What I Learned from Two Failed Church Mergers

In my estimation, it takes 3 to 12 months to learn enough about a church to make a decision to merge.

There is always an initial excitement about a new opportunity, but this is just the honeymoon phase. Then come questionable impressions about motives, actions, behaviors, etc. This is a tough stage to get past—this second time, we didn’t make it. We were still too much about business and “getting the job done.” I wish we’d realized the end game is real relationships.


Act One: A Nearby SBC Baptist Church

Sometimes I take walks with people instead of meeting them for lunch or at the office. I guess Steve Jobs biography inspired me. He closed some of Apple’s biggest deals walking barefoot around Palo Alto with billionaire executives.

One day, I was walking with one of our elders, talking and praying about finding a church building. At this point, our church was about four years old and meeting in a middle school cafeteria with no windows, but a few “Got Milk” posters with Miley Cyrus.

As we were walking, it suddenly struck us that there was a big, almost-empty Baptist church nearby. So we walked over and knocked on the door. We were greeted by a group of older gentlemen playing dominoes in the fellowship hall. These men had been members of the church for decades. A few years prior, the church had lost its pastor to moral failure, and they were down to about 20 people in attendance on Sunday mornings. This once-thriving congregation had a building that sat 500 and dozens of unused classrooms.

Over time, a conversation about merging our two congregations began. After a few meetings with their leadership team, they were ready to bring the merge to a congregational vote. We were naive and ecstatic. On the evening of the vote, I received a call from the chairman of the deacons informing me that the congregation had voted the merger down. I was caught off-guard.

“There must be something we can do,” I said.

“Nope,” he replied, “the congregation has voted, and that’s it.”

“But I thought that everyone was on board,” I said.

“Well, our membership roster has hundreds of people that don’t attend the church. They showed up for the business meeting and voted the idea down. End of story,” he said.

Lessons Learned from Failure #1

1. Go slowly and build relationships. The time between the first conversations and the vote was only about 6 weeks. It simply wasn’t long enough for the churches to get to know each other. In my estimation, it takes 3 to 12 months to learn enough about a church to make a decision to merge.

2. Ask questions about the membership and polity. Many of the questions that you think you should ask, you’ll likely already ask—determining if they’re a congregational church, asking about the elders’ authority, etc. But you should also ask more detailed questions about the expectations of membership. Ask about what they mean by congregationalism. Ask about what typical members’ meetings look like. Ask how many people attend members’ meetings.

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