A struggling church used to have only one choice—make a 180-degree turnaround or die.
But in the last five to seven years, a new alternative has found a growing following, as an increasing number of leaders ponder the viability and implications of a church merger.
Whether you’re talking about a merger with one nearby sister congregation, three or four area churches coming together, or a congregation becoming part of a megachurch, the “church-merger conversation” has multiplied among established churches nationwide.
No doubt the troubled economy is a conversation catalyst. As more churches become casualties, leaders are considering merger as a means of survival. But the recession is also creating new opportunities to help people experience the transforming power of God and introduce them to Christ. Churches are finding that merger also can be a matter of mission. For example, a few years ago, a pair of United Church congregations in Ontario merged for survival and mission. One was an aging, small-town church; the other was a struggling, multicultural congregation. Joining together brought new life and better resourced the new church to reach the expanding urban area around it.
As I consult with churches of diverse denominational, geographic and cultural backgrounds, people often ask me about the prospect of merger. The sad reality is that most mergers fail (although they often extend institutional viability a few years) because they are motivated more by self-interest or self-preservation than by a bigger, bolder, divine mission—a partnership in which the impact that results is clearly greater than the sum of the parts that produce it.
My counsel to leaders pondering a church merger is to first honestly test your motivation to discern if this truly is a mission-driven merger. It’s amazing how often big talk about mission camouflages survival instincts.
Here are 9 essentials for testing, initiating and sustaining a mission-driven merger.
1. Everyone is absolutely united by the same DNA.
Most successful mergers require about 18 months of preparation. Any shorter time frame rushes the process and sets up the future church for conflict. Any longer raises doubt that the participating churches are serious about the urgency of God’s mission.
Roughly half of that time should be dedicated to DNA discernment. Over a period of about nine intensive months, leaders and members from each church go deep into shared core values, ensuring that the unity of the new church does not depend on memories, past friendships or old victories, but on a foundation of trust that will empower all future innovation. The other half of the preparation time should be dedicated to developing a mission attitude, a strategic plan for outreach, the anticipated measurable results and the high expectations for paid and unpaid leadership.
2. Everything is on the table.
There are no win-lose negotiations, no trade-offs, no exclusions. The participating congregations are not negotiating for their glory or survival, but are creating a single, new community that will take the experience of Christ deeper and further. Sacred cows, including the former churches’ names, are left at the door, no matter how precious they might be emotionally or economically to people in any given church. A new name will be chosen, completely different from the previous names, and the new name will reflect the emerging mission of the church.
Ironically, it’s less important than most people think for the emerging church to know exactly what its vision is. As I coach congregations, I find that when church members and leaders obsess over vision statements and new congregational names, it usually reveals their human compulsion to control and sidetracks the church into power struggles and politics. It’s less important that the emerging church clearly labels its vision and defines a new name, and more important that an emerging church surrenders utterly to God’s will.
3. Mission drives worship.
Corporate worship focuses on reaching the broken, lost, lonely, anxious, victimized–not issues of worship style. Mission is not about the traditions, tastes or comfort zones of premerger members, but centers on introducing more people to grace.
4. Results fuel decision making.
Strategic decisions about property and program are made with an eye to productivity rather than perpetuity. Allocate energy and money to whatever will accelerate church growth and transform the mission field.
5. Leadership integrates teams.
Staff leaders are deployed to support a disciple-making process that grows Christians and equips leaders rather than managing programs. Leadership is not determined by office or credential, but by teams of gifted, called and equipped leaders. Deploy leaders missionally rather than geographically.
6. Indigenous, contemporary technologies set the tone.
However people in the mission field learn, that is how emerging church leaders teach, even if that requires significant training for leaders and members.
7. Signature outreach ministries become the focus.
These ministries perfectly reveal the DNA (or “signature”) of the united congregation. Don’t squeeze them between other programs. Your major outreach initiatives touch a lot of people, personally involve a lot of church volunteers, and are constantly before the church for prayer and support. Focus them to both bless your community and draw seekers into Christian discipleship.
8. The leadership bar raises.
Initiate a standard process for hiring, training, evaluating and dismissing all staff and volunteers based on four criteria: mission attitude, high integrity, skills and competency, and teamwork. If paid or unpaid leaders have reasonable time (i.e. four to six weeks) to elevate their performance in these areas and they miss the mark, they must go. There are no exceptions, even for the most beloved leaders.
9. People vote for a vision—not a merger.
The very term “merger” suggests perpetuation of heritage, compromise and acceptance of a lowest common denominator at the core of church life. Somehow the sacredness of the moment gets lost. It’s no longer about two hearts beating as one or living together for a higher purpose to accomplish God’s mission. It’s all about two bank accounts protecting an investment or living together for a higher purpose of individual satisfaction. It’s my experience that missional mergers depend on awakening the experience of Christ in the hearts of at least 20% of the members of each church. That 20% will have the credibility to lead another 60% into the merger. The remaining 20% can and should be left behind, regardless of how much they give.
Ask faithful Christians to commit to a larger, bolder, biblical vision. Merger is just one step toward a multiyear, multigenerational plan to expand God’s mission.
ONE MORE THOUGHT:
Why Church Mergers Fail
The merger was never really driven by mission. The real motivation is to solve an institutional problem rather than respond to a mission challenge.
Leaders fail to do serious demographic and psychographic research. The primary mission field is defined too small and explored too little.
The merger conversation fails to include the surrounding community. The merged church is still too homogeneous and fails to mirror the demographic diversity of the community.
Staff security is more important than outreach ministry. Budgets sacrifice community outreach to protect salaries.
A parent denomination meddles in the newly emerging church. Denominational bodies impose ideologies, dogmas and procedures that undermine congregational authority and responsibility.
Tom Bandy is an international consultant for church transformation and growth. He is the author of numerous books, in multiple languages, and coaches church leaders across the theological and denominational spectrum.