Multisite and Merger Strategies (Part 2)
What do church mergers have to do with multisite, and why is this such a critical conversation right now? We’re diving into part 2 of our series on multisite and merger strategies. (If you missed it, you can listen to part 1 on the future of multisite strategy here.)
We’ve seen way too many church mergers ending in “divorce” because they didn’t invest the time to explore these critical questions before they got “married”. We’ve heard from a number of churches in recent months, either potential joining churches or potential leading churches. (Joining churches are many times being considered for new locations or new campuses in a broader multi-site strategy.) And it’s because of the increasing number of conversations that we’re having with churches around these topics that I felt like we should talk about this in a podcast episode.
I think the conversation is picking up because of what we’ve experienced in this last year. Pre-COVID days, we had more than 15,000 churches take our free Unstuck Church Assessment. Close to 20% of churches identified that they were in “life support”. David Kinnaman from the Barna Group said, looking at their data, he felt like one in five churches will likely close in the next 18 months.
That’s about 60,000 churches across the country that might be closing sometime within the next year and a half. There is an opportunity for those churches to join healthier churches in a merger. And on the other side, for healthy, thriving churches to consider some of these smaller churches as part of their multisite strategy.
But before you jump into merging with another church, there are some crucial questions to ask and critical conversations to be had. In this week’s episode, Amy Anderson and I dig into the strategic ways to approach church mergers:
- How merging is like marriage
- 3 preliminary questions to frame the conversation
- 10 crucial questions to consider before you merge
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- How can we be praying for your church and for you as you lead?
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Our Church Is In “Life Support”, What’s Next?
- Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin
- Navigating Staff Changes in a Church Merger
- Assessing Merger Compatibility
- Barna: 1 in 5 Churches Could Close in the Next 18 Months
- Our Unstuck Mergers Process helps you navigate each stage of the merger process. If you’re considering merging with another church, let’s talk.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to me an unstuck church. Recently The Barna Group released a report indicating the one in five churches would likely be closing their doors in the next 18 months. In the US that’s nearly 60,000 churches. Adding to that, The Unstuck Group has found that 20% of churches have indicated that they’re currently in life support. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the number of churches exploring the possibility of merging is increasing rapidly. On today’s podcast. Tony and Amy have a conversation about what churches should be considering as they’re exploring merging, and how you can take specific steps to become better together. If you want to get the best out of your podcast experience though, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony, I have to admit in looking at the outline for today’s conversation, it feels a bit more like a premarital counseling session than a discussion about church ministry strategy. What’s up?
Yeah. Well, I think the reason why the vibe of this conversation is going to feel like that is we’ve seen way too many church mergers ending in divorce because they didn’t invest the time into these critical conversations before they got married. And Amy, so the question here is what do church mergers have to do with multisite and why is this such a critical conversation right now? And it’s because we’ve heard from a number of churches in recent months, either potential joining churches or potential leading churches, in other words, the church that’s going to lead through the merger process. Joining churches are many times being considered for new locations or new campuses in a broader multi-site strategy. And really again, it’s because of that increasing number of conversations that we’re having with churches around these topics that I just felt like we should talk about this in a podcast episode. And I think the conversations may be picking up because of what we’ve experienced in this last year. Going back to pre-COVID days, we’ve talked about this before, but we’ve had over 15,000 churches take our free Unstuck Church Assessment. And of all of those churches, close to 20% of churches identified that they were in life support. So again, the Unstuck Church Assessment helps churches identify which of the seven phases of the church life cycle are they in. Life support is the almost, we’re almost done phase. It’s the very last one. And like I said, close to 20% of churches indicated that’s where we are. And I’m hearkening back to a conversation I heard with David Kinnaman from The Barna Group on an NPR interview. And this was in the middle of COVID, maybe about six months ago. He said looking at their data, he felt like one in five churches will likely close in the next 18 months. And what struck me when I heard him talking about this is it mirrors up with the data that we’re seeing as well. And if you do the math, Amy, that’s about 60,000 churches across the country that might be closing sometime within the next year and a half. And so I’ll just say this. That’s what the data says. The Unstuck Group also does a lot of work with smaller mainline churches. And I will just say of all the churches that we’ve worked with in this COVID season, and actually going back to pre COVID, those are the churches that are struggling the most. And this last year, it’s not made them healthier. And I think because of that, this opportunity for those churches to become joining churches in a merger, and then the opportunity on the other side for healthy, thriving churches to be considering some of these churches for mergers, I think that’s only going to increase because of what we’ve experienced in the last year. So churches get to a place where they determine they can’t survive on their own. And oftentimes their first call is going to be to a healthy, thriving church in their community. And because of that, I think this is an important conversation for us to be having, because you might be the church that needs to be looking for that merger opportunity, that healthy marriage to get in, to be a part of. Or you might be that healthy, thriving church that it just may be in the coming days you’re going to get that phone call from another ministry, and they’re going to be looking for this opportunity to maybe come together. And so this is a critical conversation for us to be having today, Amy.
