There is a lot to be said about motivation when it comes to changing a congregation’s process or population. Any change on the scale of a merger has to be evaluated for motives. If we come into a change like this with the wrong motivations, we will do more harm than good.
To that end, let me spend this chapter talking about lots of reasons not to merge your congregation. In a series about mergers, it might seem strange to tell you not to pursue one, but the reality is that merger is not for everyone. At the same time, it was God’s vision for our congregation and we believe it may be his vision for some others as well.
God Does Not Give Up
The date was September 19, 2009. I was sitting in one of the elders’ living room, being grilled about all kinds of things. I remember it like it was yesterday.
In the midst of all the questions about doctrine and methodology, Ray looked down at the paper he had in his hand and then looked me in the eye from across the room and said, “Why would someone want to take a living, growing church like yours and merge with us?”
In print, that word us may not convey what it conveyed that day. Ray charged that word with all the frustrations, confusion and trouble of Grace’s existence. All the splits, turmoil, competition, cliques and venom of decades of visionless wanderings were packed into those two letters.
It was a heartbreaking question because it revealed just how downtrodden and beaten up Grace really was. I am sure Ray did not intend it this way, but he charged that sentence with all the frustrations and difficulties the elders had faced over the years.
Grace was a church that had reached the point of believing they were dead. They were just waiting for the doctor to show up and make the declaration but hoping someone could put them on life support for awhile before the inevitable end.
Here was a group of godly men who were in the midst of chaos and operating in survival mode. They were tired and broken. They were holding their breath and waiting for something to come and relieve them.
I steadied myself and met his gaze, then I looked around at the other two men in the room. Then I very deliberately said, “Because I refuse to believe that God has given up on His church.”
I meant it that day, and I believe it still. Jesus doesn’t give up on his church, even if Satan beats on us until we believe Jesus has.
Reason not to Merge #1: You Think a Merger Will Bring New Life
Right now, you might be looking for alternatives to what you’re doing as a church because you have fallen into this trap of desperation. You might be looking at a merger as the hope for “new life” in your congregation.
If that’s the case, put this book down and get on your knees in repentance. Seriously.
If you believe that God has given up on the church, then you have a problem as a leader. Confronted with the reality that God does not give up on the church and that Jesus loves the church with his entire being (even calls it his body!), we should repent of the sin of doubting God and then get up off our knees with a resolution to absolutely and adamantly refuse to ever let that lie into our heads again.
I shocked Ray and the other elders with my statement. It wasn’t because I am some kind of amazing speaker or anything. I believe that at that moment, God filled that room with His Spirit and that the Spirit took on his role as our Comforter (John 14:26). These three men were filled with hope for the first time in a long time. I felt sort of like Willy Wonka when he opened the door to his factory and showed the children its wonders.
Later on, the guys told me that after that conversation they interviewed another man but there was no doubt in their minds that Grace needed what Heritage brought to the table – hope. From my perspective, that hope was a long time coming but because it was grounded in the Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ, it had become unshakeable in my way of ministry.
I had journeyed through a complete lack of hope back in 2007, and if I had not been able to strip everything away and begin with the rock solid foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have no doubt I would not be in ministry today. This hope – THE HOPE – had radically changed my way of thinking about Jesus’ Church, and now it was infecting our potential partners in the merger.
Remember that all of this is about resurrection – about breathing life into something dead. How does God do that? He breathes into it. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for spirit and breathe are the same word. There is no difference between what makes us alive and what keeps us living.
Sometimes, we stop breathing. We hold our breath, believing that we can just keep going on that breath. But we can’t. Eventually, we have to breathe again or we will die.
Here’s the thing – a church merger or any method or program is not breathe for the body. If you think a merger might breathe new life into your congregation on its own, don’t do it. Nothing can breathe life into the church except the Spirit of God.
And if we don’t seek Him first and ground ourselves on Him, then nothing will fix our church. We’ll just keep rebreathing the same depleted air, and then we’ll even share it with new people, telling them it is new breath, but it isn’t and we’ll all die together.
It’s simple really. A merger won’t breathe new life into your congregation. It might be the Holy Spirit’s way of breathing new life into your congregation, but it has to be about him first.
Stop reading. Go kneel before God and ask for the Spirit to breathe. Then brace yourself and let go of that breath you’ve been holding for so long and then let him fill your lungs.
A merger won’t bring new life. Only God’s Spirit can do that.
Reason not to Merge #2: We want to have _____ like that other church
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories to illustrate that he does not give up on the church – his people.
He tells the story of a shepherd finding a lost sheep, and at the end of the story, the shepherd tells his friends, “Rejoice with me!”
He tells the story of a woman who tears her home apart to find a lost coin, and at the end of the story, the woman calls her neighbors in and tells them, “Rejoice with me!”
Then, He tells the story of a son who squanders his inheritance, and when he returns as a vagrant and bum, his father embraces him and gathers his servants and says, “Rejoice with me!”
But his other son pouts in the midst of the celebration, because he thinks he deserves a party. The father says to him, “Why won’t you rejoice with me?”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we are more often the pouting son than we are the returning son. We can get lost in the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death and not realize that God is still beside us (Psalm 23). We want good things, and we say we believe God has them for us, but we watch the celebrations of successful congregations and we sit on the periphery and wonder why God doesn’t bless us like he blesses them.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)
Sound familiar? It is the tenth commandment – you know, that list of things God said we should do first and foremost? And usually, when there are lists like this, the first and last ones are the most important (which means they are the ones we break most often).
