THE PERILS AND PROMISE OF CHURCH MERGERS


In a previous article I have predicted that sadly there will be some churches that will find that their ministry and/or financial viability will be negatively impacted through Covid-19, and will either close or merge. Merging is both an attractive and a difficult prospect. On the one hand, church partnerships can accomplish more for God’s kingdom and enrich Christian community – we can be so much better together! On the other, some some church partnerships will be ineffective and result in sadness.

We partner with other churches all the time, whether planning School Scripture with a cross-denominational ministers’ association, or joining with other churches to send out cross-cultural workers. In this article I am talking about focussed partnerships between churches. I have been consulting with churches for twenty years, and during this time have facilitated different types of partnerships between churches. Along the way I have learned some valuable lessons about what makes for good compatibility and healthy church partnerships, and I will outline three models of partnership later in this article. I believe there are five keys to a healthy partnership: strong relational bonding, a healthy and ordered process, right motivation and readiness, clear self-identity and vision, and flexible compatibility.

Strong Relational Bonding

Partnership is not primarily about a legal process. It is about relationships. Their youth groups combining kicked off a merger journey for two churches I worked with. This was enhanced as joint services were held alternately each month during a ‘church dating’ phase, and social activities and retreats gave the space for friendships to form. The seeds of another merger were sown as three pastors started praying together, built relationship, and sought to hear what God was saying. Relationships of love, trust, and mutual service are central to any sort of partnership. Combined small groups, retreats and serving in ministry or outreach together can be useful ways of going deeper with one another. Ultimately, the process of joining in partnership with another church is a series of ever-widening relational circles.

A Healthy and Ordered Process

Like the couple we looked at earlier, churches looking to partner benefit from having a healthy and ordered process consisting of ‘dating,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘marriage.’ While each church partnership is unique, the outline of that process follows this similar pattern. In other words, there are increasing levels of commitment as churches non-anxiously explore the viability of partnering together. This should be a process that takes 4 to 12 months, with a group from each church meeting together with a coach to plan their missional future and the pathway to get there. It also includes intense prayer, combined services and social activities. Taking things slowly allows relationships to grow, and any concerns to be worked through.

The benefits of having a structured process are that it involves everyone and tends to avoid reactive, quick decisions.

Right Motivation and Readiness

The least successful type of partnership comes from the joining of two churches where one or both feel like they’re in an intensive care unit. Typically they’ve faced many years of decline and have tried one or more interventions to start a new wave of life, none with success. A readiness to enter into genuine partnership is necessary, where rights are relinquished to find new life.

Asking, “Is this the right time?” or “Are we ready for partnership?” is just as important as being clear about our motivations for doing so.

A partnership can shipwrecked by poor and undisclosed motives, such as “We need to do this merger to live – they can help us financially and we can stay just as we are,” or “they are reluctant to be a part of our multisite church but we can change their music after the ‘wedding.’”

Churches need to ask at the outset, “Why do we want to consider a partnership?” Are we dissatisfied with the status quo? Do we have resources and gifts that we want to share or receive from another church? Can our mission goals be accomplished better with another church than alone? Can we reach new people who don’t necessarily reflect our current composition? Are we interested in outreach and potential growth? Because if we are considering a partnership for church survival, rather than for mission, maybe our motivation and readiness for partnership should be questioned. The two churches I mentioned earlier were not merging for survival. They had a vision to be a church planting hub for the surrounding area, and merging as equals was a way to enlarge their resource base to do so.

Clear Self-Identity and Vision

All churches need great clarity around their core values, their purpose or mission, and their vision or next destination under God. The ability to clearly articulate who we are and what is important to us becomes crucial when we are seeking a partnership. So getting some answers to these questions from a large and representative group is helpful in gaining a clear self-identity and vision, before we take steps toward partnership:

Who are we now?

• What is our history as a church?

• What are our core values or ethos?

• What hopes, dreams and visions do we have?

• What are our strengths and weaknesses?

• What is our financial situation? What assets do we have?

• What is our current attendance at worship? At other church related events? Have we experienced growth or decline over the years? What has this growth or decline been attributed to?

• Does our church reflect the composition of the surrounding community?

What characteristics do we have that would contribute to a successful partnership?

• Are we willing to take risks and be open to change?

• Can we share power, leadership and decision-making?

• Are we spiritually and financially healthy?

• Can we be patient, flexible, and willing to compromise?

• Are we willing to form new relationships?

• Do we have enough time and energy to devote to the partnership?

• Do we have a commitment to grow both spiritually and numerically?

• Are the pastors engaged and supportive of the partnership? Are they willing to work as colleagues?

• Are we willing to accept the “other pastor” or a pastor not known to either congregation after our church partnership?

• Are we willing to accept any “fallout” from the partnership?

• Are we open to learning and working together with people who are different than we are?

