Church Mergers and Tolerable Irregularities
About a week ago I was meeting with a member who desired to be married. I asked him about his “list,” that spreadsheet of “non-negotiables” he values in any woman who would be his spouse. And without missing a beat he somewhat playfully retorted, “I really only have one. I don’t do ugly.” In his relational “triage,” beauty was the non-negotiable.
Leaving aside the wisdom (or utter lack thereof!) of his response, when it comes to whether or not a man should pastor a church, we have to do our own triage. We have our own lists of those things that are non-negotiables, those matters that are strong-preferences, and those that are truly indifferent. These issues arise inevitably and immediately as one church considers merging with another, though they also have more general relevance for men considering a specific pastorate.
But how do we decide which matters fall into which buckets? Granting at least some level of theological and methodological difference, when should two churches merge despite the differences—and when should they stay separate precisely because of the differences?
First, do your homework.
You can’t make quality judgments without quality information. Just because a church is willing to hire you, doesn’t mean you should be willing to pastor her. During the housing bubble, NINJA (no income, no job, no asset) loans were all the rage. Yet they came with a catch. The rate often started low. It looked immediately attractive. But then over time it starts to kick-up, and you pay for it on the back-end. Sadly, many homeowners who were suckered into such loans were left bankrupt and on the street.
Similarly, a pastor shouldn’t assume. He must do his homework. He ought to look at a church’s governing documents such as their statement of faith, church covenant (if they have one), and constitution or by-laws. He ought to ask for a detailed copy of the church’s budget. For just as a personal budget reflects one’s priorities, so a church’s budget reflects the spiritual priorities of that body and will tell you much about what she values. He ought to meet with leaders, learn about the church’s history, gather information about its strengths and weaknesses. While churches don’t tend to be intentionally deceptive, what immediately looks attractive could be hiding something that will leave you on the street a few years later.
Second, know yourself.
What risks can you reasonably take? Younger men who are single can likely take more risks than married men with four kids entering high school. For though the church only calls the man, that ministry will affect the whole family. And transitions, especially on children, tend to become harder the older they are. If you’re married, know your wife and her season of life. What can she reasonably bear? Part of living with your wife “in an understanding way” ought to consider her with the utmost care.
Know yourself, and know your own strengths and weaknesses and how they’ll play to the church’s culture. Similarly, are you doing it alone, or will you have a “wingman” beside you? Every Maverick ought to have a Goose. It’s different if you have someone who has your back, complements your weaknesses, and loves you enough to press in and challenge you, and yet will support and encourage you as you fight the good fight together. The more difficult the church’s situation, the more critical it is that you’re not going at it alone.
Third, keep the main things in view.
With respect to a church, the pulpit is like the rudder of a ship. Without it, you can’t change direction, and you shouldn’t even try. In other words, I don’t recommend trying to do any kind of significant “reform” or “revitalization” work unless you have the pulpit to help set the course of the church’s agenda along the Bible’s agenda. If you have the pulpit, there’s probably very little, if anything, that you must immediately change.
Beyond the pulpit, it’s necessary to be in agreement on those things essential for salvation. Did Jesus bodily rise from the grave? Must one repent and believe in order to be saved? This is part of what marks a church as a “true” church over a “false” church. If there’s not clear agreement on such evangelical basics, then there’s little common foundation to build upon.
This doesn’t mean you’re certain every member will be saved (only the Lord knows the heart), or even clear on those beliefs essential for salvation. Some churches are poorly taught, and thus are comprised of a plethora of disparate beliefs and practices. Yet if the governing documents are clear in their evangelical conviction, and there’s at least some support within the congregation for those beliefs, you have a foundation to begin your work. But if the church, either through their governing documents and/or explicit teaching and history clearly disagrees with the basics of evangelical conviction, it’s likely not kind to them (or you!), and it will be unnecessary to pick a fight. Related to this would be the church’s conviction about the Bible.
While it’s necessary to agree on those things essential for salvation, it’s also wise to be in agreement on those secondary matters essential for gathering together. This is where you have a true church, but it may be irregular in some of its practices. This is where items like baptism and ecclesiology come into play. If you think you can get a baby wet but can’t baptize it, it’s not wise to take a church that will require you to violate your conscience. Nor is it likely wise or kind of you to come in quietly, but with the clear intent to change their practice. If they established themselves as a paedobaptist church, and practice paedobaptism because that’s what they clearly believe the Bible to teach, it’s foolish if not cruel to take the pastorate with the intent to make them something else. Simply find another credobaptist church, and let them continue in their ministry with a paedobaptist pastor.
When it comes to polity, like baptism, every church practices one form or another, if they don’t realize it. Now churches don’t tend to adhere to their polity with the same rigor as baptism, so perhaps there’s more wiggle-room here. As a congregationalist, I would be deeply hesitant to take a church where the authority is understood to be in a bishop from another city or state, or a presbytery from another collection of churches. Churches where the authority lies finally within the congregation’s elders is certainly better, for at least the authority lies with members of that local church. And in practice, many elder-rule churches meaningfully incorporate the congregation into their decision-making. So while they may be irregular in their understanding of polity, in practice it may look more regular.
Two other convictions may similarly fall into this category. The first would be inerrancy. For while a belief in inerrancy isn’t necessary for salvation, pastors will preach as if the Bible is true or not. And if the congregation isn’t willing to recognize the authority of the Scriptures in faith and practice, it will make your job difficult if not impossible. A second would be the ability of the congregation to congregate together. If you believe a church is a gathered congregation, than having a facility that can seat everyone will be critically important.
There are many other matters one can simply locate on the spectrum of preference to indifference. Where is the church located (metropolitan/suburban/rural, Northeast or Southwest)? Many treat this as a first-order issue (think “I don’t do ugly”). But in my mind, while it’s not unimportant, it should be well down the list. Coming from Northern California, I never imagined landing in Arkansas. But the church I now have the privilege of pastoring shared my convictions on those things essential for salvation and essential for gathering together. And that has made my job an incredible joy.
Here are other important questions: do they have elders? Deacons? Do they have a building? Is there a lot of debt? What’s the church’s size? Obviously some of those matters are more important than others. But none of those matters alone would necessarily steer me away from serving a church.
So, as you think about pastoring a church, or advising others on the pastorate of a church, consider carefully your own triage. And make sure you’re reasoning with a biblical lens, and not simply a worldly one.