Yeah. And to be thinking about it before the phone rings, right?
Well, Tony, what should the first step be if a church has never been through a merger process before, and that phone does ring, you know, a merger opportunity presents itself? And I think just for the purpose of today’s conversation, let’s assume that the potential leading church, the healthy church is being approached by a potential joining church. What advice would you give to that lead church?
Yeah. So, pause. That’s the first step. Again, it’s kind of like last week’s conversation where I think especially senior pastors tend to be more optimistic than realistic, visionaries, you know, all let’s look at all the opportunities to expand the mission God has for us. And just like sometimes pastors fall in love with the idea of being multi-site before they have a multi-site strategy, I think pastors tend to fall in love with the idea of merging with another church and helping that church kind of get a new launch before they think about a healthy process to walk through. And so just because another church contacts you, it doesn’t mean that merging is what God is leading your church to do. It just means that there may be an opportunity at some point to go through a merger. Just because someone asks you to go out on a date, as an example, doesn’t mean that God wants to marry that person. It just means you might have a date. And yeah, dating helps us learn whether or not we’re compatible. And many of us have dated other people before we committed to marrying our spouses. And so the same thing with this merger opportunity. Just because there’s a phone call and a conversation starts about merging doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to merge. It just means we’re going to consider, we’re going to date. We’re going to consider whether or not this is a possibility and whether or not we’re compatible. So because of that, your first step, you need to determine whether or not you’re going to say yes to dating, and then you need to begin to consider the possibility of a future merger.
Tony, that is such good advice.
Do you like that?
I do, because I do think when the phone rings and the question gets asked it, all of a sudden feels like this is God’s hand. This is God’s plan. It’s so easy to jump there. I love the advice of just pause because there are so many implications if you do merge. Right? All right. What’s the next thing they do.
All right. So here are the key questions, the key initial questions you need to be considering. First one, and again, this is going to sound a little bit like our conversation from last week, but the first question is this. Is our church healthy enough to merge with a church that is not healthy? So, I mean, the reason why this church has contacted you is they are not at a healthy place. And what we’ve learned too many times is two unhealthy people getting married does not produce health. And likewise, two unhealthy churches getting married does not produce health either. And so we just need to assure ourselves, first of all, that we are a healthy church and we are positioned to absorb an unhealthy ministry. Okay? The second key question is, will this become a new location or a campus of our church, or will we be merging and still remaining a single site location, a single site church? Because if you are intending for this to be a campus, you need to know, do we have a multi-site strategy in place and will merging with this church and for them to become a campus, a location of our church, does that actually fit within our multi-site strategy? And then the third question is, is the joining church located in a community that matches our multi-site expansion plans? So, yeah, I mean, again, if you’re thinking about this as being part of your multi-site strategy, just because a church approaches you and has a building doesn’t necessarily mean that building is in the optimal place for you to be expanding your multi-site strategy. So if your answer to all three of those questions, are we healthy? Is this going to be a multi-site location? Is it in the right location within our expansion plans? If your answer to all three of those questions is yes, then you’re at the starting line. You can begin to consider the compatibility questions then that will follow. If your answer is No to any of those questions, welcome to the club. Because there are going to be many more no’s, I think, around these merger opportunities than there will be yeses. And actually, that’s a sign of health for your church as well. And actually reminds me many years ago, I heard this quote from Steve Jobs. Of course you all know he was the CEO of Apple, in two different seasons, by the way, was a CEO. It was the second run where Apple really took off. And this is from Steve Jobs. He said this, “Innovation comes from saying no to a thousand things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we can enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” And so that quote should inspire you to really pause again, take a step back and make sure that we’re in the right place. And this is the right fit for our strategy to accomplish the mission God’s called us to.
