5 Lessons I’ve Learned Leading Through Church Mergers

In a recent article about “Multisite Church Trends in 2020” I mentioned an increase in church mergers, “With church attendance declining in the US and the pipeline of people jumping into ministry shrinking, mergers are going to pick up steam.”

While I’ve had the opportunity to consult and coach other churches through the merger process, I’ve also had the opportunity to personally lead through a couple at the church I serve at.

What follows are a couple of lessons I’ve learned along the way. Here’s to hoping you can go to school on my experience.

People transfer culture and ministry DNA, operational practices, support and institutionalize it.

After both churches affirmed the merger through a vote, we encouraged people who attended our original location to go to the new site if they lived in that area. We had a lot of trust built up over time with our people, and so they did. But then they came right back. While we were saying that we were one church that met in multiple locations, people came back to the original site and expressed the exact opposite. They said that the new location didn’t look, act, or feel like us. Just because we offered the same ministry “programs” at the new location, it still didn’t feel like “us” yet. Much of that trust that we had built up with our people was eroded because we didn’t follow through on the promise that we were making that this new location was us, when it honestly just wasn’t yet. Just because a joining church votes and technically becomes an extension of your church in a new community, there is still a lot of work to do on that campus to help it become “you.”

Team values are more important that organizational values.

The fastest way to change the culture of the church is to change the culture of the staff team, which sometimes means changing the actual people on the team. The church staff and volunteer leaders are the culture carriers of the church. In one particular merger we ran into the hard fact that the kind of person who can be on staff at a fast-growing, problem-solving church where new people are meeting Jesus is drastically different than the kind of person who is on staff at a church that has been plateaued or in decline for many years. They’re inherently different kinds of people. While we believed the same things about Jesus and the Bible, we were still different kinds of people with different cultures. We initially took the approach to retain and train the staff members of this joining church. This approach unfortunately turned out to be too idealistic. In the future we would transfer existing staff from established campuses to the new location and allow them to carry our culture with them. These tenured staff intuitively know how we make decisions, how we behave, how we talk, what we value, and how we treat and lead people because they’ve been living in it for so long.

The lead church culture needs to wash over the joining church culture.

New people who “transfer” from the original or sending campus to the new campus (joining church) along with new people attending from the community need to outnumber the people who remain as a part of the joining church. The “original” people from the joining church can no longer be the majority or loudest voice. It’s important to remember however that even a small minority can create a lot of pain and damage if they have a loud enough voice. These moments will come, and they will require clear and steady, kind but strong, directional leadership.

Physical space dictates behavior.

Never underestimate the fact that physical space tells us how to behave. The physical space at one new campus that came through a merger simply was not the same as the physical space at the original campus. It took a couple of years and a lot of financial resources to change that. We’ve demolished three buildings, renovated others, and completely rebuilt a children’s ministry facility. There’s more to do, but it finally feels like “us.”

A big impediment to integration is spiritual atrophy.

There is an often-overlooked spiritual component to a merger between a lead church and joining church. When a joining church has a history of being plateaued or in decline for a long period of time, a protection mindset sets in. This often occurs when a church moves into the “maintenance” phase of the church lifecycle and becomes insider focused. They start making decisions based on who they are trying to keep rather than who they are trying to reach. On the surface this may come across as merely an issue of strategy, style or preference. However, insider-focused churches actually experience spiritual atrophy that requires significant work, pain, and spiritual break through to change.

If a church merger is in your church’s future, I’d encourage you to reach out to the Unstuck Group and bring in some outside help. Our team combined has 100+ years of experience leading in churches with successful multisite strategies. We can guide you to assess multisite readiness, build your model and strategies, and align your staff and structure to the strategy…that goes for mergers too!

Posted in Leadership


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