Churches often start talking about merger when they face economic stress. Churches that can no longer meet their budgets talk about merging in the hope that pooling finances and reducing facility costs will enable them to carry on. These conventional mergers, sometime called continuation mergers, have a mixed track record—some work well but others just postpone the inevitable. 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, however, new forms of merger have emerged along with a better understanding of the dynamics of merger and the results are more encouraging. Economic stress can be a starting point for new vitality and an opening for renewal. A merged church is actually a new corporate entity with a different name. It can make sense to treat this new entity as a restart. Merger can involve a new vision, a new name, a newly remodeled facility, more financial resources and a chance for new vitality. This happens when leaders and members are able rekindle the sense of mission in the earlier history of their congregations and carry that into their new congregation.
A restart merger 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 premerger churches.
Two other forms of merger involve churches that are unequal in size and strength. One form, called an absorption merger, happens when an aging, declining church merges into a strong nearby church. Members of the aging church are able to retain their relationships with each other in their new 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 the newly combined 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 churches. Their success comes from combining the strengths of the joining church with the leadership and vision of the lead church. David Raymond has been closely involved in shepherding two successful mainline multi-site mergers including one involving his own church. These mergers are sometimes called “two-campus mergers” or “multi-campus mergers”.
A non-merger variation of the multi-site merger is the anchor church model. In this case a strong anchor church provides funds, volunteers and leadership assistance to a struggling congregation under a covenant rather than a legal joining.
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. The FAQ page has more information about the track record of various forms of collaboration and information about starting the conversation.