Conversations about potential church mergers are always complicated. Often, they begin when a congregation, or two congregations, face the painful reality that they can no longer afford their buildings or their ministries at the level they’ve been accustomed to. Usually, these congregations have experienced prolonged membership decline and dwindling financial resources. This is why today’s church mergers often come from a place of anxiety, sadness and frustration. And, unfortunately for many merging congregations, joining together two struggling groups is unlikely to result in one healthy one. For the purposes of this blog post, my focus will be on what a successful church merger looks like and how two congregations coming together can lead to new life. So, what is the key to a successful church merger? Permit me to share a one-word metaphor: marriage.
Successful church mergers involve two congregations entering into a new partnership, on an equal footing, to create something new. Participants should view themselves as coming together to form a union where neither partner sees the other as dominant. In my own pastoral ministry, I encourage couples during premarital counseling to talk openly about sticky issues that could hinder their marriage. I encourage dialogue about how they, as a newly married couple, would handle finances and how they would assimilate each other’s family and traditions. I also stress that they need to take seriously the fact they both bring into the relationship a way of living and being that has been formed over many years. Congregations in merger discussions need to have similar conversations about their own history and what a shared future might look like.
Church mergers are very much like marriages. For one to be successful, both congregations need to form new traditions together and be able to let go of long-time practices and old ways of ‘doing church.’ Things like worship styles, governance, staff, how the congregation deals with money, stewardship, budgeting, plus the role of the minister, all have to be discussed and compromised on before a merger can be successful. I remember one merger I worked with had to address the issue of alcohol. One congregation was comfortable serving it at fellowship events in people’s homes while the other congregation was not.
The biggest mistake merging churches make is in not fully accepting that two churches coming together are truly making something new. A merged church is not a continuation of the old congregations. It is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to start afresh. Whether stated or unstated, the goal of a church merger should never be ‘to help us hang on a little longer and pay some bills.’ That sort of merger is unlikely to be God-inspired. Successful church mergers don’t move a patient from critical to regular care. Instead, they move two congregations back to the birthing wing of the hospital.
Successful church mergers begin with a new name, a new vision and a new mission statement. My recommendation is that church mergers include new pastoral leadership that is chosen by both congregations. Of course, congregations need to be generous with exiting staff in terms of severance and also provide adequate time for them to find new positions. And, yes, successful church mergers most often include a new location and building. When one congregation keeps their building, there is almost always a feeling from ‘the other side’ that the church really isn’t theirs. Just as I always encourage newly married couples to start fresh in a different house or apartment that they can make a home together, so too churches need to start fresh in a new space. The worst possible reason to enter into a church merger is to save a building. A church merger built around saving a facility will rarely succeed. Jesus calls us to heal the sick and raise the dead, not to maintain an aging facade.
A church merger should begin with a period of discernment; a time of listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We must always spend time listening to God and asking questions. God, what do you want us to do? What do you want us to be? What might you have planned for our two congregations? What is your will and what might we do better together? A church merger that doesn’t spend time answering these important questions will struggle to thrive. The most successful mergers see themselves as a new church; a new work of God with a new mission. A Spirit-led merged congregation has the opportunity to begin anew, free of hindering traditions, programs, and buildings.
If your congregation is considering a church merger, we at Disciples Church Extension Fund would welcome a conversation. We have some ministry-planning resources that will help you think through the many issues you will face as part of your consideration. We also offer a proven process to help your congregation make a God-inspired decision of faith.
Rev. Dr. Craig Walls consults on loans, fundraising campaigns, and other services available from DCEF. Prior to joining DCEF, Craig spent more than 15 years as pastor of SouthPointe Christian Church in Lincoln, NE, where he engaged in building projects, capital campaigns, and creative land lease/use opportunities for the congregation. Craig received his BA from Hiram College, a Master of Divinity from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, and a Doctor of Ministry in Homiletics from McCormick Theological Seminary. Craig and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, President of William Jewell College, make their home in Liberty, Missouri, with their sons Alec and John.
For 137 years, DCEF has offered mission-driven building and capital planning services to congregations and organizations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Together with our investors and partners, we are Disciples helping Disciples.