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Multi-Siting Through Merger

February 23, 2010

By Ronald E. Keener, Church Executive Magazine, Jan. 2009.

Merger of churches becomes another part of the multisite strategy, as the DNA of two Arizona churches matches up well.

Business mergers often involve the larger fish swallowing the smaller fish, the larger partner taking on the assets and outputs, and sometimes debts, of the smaller unit.

But that typical scenario wasn’t what happened when two Arizona churches began looking at each other more than a year ago and entered into a merger deal.

CitiChurch in Scottsdale, AZ, a congregation of 1,500 people and only seven years old, made the initial offer of merger to Word of Grace Church in east Mesa, AZ, a church of 4,000 in attendance and which had been in existence for 25 years and had a large, established campus complex.

And it was CitiChurch pastor, Terry Crist, age 42, who became senior pastor of the combined two-campus church, while 58-year-old Gary Kinnaman, who was associate pastor at Word of Grace before becoming senior pastor 25 years ago, who became pastor-at-large with occasional preaching duties in the merged church.

Kinnaman is well known in church circles in the Phoenix area and was a leader in organizing and leading the White House conference last year of the faith-based initiative with the Arizona Governor’s office.

But Kinnaman had publicly announced that he was looking for someone to succeed him at Word of Grace, and Terry Crist had picked up on it. They had been meeting occasionally for breakfast chats, and one morning Kinnaman told Crist he “was looking for someone like you” to succeed him at Word of Grace. Someone younger, with a proven track record, and would Crist know of anyone to recommend?

Merger is possible

Crist’s response: “I can do better than that. I might be interested myself.” Kinnaman responded, “I never had any idea that you would consider leaving CitiChurch,” to which Crist replied: “I wouldn’t, but we would entertain the possibility of Word of Grace merging with us.”

Word of Grace had already begun a national search and had 161 respondents who met the predetermined criteria of age, education, and experience with a large church. That process went forward and the search came down to Crist and one other person. The board voted unanimously to merge with CitiChurch and become one church, two locations, separated by 18 miles.

Word of Grace had reached its stride in the period of 2001 to 2004 with attendance on Easter Sunday 2003 at about 8,900. Average attendance at that point was about 5,000 and membership would have been somewhere around 6,000.

Crist says that the church then began a period of decline — and Kinnaman would accept that description — experiencing about 35 percent attrition between years 2004 and 2007. Crist says that as the church grew in size it became increasingly bureaucratic and unfocused.

“Let me describe it this way,” Crist says. “The database contained about 40,000 names and no one was quite sure as to who was an active member.” Attendance was tracked on a service-by-service basis, but it wasn’t clear who constituted the attendance.

“The pastoral care systems were certainly not the strongest part of the ministry here,” Crist says. “Global missions and community outreach were.”

Going into the merger, attendance at the Mesa campus was about 4,000, and with some 1,500 at the Scottsdale campus, the church today is well over 5,000 people. But in the first nine months under Crist’s leadership, 500 people have come to Christ. “All of that to say, it’s been a very dynamic situation for us,” he says.

New name emerges

The combined church chose the name City of Grace for the merged entity, which came from one of the younger generation staff members. There are three services at each campus, two of which are live with the teaching in the third being featured on video. A seventh service is being added early this year.

CitiChurch had been working with multisite consultant Jim Tomberlin, who came to Scottsdale a couple years ago after leading the regional multisite strategy for Willow Creek Community Church. Crist introduced Tomberlin to Kinnaman and Tomberlin began assisting Kinnaman on the Governor’s Task Force for faith-based community initiatives.

As such, Tomberlin was “a trusted friend of both pastors.” He says, “I was able to be the neutral third party to help navigate them through the merger minefield.

“I identified the key issues that had to be addressed for a successful merger which became the roadmap to becoming one church in two locations. I planned and facilitated the early meetings where the senior staff of both churches worked through the issues to breakthrough resolutions.

“Once the knotty issues were resolved, new language created, a timeline established, and approval by the two governing bodies, we went into implementation mode,” he recalls.

