Book Review: Better Together, by Jim Tomberlin & Warren Bird
Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird. Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. Josses-Bass, 2012. 272 pps. $26.95.
Among the 300,000 Protestant churches in North America, approximately 80 percent have reportedly plateaued or are in a state of decline. Additionally, of those congregations that are growing most rapidly, a number of them are in need of additional space. It is for these reasons and more that Jim Tomberlin (Founder and Senior Strategist for MultiSite Solutions) and Warren Bird (Director of Research for Leadership Network) argue a church merger can become a “win-win” situation for churches who believe “we can do better together than separate” (xvi).
In Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work—what is the first book to focus exclusively on church mergers—Tomberlin and Bird offer a practical, helpful guide that makes the idea of a church merger seem not only doable, but a creditable and strategic way to advance the gospel. Tomberlin and Bird have written together on other topics such as multisite churches, and here they use their experience and research to tackle the increasing phenomenon of church mergers—an undertaking in which 33 percent of Tomberlin’s church-consulting clients are currently involved. Thus, the authors rightly recognize that regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the essence of the movement itself, the discussion and implementation of church mergers appears to be here, and here to stay. This is especially the case as increasing percentages of churches indicate they have already discussed the possibility of merging at some point in the future.
A church merger is generally defined as the following: “Two or more churches becoming one – the combining, integrating, and unifying of people, structures, systems, and resources to achieve a common purpose: doing life and ministry together as a vibrant, healthy expression of Christ’s body, the church” (3). Tomberlin and Bird indicate two roles in every church merger. First, there must be a “lead church.” The lead church serves as the church that will be the “dominant or primary culture” that will permeate through the merger (5). At the same time, a merger also requires a “joining church”—a church that will be “lifted or otherwise shaped to become more like the lead church” (5).
The underlying conviction behind this work is the understanding that the church’s mission can be fulfilled “better together than separately” (3). Additionally, the primary motivator for the authors’ endorsement of church mergers seems to be rooted in the desire to see the mission of the church strategically expanded. In fact, the authors are clear that what they are advocating for is not the merging of two dying churches as a last-resort effort to survive. Instead, their conclusion is that the healthiest motivation behind a church merger is a strong, vibrant existing church seeking to partner with another church for the sake of expanding the gospel. In the words of Tomberlin and Bird, “Mergers today succeed largely because of a united, compelling vision that lifts a church that’s stuck or on a downward slope into a new pattern of life and growth” (xvi).
I found my reading of Better Together to be helpful for three primary reasons. First, the book’s primary motivation is rooted in the mission of expanding the kingdom of Christ. The general heartbeat of the authors is very clear: they are fully persuaded that more people will come to faith in Christ as a result of churches working together.
Similarly, Tomberlin and Bird are deeply committed to the biblical principle of cooperation among churches for the sake of the Great Commission. They challenge churches to think outside the box of traditional denominational cooperation, though the book in no way frowns upon this kind of partnership. In the end, Tomberlin and Bird do an excellent job of helping individual churches think strategically about other churches in their area with whom they might be able to consolidate in an effort to expand gospel ministry.
Third, this book succeeds because it’s an easy-to-read, practical overview of the world of church mergers. Assuming his theological and ecclesiological ducks were in a row, if a pastor or church wanted to know “where to start” in the process of a merger, this book will in many ways take his hand and walk him through the process. From the exposure of common pitfalls in mergers, to the financial and legal components, to personnel dynamics, to a checklist of steps to take in moving forward in a merger, Better Together turns over most rocks that one would need to consider.
POTENTIAL AREAS FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION
If one is looking for a thorough, critical, ecclesiologically-driven biblical defense either for or against church mergers, this probably isn’t your book. However, in all fairness, this was not Tomberlin and Bird’s intent—and I’m not suggesting it should have been. Their writing instead operated under the assumption that church mergers are a tactical way for churches to partner together in a way that’s consistent with principles (though not explicit texts) that we see in the New Testament.
One potential negative tendency in Better Together is its inclination to overly depend upon “dynamic, growing, vibrant churches,” perhaps while unintentionally neglecting to see the strength, health, and mergerability (my word) of “smaller, less dynamic” churches. For example, consider this statement: “Nearly a quarter million churches across the country have room in their facilities to fill with vibrant ministry. Meanwhile, there are a few thousand (emphasis mine) dynamic, growing, vibrant churches in desperate need of facilities” (43). Intentional or not, the reader may be left with the impression that unless their church is among the two thousand “dynamic and growing” churches, such a church has no real place in the merger discussion.
This is unfortunate because it doesn’t seem like Tomberlin and Bird can envision a scenario in which two smaller, “less dynamic” churches might make good candidates for a merge. So, in their view, unless there is at least one of these “dynamic” churches in the equation (of which they say they are roughly 2,000), a merge would not be consideration. I disagree. There are surely churches that could be in a good position to be the “lead church” in a merger situation, even if it was smaller and less dynamic; in other words, health and “mergerability” shouldn’t merely be measured by size). And though I’m not persuaded this is the authors’ intended conviction, to some it may appear as though the megachurch outweighs the “ordinary” church in terms of its suitability for kingdom advancement, even when the “ordinary” church may be healthy and biblical.
In summary, if you’re considering a church merger, I commend this book to you. You may or may not agree with everything you read, but you will be served well by two men who are experts in the field. They share multiple examples and stories of other churches that have merged—hopefully one of these will relate to your story.
At the end of the day, perhaps one of the things that should be celebrated the most in this book is that Tomberlin and Bird are not content to allow dying churches to continue to die. Better Together stirs up the recognition for the desperate need of revitalization in countless churches across the nation. Furthermore, it suggests that at least in some cases where a church is ready to close its doors, God may not be ready to close the doors—but rather to open a door in a new location, with new friends.