How to Merge Two Church Cultures

Article
06.20.2017

A church merger brings together two groups that will inevitably have two different and pronounced cultures. The goal and the challenge in merging churches is to lead these two cultures to become one. In revitalization work, you’re seeking to change a culture. In church planting, you’re looking to build one. In a church merger, you must understand the two existing cultures and lead them to become one.

Here are five ways to do that.

1. Clarify the expectations before you merge.

As in any relationship, before heading into a merger it’s important to communicate the expectations that each group has. In the merger I recently led, one way we did this was by writing an “expectation document” that detailed what each group held important.

Here are the topics we covered:

What would a worship service look like?

Do existing leaders in both groups expect positions when we merge?

How would we approach existing church staff?

How would the weekly schedule change?

Through this conversation, we learned that the church we were merging with was concerned about their “home bound” members. This allowed us to put together a plan, before we merged, of how we’d minister to them together as one church. Rather than expecting me as the pastor to make every visit, we assigned members to take care of this important ministry.

Taking the time to discuss our expectations and document our agreements on the front end allowed us to purchase future peace.

2. Teach the Bible as your motivation and explanation for change.

The church we merged with didn’t have elders and had largely accepted the committee-driven approach to ministry. Our church, however, was committed to an elder-led and congregational approach. In our preliminary discussions, each group committed to studying the biblical offices of elder and deacon (1 Tim. 3:1–13). Gratefully, this study led to an agreement on our church constitution that proposed an elder-led and congregational church government.

While the leadership of both churches agreed on a number of issues, we needed to take the time to teach members of both groups. So we decided to have everyone go through a “Membership Class” together even before we merged. This gave us time to teach through both “what” would change and “why.”

In addition to teaching through the Statement of Faith and Church Covenant, we spent a lot of time teaching through topics we knew people needed more exposure to. Specifically, we focused on church government and elders—where we see them in the Bible, what they are, what they aren’t, how this looks in a Baptist church, how they’ll be nominated and elected, etc. This allowed us to ground our reason for change in the Bible.

3. Don’t shock the system—and don’t be shy.

When two churches merge, there’s an expectation things will “reset.” This expectation allows for certain changes early on. While it’s certainly true that some leaders will struggle to be too ambitious and bring about too much change, others may be too reserved. Church mergers involve making decisions ahead of time that will help establish a new culture. Think carefully about changes that can be agreed upon that can set up future success.

The biggest change I went for before the merge was to the move to an elder-led church. While most revitalization work would move slowly toward this, our merger provided the opportunity to set this up quickly. Thankfully, this transition set our church up for fruitfulness. In fact, there’s no question in my mind that things wouldn’t have gone nearly as well if we’d held off. Lead with gentleness and patience—but also lead with shrewdness, discerning the changes that you can move quickly on.

4. There is no “us” and “them.”

The night we officially merged we had all of our members come together for a “Covenant Service” where we signed the Statement of Faith and Church Covenant. After taking time to sing and listen to a message, we took the Lord’s Supper. At this moment, our two groups became one. From that point forward, we communicated that we never wanted there to be an “us” and “them.” A new group had been formed, and we were now one church.

The first commitment listed in our Church Covenant quotes from Ephesians 4:3, that we’d be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Our merger brought a unity that each member is called to guard and preserve. While there would certainly be a period of transition and some awkwardness in adjusting, we needed to be guided by Scripture in maintaining the unity of one body.

5. Commit to showing honor to one another.

In most mergers, one church is declining and another is growing. That was true in our case. The group that came from the declining church had experienced some sadness; their ministry had declined over the years. However, the group from our growing church came in with momentum and joy. Some had been laboring in the same church for decades (as many as 60 years!), while others had been meeting only for a matter of months. One group was older, the other was younger.

In the midst of all this, the leadership and members needed to commit to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 14:10).

Merging two churches requires a commitment to honor one another by speaking well of one another, by building relationships across the barriers of culture and age, and by broadly showing brotherly affection in the church.

In our situation, I wanted to be careful to honor the history of the church. So, when we marked our one-year replant anniversary, three months later we threw a big celebration for the 80th anniversary of the church that existed before we merged. We celebrated the present and honored the past because together we had a new future. “Their” history had become “our” history because two had become one.