Mergers come in three types, says Tomberlin — adoption, absorption or an acquisition. “It’s important to build on common DNA, honor the past history, incorporate unique strengths, know the financial realities and establish a timeline.

“Most important of all, there needs to be an overwhelming sense that the merger is a God-thing,” he says.

Crist says Tomberlin’s involvement was crucial. “With Jim’s experience in the multisite world and more recently in coaching churches through mergers, we felt like he was God-sent. Jim was able to help Gary make his transition, and he was a strong encourager to me in the process,” Crist says.

Crist had noted a list of 10 “markers” on the DNA of the two churches, and felt that the churches had seven of those markers in common. The three not in common were significant ones.

“We realized early on that in order to see this transition become a reality and flourish, we needed to begin the process of building healthy relationships,” Crist says. “We couldn’t simply do it structurally and expect it to fly. We needed to do it from the basis of relational strength.

“So the very first steps that we took were get-to-know-you steps, spending time with the boards, meeting with key staff members, and developing the relational passport so that we could take the subsequent steps which were far more technical,” Crist recalls.

Tomberlin comments that “in any merger, there is a mixture of feelings within the staff. Some are excited about new opportunities, others are anxious about their job security, and most find change inconvenient or threatening.” All of those feelings were present in this merger, he says, “yet there was an undeniable sense that God was in this, which kept the ball moving forward in a positive way.”

Three uncommon markers

The markers not held in common were more stylistic. Different communication styles of the two pastors was one. “While both churches were committed to expression of vibrant worship, the Scottsdale church, being younger, had a more youthful expression.

“The demographics were very, very different. The primary difference was not socio-economic even though the Scottsdale campus is located in a new, affluent community and the Mesa campus is located in an older, lower middle income community. This community [in Mesa] has changed significantly over the years since the church originally purchased the campus two decades earlier.

“The primary differences had more to do with the life cycle of the church. The church in Scottsdale was seven years old, the church in Mesa was 25 years old. So the differences in the life cycle of the two churches were pretty significant,” Crist says.

A survey of Word of Grace attendance before Crist came to the pastorate of the combined church more than a year ago revealed a medium age of 50, an average age of about 48. By contrast the average age at Scottsdale was about 36. There is a 16-year age difference between Crist and Kinnaman. Crist notes: “People tend to connect with pastors who look like themselves in terms of age or educational experience.”

A more recent survey has shown, given the younger people coming to Christ at the Mesa campus, that the average age is now in the low 40s.

Minefields can develop

Tomberlin helped the process in “fostering the spirit of oneness,” Crist says. Mergers are replete with “minefields,” Tomberlin says.

“Regardless of how well a merger is done, there will be staff and church members who will not embrace the merger. Most will leave quietly, some will be angry, and a few will make a scene. City of Grace experienced all of those reactions,” Tomberlin says.

“Yet, City of Grace walked through the merger minefield without stepping on one,” he says. “The two senior pastors set the tone in their honoring of one another. I think that speaks volumes of the success of their merger.”

One issue to resolve, and which affected staffing, was assessing what roles were campus-centric and which were inter-campus. Children’s ministry is required on each campus, while young adults, who drive cars, can be done on an inter-campus basis.

A merger also involves an assessment of systems — computer, programming, human. The Mesa campus had some good systems in place, but the Scottsdale campus, younger and fast growing, had less than perfect systems.

Crist notes that as churches grow they begin to take things for granted and don’t stop to ask why. “Word of Grace had quit asking ‘why?,’” he says. “At CitiChurch we asked ‘why?’ about everything. Such questions came up at CitiChurch regularly as: Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that? Why is this working? Why isn’t that working?”

Even while the Mesa church had gone through a 35 percent attrition of the congregation, staff cutbacks had not been made commensurate with the decline of the congregation, which led to significant overstaffing.

In late 2005 Word of Grace hired an executive pastor who had successfully turned around a number of declining companies in the Phoenix area. Daryl Vanderhaar had also been a member of the church since its inception. As a former chairman of the board, he was aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and he set out to restructure it.

