When you drive your car routinely to a familiar place, you hardly notice the road signs. You don’t need them to regulate, warn or guide you to your destination. You take them for granted. However, when you are traveling somewhere new and unfamiliar, suddenly, traffic signs become your best friend. Road signs help to orient you, warn you of dangers ahead and guide you to your destination.
Already on the rise before the pandemic, church mergers are increasing across the church landscape as a viable option for both strong as well as stuck and struggling churches. In the new and unfamiliar world of church mergers, are there any “road signs” to guide church leaders on the merger journey?
In my coaching of numerous churches on the merger journey, here are some “road signs” I have found helpful along the way to guide church leaders in making the best decision about merging with another church:
What’s Our Mission?
The Head of the Church gave us the Mission when He told his followers 2,000 years ago to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The mission of the Church—and every local expression of the Church—is making disciples of Jesus.
Unfortunately, many stuck or struggling churches have confused the mission of the church with their current model of doing church. What was once a successful model in the past can become ineffective or irrelevant in the present, yet it becomes viewed as a sacred model to be preserved. Sadly, the church your grandparents loved is not likely going to be the church your grandchildren will love.Unfortunately, many stuck or struggling churches have confused the mission of the church with their current model of doing church. Click To Tweet
Sometimes church people think the mission is to perpetuate the current church culture, maintain a church legacy, save a church building, preserve a church’s name, or just “hang on.” None of these are the things Jesus had in mind when He said “I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mark 16:18).
Prevailing churches help people find and follow Jesus. Church leaders need to remember that we are not in the “church-building” business but in the “disciple-making” business. We are not called to save buildings, but to save souls. Church legacies and church names can become monuments that get in the way of the mission. Methods and models can and must change, but the Mission never changes. Models change, culture shifts, building styles morph, legacy is fragile and church identities evolve—but the Mission of the Church remains the same: make disciples! As Andy Stanley likes to say, “We date the model, but marry the Mission.”Church legacies and church names can become monuments that get in the way of the mission. Methods and models can and must change, but the Mission never changes. Click To Tweet
None of the buildings the first-century Christians congregated in are still standing today, neither is the way they did church still practiced the same way today, but the impact of those churches continues to the present. Now that’s a legacy worth preserving!
What’s Our Reality?
There has been a major shift in American culture in the 21st-century from the 20th-century. We are now living in the post-Christian era of America. The cultural value and pressure of attending church has faded significantly across the American landscape. Unfortunately, most churches still operate like 20th-century churches when the overall American culture used to value going to church. As the culture shifted, most churches stayed the same. Church attendance began to decline and church mergers began to increase even before the pandemic.
Any conversation about merging with another church needs to begin by honestly assessing the status of your church. From our research at The Unstuck Group, we’ve found that the 320,000 Protestant churches across America fall into one of three broad categories: strong (15%), stuck (60%) or struggling (25%).
All three categories of churches are good candidates for a merger but for different reasons:
- Struggling churches can be reborn through a merger.
- Stuck churches can be revitalized through a merger
- Strong churches can reproduce through a merger.
The best merger outcomes are not based on a partnership of equals. Church mergers that have good outcomes are like a dance where one leads and the other follows. It’s very important that both churches understand upfront who is the lead church and who is the joining church. And the lead church is not necessarily the biggest, or wealthiest, but it is the healthiest.
To get a better understanding of your church’s health, take the free Unstuck Church Assessment and receive a comprehensive report to better understand where your church sits today.
Hope is not a strategy, but honestly facing reality is the first step towards a solution that can lead to hope. So, what is your church’s reality: Is your church strong and growing? Is it stable but stuck? Or, is your church struggling to sustain and survive?
What’s the Win?
It’s better to start the merger journey with the destination in mind—the wins, gains and benefits in view—then to address the challenges and sacrifices of getting there.
When stuck or struggling churches are considering a merger, the tendency is to focus on what they are sacrificing, giving up, losing or changing. And to be fair, the adopted or joining church makes the most sacrifice and change in a merger. The joining church typically gives up its church name, dissolves its church board, hands over its church building, ceases to exist legally and accepts a lot of changes in its ministry style. Even when they know the merger is the best thing to do, the members of the joining church experience legitimate grief over the absorption of their church into another.
So what does the joining church get in return for these sacrifices? They get life, a second chance, a rebirth or revitalization, and a new chapter to their story. Decline and desperation is replaced with hope and growth. They get a new pastor who brings a whole congregation to the party. They get to choose their destiny instead of having it chosen for them by circumstances beyond their control.
So what are the wins for church mergers?
- Struggling churches win. Stuck and struggling churches get a fresh start in living out God’s purpose for their church.
- Strong churches win. Strong churches gain momentum as stuck or struggling churches join them in a new chapter of life.
- The Body of Christ wins. The corporate witness of the local church is stronger and better able to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
- Local communities win. Local communities are better served by strong vibrant congregations.
- The kingdom of God wins. The kingdom of God advances and grows locally, regionally and globally through vital, life-giving congregations.
Everybody wins in successful mergers!
Whose Church Is It?
The most common roadblock to a church merger occurs when a lead pastor, senior lay leaders, or influential members of the joining church are unable or unwilling to relinquish control of “their” church. Control issues are usually the most difficult issues to overcome in merger deliberations. Sadly, most struggling churches would rather hold onto the steering wheel of their sinking ship than turn the helm over to a more effective leader who brings different strengths and experiences in how to sail the ship. They would rather die than change—and many will do just that.
We tend to forget that this is “His” church, not our church.
For those dedicated church leaders or board members who have the awesome responsibility of overseeing their church, one day we will stand before the real Owner of the Church and give an account of our stewardship as church leaders. On that day, God’s opinion is the only one that really matters.
It won’t be about worship preferences, denomination affiliations, theological nuances, organizational charts, or facility ownership. The most important question will be, “Did we make the best decisions for the sake of God’s church and the advancement of his kingdom?”
As your team moves down the church merger highway, to paraphrase the Irish blessing. . .
“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand. . .
And may you be Better Together.”