In 1981 Lyle Schaller said, “Mergers are usually losers. We had a rash of congregational mergers in the 60s, and the churches or denominations that pushed those have pretty well backed off; the merger system didn’t work. The feelings of historical identity generally prove to be too strong.”
He wasn’t alone; most pastors saw merging with another church as a worst-case scenario. A dying church would attach itself to a healthy church, dragging both down in the process.
But now mergers are back on the rise. Thanks in large part to the innovations of the multisite movement, they have become a viable, even positive, option for churches on the brink of closure—and for many that are doing just fine. According to a 2016 Barna study, 89 percent of churches that underwent a merger or acquisition reported a positive result. We spoke with Jim Tomberlin, founder and CEO of MultiSite Solutions, about why more churches than ever are entertaining the merger option.
How have church mergers changed in recent years?
A few years ago, we were getting three or four phone calls a month asking for help with a merger. Now it’s three or four a week. In 2011 Leadership Network did a survey of multisite campuses and learned that about 30 percent came to a merger. In 2015 it was up to 37 percent. It’s clearly becoming a trend if not a movement.
Not long ago, there was an overwhelming consensus that mergers were a failed concept, and for good reason. Before the multisite movement, a merger was two churches becoming one. Even if it was successful, there was a loss—usually selling a building and people leaving. In other words, 1 + 1 = 1. And those were the success stories! In many cases, two churches became one in one location, trying to save themselves at the expense of their “partner” church, and both went out of business: 1 + 1 = 0.
The multisite church movement has been a catalyst for a different outcome. Two churches can become one and still be in two locations, and they’re stronger together than they would have been apart: 1 + 1 = 3, or as one pastor told me, 1 + 1 = 10.
What gives us this new math?
The old mergers were about trying to preserve an old way of doing ministry, but the new mergers are about embracing a shared vision for the future. The old mergers were fueled by survival; the new mergers are driven by mission and vision. In the old mergers, there was a jockeying for position: “Neither one of us is going to change. We’re just going to prop each other up at the expense of one another.”
How can two churches avoid that tug of war and successfully merge?
The biggest factor that prevents a merger from happening is control. Mergers are easier when three churches come together because they recognize they all have to change.
In every merger, even when the two churches are similar in size and health, one always leads and the other follows, like in a dance. There is always a legal dissolving of one of those churches. So I like to tell the joining churches, “If you continue on this path, your story will end. If you join this other church, your chapter ends, but your story continues.” This is the choice a lot of these churches have to make: Do we want to die, or do we want the chance to renew ourselves by throwing our lot in with a church that can take our facilities and fill them up again—and we can be a part of that as well. And for this reason, the vast majority of these mergers aren’t initiated by the lead church but by the joining church.
The old kind of mergers were ICU mergers: the last stop before death. But today’s more successful mergers come in three forms. In some cases—we call them “true rebirths”—their philosophies, strategies, and styles are so out of sync that the joining church brings little except a building and people. Adoptions are mergers where the joining church does bring something to the table: some staff, ministries, and facilities. And finally, you have marriage mergers, which are very rare. In these situations, two equals come together and create something new. Just like in a marriage, they bring their strengths and weaknesses and make something new together.
Can you tell us about one of these marriage mergers?
I just finished a merger in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a young church planter leading a five-year-old church plant meeting in a school with about 400 to 500 people. Down the street was an established, 30-year-old church with a nice campus and a senior pastor approaching retirement. About three years ago, they became friends—a seasoned pastor with a young pastor, like Paul and Timothy. As their friendship developed, the senior pastor said, “I’m looking to retire, and you need a building. Why don’t we just join together? You can become my successor and bring your people with you. You get a building, and we get a pastor.”
They both decided to change their names because the older church had an old, tired name and the young church didn’t mind changing. Together they came up with something new. That was a beautiful outcome. It was a win-win, like a marriage.
What happened to the retiring pastor? Did he move away or stay in the congregation?
He stayed. He’s taking a break for a few months, and after the dust settles from the transition, he’ll still be on staff and part of the teaching team, but not as the senior pastor. It takes a secure guy to do that.
Is it typical for the pastors to have a prior friendship?
A close friendship is unusual, but I think we’ll see more of it. Mergers that start with, maybe not a friendship, but a respect and some kind of relational connection have a better chance of working out. More often, it starts as a respect from a distance.
