An Interview with Warren Bird on What Makes Church Mergers Work
A merger is always more successful when each church is clear on who leads and who follows. But for the church in the following role, deciding to merge with another ministry raises difficult questions related to governance, what happens to staff leaders and specific ministries, who has decision rights, and more.
For this episode, I connected with Warren Bird, co-author of the book Better Together, for the second episode in a two part conversation on the emerging trend of healthy, mission-driven church mergers as an alternative to the old, failure-prone mergers of two declining churches.
If you’re in the position of the joining church, the biggest question is one of vision.
Do you believe that you could be having a far greater impact using the resources God has given you right now?
Old mergers were more survival driven, whereas today’s mergers are more mission driven. The old were about trying to preserve an old way of doing ministry, but the new mergers are about embracing a shared vision for the future.
Joining churches can approach a merger as a way to reinvest the kingdom resources that God’s provided into greater kingdom impact. The core thing you’re handing over is the mission; you’re entrusting it to someone else to carry it forward successfully.
In this conversation, Warren and I discuss…
- Key stats from Warren Bird’s latest research on church mergers that help frame up the picture of what healthy mergers really look like today
- The most common fears/concerns joining churches have and how to wrestle with them
- How pastors and board members at joining congregations can initiate merger conversations with a growing, healthy church (Warren shared that 46% percent of mergers are initiated by the joining church!)
- 4 questions every church—whether the leader or the follower—must be able to answer affirmatively for a healthy merger to take place
How can you lead a successful church merger?
What does that look like? Why do some mergers thrive and others fail?
Join us on August 27 at 1pm EST for a practical conversation on how to make a church mergers work, hosted by Tony Morgan and featuring Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird.
Learn how to successfully lead a church through a merger, what landmines to avoid, and the best practices to implement to create a thriving church.
Register to join us today! You’ll gain clarity and practical next steps to:
- Assess whether or not a merger is the right fit for your church
- Understand the 5 Stages of a Church Merger—and recognize what potential pitfalls to avoid each step of the way
- Lead effectively through the transition with best practices from pastors who have been in the same position
- Learn insights proven-in-the-field on how to do a merger well.
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- How Healthy Churches Take the Lead in a Merger | Part 1 | Episode 154
- Successful Church Mergers | Free Webinar
- The Unstuck Mergers Process
- Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, updated and expanded edition by Jim Tomberlin & Warren Bird
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. A church merger is always more successful when each church is clear on who leads and who follows. Deciding to merge with another ministry and becoming a following church can be a difficult transition. Questions of governance, what happens to staff leaders and who has decision rights become key questions for merging churches to explore. On today’s podcast, Tony wraps up our series on mergers with Warren Bird, co-author of the book, Better Together, to discuss how to be a following church in a healthy merger process. Before you listen though, make sure you subscribe to get the show notes. When you do, you’re going to get resources to this week’s episode, access to our podcast resource archive, and sometimes bonus resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony for today’s conversation on church mergers with Warren Bird.
Warren, last week I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Jim Tomberlin, your co-author on Better Together, and it was fabulous conversation. And one of the things we were talking about is just how in the current season that we’re in, I mean, with all the churches have experienced, how really this may create some new opportunity for churches on both spectrums, the lead churches and the following churches, to be talking about the potential of merger, but give me your perspective. I mean, we’re facing a new normal, not only in our culture, but certainly for ministry. What’s the opportunity for churches as we think about this church mergers in the future?
Tony, great questions. That was actually multiple questions. I’m part of a national project on studying very large churches, and we completed it just before the pandemic kicked in. And so we have a picture of churches, and this is a study that was done in 2000, ’05, 2010, 2015 and 2020. So we can track things. And one of the questions we ask about is mergers. And we compared mergers from 2010 to 2015 versus 2015 to 2020. And it is just like an uphill surge of mergers. So even before the pandemic, mergers were on the rise and then either sadly or in God’s Providence, those churches that are financially troubled going into the pandemic, more of them are going to see mergers as one possible opportunity and a far better opportunity than just closing their doors and giving the building over to become an apartment complex or a restaurant or something. So it was on the rise before the pandemic, and it will continue to accelerate, I believe, in the months and even years as the impact of the pandemic takes its toll.
