A 11 Minute Read - By Chris Bright - posted on August 18, 2020

Podcast Episode 7. Church Mergers (with Jim Tomberlin)


Church Mergers have often been thought of as a generally negative thing. We conjure up ideas of large churches eating up congregations, and the number of churches declining. However, if done properly, a church merger can be an exceptionally healthy thing. Jim Tomberlin is the master at helping churches merge in a healthy way and shows us the ways to think through merging churches successfully.

About our Guest

Both a multisite and church merger expert, Jim began his multisite journey in the mid 1990s when he was the senior pastor of Woodmen Valley Chapel. In 2000, he went on to pioneer the multisite model at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He founded Multisite Solutions in 2005 to help churches develop and implement the emerging model of location expansion. Jim gained over 20+ years of multisite and church merger experience before joining The Unstuck Group in February of 2019.

Key Points

1.      Hi Jim, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve got quite a long history working with church mergers. Could you tell us about how you got started on your journey with helping churches merge?

My first church merger knocked on the door in 2002 when I was launching multisite campuses in Chicago with Willow Creek Community Church. That fledgling merger of 150 people with 150 Willow Creekers, that I skeptically embraced, has grown to a congregation of two thousand people today.  When I left Willow Creek in 2005 to help churches multisite I discovered that multisite churches were experiencing similar knocks on the door. I found myself coaching a lot of churches through mergers. Today over 40% of multisite campuses have come by way of a merger. The multisite church movement was the primary catalyst for the church merger movement we are seeing today. Church mergers were unintended but good consequence of the multisite movement. 

2.      With COVID-19 starting to ease, I’m sure that many churches in the U.K. may be surprised at how much re-building they need to do. Why do you think merging is a credible option for churches? Just like in the US, the majority of churches in the UK are vulnerable--stuck in  20th century thinking, declining in attendance and struggling financially all before COVID. Many of them will not survive post-COVID. But there is another option--they could merge with a healthy church and be better together!

3.      What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen when helping churches with Mergers?

Not understanding that all mergers are like a slow dance where one church leads and the other follows. Not clearly defining the merger relationship at the beginning of the merger conversation. We have identified four kinds of mergers -- rebirth, adoption, marriage or ICU. It is very important in the beginning to identify what kind of merger relationship we are having. 

4.      When you talk about merging, you say it’s a bit like a slow dance, how do you mean? (Lead Church, Following church)

All church mergers are like a slow dance where one leads and the other follows. You can’t have two leads in a dance. Both partners are important and valuable, but one has to lead and the other has to follow. Getting that clearly established up front, who is the lead church and who is the  follow church, is crucial to a healthy church merger conversation. 

5.      In your book you talk about four types of mergers, the first one is a Rebirth merger. What is that?

We describe an Absorption merger as a Rebirth merger where a struggling or dying church gets a second life by being fully absorbed and restarted under a stronger, vibrant, and typically larger church. 

6.      Your second type of merger is Adoption, how is that different?

Adoption mergers are where a stable or stuck church is fully integrated under the vision of a stronger, vibrant, and typically larger church. These churches bring more than just a building and people to the table, but they also bring other additional assets like needed staff and effective programs. 

7.      The third type of merger is Marriage, what does that look like and how do you journey to getting there?

Marriage mergers are rare but it is where two churches, both strong or growing churches, often equally strong, but at different life stages, realign with each other under a united vision and new leadership configuration. 

8.      The fourth type of merger is one you advise against, which is the Intensive Care, or ICU Merger. Could you describe that for us and why you think it’s not a great idea.

We call these ICU (intensive care unit) mergers. Its two struggling churches on life-support.  It’s the last option before death with the hope to survive at the expense of the other. Most of these mergers fail.

9.      I was writing about church mergers the other day, and I likened how we’ve traditionally thought about mergers to the TV show Married At First Sight. The temptation is that churches that want to merge do it too quickly with generally bad results. What’s a healthy timescale to think about? 

Our surveys indicated that the average length of time from the initial merger conversation to the final vote is 8 months. Many mergers happen in less time, some may take up to a year. Our observation is that the biggest detriment to a merger is time. The longer the conversation, the more likely a merger will not happen. Though every merger is different, the key components of the merger conversation fit into five stages we have described in courtship language 

10.  In the Post-COVID world, there may be many churches that won’t be financially viable with reducing congregations, or churches that can’t afford to stay open due to lack of giving over the last few months. What steps would you recommend that churches take if they’re starting to think about potentially merging?

Here’s steps we recommend if your church is a Joining Church

  1. Define reality--where are we on the church lifecycle--strong, stuck or struggling? Take the free Unstuck Group Assessment at https://assess.theunstuckchurch.com 
  2. Read Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work--Expanded & Updated (benefits, understanding, process, tools)
  3. Initiate the conversation: Could our two churches be better together by merging? 4 Diagnostic Questions:
  1. Would our congregation be better by merging rather than

            remaining separate?

  • Could we accomplish more together than we could separately?
  • Would our community be better served if we joined together?
  • Could the kingdom of God be further enlarged by joining


  • Seek help from your denomination, network or Thinking Church. 

If your church is the Lead Church

1.  Follow the 3 R’s: Relationship-Resource-Risk (ask)

2.  Be Merger-Friendly Leader: Humility, Kingdom-minded, Compassionate

  •  Humility - not arrogant, have all the answers, a know-it-all
    • Benjamin Disraeli vs William Gladstone Interview
    • Humility goes a long way in a merger
    • “The largest room in the world is the room for improvement.”
  • Kingdom-minded - Care about other churches in their community, collaborative, cooperative, aware
    • “We are only as strong as our weakest church”
    • “We all rise or fall together”, “United we stand, divided we fall”
  • Compassionate - understand the grieving process of the joining church
    • Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, Acceptance, 
    • This is the church where they were baptized, got married, dedicated their children, donated their tithes and offerings, and buried their loved ones. 
    • Though their story continues by merging with another church, this chapter of their story is coming to an end, and they’re afraid that many memories will be forever lost.

“Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. . .  bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.” 1 Peter 3:8-12 (MSG)

Final Word

  • Ecclesiastes 4:9,12

9Two are better than one,

    because they have a good return for their labor:

12 Though one may be overpowered,

    two can defend themselves. 

  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken

  • Better Together, Stronger Together!


Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin & Warren Bird