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 long-term vitality.
Church merger consideration is usually motivated by economics. 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 others just postpone the inevitable closing.
Economic motivation can be a starting point for new vitality. Legally a merged church is a new corporate entity with a different name. It makes sense to treat this new entity as an opportunity for rebirth—restarting as new congregation building on the former churches. Merger 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.
Two other forms of merger involve churches that are unequal in size and strength. The track record of these mergers is remarkably strong. One form, called an absorption merger, happens 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 paying the bills and 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.
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 multi-site mergers.
When churches are considering merger Raymond’s approach is to help the leaders and members discern the best course for their situation. Raymond doesn’t make recommendations during this stage, but he shares case studies and observations of similar situations so the decision that is made is grounded in facts and therefore more likely to succeed. Once the decision is made Raymond sometimes make more concrete recommendations, but the primary decision has to be owned by the leaders and members.
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