What We Learned From a Failed Church Merger
Our church, Journey of Faith, has served the South Bay for over 100 years. We've always had a commitment to reach those who do not know Jesus Christ, both here and abroad. It was that commitment which led us to try and help New Joy, a struggling and dying church in nearby Bellflower, California.
New Joy, for numerous reasons, had been steadily declining since 1962. They had around 250 people back then, but had dwindled to 49 in 2008, having been without a senior pastor since 2005. Journey of Faith wanted to turn New Joy into a satellite campus for the main campus in Manhattan Beach, California. The plan was four-fold: fix the facilities, provide high quality worship, provide a weekly message on High Definition DVD, and provide a campus pastor who could shepherd the congregation and develop new ministries to reach the community.
Five years later, sadly, Journey of Faith decided to no longer support the Bellflower campus. The Bellflower campus never lived up to the expectations of Journey of Faith. Bellflower did not break the 100 person average Sunday morning attendance, has not shown signs that it will be able to become self-sufficient, and seems irrelevant to the community. So after much prayer, the Bellflower campus was launched as an independent church again.
The difficult journey of separating one church back into two has been filled with heartache, disappointments, and many tears; yet, we learned many lessons. Key to them were the differences in big church vs. small church thinking. For us, these lessons will guide our future endeavors to help struggling churches turn around and reach their community and world for Christ.
Define the Relationship
Ever heard of a "DTR?" Merging churches need them, too (not just dating couples). Our first lesson was the need to define the relationship up front. Defining the relationship helps eliminate misunderstandings, conflict, and hurt feelings. This allows both sides to determine if they want to continue. If expectations are clear from the beginning, then if either one of the churches does not like the agreement, then they are free to walk away and neither side is upset.
The three types of possible church "mergers" are Rebirth, Adoption, or Marriage. Rebirth is the restart of an older church or a church that has been in decline for a number of years. The church is usually rebirthed in the same location with a different name. Many from the old congregation will attend the "new" church. The rebirthed church will have a different style of worship and philosophy of ministry. The church will most likely have the same theological bent and be associated with the same denomination. The pastor of this new church will likely be a church planter who has the benefit of a church building but the leadership will be new.
Adoption is when one church becomes part of another church. The adopting church defines the theology, philosophy of ministry, the kinds of ministries within the church, and the style of worship. The church being adopted learns this new culture and accepts the fact that the old church does not exist any longer. The current leadership of the adopted church is not added to the leadership team of the adopting church. On top of that, most, if not all staff at the church being adopted is released.