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CHURCH REVITALIZATION THROUGH ADOPTION

Updated: Apr 3

Dr Ian Duncum, 1 July 2023

multisite adoption meger
Haberfield Life Church

I have consulted with over 150 churches and I am the author of The Impact of Church Consultancy [1], so I have both practical and academic experience in working for church renewal and growth. Some of those consultancies have been church mergers of different types. Having just orchestrated an adoption merger between a church I have been consulting with (Haberfield Baptist Church) and a larger, healthy church (Manly Life Church) I would like to reflect on four things:

  • The main reasons organic revitalizations fail

  • Why an adoption merger is better than organic revitalization

  • The essentials for an effective adoption merger, using examples from that adoption merger between Manly Life Church and Haberfield Baptist Church

  • Why I believe that adoption mergers and multisite will rapidly spread through Australia


THE MAIN REASONS ORGANIC REVITILIZATIONS FAIL

My first solo pastorate (which became a team ministry along the way) had been in decline for 37 years before I commenced. In five years we turned the church around, making meaningful connections with the local community, and saw the church double. It was very hard work. But it was worth it.

However, this is not a widespread experience. For a number of reasons, many organic revitalizations fail. Thom Rainer estimates that 98% of these revitalizations are not successful.[2] Some of the reasons they fail are:

Lack of resources: Revitalization often requires financial resources, skilled personnel, and time commitments. I often say to churches that unless they have 7 to 10 people who can engage in local community-facing ministry for 7 to 10 hours a week then revitalization is just an empty dream. This statement can also come as a shock to churches who expect that a pastor will single-handedly be able to bring about revitalization. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this lack of resources is that it often takes a church 30, 40 or 50 years before it realises that revitalization is critical. Often it is then too late, because those resources have continued to dwindle; a revitalization from an average attendance of 40 may be just possible, but from 30 or 20 it becomes increasingly difficult. This difficulty is also exacerbated by connection points – a church of 30 may have only one (or none) significant community-facing ministry but few young families to connect with young families from the community who may attend. Which leads to the next point.

External cultural shifts: These are on two levels. Firstly, as a society we are aware that church attendance has been declining, and this has been intensified since Covid lockdowns. The pace of secularisation seems to be speeding up. Secondly, churches can be unaware of changes in their local community that require a ministry response (eg. cultural shifts of those living in the local community, changes in age distributions of those in the local community such as an increase in 0 to 5 year olds). In terms of changes in the local community, the longer these shifts are not responded to, the more the church becomes an irrelevant cultural island in a changing community, which can make attracting new attenders and revitalization almost impossible.

Resistance to change: Many churches have long-standing traditions and established ways of doing things that have lost the “why” of their existence. When attempts are made to revitalize a church, there can be push-back from attenders who are resistant to change. This resistance can make it difficult to implement new ideas or strategies effectively. To put it bluntly, many churches would rather die than change. I would add another point to this that is more subtle; while there may be an openness to needed change, being in the same church for decades can lead to an inability to think and act in the new ways that are required to effect that change.

Unrealistic expectations: Revitalization is a long-term process (say 3 to 5 years) that requires patience and perseverance. Often people expect quick results and become discouraged if they don't see immediate changes. Unrealistic expectations can lead to a loss of motivation and momentum in revitalization efforts.


So in the light of the difficulty of organic revitalization, what is the answer? An adoption merger occurs when a stable, stuck or declining church is integrated under the vision of a stronger, vibrant and typically larger church. This will often result in a multisite church with two or more campuses. Adoption can take three forms: permanent adoption, adoption until a time when the revitalized church can once again thrive without assistance from the parent church (sometimes called fostering), or multiplying, where adopted churches “pay it forward” by adopting other congregations and bringing new vitality to them, in the same way it has been modelled to them.


WHY ADOPTION IS BETTER THAN ORGANIC REVITALIZATION

Consolidation of resources: Church adoption or merger allows two or more churches to pool their resources, including finances, facilities, and human capital. This consolidation can create a stronger foundation for ministry and community impact, as well as economies of scale. For example, staff can be shared across two or more sites or campuses. Often parent churches will send a team (say 30 to 50 people) to become part of the adoptee church, serve in ministry, and engage with the local community.