All right. That’s really good. Some great overarching principles before we start dating. But let’s say the two churches decide that they are going to date and move forward to figure out if they’re compatible or not. Talk a little bit about that process, Tony, what does that look like?
So here, I’m thankful for Jim Tomberlin, Jim, he’s done a lot of research and a lot of work with churches that have gone through this merger process. Of course, Jim joined our team a few years ago and with that brought all of his wisdom to our team. And now our merger process at The Unstuck Group reflects all of his thinking related to this. But if he were sitting with us here today, he would say, there are these 10 crucial merger conversations that you need to have. And so I’m going to run through these really quick, along with some of the key questions on these 10 topics. But of course, if you want to learn more, this, you can just go to the unstuck group.com/merger, where we unpack these crucial conversations a little bit more. But again, Jim would say, you need to think about doctrine. Is there alignment between the two churches on their doctrine and then agreement around some of the social issues that are impacting ministries today. Culture, while it’s possible to build on strengths and adopt best practices from both churches, one culture will and should overtake the other if it’s truly going to be one church. The third crucial conversation’s around staffing. And again, we’re going to talk more about staffing and structure next week in our episode. But if both churches have a senior pastor, as an example, what will happen to the senior pastor of the joining church? That’s a crucial conversation that we need to have. Finances is another topic. How does each church approach budgeting? What assets are available? What’s the cash and debt position of each church? Those financial considerations, those are tough conversations, but you need to have that conversation. Governance, how similar are the two churches form of church governance? What will happen to the boards and lay committees of each church? These are crucial conversations that the two churches need to have.
Tony, on that subject, I’ve had the question before in mergers, should the joining church be guaranteed to have someone from their location on the new board? How have you responded to that?
I actually discouraged that, Amy, and the same thing would hold true for multi-site churches, because oftentimes we’ll hear, should we have one board member from every location? And I actually think that over time creates division in multi-site churches. And so we encourage one board over the entire church. Now, is it optimal if some of those board members are at different locations rather than all in the same location? Absolutely. But you should be thinking about building a board that reflects one church in multiple locations, rather than a board with representatives from multiple locations.
Yeah. If you think about it, they’re going to be trying to advocate and protect their little slice of the pie if you do it that way. It’s the same thing with senior leadership teams. We coach them all the time. You got to take off your functional hat and think about the whole church now as we lead together. All right. I think that was five. We had doctrine culture, staffing, finances and governance. What are the next five?
Yeah. So, having the tough conversations, the crucial conversations, about ministries. So are the ministries of each church similar? Which will we be replicating at both locations? What ministry strengths and best practices of each church need to be adopted and built into the overall ministry strategy of the church once you merge?There are lots of topics of conversation there. Another crucial conversation’s around teaching. Who will be the primary communicator of this new merged church? Communications is another key topic. What will the communication plan be throughout this process? What audiences need to know what? When? That’s critical. Voting is very important. This is really about decision rights. How will this decision about merging actually be made? And obviously, you need to look at what your current bylaws are at each church, but decision rights are critical. And Amy, I know you’ve talked a lot about decision rights, but, this is one of those areas where churches get into big decisions like this, and it’s kind of later in the process, they actually step back and say, now, how are we going to make this decision?
That’s right. Yeah. I was going to jump in and just say, when it comes to decision rights with mergers, you need to do this very early in the process. You need to decide how you’re going to decide. So as you open up all these conversations, we know where the decision rights are, whether it’s the joining church is going to make the decision or whether you’re going to strive for consensus. But everybody needs to know, do I have a voice into this? Do I have a vote in this? Or neither?
That’s right. That’s right. It’s good to know that upfront. And then the 10th crucial conversation. Of all of these, I think this is the fun one. But it’s all about the launch. So once the merger is voted on, how will you launch this newly merged church? How will you let the community know we are one church now?
Hey, out of those 10 areas, where do you think, Tony, that churches need to invest the most time to make sure that they’re compatible of those 10 areas?