“Without Daryl’s hard work and wise leadership, the transition would have been much more difficult than it actually was,” Crist says. “Daryl laid the groundwork for a successful transition, even though he didn’t know that a transition was eminent when he became the executive pastor.” After the merger, Vanderhaar agreed to remain on staff as one of two executive pastors at Crist’s request. He oversees operations and the other executive pastor, Tom Moffett, oversees the ministries of the church.

Staff overhead high

The staff budget last year at CitiChurch, Crist says, was 26 percent of the overall budget. At Word of Grace the staff budget was 64 percent, and even after a round of cutbacks before Crist arrived, staffing costs were still consuming 58 percent of the budget. With the changes that have since been made, the Scottsdale campus staff budget is now 32 percent, and the Mesa campus is now at 48 percent.

“We’re back to where we should be,” says Crist. “Healthy margins are between 30 and 50 percent, with 50 percent really being the upper end.” The congregation’s combined budget in 2008 was about $7 million, though original expectations were set at $8.5 million. “We’ve felt the pinch of the economy,” says Crist.

Taking on the combined larger church has expanded Crist’s leadership capacity, he admits. “I’m not a leader suited for boring times. Prior to the merger, CitiChurch was in large part being pastored by the leaders that we had trained, developed and empowered.

“I wasn’t by any stretch in retirement, but I was carrying a manageable work load and maybe even a little bored in Scottsdale.” Since merging, City of Grace has broken ground for a new state-of-the-art children’s center in Scottsdale, and are removing some homes and businesses that presently obscure the Mesa campus from University Boulevard. Future plans are to build a 15,000 square foot atrium on the front of the 2,200 seat Mesa auditorium providing for greater gathering space.

To support those plans the congregation took in $900,000 in cash, essentially on one Sunday in October.

Crist has set forth a strategic vision that will be anything but boring. They plan to establish five more campuses in the Phoenix area in the next 10 years, and are training up young leaders to plant additional churches. The multisite approach is intended to “take the church close to where people are doing life,” he says.

Another merger may be in the immediate future for City of Grace. Crist has been approached by one other Mesa church about merging with the congregation. In looking at such possibilities, Crist notes that “culture is paramount. The DNA of our church is the most important thing to us.

Culture most important

“Culture trumps vision, strategy, and goals and objectives. The reason is that vision evolves, is fulfilled, and a new vision emerges. Vision is fairly fluid. Culture is the ‘being’ part, vision is the ‘doing’ part of church life. For us, who we ‘be’ is more important than what we do. Because if we have the being part of our existence correct, then by the grace of God, we can do anything he’s assigned us to do,” Crist comments.

“But if we haven’t addressed the being part of who God has designed us to become, then vision is just religious activity. So for us, being is so important and that means that we work consistently on our culture. That’s probably the biggest challenge that we faced in blending these two churches into one.”

While City of Grace has a plan for campus development and a strategic plan for church planting, they do not have a plan — intentionally — for church mergers. “We feel that would put us in a position of being the corporate animal looking to take over others — and that is not who we are. So where church mergers are concerned we’re sitting at peace, fully prepared if God brings them across our path. We’ll potentially accept them, but we’re not aggressively in search of acquiring churches or merging with them,” Crist says.

At City of Grace, it is apparent that the best times are ahead for this multisite congregation.

How the merger roadmap unfolds

  • Exploration — between the two senior leaders
  • Negotiation — between the two senior leadership teams
  • Implementation — phased integration of the two congregations
  • Consolidation — one church in two locations

— Jim Tomberlin, Scottsdale, AZ

Illinois Merger is ‘A new wine skin’

When I first heard about a video venue extension campus I was appalled. Watching the message on a video screen? However, the more I investigated this new methodology, the more I realized that it was much more appealing than appalling. I realized that God was up to something big with this new wine skin.

We first ventured into the extension campus video venue in 2004. We found that there were about 100 people coming from a community 35 minutes west of our church. They loved the ministry of Christ Community and believed in our mission of making disciples who are belonging, growing, serving and reaching. The problem was that they were too far away to bring someone with them. Today, our DeKalb Campus has grown from 150 to 850 attendees, with many coming to faith at this new campus where everything is live except the message.