When I started in pastoral ministry, I had a real problem with envy and covetousness, although I didn’t know it. I had read tons of books on church growth and successful ministry, and I wanted it for myself. I had heard all these great preachers and said to myself that I could be better than them. Worse than that, I had seen a lot of mediocre preachers with churches bigger than ours and figured I could certainly beat them.
I didn’t say it out loud, but in reality I was living my life as if God should be thankful for having me on his team and expecting that he would give me the desires of my heart. The only problem was that my heart was covetous and selfish.
Like I told you in chapter 1, I went through a hard year in 2007. God used that desolate time in the wilderness to teach me some things I thought I knew all about. He showed me just how much of an idiot I really was.
If Grace had called me in 2007, I would have destroyed their church. If Heritage had fired me in 2007, it would have destroyed that church. If we had tried to merge the two in 2007 or 2008 or early 2009, it would have been more chaos.
God knew what he was doing. He brought us both to the place we needed to be to do what we needed to do to make what only He could make.
And that was something unusual and somewhat unexpected. The leaders of both congregations were eagerly listening for Jesus’ direction. I was humbled through failure and encouraged through Jesus Christ. We were ready to take the step God had for us.
Our merger was not founded on covetous comparison to other congregations. This was almost by default. What would emerge would not be Grace or Heritage. It would be something completely new – grown organically by God to be exactly what it would be and nothing less.
it was his timing for his purpose, not our own because we wanted to have what others had. And with delicious irony, God gave us what both congregations needed and longed for. Heritage got a building. Grace got healing and vision. Bedford Road came into existence just as God had planned all along.
Don’t make a move to get what you want. Find what God wants and move to it.
Reason #3: It Will Give You Direction
At Bedford Road, we define vision this way:
Glimpsing the image of our future that is in the mind of God.
I am going to tell you right up front that a merger will not clarify God’s vision for you. We started the merger process and left to ourselves, we would have muddied up God’s vision like an oil spill in the Mississippi River.
Introducing a whole bunch of new people into any mix results in a lot of responses, but the natural ones are almost always the ones that will detract from the vision. If we hadn’t kept the vision in the forefront of everything we did and reminded people constantly that it was God’s vision and not ours, we would have had a heap of trouble.
Just look at what happened in the Jerusalem church when the Hellenic Jews started becoming Christians. Suddenly, there was this influx of new people with new needs and very quickly everyone was pulling the apostles in all kinds of directions:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in lthe daily distribution. (Acts 6:1)
The Hebrews had their vision. The Hellenists had their vision, and the apostles were stuck in the middle. Thankfully, the apostles had Jesus’ vision for the church and they gave clear instructions, the church appointed people to handle the matter, and the entire group kept moving on apace.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)
A merger has to be a move in God’s direction. It is not God’s direction itself. It is a step toward the image of your future that God is letting you glimpse. Numbers don’t give direction. Butts in seats don’t give you direction. No program will give you direction.
Vision keeps us straight, and vision comes from Jesus.
Hallmarks of God’s Direction not to Merge
So, there are three broad strokes of an image of not merging that I am hoping is starting to take shape. I want to now look at a few hallmarks or signs that your church is probably not being led into a merger.
- Both congregations have vocational pastors. This is a problem waiting to happen. I know this sounds a little negative and it probably is, but you can’t go from being the only pastor or being the only remaining pastor to being a subordinate. We would all like to believe that this is not the case, but it is. If two or more pastors come together, then only one will stay – maybe.
- Neither congregation has a vocational pastor. Double the spiritual burden of the lay leaders who are already struggling with keeping things afloat? Bring a vocational pastor in after you’ve started a merger process without leadership? These things just don’t make sense. I will address the leadership structures in a later post, but just take it as a given that without at least one vocational pastor that both congregations can submit to, you’re asking for trouble.
- There is a prevalent culture of resistance to change. There is nothing wrong with keeping things the same. Many church growth experts say that the only way to grow a church is to change. This is frankly not true, and it has caused an awful lot of congregations to develop inferiority complexes. When you don’t have a reason or the vision to change, don’t change.
- There is a significant geographic barrier to the merger. We live in a regional culture. Our entire region, about a twenty square mile area, serves as bedroom communities for Metro Boston. There are two small cities in our region of New Hampshire that are only about 15 miles apart. Most of the towns in the region are close to one of two major interstate highways, which run through both cities. As a result, even though this is a relatively large catchment, we tend to think of ourselves regionally rather than as individual communities.
In order to merge two congregations, they need to at least somewhat consider themselves pin the same ‘market area.’ if they are from wildly disparate areas, the odds are that they will be very different catchments. In our case, everything north of the larger of the two cities, Manchester, is considered a different region. Hooksett, where Heritage was located is literally the last town considered part of the Manchester-Nashua corridor. Everything else is “up north”.
- You are not ready to resolve past conflicts. On Christmas Eve 2009, one of our elders shared that this merger was about reconciliation. He challenged the congregation to seek out those who had hurt them, hurt the congregation, and forgive them, bridge divides. During the first few months of our merger process, I met with leaders from the splits. I met the pastor of the church that was formed out of the most recent split. People knew that we were dealing with these difficult issues. It was inescapable. If either congregation is not ready to move on, to finish up old business, then don’t merge. It isn’t worth it. It is not just about being resistant to change. This is about being unable to adapt to the pa pain, about being unable to forsake the hurt feelings and ace the issues,
Do any of these signs sound familiar? If they are present in your congregation or in the congregation you’re looking to merge with, you should probably not move forward with it.