Yeah, it’s interesting. You would think it would be the most obvious, but I’m always amazed at how churches that are considering mergers gloss over doctrine, theology, how we respond to some of the social issues and questions in our culture today. And those over time, if you don’t deal with those questions upfront, are obviously the place where you’re going to get the most division over time, where people just assume, well, we’re both churches so we must both agree on doctrine and theology. And Amy, as you know, I mean, there’s a reason why we have so many denominations and so many individual churches around the world. It’s because we all, it’s the same word of God. But our interpretation of that word of God looks a little bit different. So we need to make sure that we have agreement there before we move forward as one church.
I think the most important thing you said, I’m going to go back to the beginning of the podcast when you said pause before you dive into it. I don’t know how we knew how to do this, but when I was at my church and we had the opportunity for a merger, we spent a lot of time dating, getting to know one another, lots of meetings. And what I loved though, at the end of that time, after we kind of presented what a merger would look like with our church, we said, you know, we’ve got three options here. One, we can put a towel over our arm and serve you and try to help you get back to a healthy place. Two, you can become a campus of our church. And we had played forward with that means they would become the culture of our church, or three, we can just part as friends. And I think that long time upfront, and then those three options, you know, coming out of dating, what was going to happen, I think was really helpful because it clarified for anyone who thought, well, we’re probably going to be able to keep this little thing or are all of our staff going to transfer over. We just made it really crystal clear what a merger looked like from our vantage point, so that we all went in with eyes wide open, and that doctrine piece, you’re right, was it was an important part of it. All right. Well, there was a lot there. But honestly that’s really only the beginning of a merger process. Isn’t it?
You’re right. So first let me say our merger process at The Unstuck Group, I mean, we do, we kind of walk through each of these key areas with a lot of thoroughness because we know any one of these can be a challenge to the two churches ultimately coming together. So this includes determining decision rights, considering the obstacles, think here about legal obstacles, doctrine or otherwise, navigating the delicate conversations that we talked about, but especially the ones around people in money, which can be stumbling blocks for the two churches that are considering coming together. Our process helps the two churches create feasibility teams to investigate many of these areas. We help you assess the overall health of the two churches. We walk both churches through the merger readiness assessment, which again is, I think, a very helpful tool for two churches that are considering coming together as one. And then we’ll help you with, I mentioned earlier, developing that communications plan, which is critical to making sure that the right people have the right information at the right time, as you’re considering these next steps. But all of that, all of that’s around these crucial conversations, all those 10 areas that I mentioned before, we actually consider that to be part of the negotiation and declaration phase of this process. Essentially, it’s about helping the two churches determine if we’re going to get married. And then once we get through that part of the process, we get to set the wedding date and we get to send out the invitations. But after that, the hard part of building and living out a healthy marriage begins. And so, in our merger process, we call it the consolidation phase, but it’s about making sure we have alignment around mission, vision, values, ministry strategies. This is where we help churches clarify their structure. And then after that, we move into integration and the action phases, and this is all about actually implementing this change, and Amy, for all of these reasons, this is why it’s so critical that one of the two churches is healthy before they merge. And that’s why too, the lead church has to have a well-planned multi-site strategy, including a strategy for future locations, before they consider this entire process that we’ve talked about today about actually going through a merger.
That’s right. All right. Well, that was a lot to think about. Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. So if you’ve been through a merger previously and it was successful, first of all, we’d like to hear from you because we’re still learning as well at The Unstuck Group. And so if you would, send us a quick note to this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Usually that’s for churches that are looking for help, but this is us looking for help because we want to hear from you, you know, through that successful merger, what really worked for you. On the other hand, if you’ve never been through a healthy merger previously, and you sense that this might be in your future, again, don’t wait for another church to approach you before you start considering these questions. It’s better to decide in advance on many of these topics. Are we healthy? Is multi-site in our future? What location should we be considering? If we merge, what would that process look like? You can decide the answers to those types of questions today before a church approaches you. And I can guarantee you, the churches that have been through mergers in the past have tweaked their process for future mergers based on what has worked and what has failed. So you don’t have to make the same mistakes that other churches have made around mergers. You can find that with people that have had experience going through this previously, and we would love to help walk you through that. If you’re interested in learning more, you can visit theunstuckgroup.com/mergers.
Thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If your church is currently considering merging, either as a lead or following church, we’d love to help. Visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/mergers and add your name to the Church Merger Match List. There’s no cost, and we’ll notify you of churches within a 20 mile radius that might be a good fit for merging. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.
Photograph by Anna Darlak