Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Should two small churches merge?

As denominational leaders consider how to best provide pastoral leadership to smaller churches the question "Should we try to merge some of our smaller churches?" will often be asked. Even lay leaders in some smaller churches ask the question when they grow tired of struggling. In the past few weeks I've been asked this question several times. Here's how I usually answer the question: In most cases, no.

Merging two organizations is difficult work. Gary McIntosh addresses this issue in his excellent book, There's Hope for Your Church: First Steps to Restoring Health and Growth. He reports one study that found that only 23 percent of businesses that merge are able to recoup the costs of the merger. Church mergers do even worse. McIntosh writes that nine out of ten such mergers typically fail. He explains several reasons for such a high rate of failure.

  • The merger is motivated by the wrong reasons.
  • The churches involved have differences in tradition, culture, styles of ministry, and theological positions.
  • There is conflict over buildings and property.
  • People have unrealized expectations.
  • One congregation moves into the building of the other.
  • The new church sees few financial savings.
  • The merged church rebuilds the previous model that didn't work.
  • There is leadership incompatibility.
  • An us-versus-them mentality often takes over.
In short, failure is often the result of having two congregations now meeting in the same building but never truly coming together as one. If one or both churches were unhealthy before the merger you will now have an even larger unhealthy church.

McIntosh lists several things that need to happen for a church merger to work well, but these are not simple and will take a period of time. Unless the churches are willing to work very hard and intentionally take the steps that can make a merger work well it is probably best to not attempt one.  And, one could argue if a church is willing to work that hard and deliberately on a merger why could it not work equally as hard to make their church healthier and more effective?

There are other options besides mergers that struggling churches can consider.  In some cases, churches will close their doors for a couple of years and then re-open with new people and new leadership. These church restarts are also not easy, but it does allow for a fresh start with none of the baggage of the previous church.  Another option is for the struggling church to become a satellite site of a larger, healthier church. McIntosh points to one study that has found that this situation often works out very well.

Many smaller, struggling churches have an aging membership. Their finances are often declining along with their attendance. It is becoming increasingly more difficult for them to find pastoral leadership. They struggle to attract new people. None of these facts are likely to improve in the near future so it is imperative that these churches begin to earnestly discuss how they will move forward in the future. One way to begin that discussion is to read the book I mentioned above and begin to discuss it with the leaders and members of your congregation.

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