Church Merger or Consolidation

Churches often start talking about merger or consolidation when they face economic stress. They hope that merging will bring more people and money and less facility expense.

The resulting mergers, sometime called continuation mergers, have a mixed track record—some work our very 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. The results are more encouraging. Economic stress can be a trigger for new vitality and an opening for renewal. Legally a merged church is actually a new corporate entity. It can make sense to treat this new entity as a restart and to use the merger or consolidation as leverage for renewal. Merger can create the opportunity for 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 from the history of their congregations and carry that sense of mission into their new combined congregation. Merger can actually make it easier to let go of old habits and accept change.

A restart or renewal merger isn’t necessarily easy to pull off. After the merger congregations have a natural tendency to gravitate back to the old ways of doing church. 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. Leaders just need to learn how, and they need a sound plan to guide them. When the core commitment is nurtured and leaders are equipped, 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 first, called an absorption merger, happens when an aging, declining church merges into a strong growing nearby church. Members of the aging church are able to retain their valued 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 or multi-campus 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 starting to happen with mainline churches. Their success comes from combining the strengths of the joining church with the leadership and vision of the lead church. Dave Raymond has shepherded 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 thinking about merger or consolidation 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 leaders settle on a course 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 helpful information about starting the conversation.

These and other forms of partnership are described in more detail in a second site sponsored by ChurchFuture:

Minnesota Consolidation – Newspaper article about Vista Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, a consolidation coached by Dave Raymond.

Michigan Consolidation – News article about Harbor of Grace Lutheran Church, a 4-church consolidation in Muskegon, Michigan. Dave Raymond made 2 visits to Muskegon during the process of consolidation.