I wrote an earlier blog introducing the idea of church mergers. Leadership Network recently identified and contacted several dozen churches that are being very intentional about mergers, and multiple-mergers at that. A dozen churches, each with an average of three mergers under belt, met for a day of discussion about the phenomenon. Here are a few highlights from the meeting:
Terminology. There is no consensus on what to call this approach. Popular phrases include restart, adoption, consolidation, merger partnership, uniting, acquisition, and gratuitous transfer or assets. My current favorite are "restart" (for one type) and "strategic partnership" (for another type).
Types. Churches who took place in our discussion represented two general approaches to a merger. One could be called a strategic partnership where you retain the existing leaders and put added resources in their hand. It usually involves two healthy growing churches, asking "Could we go farther faster for God's kingdom by working together?" It's a discussion triggered by a desire to be more strategic and of greater influence. The second stream could be described as redeeming space and history by changing leaders and giving the church a new season and new chapter in their story. The discussion here usually begins with a church in decline who contacts another church asking, "Can you help us?"
Initiation. For either stream, typically there is some connection between the churches, such as a prior relationship between the leaders. Sometimes it's very weak, such as "You don't know us. We've been watching your services on the Internet or following your blog or using your resources and . . . . "
First steps. The church being invited to intervene tries to discern, "Is this something God wants us to do?" As one participant observed, "We're talking about kingdom resources – both people and buildings – so the question is whether we could do more together than alone." Checklists include attitude toward reaching the lost, doctrine, financial status and culture match between the congregations.
Speed. For most, things move very quickly in terms of a decision. There are numerous advantages, from minimizing anxiety to maintaining focus to keeping ahead of the rumor mill -- word travels fast to neighbors and the local media! As one person commented, "The longer it takes, the more something can go wrong." The average window for the churches polled was 30-45 days from discussion to decision, although the actual merger process then takes much longer to go through all the necessary steps.
Legal angle. Churches with experience in mergers affirm that you need careful legal advisement, the earlier in the process the better. They generally try to get the constitutions and bylaws into an attorney's hand soon so that a comparison can be made early, lest everyone later have to do the vote again or find they've done something illegal. This way you find out everything involved to legally transfer assets, which often involves surprises even to the church being consolidated ("oh, we forgot we owned that mountain property we sometimes use for a youth retreats"). Then they translate the ideas into plain English for the various discussions. The process can include a non-binding letter of intent, and it also gives you added legal protection.
Goals and success. It was fascinating how few veterans of multiple mergers framed their metrics in terms of increased attendance or finances. Instead they figured ways to measure, "Is the result a healthier environment for growth?" or "Are we moving a greater percentage of people into service capacity?" or "Is the culture of each church now a stronger and more aligned one for mission?" One church took a tiered approach to measuring financial progress: Tier 1 involves meeting local expenses for the church that was merged; Tier 2 adds the factor of sharing pro-rata back to the "central service" expenses at the sponsoring church; Tier 3 adds the factor of giving above and beyond so the cycle can be repeated in other merged congregations.
Staffing. Existing staff are sometimes let go or repositioned as part of the merger. This may require frank discussions about finances as well: "you're way overpaid for the size and stage the church currently represents." Generally people with strong leadership gifts are needed for the kind of transitions necessary. Flexibility in structure is essential, adjusted to being size appropriate and stage appropriate."
General advice. "Be more open and clear up front" and "Be redemptive in everything you do" and "Adapt and be flexible -- no two mergers are alike."
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 19 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.