How often do you see churches with drastically different worship styles merging?
I would say it’s about 50/50. Half of these churches have very similar styles, but half do not. I think about Liquid Church’s merger with Mountainside Chapel in 2013. Liquid Church is edgy and appeals to younger people. Mountainside started in 1821, and as you can imagine, it was a very traditional church. In the 1980s, it had more than 200 families attending regularly, but by 2012, that was down to 30 families—not enough to maintain their $3,500,000 facility. So they decided to dissolve themselves and offer their facility and property to Liquid Church. It just so happened that Liquid was looking to launch a campus in the same part of New Jersey.
So Mountainside called Liquid and said, “Because of the drastically different styles, none of us would go to your church, but we love how you’re reaching the next generation and how you’re serving our community. We would love to offer you our facilities.” Liquid responded by saying, “We’d love to entertain having the facility, but if we do this, we want you to join us.” So they did.
Mountainside was down to about 50 people, and now they’re running around 900, and most of those 50 people stayed. That’s a win-win-win. Both congregations are healthy, the community is well served, the kingdom is expanding. It’s so thrilling to see that outcome.
Now sometimes the lead church will continue holding a traditional worship service at a later hour as an accommodation. A lot of mainstream churches now have a traditional and a contemporary service. We just completed a merger at First Baptist Church Geneva. They picked up a church with an aging population. Now they do a contemporary service in the new building they acquired through the merger, and they have a traditional service at their original campus where most people will land.
What are a few of the persistent myths about mergers?
I hear a lot of pastors say, “A merger is just a takeover.” Some work that way, but if it’s a takeover, it won’t have a good outcome. In successful mergers, the joining church is doing this because they want to merge. Now some individuals in the church may not want to merge, but I always tell the joining church boards, “If you are convinced that this is the right thing to do and God is leading you to do this, then the majority of people will go along with it. If you don’t have that conviction, you should walk away from it.” The church leadership has to be willing to make the sacrifices of philosophy, name, and even staff.
People also assume mergers are always between a big church and a small church, or a strong church and a declining church. And probably three-quarters of them are, but we’re starting to see some mega churches joining mega churches. Usually one is in a rocky place or plateaued or declining, but they’re not going out of business in the near future. It’s mission driven.
We just saw this with Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. That church had about 22,000 people with eight locations. Right across the state boarder, there was another Crossroads in Kentucky with about 3,000 people in four locations. They were not connected in any way before, but they were friends with similar styles. So they did a merger. It was mission driven with a great outcome.
How important is a third party to manage that process?
It’s very important to have a neutral third party helping both congregations make the best decision. I can and will say things that, if one of the churches said them, would be awkward or abrasive. The lead church can’t say, “Join us or die.” But I can say, “If you stay on this path, you’re going to go out of business. This merger gives you an opportunity to choose your destiny instead of having it chosen for you.” That’s the value of a third party.
No church leader wakes up thinking, Maybe one day we’ll get to merge with somebody! It’s seen as a bad outcome. There’s baggage to the word merger because very few people have gone through one. Someone who’s been through that minefield a bunch of times can help them avoid stepping on those mines.
Many times these work out best when a denominational leader has connected the two churches together. A denominational worker responsible for a network of churches knows who is in trouble and who isn’t, they know who is growing, expanding, looking for space or a pastor. They can get those parties together.
Of the mergers you’ve been involved in, what’s the five-year success rate?
It depends on how you define success. If you define success as 80 percent of the people who start with the merger stay, then a lot would not be successful. Sometimes the majority of people who joined don’t stay. They are mad, or they are glad for the outcome but it just wasn’t for them.
For me, success is when there’s a vibrant congregation two to five years later, where before there wasn’t. If many of the original people dropped out of church, that’s unfortunate, but if that leads to a vibrant, functioning congregation, to me that’s a success.
It sounds like, in your experience, most merged churches fit that definition of success.
The ones that get approved, yes. I’ve been involved in about 100 mergers that have come to pass and probably another 100 mergers that didn’t. In our consulting, if it becomes apparent anywhere along the process that this is not going to work or it’s not the right time, then we hit the pause button. Many merger conversations don’t culminate in a final approval by both congregations.
But I want pastors to know that this is a viable option to consider, and it doesn’t have to be a bad option. If it’s a takeover, then walk away. But if both parties feel it’s best for their churches, their communities, and the kingdom, there can be a great outcome.