevated to a missionary diocese the Navajoland would be able to elect its own bishops but will still be monetarily tied to the wider Church for financial support. The Navajo would also like to have a native Navajo bishop. There are already several native Navajo priests who could be considered for the position.

Since 2019 the recent Plate & Pledge (P&P) offerings add up to less than one hundred thousand dollars -- $89,508. That amount cannot support a full-time resident bishop much less meet the other financial needs a diocese has such as ongoing building maintenance and evangelization.

The four year P&P breakdown is: $21,505 (2019); $12,328 (2020); $21,485 (2021); and $34,190 (2022).

The proposed 2025-27 Episcopal Church Budget earmarks $800,000 over a three year period for a Navajoland bishop and an additional three-year block grant of nearly $1.5 million to support Navajoland's nine congregations and various ministries.


The upcoming General Convention Resolution C-009 proffered by the Navajoland is succinct with just 19 words: "That the 81st General Convention grant the Petition of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland to become a Missionary Diocese."

The words are few, the desire is great.

"The petition, if granted, probably won't change much. We'll function much as we have -- we'll still be the special responsibility of the whole church, as per Canon I.11.1," Bishop Biesner testified in support of Navajoland's desire for bishop autonomy. "But it will be a profound step forward in self-determination, in dignity, and empowerment for the people of Navajoland Area Mission."

The Living Church explains: "But Navajoland plays a unique role in the Episcopal Church, combining Christian faith and Episcopal tradition with Navajo spirituality. In addition to sustaining the Dine (what the Navajos call themselves) Navajoland is a powerful symbol of respect for Indigenous Episcopalians throughout the church."

It has been the desire of the Navajoland Area Mission to be able to elect its own bishop since its inception in 1978.

"As long as I remember, this has been a hope and a dream for the people that they had spoken of in sacred circles, especially in hogan learning circles and at the councils when the people come together," explains the Rev. Cornelia Eaton, the Navajoland Canon to the Ordinary. "The young and older people had been hoping to become a diocese one day, since the area mission was created."

This is not the first time that the Navajoland Area Mission has asked General Convention for permission to elect its own bishop.

In 1988 Resolution B-003 was presented at General Convention which, in part, reads: "That the General Convention declare its readiness to affirm the election and consecration as Bishop someone so called and nominated by the Episcopal Church in Navajoland."

Then in 2022 General Convention Resolution D-080 reaffirmed the readiness of the Navajoland Area Mission to elect and consecrate as its own bishop -- someone who reflects the values, teachings, and traditions of the Dine (Navajo people).

Two years ago, Convention also asked the Navajoland to establish its own rules and procedures for developing the process of discerning the calling of a native bishop within the provisions set forth within the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. Such a bishop-elect would need to be consented to by the wider Church as are the other bishops-elect.

Should the Navajoland become a diocese -- albeit a missionary diocese -- it would become the smallest diocese in the Episcopal Church coming in with nine congregations including: All Saints in Farmington, NM; St. Michael's in Upper Fruitland, NM; St. Mark's in Coalmine, NM; Good Shepherd Mission Church in Fort Defiance, AZ; St. Joseph House Church in Many Farmers, AZ; St. Christopher's Mission Church in Bluff, UT; St. John the Baptizer in Montezuma, UT; St. Mary's-of-the-Moonlight in Oljato, UT; and St. Luke's-in-the-Desert which is a congregation in the off-reservation donut hole encompassing Huerfano, NM.


The Navajo Nation was hit hard by COVID. That is reflected in Navajoland church stats.

The pre-COVID 2019 stats show 10 congregations with an ASA of 167 with 56 baptisms, 30 confirmations, two converts, 11 weddings and 22 funerals.

Then COVID came and numbers were impacted by the pandemic. The number of congregations held steady at 10. But the 2020 figures show a slight ASA uptick to 176, zero baptisms, no confirmations, zero converts, no weddings and 34 funerals. In 2021 the ASA plunged to 97, with no baptisms, zero confirmations or no converts for a second straight year. However, there were two weddings and 41 funerals.

The post-COVID 2022 stats for the Navajoland show a slow rebound holding steady at 10 congregations with a membership of 773. Of those 313 were communicants with an ASA of 136 giving it a 17.6% weekly attendance figure.

In 2022 the Navajoland saw 14 baptisms, seven confirmations, and five converts. There were three weddings and 21 funerals as well.

But it seems that by 2024 the San Juan Mission Church in Farmington is no longer a viable congregation and its listing has been eliminated from the website thus dropping the number of Navajoland's worshipping units from 10 to nine.


Episcopalians are not the only groups engaged in missionary activity geared towards the Navajo Nation.

Both the Baptists and the Catholics have established Navajoland congregations. Other ministries and organizations routinely engage in missionary activity and host mission trips to the area include the Mormons, Mission Doors, Experience Mission, the Church of Christ Navajo Outreach, Native Ministry, the Seventh-Day Adventist's Mission to the Navajo Nation, and the United Methodists.

The Joshua Project reports that 60 percent of the Navajo consider themselves Christian while only three percent identify as Evangelical.

Religion Unplugged reports: "Sixty percent of Navajo identify as Christian and 25 percent follow their ethnic religions, according to the Joshua Project. Many Christians in the Navajo Nation combine Christianity with traditional Navajo practices. The influence of Christianity across the Navajo Nation is similar to the religious makeup of Native Americans as a whole."

The Baptist News fleshes out: "While roughly 60% of Navajo say they are Christian, the number may be significantly lower. Many people on the Reservation mix Christianity with traditional beliefs. The Mormon church has been pretty instrumental in doing missional work out here. But they have confused a lot of people because the Gospel -- and even the Christ that they preach -- is not what we preach."

Matthew 9:36-38 reminds us that the fields are indeed ripe for harvest. "When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His Disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.'"

There is much evangelization work still to do on the Navajo Nation. Navajoland Area Mission is trying to make that happen more efficiently with a change in designation from being an "area mission" to a "missionary diocese." That change is expected to come through General Convention which is slated to meet June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to Virtue Online.

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