Are the nation’s burgeoning church merger and multisite movements byproducts of larger congregations preying on smaller ones? Do big churches pressure small ones into relinquishing buildings and land in exchange for survival?
In some circles, that’s called “steeple-jacking.” But it’s also a myth about a trend that’s already eclipsed the American megachurch phenomenon, said Jim Tomberlin, the author of Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work.
A consultant who facilitates church mergers, Tomberlin dismissed the predatory view of the process. Many money- and member-strapped congregations voted against merger—even at the risk of extinction, he countered.
“I have discovered you are not going to force a small church to do anything,” he said. Mergers that fail usually do so “because somebody doesn’t want to give up control.”
Put aside egos and logos
Tomberlin is the founder and senior strategist of the merger consulting firm MultiSite Solutions. Negative stereotypes about mergers and the related multisite church movement result from a years-long, painful learning process experienced by pastors, lay leaders and congregations who put pride and emotions before gospel values, he said.
But the recent recession coupled with sliding church attendance pushed an increasing number of congregations to seek spiritually beneficial solutions to financial realities, Tomberlin and other experts report.
The resulting merger and multisite phenomenon is occurring across the denominational spectrum, including Baptists of every stripe. The biggest bar to progress usually is pride and a reluctance to let go of tradition.
“There is a huge win-win if people can put aside their egos and their logos,” Tomberlin said.
Two sinking ships
Before, church mergers were relatively rare and usually involved two struggling congregations united in response to declines in finances, attendance and relevance.
But those arrangements usually didn’t last too long, said John Muzyka, senior director of Service Realty, a Texas-based real estate firm that specializes in working with religious groups seeking to purchase, sell, rent or merge.
“Sometimes, two sinking ships just makes a faster sinking ship,” he said.
Church-to-church deals can go wrong many ways, and at the heart of most failures is a tendency to cling to the past on one part and lack of communication on the other, Muzyka said.
Deals unravel, for example, when some members protest because they and their children were married or baptized there, he said. Those feelings often trump concerns about the building’s continued use, through sale or merger, for ministry.
“Missional thinking is, ‘I want to be able to put the dollars in ministry instead of struggling to survive to keep an emotional tie in this,” Muzyka said.
But he recently found congregations more willing to put the missional before the emotional, and often in ways that enable them to remain on property over which they relinquish control.
“Mergers are a trend right now,” Muzyka said. And “most of the mergers I see are multisite people coming along side” struggling churches.
A shared future
Statistics support that observation and Tomberlin’s statement that it’s outstripping the megachurch movement.
An estimated 5,000 multisite churches exist in the United States, compared to 1,650 megachurches, according to figures provided by MultiSite Solutions. More than 6 million people attend multisite churches in North America, where 75 of the 100 largest congregations have multiple campuses.
In cases where campuses were created from mergers, the weaker or “following” church approached the larger or “lead” church after experiencing years of decline, Tomberlin said. Most of the time, the property of the following church simply is deeded over to the larger one, and most or all of the members merge into the larger body.
The most successful transitions occur when the following church enters the process willing to surrender its identity, if necessary, to ensure its facilities continue to be used in a way that serves God.
“A synergy … comes with these kind of mergers that are more mission-driven versus more survival-driven,” Tomberlin said. “It’s more about embracing a shared future together.”
Still, even when both parties are well-intentioned, the process can implode if neither is clear about its desires and intentions, Muzyka added.
“That can result … in some hurt feelings,” Muzyka said. “I’ve heard horror stories.”
The true heroes
Horror stories were exactly what Senior Pastor Travis Collins wanted to avoid when his three-campus church in Richmond, Va. received the keys to “aging and dying” New Covenant Baptist Church.
New Covenant’s interim pastor approached Collins at Bon Air Baptist Church about the possibility of some sort of merger.
“They gave us their facilities, the money they had in the bank and all their resources,” he said.
New Covenant’s roughly 45 members understood if the deal went through, New Covenant no longer would be New Covenant, Collins said.
“This is going to be different, the worship will be different, the culture will change, the feel, the atmosphere—this is going to be a completely different place. We said that from the beginning.”
Communication doesn’t guarantee a lack of stress or pain in such situations, he added.
New Covenant members were concerned about Bon Air’s intentions with one of its full-time employees and two part-timers paid with stipends, Collins noted. All were let go, he said.
“That was hard for us, and it was hard for them,” he said. “But it did not turn out to be a deal breaker.”
Nor did the name change: What will officially become Bon Air’s fourth campus on Sept. 8—with a soft opening on Aug. 18—will be known as “Bon Air Baptist @ The Villages,” in reference to its Richmond neighborhood.
The credit for the new campus goes to the 30 or so New Covenant members and their interim pastor, Collins said, because they put aside tradition to ensure their church remained a place of ministry.
“The heroes of the story are not the Bon Airs. The heroes of the story are the New Covenants,” Collins said.
Those are the kinds of stories Muzyka said he hears more than any other.
“Back in the day, mergers had that look of this one church swallowing up another,” Muzyka said. “But it really is about: How can these churches accomplish their visions together?”