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What We Learned From a Failed Church Merger

It wasn't easy, but it taught us a lot.
What We Learned From a Failed Church Merger
Image: Ryoji Iwata / Unsplash

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.

Marriage is usually between two healthy churches in order to become one stronger church. These churches are normally in the same general vicinity. This allows the "married church" to have a stronger presence in the city, more effective outreach, and a better utilization of the resources that God has entrusted. For this to work, the leadership of both churches needs to be in theological and philosophical agreement. Compromises would need to be made on both sides in order to make a healthy transition.

Looking back on the process Journey of Faith undertook with New Joy, the leadership of Journey of Faith did not clearly define the relationship up front. Many if not all of the problems we experienced could have been avoided, if this had been done correctly. Everyone agreed this was not a "rebirth," but the leadership of Journey of Faith Manhattan Beach viewed the relationship as an "adoption" whereas the leadership of New Joy viewed the relationship as a "marriage." The differences in the leadership's point of view were enormous and impossible to overcome!

This difference in understanding the relationship between the two churches caused needless conflicts. The first was the evaluation of the long-term administrative assistant. The administrative assistant that had been on staff at New Joy for nearly twenty years needed to be replaced. The previous two pastors knew that she lacked some skills which the church needed to grow, but were unwilling to replace her. After careful evaluation, we determined to replace the current administrative assistant with someone who is bilingual, had Microsoft office skills, and who had front- and back-office experience. The leadership (elder) was concerned more about possible fallout on the campus rather than the adequate performance of the employee. Eventually, after many headaches and discussions, we replaced this administrative assistant with one who could fulfill the requirements of the job.

Another area of conflict was in the many discussions about worship style. New Joy preferred and enjoyed a much more traditional style of worship. There were choirs, quartets, an organ, and weekly special numbers. Journey of Faith changed the style of worship, eliminating the organ, choirs, quartets, and special numbers. The leadership of New Joy objected strenuously to this change and forcefully lobbied for a more "balanced" (the old way of doing worship) approach to worship. If we had communicated more clearly when New Joy was adopted that the old way of doing things no longer existed, it might have made for a smoother transition.

Leadership Team

Developing a strong leadership team( in our case, an Elder Board) is a top priority for any church. Churches rise or fall based on the quality of their leaders. In an attempt to ease the transition and build unity between the two campuses, we decided to add an elder to the elder board of Journey of Faith when acquiring the Bellflower campus; this elder would be one of the leaders of the old New Joy congregation. In hindsight, this wass perhaps the biggest mistake we made. First, although this elder is a good man, his worldview was different than the main campus. This elder was committed to saving the Bellflower campus, at all costs, not expanding the ministry of Journey of Faith. For example, when discussing the budget, the idea of making the Bellflower campus live within its own means of support was never a serious topic. Yet, if other ministries on the main campus were not producing fruit, serious discussion was given to terminate or scale back that particular ministry. The same standards of support were not held universally by this particular elder.

A second major issue is that an elder from a small church does not understand the complexity of a large church ministry. A large church is as different from a small church as Wal-Mart is different to a convenience store. A small church elder often does not easily understand the scope and breadth of large church ministry. A typical elders' meeting at Journey of Faith begins and ends with prayer. After prayer, team reports are given (financial, outreach, school, deacons, etc.); the reports are usually brief and to the point, except when there is an issue or a major decision that needs to be made. Questions are asked, but there is very little discussion. An elder or leader from a small church often tends to micro-manage and provides more detail about every event or occurrence at "their" church. Journey of Faith found that at the Bellflower church, ministry was more controlled instead of released.

A third major issue of bringing on a small church elder is the lack of understanding that the health of the organization (the whole church, including both campuses) is more important than any particular member of the organization. This does not mean that a large church does not care for those in need, but it does mean that the ministry of the church does not stop because one person is hurting.

A final area where expectations needed to be more clear was in our hiring practices. Journey of Faith's philosophy of hiring at the large, main campus is to hire the best person for the job, not the person in the church who needs the job. Sometimes this is one in the same, but not always. Too often churches hire someone who needs a job regardless of the person's ability level. The church is then hamstrung with an employee without the skills to help the church grow. This is not to question the motives of a small church elder, (I am sure that the elder believes that they are doing the loving thing), but what elders of small churches do not realize is that sometimes by helping one person the whole church suffers.

Moving Forward

A healthy working relationship still exists between the Manhattan Beach campus and the Bellflower campus. New Joy has retained the name Journey of Faith, Bellflower and members from Journey of Faith, Manhattan Beach, continue to serve at the Bellflower campus in various ministries—such as leading worship and "His Table" (a community food outreach to the working poor).

The lessons we learned from the Bellflower experiment are many, but they didn't come easily. By not understanding the different ways that the two churches thought about ministry, staffing, and leadership, our differences were ultimately irreconcilable. While this was unfortunate, we'll carry the wisdom we earned with us as we move forward.

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