It wasn’t long before we felt the Lord calling us to another area about 30 minutes south of our church. We prayed for a point person, a place and people. Within a few months the Lord led us to our campus pastor who was someone who we trusted to be the “sheriff” of our DNA and vision. We continued to pray, seek and knock for a place and for people.

It seemed that there was one roadblock after another in our new venture. The schools wouldn’t allow a church to come in. In a fairly new community, there weren’t suitable empty buildings. There wasn’t even a movie theater. Finally word came of a community church whose senior pastor was leaving. We had some connections with the church and wondered if this could be God’s answer for a place and for people.

Blackberry Community Church’s initial reaction was like my own — skeptical. They were a fairly healthy, though somewhat stagnant 15-year old congregation of 250. After an initial discussion, it didn’t appear that this was going to be the God-thing that we were looking for. However, God continued to work in the leadership of both churches.

There seemed to be a lot of God ingredients at work: a similar mission, vision, theology and style. It was the right locale. Was God in this? It look a lot of prayer, elbow grease, and dialogue, but on November 29, 2006, Christ Community Church – Blackberry Creek Campus was born with a 91 percent approval vote from Blackberry Creek Church. It’s hard to find 91 percent of people to agree on anything — but not when God’s in it.

It’s now been two years since our February 2007 Grand Opening, and we’ve seen the church grow from 250 to 500 with many coming to Christ. There have been adjustments by the Blackberry team and by our overall staff, and some left or were hurt. However, we believe God is doing a new thing with an old wine skin and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

— Eric Rojas, Executive Pastor, Christ Community Church, St. Charles, IL

10 multisite trends for churches in 2009

  • The multisite strategy is being embraced by the next generation of pastors. Not a question of “if” we should go multisite, just a matter of “when.” They have caught the reproducing/multiplying church bug.
  • The church planting movement is moving from a mildly adversarial, mutually-exclusive attitude towards the multisite movement to a warm, collaborative ally-relationship. Multi-site was initially seen as a celebrity pastor vehicle for building an empire. Now it is increasingly seen as a parallel to church planting.
  • In church construction, giga-size churches (10,000-plus attendance) with smaller facilities or multiple venues are seen instead of one big auditorium, with the ideal maximum seating in the 1,200-1,500 range. There’s growing
  • interest in retro-fitting existing “third place” spaces.
  • Multi-site churches and their networks are becoming the new denominations of this era. Many are adding international campuses.
  • The campus pastor role is becoming one of the most strategic and sought-after church staff positions.
  • The energy and economic crises add more “fuel” to the multisite church strategy.
  • Senior pastor succession is scaring the heck out of aging baby-boomer mega-church pastors and most are paralyzed about it. The multisite team teaching strategy is a good succession strategy component.
  • Church mergers and acquisitions are increasingly becoming a staple in the multisite movement and
  • will transform the church landscape across America.
  • There will be a bundling of consulting services and strategic partnerships to better serve local churches and maximize trusted networks
  • The rise of video-streaming is likely over the Internet to deliver sermon content and Internet virtual campuses. Mega-churches will embrace the internet campus as they did multisite strategy.

— Jim Tomberlin

DNA markers of CitiChurch and Word of Grace

  1. Those DNA markers held in common by Word of Grace and CitiChurch in their merger into City of Grace:
  2. Theology
  3. View of the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit
  4. Commitment to global missions
  5. Commitment to relational evangelism
  6. Commitment to transforming our community
  7. Commitment to expressive worship
  8. Commitment to being a “staff led” church

Those DNA markers not held in common by both churches before the merger:

  1. Teaching style
  2. Worship style
  3. Different congregational lifecycle

— Terry Crist, City of Grace

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"Jim Tomberlin was a huge asset to us during our recent move to multisite. His experience and expertise helped us navigate our staff and church through a church merger and greatly assisted us in the union of two churches. I highly recommend Jim to anyone prayerfully considering either mergers or multisite churches."

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