Church Mergers – Episode 89 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

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Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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Jim Tomberlin called it “a dance.” In church mergers, someone has to lead, and someone has to follow.

And for it to be successful, the declining church needs to let the healthy church lead, to join them in their mission.

It’s my suspicion that when one church is struggling, and considering a merger, they’re not usually thinking about joining a mission. They’re more often thinking about how to preserve their way of doing church with dwindling numbers and resources.

Considering a merger? It can be a really healthy, effective way to multiply—if you approach it with eyes wide open.

A successful merger results in healthy congregations, increased attendance, volunteers, financial sustainability, multiplied impact and ultimately a multiplied number of churches—more than when the merger first occurred.

Mergers can also be a huge diversion of time, money and energy when the churches are not right for each other.

In this episode, Jim and I discussed:

  • The 6 issues you’ll face head on when you are considering a merger, what can go wrong, and how to avoid trouble
  • Why mergers are different today than they were in decades past
  • How lack of mission clarity in the lead church can cripple the whole process
  • The #1 issue that causes merger conversations to break down and fail to move forward
  • Why you must prepare to allow for the grieving process the joining church will necessarily find itself in, even if you have high buy-in
More than 40% of all multisite campuses today are actually the result of a church merger or the acquisition of a church building. via @multisiteguy Click To Tweet A successful merger results in healthy congregations, increased attendance, volunteers, financial sustainability, multiplied impact and ultimately a multiplied number of churches—more than when the merger first occurred.… Click To Tweet

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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an Unstuck Church. There’s no question the national decline in church attendance is fueling the trend of mergers. Many churches are finding they can accomplish more, serve their community better, and reach more people by combining ministry. In fact, about one in two mega-churches have experienced merging, mostly with smaller congregations. No matter your church’s size today’s podcast is for you as Tony and Jim Tomberlin explore common mistakes churches make when merging. As you listen today, make sure you use the show notes and download our Leader Conversation Guide. You can find them at 89 or make your life a little easier and subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox each week. You get links to all the resources we mentioned, the Leader Conversation Guide for you and your team, and bonus resources all conveniently delivered to your inbox. You can sign up by going to And now here’s this week’s conversation with Tony and Jim.

Tony: 01:01 Jim wrote a fantastic book called Better Together with Warren Bird several years ago, and what I’d love for you to share from that resource Jim is what are some common mistakes you see churches making when it comes to mergers?

Jim: 01:16 Well, I would say that the whole merger idea is a different kind of merger today than the mergers of decades in the past, and the multisite church movement really has been a catalyst in creating this unintended but good consequence of mergers. We know today over 40% of all multisite campuses have come as a result of a church merger or acquisition of a church building. And so this is a growing trend. It may be even going faster than the multisite movement because so many churches are in decline and are not going to survive the next decade or so. Ed Stetzer said one time if the 1950s ever comes back to America, our churches will be ready for it.

Jim: 01:57 And so a lot of those churches are struggling, but they have dedicated people, they have resources, facilities but in decline, empty facilities. And yet in every community in America, there’s a growing church, and a growing multisite church. And they’re in desperate, they have strong ministries, people in desperate need of space. And so there’s a huge win-win when those two churches can find each other. And so I found in my consulting early on that I found myself in merger conversations, you know, as part of a solution towards a multiple site strategy. But, we published this book, Warren and I did. Warren called me a few years ago back and said, are you seeing a lot of mergers in your consulting? And I said, I am. And he said, we are too at leadership network. There’s something happening there.

Jim: 02:43 And so we published this book Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, and we wrote that to be a guide for churches to understand this as a viable option to help. One way to get unstuck is to join a growing church. And how do you do that? How do you have a successful outcome? But we also have seen over the years now mistakes that churches have made. So back to your original question, what are those mistakes? Yeah. I think I may just give you six words and then I’ll unpack them. The first word it has to do with relationships, the relationship, then the mission, the focus, control, communication and the grief process. Okay. So let me unpack those six issues. The first one is, the first mistake to make is not defining the relationship, you know, that DTR, define the relationship.

Jim: 03:36 Every merger, and every merger is unique. Every church merger is unique, but it’s like a dance and in a dance one leads and the other follows, and we have to establish up front really clear who’s the lead church here? Who’s the follower? Who’s the lead? And who’s the joining church? That’s not always obvious to the declining church, who’s in lead, who should be leading this? Also, we’ve identified there’s four different kinds of mergers. They’re not all the same. And so we kind of use this family language, there’s a marriage merger, which is a very rare kind, two co-equals coming together and creating something new together.

Tony: 04:12 But even in that situation, one of those churches has to take the lead.