Combining strengths: By merging, churches can bring together their unique strengths and abilities. This synergy can lead to increased effectiveness in reaching out to the local community, expanding programs, and addressing various needs.

Expanding reach: Adopting or merging with another church can provide access to a new geographical area or demographic group, enabling a broader reach and the opportunity to impact more lives. For healthy, growing churches with limited facilities and parking, though costly, it makes sense to give away 30 to 50 people to bring new vitality to another area or community.

Shared leadership: In a merger or adoption, there is an opportunity for leaders (whether pastors or volunteer leaders) from both churches to come together and collaborate, leveraging their combined experience, skills, and wisdom. Having access to leaders who know how to grow a church can be an opportunity for other leaders to learn fresh skills and perspectives.

Multiplying Movement: Large churches can easily become their own focus and need encouragement to serve or resource others by planting new churches and revitalizing existing churches. These newly planted churches and revitalized churches can then plant/revitalize other churches when they have grown sufficiently, sparking a multiplying movement of churches that impact more lives.[3]


The essentials for an effective adoption merger

Considering an adoption merger with a larger healthy church is a significant decision for any church. It's essential to approach this process with careful consideration and thorough planning. Here's a checklist to help you navigate the process, along with the story of how that played out in Haberfield Baptist Church being adopted by Manly Life Church:


Assess compatibility: Evaluate the compatibility between your church and the larger healthy church. Consider theological beliefs, mission and vision alignment, leadership style, worship practices, and organizational culture. Ensure there is a strong foundation for collaboration and mutual understanding.


The ultimate question is, “Is this God’s agenda?” This step required a lot of prayer on my part and some initial meetings with others. Haberfield Baptist Church is a charismatic church, with a history of prayer ministry that has been sought by those in churches across Sydney and beyond. So theological compatibility was an essential part, and one of the things I prayed was for another Baptist church that had already made a commitment to the vision of planting and revitalization. I felt led to approach Manly Life Church, so I contacted the Senior Pastor, Tim Giovanelli in January 2023. I found that Manly Life Church had made a commitment to planting new churches and revitalization of other churches at their 10 year anniversary in November 2022, and that Tim was already exploring funding for revitalization opportunities. That Tim is of Italian heritage when Haberfield has a high proportion of those with Italian ancestry was another important key. Tim has served in the Holy Trinity Brompton network of churches in the UK learning about church planting and revitalisation, and has grown Manly Life Church over the last 10 years to 600 adherents, with an average attendance of over 200 on Sundays.


Conduct due diligence: Perform a comprehensive due diligence process to gather information about the larger healthy church. Assess their financial health, legal standing, staff structure, membership demographics, community involvement, and any potential liabilities or risks. Get to know staff and leaders; their character and humility.


After some initial meetings with staff and leaders, to assist this adoption process a Merger Team was formed comprising pastors and leaders from both churches to examine the finances, constitutions, ministries and so on of both churches. Each church committed to exploration of adoption (“engagement”) without a definite commitment to do so until a due diligence process had been completed. At its core any merger is a relational process, and opportunities for attending services of both churches, meeting socially, and serving in ministry together were key. The staff and leaders of Manly Life Church impressed Haberfield Baptist Church as being humble and servant-hearted.


Establish clear objectives: Define the goals and objectives you hope to achieve through the adoption merger. This could include expanding ministry reach, enhancing resources and capabilities, strengthening leadership, or revitalizing your congregation. Clearly articulate these objectives to the larger healthy church.


Although Haberfield Baptist Church had a steady stream of guests, young families did not stay because there were only a couple of young families in the church. Covid lockdown, along with two significant pastoral losses, had decimated the church. The clear objectives formed were the revitalization of Haberfield Baptist Church and the reaching of the local community of Haberfield and surrounding suburbs for Christ. The leadership team of Haberfield Baptist Church further indicated their desire to “pay it forward” in subsequent years by in turn revitalising other congregations when they were in a position to do so. The recognition by Haberfield Baptist Church of their inability to bring these objectives about led to an openness to adoption and to the necessity of a new church with a new vision to effect this. This is key - only by the church dying can it be reborn (John 12:24) – for churches in decline an invitation to “come and help us” must be replaced in favour of “lead us and equip us to grow.”


