In 2006, two of the churches I was serving at the time merged to form a new congregation, Hope UMC (Alexandria, PA). It was quite an intense experience. I was appointed to Centre Grove in 2008 so I only led the new congregation for two years beyond the merger, but ever since then, I’ve wondered what lessons I needed to learn from the experience. While I’ve thought about it from time to time, I’ve never really had a strong sense that I learned what I needed or wanted to … until a few months ago.
A few months ago, we were in Altoona on our day off. At the mall, I was pushing a napping-Sarah in the stroller while Joleen and Ethan shopped in a children’s clothing store. For some reason, I thought about the merger, and a couple of lessons suddenly struck me. I’ll get to them in a moment, but first, a little background.
In 2002, I was appointed to serve the Petersburg Charge, made up of three churches, Alexandria, Barree, and Crever Memorial (or Petersburg). Several months earlier, the churches had voted against merging (by all reports, it wasn’t a tumultuous ordeal). But during my first two years there, the idea of uniting came up over and over again in meetings and in conversations.
Finally, in 2004, a group of people from Alexandria proposed that the three churches worship together for the summer months at Petersburg. At a joint council meeting, the three churches voted to worship together for the summer.
Toward the end of the summer, it was time to decide the next step. We began working with a church consultant, who guided us throughout the journey. Council members of the churches voted to continue worshiping together for the last four months of 2004 at Barree. A second vote was taken immediately to continue the rotation and worship at all three churches in 2005, four months at each church (bringing the total time of worshiping together to 19 months).
We established an exploratory committee; I called them “Scouts.” Our key biblical text was the story of Moses sending scouts to survey the promised land. We chose three “scouts” from each church and we met together once a month.
Toward the end of the journey, the leadership group finally drafted a proposal to formally merge/unite the three churches to form a new congregation. When the vote was taken in February 2006, two churches voted in favor of the merger while one voted against it.
Because of the way the proposal was written (i.e., merge all three churches), it was determined that a second vote should be taken in the two churches that voted in favor of uniting. When that vote was taken a month or so later, Alexandria and Barree chose, overwhelmingly, to unite and form a new congregation.
While the two-year journey was challenging, there was a strong sense, at the time, that we had followed God’s leading. In July 2006, we celebrated the formation of Hope UMC.
Well, as with anything, there are things we did well and things we could’ve done better. Here’s what I think, a few years removed …
Things We Did Well
I think the Scouts did a good job. There were things we could’ve done better, but overall, we did a good job of seeking God’s will, focusing on mission, and leading the congregations in the discernment of God’s will.
I wrote emails to the Scouts regularly. My role was to keep the leaders on mission, not to unite churches (as we said then, it would be a decision they’d have to live with much longer than I would!). I had a strong sense of God’s presence and guidance throughout the journey that I’ll never forget.
I also tried to keep the congregations on mission through weekly preaching. We didn’t talk about it all the time, but there were stretches where we’d focus on God’s mission through various sermon series.
Things We Could’ve Done Better
I think we needed better communication between the Scouts and others in the congregations. That was supposed to happen informally, but we should’ve been more intentional.
I think we took too long to come to a decision. While no one wanted to rush to a decision, we let the process drag out too long. The Scouts had a very difficult time making the final decision to propose a merger, mostly because they didn’t want to hurt other church members. On the one hand, we wanted to give plenty of time for God to work in people’s hearts, but on the other hand, the longer it dragged on, the more exhausted people got.
Toward the beginning of the process, we should have established a new mission/ministry that people from all three churches could have united around during the discernment process. Because the process was so consuming, very little ministry seem to take place during the process.
Lessons from a Church Merger
Now, back to my day at the mall. Nothing earth-shattering, but if I had to do over, I’d make it a little harder for them to merge. Specifically …
I’d ask “Why?” (over and over). Why do you want to unite? If the response was right (it’s about mission, not survival!) …
I’d ask, “Are you sure”? Are you sure this is what you want to do? Are you sure this is the best way to live out God’s mission? Are you sure this is what God is calling you to do?
For the Scouts, it was primarily about the mission, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for everyone. I think merging was the right thing to do, and while asking these questions might not have changed the vote (I hope not), it might have helped some people be more clear about what they were doing and to be more committed to the outcome.
The bottom line: churches should only merge for missional reasons. Survival may be a factor, perhaps even a precipitating factor, but it can’t be the primary motivating factor. It has to be about the mission. Also, there has to be a strong core group who take ownership of the mission and to be strongly committed to the vision!
The larger leadership lesson is that leaders must help people make the right decisions for the right reasons. Leaders must be missional and they must work to shape missional cultures in the churches they lead!