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