Why Mergers in the Past Often Failed
How are today’s mergers different from those of yesteryear? They represent two completely different paradigms that we might call “new math” and “old math” of church mergers. Old math mergers were more survival driven, whereas today’s mergers are more mission driven. Also old math mergers worked toward equality between the merging churches where today’s focus is on aligning with the stronger church culture.
First, the old math of mergers was too often 1 + 1 = 1. The combination rarely worked to produce a vibrant, healthy, larger, or growing church. As veteran church consultant Lyle Schaller explains, the newly merged church typically shrinks to the approximate size of the larger of the two former congregations because no one has made any effort to alter the congregational culture. Members were more comfortable in the smaller size environment they knew before the merger, so they keep dropping away until the culture goes back to what it was. As a result, the typical merger of two smaller no-growth churches “has had a spectacularly poor record in attracting new members,” he says. This situation commonly occurs, according to Schaller, even when there’s a good cultural ﬁ t between the congregations.
One reason for failure is that the old approach often embodied little more than a goal to survive. It was seen as a way of preserving as much as possible. It was not portrayed as a vehicle that could bring signiﬁcant change. These “intensive care” mergers of two struggling churches were a last-gasp effort to stay alive but often ended with both going down together, such as in the equation 1 + 1 = 0.
At best, merging was wrongly perceived as a way of making the church work better. Two struggling churches (or sometimes three) would take what they thought were the best elements from each of them and combine them into a merged congregation.
By contrast, today’s successful mergers tend to be missional in focus with one church embracing the vision and strategy of the other church. The new math has a synergistic effect. The merge represents far more than an action taken to survive. Such churches are motivated by a strong, future-oriented sense of mission and expanded outreach rather than by a desire for institutional survival. They are often preceded by three exploratory questions to determine a merger possibility:
• Could we accomplish more together than separately?
• Would our community be better served?
• Could the kingdom of God be further extended by our merger?
Those questions represent the heart of a mission-driven merger. Though many of today’s merger conversations begin when a struggling congregation acknowledges its precarious circumstance, it is not only motivated by survival but by the dream of a renewed or greater mission.
What can make the difference needed for success? Schaller says, “The critical component is a minister who is an effective transformational leader and possesses the skills, including the essential people skills, necessary to create a new worshipping community with a new congregational culture, a strong future orientation, a new set of operational goals, a new sense of unity and a new approach to winning a new generation of members.”
What’s the most practical way for that to happen? The best merger success stories, according to Schaller, tend to be when three congregations—rather than the more common pattern of two—come together to create a new congregation that constructs a new building at a new site under a new name with the strong leadership of a new minister who is comfortable and competent in the role of being the pastor of a middle-sized (or large) congregation. Further, within a few years at least one-half of the governing board is composed of people who have joined since the merger and who want to be part of a large and numerically growing congregation.
Indeed, that is happening. As Gary Shockley, executive director for new church starts in the United Methodist Church, told us, “One of the strategies we see working in our denomination is the ‘vital merger’ where two or more churches sell all their assets, relocate, get a church planter assigned to them and begin anew.”
Second, church mergers today are different from those in the past in that at least one of the partners is healthy and vital. Usually the healthy and more vital partner is larger in attendance. Sometimes it’s the same size as the church merging with it. On rare occasions it’s smaller than the church merging with it.
Whatever the size comparison, mergers are rarely a ﬁfty ﬁfty deal of equals coming together. One church typically takes the lead role, expanding its culture of growing, replicating, and multiplying. If the merger is successful, far more than survival happens for the joining church in the years after the merger. Instead it’s a clear gain. The joining church is revitalized as the lead church’s healthy momentum continues with evidence of more changed lives, more conversions, more baptisms, and more signs of spiritual vitality.
Jim Tomberlin is founder and senior strategist of MultiSite Solutions, a company dedicated to assisting churches in maximizing their redemptive potential through intensive and insightful multisite and church merger consultation.
Over three decades of diverse ministry, Jim has pastored a church in Germany, grown a megachurch in Colorado and pioneered the multisite strategy for Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Since 2005 he has been consulting and coaching churches in developing and implementing multi-campus strategies.
As the @MultiSiteGuy Jim continues to track multisite developments and has become the nationally recognized expert on multisite church. In addition, he has become the @MergerGuru on church mergers with nearly a third of his consulting currently involving merger issues.
Jim is the author of 125 Tips for MultiSite Churches, Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, and Church Locality: New Rules for Church Buildings in a Multisite, Church Planting and Giga-Church World.
Follow him on his blog at http://multisitesolutions.com/blog.
Jim resides in Scottsdale, AZ and holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Georgia State University in Atlanta and a Masters of Theology (Th.M) from Dallas Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Deryl, have three grown children and nine grandchildren