Engage in open communication: Establish open lines of communication with the leadership of the larger healthy church. Discuss your intentions, aspirations, and concerns. Encourage transparency and exchange of information to build trust and foster a collaborative atmosphere.


In addition to what has been written above, numerous opportunities for presentations and questions were given so that there was clarity around what would happen. There were also informal opportunities to ask questions and raise any perceived concerns.


Seek legal and financial counsel: Engage legal and financial professionals experienced in mergers and acquisitions to guide you through the process. They can help with negotiations, contracts, financial assessments, tax implications, and any legal compliance requirements.


There were people within our churches and in our wider networks who were able to provide wise guidance in these matters.


Create a transition plan: Develop a detailed transition plan outlining the process, timeline, and key milestones for the adoption merger. Identify potential challenges and develop strategies to address them. Consider the integration of staff, congregations, facilities, systems, and ministries.


A Memorandum of Understanding was drawn up by the Merger Team, including how this process would work, along with an anticipated timeline, including a re-launch of the Church on 23 July 2023 as Haberfield Life Church. This MOU brought a level of clarity in responding to questions.


Assess staffing and leadership: Evaluate the impact of the adoption merger on staff and leader positions, roles, and responsibilities. Determine if redundancies exist and how to handle them. Discuss leadership integration, potential changes in leadership roles, and how to ensure a smooth transition for both organizations.


A new Campus Pastor was inducted at Haberfield Life Church several weeks ago, who serves across both campuses in different roles. In a similar way, Worship Staff and Children’s Ministry Staff now work across both campuses. This is an opportunity for key lay leaders to step into new positions of leadership in the adoptee church. One of my key observations that engendered confidence in the adoption was the effective equipping of leaders at Manly Life Church, creating a pipeline of leaders and staff. However that only has relevance in the context of an audacious goal: you only need to multiply leaders and teams if you have made a commitment to multiply churches.


Involve key stakeholders: Engage key stakeholders from both churches in the decision-making process. This includes staff members, ministry leaders, board members, and congregants. Seek their input, address concerns, and keep them informed throughout the merger process.


This has been talked about at length above, but I should add that a formal congregational vote was held at both churches to ratify the adoption merger (“marriage”), which was overwhelmingly positive.


Address financial implications: Analyze the financial aspects of the adoption merger, including budget consolidation, fundraising efforts, asset and debt management, and potential changes in giving patterns. Ensure financial sustainability and viability for the combined entity.


Haberfield Life Church is seeking to further develop other income streams to support this adoption merger.


Develop a communication strategy: Create a comprehensive communication strategy to inform your congregations, volunteers, and the wider community about the adoption merger. Clearly convey the benefits, reasons, and vision behind the decision while addressing any potential concerns or questions.


As well as the communication within the church talked about above, the strategy for informing the community is key. Social media has been used to clarify misconceptions (most local people don’t know what an adoption merger or a multisite is, that the church is still open, that the church is still Baptist although it is not in the name; it is surprising how much investment there is by locals!) and drive local community engagement around the re-launch.


Plan for post-merger integration: Develop a plan for integrating the two organizations after the adoption merger is complete. This includes aligning ministries, programs, policies, and procedures, as well as fostering unity and a shared vision within the combined church.


There is a lot of detailed work under this heading. A good handover to incoming staff is a key part of this being a smooth transition.


Continual evaluation and adaptation: Regularly evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the adoption merger. Identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments to ensure a successful integration.


This checklist is a starting point, and the specific needs of your church may require additional considerations. Seek guidance from professionals (such as myself) and engage in thorough planning to ensure a successful adoption merger with a larger healthy church.


