An interesting TV show started a few years ago on Channel 4. Married at First Sight took an American TV concept of matchmaking couples using science. Here was the twist, though. The couples only met for the first time at the altar. They would then go on their honeymoon and try to start their married life. After six weeks, they decided whether to stay married or get a divorce.
As a Christian, this is a morally questionable concept. Not only does it turn relationships into entertainment, but it digs at the concept that marriage should be a lifelong commitment; instead becoming something that can be thrown away at a whim after 6 weeks.
However, looking at the show in an educational way, there are many interesting facets about relationships that can be observed. What happens when you try to put two people together when the social institutions of dating and engagement are taken away? This is an intriguing question, my only wish is that it was explored in a fictional setting rather than with real peoples’ lives.
The results were in. The success rate is 0%. Are we surprised? Of course not.
Why then, do we think that we can approach church mergers in the same way? When it comes to church mergers, it’s very easy to think of it in a Married At First Sight way, and then when the merger fails, we wonder why everything went wrong.
Thankfully, there is are better ways to merge two churches together, ways that can lead to both congregations thriving for the long term.
Just like any relationship, you can’t get merged at first sight. It will take time for the congregation to be taken on the journey, to go through the stages of grief and to come to a place of acceptance. Any change is a form of loss, so this needs to be undertaken with great care and attention.
The same applies for the leadership teams. Time must be taken to ensure that there is synergy and alignment before the merge takes place.
However, like all relationships, you don't want it lasting too long. If a church merger takes years rather than months, the likelihood of success diminish. The average length of a healthy merger is about 8 months
Mergers are like a slow dance. In any kind of dance, one leads and one follows. If both try to lead, both dancers get frustrated, not to mention the possible injuries from pulling in separate directions! Similarly, If both dancers try to follow, neither dancer know where to step next. This results in inaction, passivity and more frustration.
Here are the four types of mergers.
In an rebirth merger, the following church gets completely absorbed into the congregation of the leading church, this is usually because the following church needs to be completely reborn, and the leading congregation provides the healthy destination the church can absorb into.
This is particularly effective when the following church is within a 20-minute drive radius of the lead church. This is also advisable when the leading church is larger than the following church. The focus for this type of merger is cultural appropriation: getting the following church’s congregation ready to become part of the leading church, recognising that the cultural norms they had will need to change and they will take on a new identity within the leading church.
It is important, then, that there is a synergy between the two congregations in terms of style and culture, as this will help the congregation in the following church absorb faster into the leading church.
With dwindling congregations already starting to occur and with the post-COVID world looking likely to accelerate this, churches absorbing into larger churches in their vicinity is a healthy way to reach more people in a more efficient way.
In an adoption, a child joins a family. They don’t become part of the parent like in an absorption merger (which is quite an odd image to conjure up!). When a child is adopted, they come under the governance of their parents but remain their own person. In the church world, this type of merger is where a following church becomes a multisite campus of the leading church.
These tend to work best when the following church is in the ‘habitable zone’ of a multisite campus (20-30-minute drive time away), although with the rise of church online, this habitable zone is now able to be more stretched.
What’s clear in this type of merger is that the following church changes to the values and culture of the leading church.
In a marriage, two individuals are united to start a new family unit. They both lay down their pre-conceived ideas and submit to one another to create a new culture. This is an exciting prospect for two individual churches who realise that they can be better together, that they both have something to give, and both have something to learn.
Like in any marriage, there is still a leader and a follower, although this may not be as pronounced as in an adoption or absorption merger but recognising the natural leadership will be important.
Getting the ‘dating’ and ‘engagement’ phases of this kind of merger is crucial. When couples date, they are seeking to work out if they are compatible… do their values match? do their personalities complement? is there chemistry? It’s exactly the same in a church. It can be all too easy to rush straight to marriage, only to realise that two churches have fundamental differences in their theology, their style and their leadership practices.
Similarly, in the engagement phase of the merger, the churches must be making full preparations to be fully joined. This is where work is started with the charity commission to merge the charities, work is done in starting to create the new future together: A new mission statement, values, discipleship pathway, leadership pipeline and more.
The wedding is the final phase of the merger. All that is left is to say “I do” – which in this scenario is changing the name of the church, completing the charity merger and operating in the new life the churches have planned out.
You may have seen examples of “marriage of convenience” in real life. This is where two people get married not out of love, but because they are dependent on the other person for survival in some sense, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Churches can do this too; they are struggling for survival so think that merging with another struggling church will solve the problem. However, the reality is that it usually makes things worse.
Merging two unhealthy churches together will only ever create more ill-health. Adding two negative numbers together doesn’t make a positive, it just creates a bigger negative. If your church is struggling for survival, we would recommend that you stay away from this option and look at an absorption or adoption style merger instead.
If your church needs to merge with another, or if your church has been approached to be the leading church in a merge, it is an exciting and daunting prospect all at once. Thankfully, you don’t need to do it alone, and we are able to draw on the combined experience of multiple mergers to help your merger be a success. You can book a FREE 1-hour consultation call with us and discuss your merger plans. We can then help put your church on a merger path that will lead to health. If your church is unhealthy, we will be honest enough to advise you against a merger as well, but rather we can help your church get back to health first.