Jim: 04:17 That’s right, and then there’s a rebirth merger which is probably the majority of them where the church really needs a new chapter, a new life or rebirth. And then a sort of in between a merger and a rebirth. I mean a marriage and a rebirth is a adoption merger. And then the fourth one is what we call the ICU mergers, which is the typical ones of the past, which were two struggling churches as a last gasp effort to try to, you know, survive. They are joined together, but they’re more like two drowning men who are trying to survive at the expense of the other and they both go drown. But anyways, so define the relationship is an important first step in a merger. The second thing is mission clarity. The more clarity that the lead church has about what our mission is, what our vision, what our strategy is, the more clarity around that, the easier it will be to determine whether we should even entertain this merger possibility. And if we do engage with another church that wants to join with us, we’re really clear about what we’re inviting them to join. And so the more clarity you have as the lead church, the easier it is to discern whether it’s right or wrong and to guide that process forward.

Tony: 05:31 And my suspicion is this, when there’s one struggling church, they’re not thinking about joining a mission. All they’re thinking about is we need help. Who’s going to teach on Sunday mornings because we can’t afford to hire our pastor anymore. And so we want to join your church so that you can make sure we can continue to have services on Sunday.

Jim: 05:53 And this is why it’s so important for that lead church to be really clear about the non-negotiables. And the tendency is to compromise who you are to accommodate their need and you give away too much, agree to too much, and then it’s then when you start to try to bring them into your orbit, into church your way, it’s kinda felt like a bait and switch. So it’s better to walk away from it, invite them to join your mission and vision and be real clear about what that is and say if you want to join us, come on, come on in.

Tony: 06:25 So that was the second word was mission, what’s the third word?

Jim: 06:28 Focus, are you focusing, when are we talking about that is, are you looking backward or are you looking forward? A lot of churches maybe start down this path because they’re just trying to preserve a tired way of doing church of the past or to preserve a facility, or to just preserve things as they are now. And it’s declining state. But the best kind of mergers are those where you’re not, you’re not trying to preserve something of the past. You’re really embracing a shared vision for the future. Important. The other issue is control. I’ve been involved probably with over a hundred merger conversations. Half of those never got to completion because usually about 90% of the time control, someone doesn’t want to give up control on the joining church site.

Tony: 07:18 And that could be the boards don’t want to give up control. The senior pastor of the joining church doesn’t want to give up control.

Jim: 07:27 Or a board member, okay. Or an influential non-board member, but who has a lot of influence in that church. So, but somebody doesn’t want to give up control on the joining church side.

Tony: 07:39 All right, so control. That’s the fourth floor. The fifth word?

Jim: 07:42 The fifth word is communication. The need to, you have to over-communicate. Once the decision has been made and it’s gone public to the two churches, you have to over-communicate. Why are we doing this, how this is going to work. And the benefits of doing it. And so under-communicating is a mistake that churches make, you’ve got to over-communicate.

Tony: 08:06 And then finally you mentioned grief, what’s that all about?

Jim: 08:10 The mistake to underestimate the grieving process of the joining church. Even when people know it was the right thing to do, there is a loss and it’s a grieving process that every church member, any person on the leadership and who have been a part of that church, they’re going to go through those normal stages of grieving, of being in denial. I can’t believe this is happening. I didn’t know we had a problem. I didn’t know we were in decline or whatever. And then, bargaining, is there some other way besides merging, you know, nobody gets up, wakes up everyday thinking one day we’ll get to merge with somebody, you know, can we just let go some staff or whatever, do we have to really do this? Bargaining. And then the third stage of anger, I can’t believe they’re giving my church away. And then fourth, there’s a depression that people who go through, they’re just depressed feels like somebody has died. This is a death of something and me and my church. But eventually acceptance hopefully is where people land and people go in and out of those stages, especially in that first year leading up to the merger and in the year after the merger, they’re going to go through those and there’s going to be some pain with that. And you just need to not underestimate the grieving process, the hurting that’s going on with the church, even when they know it was the right thing. Even when they land there, it’s still, there’s a grieving going on. And that’s to be, take some time to work through.

Tony: 09:37 It’s interesting, at The Unstuck Group, we’ve talked about ending specific ministries in churches and how you almost have to treat it like someone’s passed away and you need to celebrate that life of that ministry. And then talk about the future without that ministry.

Jim: 09:58 It’s exactly the same thing. You need to celebrate the past. Not, ignore it or trash it, but to celebrate it, there was a time when that church was a vibrant church in the community, most likely, and so how do we tap into what was the driver and the motivator behind that and recognize it’s a new chapter now and that’s the old and now the new is coming and celebrating that past, but then looking to the future.

Sean: 10:24 Well, thanks for joining us today for this conversation on church mergers. If you’re interested in learning more about how The Unstuck Group is helping churches merge, you can visit us at Also, if you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting platform. And if you have any questions about this topic or any of our episodes, use the #unstuckchurch and post them on your favorite social media channel. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.

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