Why I believe that adoption mergers and multisite will rapidly spread through Australia

Church planting is great. I love church planting and I led one denomination in recommencing church planting in their state and setting up some systems to do that effectively. But there are three issues with church planting from scratch:

  • It can be slow, especially if you are starting with a small core of 8 to 12 people

  • It requires large amounts of external funding

  • There is a high rate of church plants failing within the first three years[4]

In contrast, an adoption merger has an estimated success rate of 90% and deals with each of these three challenges for effective church planting and revitalization.[5] This is partly the reason that there has been such explosive growth in multisite churches, along with adoption mergers, in the US. From ten multisite churches in 1990, this has grown to between 5,000 and 8,000 multisite churches in the US, totaling some 16,000 congregations.[6]

Of course, a trend in one country does not necessarily mean that it will be replicated in Australia, but the network of 63 churches planted out of Holy Trinity Brompton indicates that this phenomenon is wider and growing elsewhere. [7] I believe that there are three trends which have, and will continue to, drive the growth of multisite churches in Australia:

Increased secularization and lower church attendance will force ineffective churches to consider closure or another alternative. Covid lockdowns in Australia have accelerated this trend. An adoption merger means that the church does not have to close but, in a different form and with increased resources, can continue to serve its local community.

The rapid pace of societal change means that churches can lose touch with the prevailing culture and become increasingly isolated. What I mean by this is being able to communicate in forms and ways that are relevant to people. For example, some churches will say “No-one is interested in going to church anymore.” However this statement ignores the church up the road that is vibrant and growing, and the widespread interest in the community about spirituality. Effective multisite churches are growing because they have learned how to communicate in relevant ways and are committed to understanding local culture as they add new sites.

An increasing emphasis within the church on multiplication. This is on three levels: personal multiplication, which includes faith-sharing, disciplemaking and mentoring others; group multiplication through small groups or similar as leaders are developed and groups reproduce; and church multiplication as new sites are adopted and revitalized or as churches plant new churches. There are a number of good organizations that are encouraging this.


May I encourage you to consider taking action after reading this?

First, if you are located in the Inner West of Sydney, consider joining with Haberfield Life Church as they reach out to their local community. Just be there at 10am on Sundays, see what is happening and talk to the Pastor.

Second, if you are a pastor wondering where to start in this journey of multisite and adopting or planting congregations, I would love to journey with you and support you!

Third, if you are a congregation that is needing assistance for your church, I would love to connect with you and see whether we could navigate a way forward.

Fourth, if you are a church that has at least one site or plant, and you are located in greater Sydney, I am exploring starting a Community of Practice to enable multisites to better support and resource one another, maybe just commencing with a couple of get-togethers a year.

Contact me if you are interested in 2, 3 or 4 (and indicate which you are interested in) on duncum@internode.on.net

You can find out more about me on www.ianduncum.com.au

[1] Duncum, I. (2019). The Impact of Church Consultancy. Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon. [2] Rainer, T. (2015). https://churchanswers.com/blog/three-types-of-church-revitalization-introducing-church-answers-monthly/ [3] Thorpe, R. (2021). Resource Churches: A story of church planting and revitalisation across the nation. CCX, London, UK. [4] Ball, S. https://malphursgroup.com/10-deadly-church-planting-mistakes/ estimates that as many as 3 or 4 in 10 churches will not survive past three years.

Recent data in the United Methodist Church show a typical range of between $300,000 and $500,000 in denominational subsidy per new church plant, depending on the region and availability of funds. Roughly two-thirds of the projects survived the first five years. However, this measures only the denominational monetary contribution — typically in the first three years. The real cost of a church plant also includes donations by members and participants, sponsoring churches, and other friends of the church. And it sometimes includes a donated building! https://www.churchleadership.com/focus/how-much-should-it-cost-to-plant-a-new-church/ [5] Rainer, T. (2015). https://churchanswers.com/blog/three-types-of-church-revitalization-introducing-church-answers-monthly/ [6] Bird, W. cited by Prahlow, J. J. (2018). https://pursuingveritas.com/2018/03/06/what-are-multisite-churches/ [7] Thorpe, R. (2020). CITY-CENTRE RESOURCE CHURCHES: TRAINING TO ENABLE CHURCH PLANTING (DMin Thesis). Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.


© 2023 Ian Duncum. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.


Rev Dr Ian Duncum is a trained and accredited (with John Mark Ministries) church consultant with over 20 years experience of working with non-profit enterprises and churches across a number of denominations. This has also included denominational leadership in church health and development and church research in the tertiary education sector. An accredited minister with a track record of growing churches, Ian also trains church consultants, facilitates training for ministers and leaders, and mentors/supervises pastors and other leaders. He can be contacted at www.ianduncum.com.au or duncum@internode.on.net

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