Last week, we talked a lot about some of the indicators that lead churches need to be considering and some of the next steps that they need to be considering. But I want to talk with you today, Warren, about the opportunity for the following churches, the churches that are a part of the merger, but they’re following the lead. And typically, Jim and I talked about, a healthier church, which is a great opportunity, isn’t it for the following churches, because it’s a way to reinvest the kingdom resources that God’s provided, hopefully through this merger experience, greater kingdom impact as well. But can you give me some signs that churches maybe need to be looking at to determine, should we be considering a merger.
Let me start very personally, Tony. People associate me as perhaps the leading mega-church researcher in the country, but for the last 20 years, my wife and I have been part of a church that’s a hundred people at present. Our heart has been there, our effort in, you know, how can we make an impact in our community? How can we begin a new chapter? Where are we, to use a Tony Morgan term, where are we stuck? And how can, with the resources that we have as a small congregation, how can we address that? And for every size church, but especially the smaller church, the bigger challenge, the biggest challenge is one of vision. Do we really believe that God has a better future? In other words it’s so easy to say yeah, but you know, people have moved. Yeah, but the neighborhood is changing. Yeah, but if we only had the, whatever, the people, the money, the whatever. But do we really believe that with the resources God has given us right here, right now that we could be having a far greater impact than we’re having it present? Could we break through to a whole new threshold? And part of doing so is seeing a model, and that’s why we wrote the book, Better Together, and filled it with stories of churches of all sizes to say so that people will read it and go, well, that’s a lot like our church and look what God did. Wow. You know, maybe we should explore this more. And then there’s the theology, as you say, of, you know, just why do we exist as a church? So, I want to speak to the joining churches, the following churches, and I want to speak as someone who feels a lot of what the fears and the uncertainties that they may be facing, even just to explore the idea of, you know, should we consider a merger?
Yeah. So, and let’s just go there because I think obviously the fears are real and honestly, they’re justified, Warren. But I think we need to talk about some of those concerns we might have about what we may lose, what we may have to give up, in order to merge with another church. So could you kind of talk through what some of those key fears are that churches need to wrestle with as they consider this next step?
Sure. But let me begin with my favorite story in the book. And it illustrates to me the core principle of the fear that we wouldn’t have. And that is that our mission will be lost or continuing. It’s a story of Mark Jobe in Chicago. There was a 100+ year-old, in this case, Lutheran church that had had glory days, incredible impact on the community, but due to a number of things, they were now a handful of aged people who had bumped into Mark Jobe’s New Life Church. And they had developed a relationship and a high trust. And ultimately, with the permission of the Lutheran Bishop, were going to give the facility to New Life. And were having the ceremony. And the ceremony was full of remembrances of all the victories that God had done over the years. And then, in their case, it was the president of the congregation, got up. And he said, now at this moment, I’m supposed to give you the keys to the church building, but I’m not going to do that. And everybody’s like, oh no, you know, it’s change of course. And you know, what’s happening here? So everyone is leaning forward. He says, instead, I’m going to give you this. And he reaches into a little paper bag and he pulls out a little plaque. And he said, “About 20 years ago, a lot of churches, including us developed a mission statement,” and he read it, and like most church mission statements, it was a little bit of the great commandment, love God and love your neighbor, the second commandment love your neighbor, and the great commission of spreading the gospel. And he said, I’m giving you the mission of our church, because I know that you’re going to take it to new heights. And in order to accomplish that mission, you’re going to need a facility and some keys to get into that facility. And then he handed him the keys.
I love that.
So the point is that the core thing that you are giving is your mission, and it’s continuing on. Now, the things you’re fearful about, you know, begin everything from, well, will we still do the men’s pancake breakfast on the third Saturday of the month? Well, you may not. Am I still going to have my pew that I’ve figured out this is the one I like, the air conditioning doesn’t blow on me here? You know, it’s great. Well, maybe you’ll have to fight to get that pew because tears will be in your eyes that these pews that you have prayed for so many years would be full, will be filled again. Or maybe the pews will be gone, and it’ll become chairs or beanbag chairs, or who knows what, but are people being reached for mission. And if that confidence is there, it will override all of the very real fears of what we may have to give up along the way. And just by the way, there are a lot of times a merger goes through, like I’m aware of one that I’ve talked about last week, that they said the building is yours and everything, but we have this memorial garden that is very special to our congregation. And we just want to know that you will honor that if you even end up, you know, growing and expanding and needing to rearrange that our Memorial garden will be sacred to you or will be placed in another place. But that’s where we go to remember our former members, you know, would you make that promise? Absolutely. As part of the merger.
