My first merger experience occurred when I was leading the multisite strategy at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. I was looking for a facility to launch our third multisite campus in the North Shore region of Chicago. A church was meeting in a school that we had investigated as a potential site. The congregation was without a pastor and proposed merging as a solution to both our needs. They needed a pastor and we needed a facility. I had never done a church merger. I did not know how to proceed. The few resources that talked about church mergers were not encouraging. Nevertheless, we pressed forward and had a successful merger that resulted in the Willow Creek North Shore campus. Today over 2,000 people attend that congregation every Sunday.
In 2005, I left Willow Creek to respond to the growing requests from churches from around the country to help them with a multisite strategy. Increasingly I found myself coaching churches through mergers as they started down the multisite path. I began to sense that God was up to something with a new kind of church merger that was different than the failure-prone mergers of the past.
Meanwhile Warren Bird from Leadership Network was also seeing a new kind of church merger happening across the country. Subsequent surveys of multisite churches confirmed our suspicion—one out of three multisite campuses were the result of a church merger. These mergers tended to be more about mission and embracing a shared future together rather than surviving or attempting to preserve the past. Even though the merger possibility often emerges when a church finds itself struggling, in decline or coming out of a debilitating crisis, successful mergers are more about embracing the mission and vision of a healthy church.
The outcome of our research resulted in the first full book ever published on church mergers. We wanted to write a guide book to help churches have successful and healthy mergers that increase, not reduce, local churches and their impact. Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work shows how to do a healthy church merger and it offers specific, practical, how-to advice on best practices in the merger process. It continues to be the most used guide book for church leaders in navigating the unfamiliar waters of a church merger.
What we learned since the Better Together was released in 2012:
- Mergers are becoming the new normal with over 40 percent of multisite campuses coming about as a result of a merger or acquisition of a church building.
- The national decline in the cultural value of church attendance is fueling the church merger trend. Unfortunately, most churches would rather die than change, and most eventually will.
- Once seen as a last resort or lose-lose option, church mergers have become a viable win-win option for Kingdom-minded churches for struggling and stuck churches as well as strong churches.
- Successful merger outcomes are not hostile take-overs, but are prayerful, mission-driven and mutually-beneficial decisions by the leadership of both churches.
- Multisite churches have stimulated the explosion of church mergers, but so also have church planters looking for permanent 24/7 facilities as they meet up with senior pastors looking for a successor.
- Though most mergers are initiated by the joining church, more lead churches are initiating the merger conversation.
- Denominational leaders are increasingly seeing mergers as an opportunity and strategy for salvaging and revitalizing their declining congregations.
Should your church consider merging with another?
Here are four questions to address to help you answer that question:
- Would our two congregations be better together individually?
- Could we accomplish more together synergistically than we could separately?
- Would our community be better served together?
- Could the kingdom of God be further extended by joining together?
Recently my good friend and co-author Warren Bird and I made a few short videos updating some of our learnings and observations on church mergers since the publication of our book of Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work.