• Are we open to identifying and working on common mission goals with the other church?

When we are clear about who we are, where we are going, and what we bring to the table, we can discern more unmistakably whether God is calling us into partnership with another church at this time.

Flexible Compatibility

Of course, the flipside to clear self-identity and vision is flexible compatibility. There has to be a good level of like-mindedness, but we are never going to find a ‘perfect match.’ There are going to be areas where we have to decide, “Is this a dealbreaker?” or can we adaptably work through to a place of agreement? What is core to our identity and vision, and what is open for discussion? Getting answers to these questions during the ‘dating’ phase will help enormously:

How compatible are we with the other church?

• Have the churches had positive or negative experiences with each other in the past?

• Are the churches theologically similar?

• What is our geographic drawing area? Are we too close or too far away from the other church (more relevant for a rebirth or adoption partnership outlined below)?

• What is the form and style of worship of each church? Is the music more traditional or contemporary?

• What style of preaching is the congregation accustomed to?

• What expectations do members have of their pastor(s)?

• Are the pastors of each congregation able to work as colleagues?

• Do the churches share similar vision and mission goals?

• How do things get accomplished in the church? How do the churches go about making decisions and completing tasks? How is information communicated?

• What kind of programs exist in each church? Can they co-exist or be combined?

• How are women’s roles viewed?

• Do the churches have similar denominational commitment?

• These five keys to a healthy partnership: strong relational bonding, a healthy and ordered process, right motivation and readiness, clear self-identity and vision, and flexible compatibility will serve us well as guideposts in the journey of discernment. The other part of the equation is understanding the right type or model of partnership for our situation.

What Are Some Models of Partnership?

There are generally three types of partnership or mergers:

Rebirth Partnerships – when a struggling or dying church gets a second life by being restarted under a stronger, vibrant and typically larger church. Rebirths may occur with some or all of the previous congregation becoming part of the new entity.

The most successful rebirths occur when the joining church is smart enough or desperate enough to be willing to relinquish everything to the lead church – is name, facilities, staff, ministries and glorious past – all in exchange for a second life. The decision to merge does not happen until church leaders conclude that the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing.

Rebirth partnerships often have a clear goal of the re-establishment of the ‘struggling church.’ This objective should be clear from the outset (e.g. we will re-launch as an independent church when we reach 60 average attendance) and ideally have a timeframe (e.g. 5 years). This move toward eventual independence must be balanced by the necessity to relinquish everything to receive healthy DNA and new vision from the parent church. One of the best ways of church planting is through churches planting, or in this case, rebirthing or re-planting, churches. This end goal of re-establishment marks this type as different to the following two types of mergers which are permanent arrangements.

Adoption Mergers – are typically stable or stuck churches that integrate under the vision of a stronger, vibrant and typically larger church. Though the adopted church turns over everything to the lead church, it usually brings something to the table in addition to a congregation of people: facilities, staff, and ministry programs that are often integrated in to the lead church’s overall strategy. Like an adopted child, they take on a new name and relationship, but they also add a dimension to their new parent that enhances the whole family.

In some cases, these mergers retain a second site while forgoing their independence under the vision and leadership of the parent church. However, relinquishing independence is not the same as dependence, and it is necessary to be very clear about expectations regarding ministry participation, finances and so on. Each of these three types of partnership benefit from having a Memorandum of Understanding so that expectations of each church joining in partnership are discussed, crystallised and in writing.

Marriage Mergers – occur when two churches, both of which are strong or growing, realign with each other under a united vision and new leadership configuration. The example of the two churches merging to plant that I used earlier was a marriage merger, and in this case the pastors became co-pastors with very distinct roles.

Healthy church partnerships can have an incredible impact on their surrounding community, both through the witness of their unity and their larger resource base for local mission. Whether that is a rebirth partnership, an adoption merger or a marriage merger, strong relational bonding, a healthy and ordered process, right motivation and readiness, clear self-identity and vision, and flexible compatibility are vital keys to a healthy partnership. Healthy partnerships are also a visible demonstration of what it means to be a movement of churches together: churches assisting other churches, churches joining together in local mission, and churches planting or replanting churches.


© 2020 Ian Duncum. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.

Rev Dr Ian Duncum is an author (The Impact of Church Consultancy is available here https://www.ianduncum.com.au/shop), and a consultant with 20 years experience of working with non-profit enterprises and churches across a number of denominations. This has included denominational leadership in church health and development, and research positions. Ian also trains church consultants, facilitates training for ministers and leaders, and provides coaching, mentoring and supervision for pastors and other leaders. He can be contacted through www.ianduncum.com.au or duncum@internode.on.net

References

Mariko Yanagihara (2008). The Two Shall Become One. Louisville, KY

Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird (2012). Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. John Wiley & Sons Inc, NY, NY.

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