Mergers and Turnarounds

In the business world, mergers and acquisitions are a common part of the landscape. When they go well, everyone wins. When they don't go well, fear-driven positioning, scrambling, and general panic sets in over the potential of a hostile takeover. Unfortunately, in the church world, it isn't always so different. We may begin with a noble mindset and biblical frame of reference, but when the chips are down and emotions are up, the results can be anything but Christian.

When churches (especially small ones) are struggling, really struggling, there are typically three choices: 1. a turnaround; 2. a merger; and, 3. closing the doors. It is not uncommon for all three to be attempted in that order. First, a major effort is launched for a turnaround, sometimes with the current pastor and sometimes with a new leader. Many traditional churches that plateau or experience decline are unable to turn things around and they become so small that a merger with one or two other small churches seems like the right idea. The reality is that with every merger you are closing some churches, and if the merger isn't done correctly, you may end up closing the doors of all of them. One positive aspect that might come from closing the doors and selling the property is if the monies are channeled towards well-planned church planting efforts. But when the doors are just closed, a sort of ecclesiastical funeral has taken place and the Kingdom has lost ground.

My desire in this article is to help prevent further loss of sacred ground.

If you are considering a merger, think these things through carefully:

1. A church merger can be successful, but it is not automatic.

Assuming that merging two or three (I've even heard of four) struggling churches into one healthy and growing church is somewhat like thinking you can merge two sick cats and create one healthy dog. The truth is that mergers are difficult. It's wise to face this up front. Keep in mind that if you merge three churches of 60 people, you have not grown a church to 180. You may look and feel bigger, but you haven't grown anything. Be careful of this false feeling and perception of success.

I'm not against church mergers--at times they are part of God's plan--but I want you to know what you are getting yourself into so that you have the greatest possible chance for success.

2. Have a solid understanding of your motivation for a merger.

There are many reasons that mergers take place: economic issues, property and facility concerns, changing communities, a shortage of pastors, fear of failure, political pressure, denominational mandate, a church fire, or a church plant that did not launch well.

If you have an honest grasp on why you want to engage in a merger, it will significantly increase your potential for success. This will allow you to realign the motivation, whatever it may be, to a Great Commission effort to reach people. On the other hand, be honest about the real issues and don't disregard them; ignoring the past will not help you move forward.

3. Do your homework to understand why many mergers fail.

There is a nearly endless list of reasons why mergers can fail. I highly recommend that you study several mergers before you pull the trigger on your own. Study both successful and failed mergers. Write down what you learn and put it into practice.

A Roadmap to Successful Mergers

I vividly remember a church merger in New York state. They contacted me to consult with them through the process. We all learned more about mergers, and I learned that I don't like unbelievably cold weather. (Upstate New York has two seasons: winter and July.) The scenario looked to me like it begged for trouble, but everyone involved seemed enthusiastic about it. The merger involved two churches. One was old and established, had large old buildings that were paid for, a small group of senior saints, and lots of money. The other church was a young church start-up with no money and no buildings, but it did have a good core of young and energetic people. The thing that made this merger really interesting is that they wanted a co-pastorate consisting of each senior pastor from both of the respective churches. The good news is that the merger did happen. However, it came with several painful price tags.

The following thoughts are not from this one experience alone, but more of general wisdom and insights to help you navigate a merger, should you believe that that is the right decision for you.

Seek a mission-driven merger, not a survival-driven merger.

There are many different reasons for a merger, but perhaps only one that is not a wise choice - survival. If you go into survival mode, your decision-making ability will sharply decline; your focus will become a series of disconnected short-term plans, rather than a clear long-term vision. To merely survive means to remain in existence. We have the medical technology to keep people alive on life support mechanisms, but few consider that really living. Don't settle for life support systems for your church. There are too many churches like that today. They are breathing, but show no signs of life. Determine with conviction, prayer, and faith in the power of God that you will strive to fulfill the Great Commission or close the doors and pull the plug.

Establish clarity in pursuit of common values, vision, theology and culture before you start the merger.

In my opinion, the mission of all local churches has already been settled. Jesus established it and it's recorded in Matthew 28:18-20. You can say it a number of different ways, but the Great Commission is the bottom line. From that starting point, however, there is much room for style, personality and difference of values, vision, theology and culture. Talk about these issues up front.

From worship style, to doctrine, to church culture and long-term vision, what do you want the new church to look like? Let me offer one piece of advice: Don't go for perfection of these concepts. You'll never accomplish the merger. Get the general concepts and big picture agreed upon, then work on the details as you go.

Make sure you have a profound sense that "God is in it."

This is not third on the list because it's third in priority. I list the "God check" at this point so that you don't race ahead in the process without knowing that God is blessing your plan. Seek God's heart and will throughout the process.

It is also wise to remove any pressure to move too fast. A lengthy courtship is advisable in the process of a merger.

Choose your leadership wisely.

This is usually where you make or break the merger. Let's say for example that three churches are merging. I strongly encourage you to have one senior pastor. Co-pastorates are rare and difficult enough in scenarios where that was the plan from the beginning. To include that element in a merger is asking for trouble.

Don't allow the process of selection for senior pastor to become like a beauty pageant; and I don't recommend a vote of the three congregations! The best scenario is to have the three pastors decide who the most qualified leader is amongst themselves. Or, in the case of a denominational connection, have the denominational leader participate in the decision. This is not easy, but no one said it would be. This process of selection between the three will quickly reveal the level of maturity and cooperation. Remember, if the staff can't get along, don't expect the new congregation to get along. The public communication works best if two pastors emerge saying, "I am not submitting my name as a candidate." How they remove their names is important. You don't need two martyrs and a leader--just one leader.

I recommend that the most visionary, personable, and evangelistic leader who possesses strong communication skills be chosen. Not the pastor from the largest church or the pastor who has the most experience. The other two pastors can choose to move on to another church, or become an associate on staff of the new church.

This does not preclude the possibility that none of the three pastors become the pastor of the new church. It may well be that none are the best choice and a pastor from the outside should be brought in.

Don't operate by "the biggest will rule" principle.

Good decision-making will make or break the process. Don't allow the church with the most money, most people and biggest building to make all the decisions. This will kill the spirit of the merger. It will become more like one church absorbing another, which is a very different deal. Think unity: one mind, one body, one spirit and one cause.

In your decision-making process, don't seek harmony. Don't make it your goal to make both or all sides happy. This will win you nothing. Be honest. As Jim Collins would say, face the brutal facts. Put the most difficult issues on the table first. Don't make decisions by fairness or politics; make decisions because they are biblical and right.

Expectations must be clearly defined.

Now the layers of detail begin to emerge. Put in writing exactly what the expectations are for the first three, six, twelve and eighteen months concerning leadership (clergy and lay), property, facilities, finances, and ministry philosophy. Then begin to layer in specific goals so that the expectations become measurable.

The result of the merger is one new church.

A new identity is the goal. Two or three small churches clattering around under one roof like friendly roommates is not the goal. It is not always possible or practical to have a new property and building, although preferable, but you can give the church a new name and declare it a new day and beginning of a new ministry. Kill the sacred cows and think outside the box. This is your chance to make some good changes that will result in a great local church. Start writing the history for the new church as if there were no past. Start fresh!

I hope this has been helpful to you and in the next edition of The Pastor's Coach, I'll deal with the concept of a turnaround scenario for a struggling church.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at www.injoy.com. I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.