Merging Congregations...with Love and Grace
Sometimes God chooses to unite two congregations for His fame in their community and His glory among the nations. When He initiates the idea of a merger, most people feel joy and apprehension. Joy because of potential kingdom gains: a season to pursue clarified vision together, hope for a declining congregation, a campus for a younger church, intergenerational mentoring opportunities and that earnest prayer of our King that His followers would be one. Yet, there is also apprehension. Can we keep our name? Will we have to sing their songs? Who will be our pastor? Will they honor our legacy? What about our tag line and logo?
In many ways, the process of uniting churches is like a courtship and marriage. Each merger process, like each dating relationship, is unique. Yet, the differences don’t preclude universal principles and realities. So, at the request of my great friend and fellow pastor, Mark Hallock, I am sharing our merger experience. If you are seeking God's will concerning merging churches I hope that our story may encourage you to seriously consider this option.
In early 1999, two churches in Denver, CO began talking about merging. Bethel Baptist Church was founded in 1892. Park Community Church was planted in 1995. Bethel had built and paid for a beautiful 31,000 square foot building in the historic Platt Park neighborhood. Park rented space from Bethel. Bethel owned, among other things, two grand pianos. Park owned an electric keyboard, slide projector and 60 folding chairs. Bethel had Millie, a part-time secretary, and about 30 people, mostly seniors. Park had about 50 young adults including me, their bi-vocational window-cleaning pastor. Bethel was led by their congregation. Park was led by elders. Yet, God seemed to be leading the two to become one.
We didn’t merge overnight. Just like a dating relationship, we spent a lot of time asking questions and listening, taking one step at a time. After seeking godly counsel, listening to one another, honoring those with organizational leadership gifts and trusting those who were attentive to the wind of the Holy Spirit, here is the 5-phase process God gave us and which we walked through.
#1. Gather with key leaders from both churches to identify what a successful merger could look like. As this happens, the process to pursue this vision together and major issues to consider for an enduringly faithful and united church begin to emerge. As we worked together in this phase, we identified eleven issues to work on: Philosophy of Ministry, Governance, Doctrine, New Leadership Team, Affiliation(s), Staff, Mission Commitments, Joint Budget, Ministries & Ministry Coordinators, Church Name and Constitution. These meetings felt like the define the relationship conversations that thoughtful dating couples have when they begin discussing the possibility of a future together.
#2. Seek agreement on the issues, one at a time. First, process the issues separately, with each church forming a godly merger team to facilitate internal discussions. Second, bring the two merger teams together periodically to pray, listen to each other, share how they and their congregation are feeling about each issue and seek God's mind in unity on one or two issues at a time. We called this our premarital counseling work.
#3. Unite frequently for worship, intercession, fellowship and training. Focus on themes such as: God’s vision for His people to serve one another as more important than themselves; the fame of Christ in the community; how God sometimes gives a new name for a new work and Jesus’ vision for His church to unite with Him and His people to make disciples locally and to the ends of the earth. We called these gatherings our courtship time together.
#4. Decide, with whatever mechanism each church is most comfortable using, whether God is calling you into this union. We were led to divide this process into two phases. The first phase took 4 months. In phase 1 we addressed the first 4 issues identified above and concluded with each church deciding to continue the process. The second phase lasted 5 months. In phase 2 we addressed the remaining 7 issues and concluded with each congregation deciding to merge. These two defining moments in the process were solemn and weighty, knowing that so much was at stake one way or the other. In retrospect, it reminded us of a cautious and prayerful couple making the decision for or against their engagement with the goal of marriage.
#5. Celebrate the process that God led us through and the conclusion He revealed. Since He led us to unite, we called October 10, 1999 our new beginning together. The nine months between the call from Bethel's chairman who brought up the idea of merging and October 10, 1999—the birthday of the Hope Community Church—were quite a journey. Those months included a lot of private prayer, all-church prayer gatherings, joint discussions and prayer meetings, joint services, joint backyard parties, two punches to my face (after I suggested that both groups consider a new church name), an apology one week later, and several reports of merger horror stories. In the end, God led us to a beautiful service in which He was praised and three trees were planted. The first represented the legacy of Bethel; the second, the short history of Park and the third, the birth of Hope.
Today, Hope is a seventeen-year-old intergenerational community seeking to unite with Christ and His followers everywhere to multiply disciples throughout our city and to the ends of the earth. Like any adolescent, many things are yet to mature and others are going well.
If you are sensing God may be calling you to participate in a church merger process, I hope that our testimony is helpful. Remember to trust the Lord, practice patience, and lead with love and grace.
Dean Wertz serves as the Lead Pastor of Hope Community Church in Denver, Colorado. He is grateful for his amazing wife, daughter and son. Dean earned his M.Div at Denver Seminary. His passion is to help lead people into an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ for God's glory and their joy. Feel free to contact Dean at firstname.lastname@example.org.