Mergers and Partnerships 

Each year 2% of US Protestant churches merge and another 5% talk about merger, according to a Leadership Network study.  Many other congregations are collaborating in one way or another—sharing staff and programs or serving the community in a joint effort. This is not surprising because there are compelling missional, ecological and economic reasons for churches to work together. 

A big part of ChurchFuture’s work involves mergers and other collaborations.  In Better Together Making Church Mergers Work Warren Bird calls David Raymond a “merger specialist”.  ChurchFuture has worked or is working with 19 churches involved with collaboration and 31 churches that have merged, are in the process of merger, or explored some form of merger. 

I want to again thank you for your guidance throughout our vision process.  Your experience and tenacity were true blessings in this work.

 Linda DierksReformation Lutheran Church, Orlando, Florida

Congregational Partnerships

Collaboration can take many forms. Sometimes a cluster of nearby churches band together to deal with a social justice issue in their community. In other cases churches share staff, either with informal arrangements or by joining as a formal parish. The ELCA advocates a form of collaboration called Area Ministry Strategy where several ELCA congregations work together for greater effectiveness.  

These partnerships hold great promise but the track record is mixed. The most successful efforts seem to be those with an informal structure but a strong passion for one cause. New formal structures are harder, maybe because of the effort needed just to keep the structure going. The parish model for sharing staff has been vital for a number of rural congregations but is more difficult in urban or suburban settings.  David Raymond has personal experience with partnerships like this, and he conducted detailed case studies of two Twin Cities collaborations, one based on the cluster model and one using the parish model. He has a passion for successful partnerships and an awareness of some not-obvious pitfalls that these partnerships can face.

Church Mergers

Mergers also have a mixed track record. A surprising number of strong churches had a merger at some point in their history, but we all know of mergers that ended up, to quote Kennon L. Callahan, where 1 + 1 equaled 1 or even less than one.  In recent years a better understanding of the dynamics of church mergers has emerged, along with new forms of merger. In many cases this has turned merger into an effective tool for longterm vitality.

 Traditional church mergers were often motivated by survival. Two similarly-situated churches that can no longer meet their budgets merge together in the hopes that pooling their finances and reducing their facility expense will enable them to carry on. Some of these mergers accomplish their objective, but they often just postpone the inevitable closing.

 The survival motivation, however, can be a starting point for rebirth. A merger, even of two or three dying churches, provides an opportunity for a new vision, a new name, and a newly remodeled facility when the leaders and members are able rekindle the sense of mission in the earlier histories of their congregations. This isn’t necessarily easy to pull off. Members have a natural tendency to gravitate to the comfortable ways of doing church that got them into difficulty.  But ChurchFuture has discovered that there is a core commitment in most churches to do whatever it takes to reach and serve people in their community. When this commitment is nurtured and when leaders learn new ways of being church a new, vital congregation can emerge from the embers of the pre-merger churches.

 The track record of mergers between unequal churches is remarkably strong. These mergers usually happen when an aging, declining church merges into a stronger church. The members of the aging church are able to retain their relationships with each other in the bigger church, but they no longer have to worry about keeping the doors open. The stronger church, if it is smart, can use the remaining assets of the merging church to strengthen its own ministry. This is generally called an absorption merger.

 In other cases a church that finds itself stuck and no longer attracting new people will join with a strong growing church to become a campus of the lead church. These multi-site mergers work especially well when the joining church has a strategic location and functional facility. The leadership and resources of the lead church bring growth and vitality to the new campus. Most of these mergers have occurred in evangelical settings but they are happening more and more with mainline protestant churches. Their success comes from shared resources, a renewed vision, a nimble leadership structure, and, usually, an exceptional senior pastor.  David Raymond has been closely involved in shepherding two mainline multisite mergers.