Yeah. I love that you’ve actually alluded to the relationship and the trust that needs to exist for these mergers to work. Jim talked about that as well last week. And we talked about how these conversations get initiated and sometimes the leading church they initiate the conversation, but actually sometimes the joining church initiates this conversation. And well, what encouragement would you give to either pastors of these joining congregations or board members of these joining congregations? How do you encourage them to maybe initiate these types of conversations, Warren?
Well, first we, in this expanded and updated edition, we did a major national study and The Unstuck Group helped us promote it. Thank you again, Tony. And we came out with 28 merger facts, and we sprinkled those across the book. And one of them is that it’s both joining churches and lead churches that initiate the merger. In fact, 46% of the time, it’s the joining church, 34% of the time, it’s the lead church. And 20% of the time it’s an outside party, like a district superintendent or consultant or something like that. So, you know, Tony, you would be part of that 20% with The Unstuck Group. So everybody takes the initiative. Almost always it builds on a relationship. Now one of the most fun things we discovered was that one in five church planters, who end up with a building, end up coming across that building by way of merger. So we both heard stories where, you know, a church planter says, well, can I use your fellowship hall, you know, for our meeting. And it grows and the trust and the relationship develops. And soon there’s a little flip flop where the congregation said, well, there are more of you than of us. Why don’t we go to the fellowship hall? And, you know, you come to into the sanctuary, and then at a certain point say, well, why don’t we just become you? And now that’s one of many processes, but it’s, yes, we’ve heard of people who kind of write mass letters and say, you know, in essence, before you throw in the towel or if you’re having a change of pastors and don’t know what to do next, you know, talk to us, but that talk to us begins a relationship where trust can be established and the fears, to come back to your earlier question, of oh, what are they going to do with our building? How’s this going to work? Can be talked through in a way that you have each other’s backs.
I would imagine, especially for smaller churches, some of the biggest fears revolve around the people-side of this and what happens after a merger, not with the congregation though. I’m sure they have concerns as well, but more specifically what happens with our pastor, what happens with our staff, the people that are on staff at a church, any guidance for churches as they’re processing through this of what’s the conversation that needs to happen around that so that everybody feels comfortable with actually following through with the merger?
Great question again. And that is one of the most oft and early asked questions. What about our pastor? Now sometimes it’s a pastoral transition time, but the majority of times it’s not. And merger fact, this one’s merger fact number 16, most joining churches have a pastor who stays. 79% of the roughly thousand churches in our survey said they had a pastor who stayed. But it’s not in the same role. This person may become the care pastor, the missions pastor, the visitation pastor, the any number of things. And for those that are multisite churches, it may be on a different campus. But that concern of, but what about our pastor can be addressed? And often to the pastor strengths. It’s not just, hey, we’ve got a slot, you know, this is where you need to fill, but where has God wired you? Oh, and one more confirmation of God’s Providence in pulling together this merger is that’s just where we have a need.
That’s right. Yeah. I think many times we look at these types of transitions as, oh, this is going to negatively impact the people involved. But as you just suggested, Warren, one of the beauties of churches that actually experienced growth and continue to reach more people for Jesus is it allows those of us that are in paid ministry staff roles to even get more focused around the giftedness that God put into us. And so I love the picture of a pastor from the joining church, getting to find out, actually I can focus on the things that God’s really wired me up to do well and get repositioned on the larger church staff to actually use those gifts. So Jim talked last week, I mean, many times, many times, you probably have the data on this to support this, these mergers end up being very successful. But I have to think that there are probably some key factors that drive whether or not the merger is going to be successful in the long run. So I don’t want you to give away the entire book, but maybe one or two nuggets that would be helpful for us to consider if we really want to have a successful church merger going forward.
