What I Learned from Two Failed Church Mergers
Act One: A Nearby SBC Baptist Church
Sometimes I take walks with people instead of meeting them for lunch or at the office. I guess Steve Jobs biography inspired me. He closed some of Apple’s biggest deals walking barefoot around Palo Alto with billionaire executives.
One day, I was walking with one of our elders, talking and praying about finding a church building. At this point, our church was about four years old and meeting in a middle school cafeteria with no windows, but a few “Got Milk” posters with Miley Cyrus.
As we were walking, it suddenly struck us that there was a big, almost-empty Baptist church nearby. So we walked over and knocked on the door. We were greeted by a group of older gentlemen playing dominoes in the fellowship hall. These men had been members of the church for decades. A few years prior, the church had lost its pastor to moral failure, and they were down to about 20 people in attendance on Sunday mornings. This once-thriving congregation had a building that sat 500 and dozens of unused classrooms.
Over time, a conversation about merging our two congregations began. After a few meetings with their leadership team, they were ready to bring the merge to a congregational vote. We were naive and ecstatic. On the evening of the vote, I received a call from the chairman of the deacons informing me that the congregation had voted the merger down. I was caught off-guard.
“There must be something we can do,” I said.
“Nope,” he replied, “the congregation has voted, and that’s it.”
“But I thought that everyone was on board,” I said.
“Well, our membership roster has hundreds of people that don't attend the church. They showed up for the business meeting and voted the idea down. End of story,” he said.
Lessons Learned from Failure #1
1. Go slowly and build relationships. The time between the first conversations and the vote was only about 6 weeks. It simply wasn't long enough for the churches to get to know each other. In my estimation, it takes 3 to 12 months to learn enough about a church to make a decision to merge.
2. Ask questions about the membership and polity. Many of the questions that you think you should ask, you’ll likely already ask—determining if they’re a congregational church, asking about the elders’ authority, etc. But you should also ask more detailed questions about the expectations of membership. Ask about what they mean by congregationalism. Ask about what typical members’ meetings look like. Ask how many people attend members’ meetings.
3. Lead and pastor before you’re the leader and pastor. This church was being held hostage by a contingency of people that never attended the church. These people were not in covenant relationship with the congregation. They were people who viewed the church as some kind of legacy, or social club, or vestige of the past that was theirs to preserve. The church needed us to lead them through the process of some level of meaningful membership prior to bringing the merger to a vote.
4. Ask for outside help. It’s hard and awkward to have blunt and loving conversations. We were aware of some of the un-health in the church, but didn't feel it was really our place to address the issues. At least, it seemed too self-serving for us to address the things we saw, so we decided to let the issues go and planned to address them after the merge. This obviously never happened.
Act Two: A Nearby BGC Baptist Church
I was sitting in my study when my phone rang; it was another elder in the church. He informed me that he was having coffee with a pastor from a nearby church and that I should join him because I’d want to hear what he had to say.
When I arrived, this pastor said he’d like us to consider merging as one local church. They were a historic congregation that owned a facility on one of the busiest streets on this side of town. They had experienced decline, but were still a faithful congregation. Their pastor was a good Bible teacher and was looking for help to see his congregation thrive again.
This time around, we decided to go slower than we did the first time—and each congregation’s elders asked a third-party mediator to advise and mentor throughout the process.
I also received advice from some pastors that were part of an aggressive church planting network. They advised me that we needed to “have a funeral” for the other church, and that it “needed to die,” and that “if that pastor has failed, he needs to get out of the way.”
Unfortunately, my own arrogance led to the breakdown of the conversation. The members at the other church wanted to ensure that their pastor had a paid position for a season but I made it clear this was not an option. This effectually ended the conversation. The two churches never took the matter to a vote.
Lessons Learned from Failure #2:
1. Look to reestablish a gospel witness in the neighborhood. Some of the advice I was receiving was to see the church die and have a funeral. A better approach would have been to see a gospel witness restored to the area. One of the ways you may end up serving another local church is by actually not merging, but instead seeing them enter into a new season of fruitfulness. Thankfully, this church was able to do this on their own. The pastor stayed, the congregation remained intact, and the church began to thrive again. Even though things ended a little abruptly in our merger talks, they were able to glean a lot from watching us for a season and from the coaching of the outside counsel we each were receiving.
2. Be gracious and considerate to the current leadership team. This church had men, and particularly one man (the pastor), who were faithfully seeking to shepherd their church to new pastures of health. It was an incredible act of humility for him even to approach us and ask us to consider merging with them. We should have honored these brothers for their faithfulness, commended them for their leadership, and encouraged the church to respect their authority. If these men are qualified, be open to their leadership as elders after the merger.
3. Initial excitement, questionable impressions, and, finally, relationships. There is always an initial excitement about a new opportunity, but this is just the honeymoon phase. Then come questionable impressions about motives, actions, behaviors, etc. This is a tough stage to get past—this second time, we didn’t make it. We were still too much about business and “getting the job done.” I wish we’d realized the end game is real relationships. I wish we’d spent more time working to break down false impressions. Just like most of the significant things in our lives, there are no shortcuts in church mergers; they require time, patience, and faithfulness.
Currently, we’re approaching a third potential merger opportunity. Hopefully, I won’t need to write “More Lessons Learned” next year.