I do want to give away the whole book. The whole reason we wrote it was just to pack it with all the kinds of things that you and I are talking about. For every question I could say, and if you want more on that, there’s a chapter. If you want to learn more about the financial side, there’s a chapter on that. I mean, in essence, the questions that we’ve been asked over the years and especially Jim in his consulting, and I understand that’s continuing now through The Unstuck Group, on mergers, you know, the stuff that he heard the most we tried to put in the book. So let’s milk the book for all it’s worth. That said, we asked the question, would you do this merger again? Overall on our survey, 82% said, we would do this merger again. You say, yeah, but that’s probably a majority of lead churches. No, we asked, well, what about the joining church? 75% of them said they would do it again. And then we said, well, what about newer churches, older churches? You know, when it was more diverse in the kinds of joining. And we broke that down, and that’s merger fact number eight. But, all that to say overall, the scenario of years ago that mergers were always just an extension of death. You know, it was two churches that were both struggling, joining hands and mistakenly thinking that that would be all they need, but in reality, there was no culture change. And so they just joined forces for their eventual demise. This is a whole different strategy of a lead church and a joining church. And the success rate is just far, far higher.
What are the keys to that success, Warren?
It comes from two sides. You have two different agendas. Well, let me back up, the overall agenda has to be bigger than either church. It has to be what about God’s kingdom? And there are actually four questions that the most repeated thing in the book are these four questions for both to ask. Would our congregation be better by merging than remaining separate? Could we accomplish more together than we could separately? Would our community be better served if we joined together? And even beyond the community, could the kingdom of God be further enlarged by joining together? So part of the concern is that set of motives. And if that set of motives is the focus, then the secondary issues that each has to deal with are navigable. And in fact, in case you can’t think of, well, I don’t know what would concern us. We made a list of the 25 issues to work through as one of the appendices in the book to help say, you know, it’s going to blow up if you haven’t compared theological notes, cultural notes, and other concerns about the church’s role in the community and with each other.
Warren, offline Jim and I, last week talked about some of the unique challenges, even compared to other areas of strategy and health around churches. A lot of times, I mean, churches really do have the resources within themselves to engage, change and take a step forward. What’s your perspective when it comes to this merger process? Do you think churches within themselves can kind of figure out how to take these steps together? Or is this one of those cases where it may actually be wise to find somebody who’s been through this before that can help the churches take these next steps?
Wisdom could be defined as experience learned under God’s guidance over time. And for most of us, experience means scars. So why not learn from what others have done, whether it’s a book or consultant to say, oh, I see why that went south. You know, initially I thought that’d be a really good idea, but now that I see what can happen, I see the faultiness in my thinking. So why not save yourself the hassle of learning from the example of others and the questions that have been most asked by others. And that will help give you clarity. Now, even during the pandemic, people haven’t known where it’s gonna come out, but those who had clarity in saying, all right, here are our values, our guardrails, you know, our path for right now, at least we all understand it together. Those were the churches that made it the best through the pandemic. And likewise, you know, if you come equipped, from a book like Better Together or consultant group like The Unstuck Group, to say, well, let us walk you through it, that reduces fear. And it reduces pain and it reduces loss because the real win, when we talked about in the book, you know, what does success look like three years later, five years later? One of those is the joining church. How many people made the shift, stayed with the shift, are now not talking you and me, but are talking us and are able to feel like, well, I just, you know, it’s harder and harder to tell who was part of the joining group and who was part of the lead group. When that happens, that’s success and you want to know, okay, how do you get to that?
Well, Warren, no doubt. I referred to it earlier in our conversation. I think what we’ve experienced in recent months is just going to accelerate the number of churches that are considering mergers and your book, your resource with Jim Tomberlin, Better Together, it’s going to be so helpful to many, many churches in the future, but any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. We’ve mentioned the book a lot, and it’s because I believe in it, but I’m really not on this call to sell books. I’m here to sell finding God’s leading for your church for the next step. Maybe mergers are it. And if so, this book conversation can help. But maybe not. And the key is to believe that God has a greater harvest ahead for your church, that your best days, if Jesus doesn’t come back, your best days are yet ahead. And to believe that the way you’re connecting with your surrounding community and your point of influence today could be seriously ramped up ahead. And what is the pathway to get there? And so really my encouragement is discern God’s leading, seek him in prayer, in guidance counselors, and if the process of merging could help, great. But if not, don’t do it.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, we’d love your help in getting the content out farther. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. To learn more about how The Unstuck Group is helping churches navigate the merger process, just go to theunstuck.com/mergers. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.