5 Critical Lessons From a Church Merger

Merging two or more churches can be very tricky. Read experienced pastor, Justin Anderson's, account.

On November 7, 2010, I announced that our six-year-old church of about 1,100 people on two campuses was merging with a twenty-year-old, 2,500 person church about 10 miles east of us. The merger would triple the size of our church overnight, and we’d have a new name, a new structure and new leadership. Three months later, we announced a third church was joining us, and we became Redemption Church.

The mergers were easily the biggest thing we’d ever done, and we struggled to find people to guide us through the process. All three churches were healthy, growing, vibrant congregations. None of us “needed” each other, and none of our churches were in a position of strength or weakness as we attempted to navigate the process. The following are five critical lessons I learned from the merger:

1. How much, and how well, are you really leading your church?

Theoretically, I’ve believed in the plurality of eldership. Prior to the merger, Praxis Church had seven elders, and I, as lead pastor, was first among equals. When we merged the churches, I became one member of a five-man leadership team charged with leading the vision and future of Redemption Church. I went from having more pastoral experience than my entire eldership combined, to having the second least amount of experience.

Immediately, I realized that I hadn’t really led my elders. Instead, I’d been a (mostly) benevolent dictator who was rarely questioned. I’ve grown more as a leader in the last five months than perhaps the previous six years combined. I’m learning more about leadership every day, and see this merger as a great opportunity to gain invaluable leadership lessons.

2. Patience actually is a virtue.

At Praxis, because of our structure, youth and culture, we made decisions very quickly and implemented them just as fast. Because of this, we often made missteps that had to be corrected, and we missed opportunities because we didn’t wait to make sure our direction was the right one.

In a larger structure like Redemption Church, we’ve lost our ability to act as quickly as before, and the wisdom of our new Leadership Team has served to slow our decision making process significantly. It frustrated me at first, but I quickly saw the benefit as we reversed course on several ideas that I initially thought were best, but turned out not to be. This saved us a lot of work and hardship.

3. Don’t underestimate your congregation’s capacity for change and vision.

Big changes, like a merger, aren’t always popular. People simply don’t like change, and I knew some people wouldn’t like this change in particular. After finalizing plans for the merger, I expected a 5 percent rate of attrition in leadership, attendance and money. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the five months following our announcement, we’ve lost virtually nothing. No leaders left, nearly every member is still around, attendance is at record highs, and people are giving sacrificially. I significantly underestimated our people’s appetite for vision, but I won’t do it again.

4. Together is better — and it’s the future.

Throughout the merger planning, we continually asked this core question: “Are we better together than we are apart?” Our churches were closely aligned doctrinally and philosophically, and we’d already partnered together on two significant endeavors. We often returned to the questions: Do we really need to merge? Couldn’t we just continue to work closely together?

Five months into the merger, and looking forward to the exciting plans and vision on our near horizon, I firmly believe what I suspected all along — we are better together than we were apart. When it comes to vision, ideas, leadership, resources and prayer, 1+1+1=10. This experience makes me think multi-site strategies in general, and mergers specifically, provide a bright future for the church in America.

5. Relational connectivity is key.

In Larry Osborne’s book, Unity Factor, he talks about having a three-fold unity on your leadership team: Doctrinal, Philosophical and Relational. I’ve learned a ton from Larry over the last couple of years, but nothing has served us as well as his lesson on three-fold unity. We knew going into our merger discussions that we had Doctrinal and Philosophical Unity, but the Relational Unity was something of a question mark.

I knew two of the other four members of the leadership team well, and knew we had the right relational chemistry, but I didn’t know the other two men as well, and it took some time to develop the kind of relationships necessary for a merger of this magnitude. I can’t overstate how important relational unity is when you are considering a merger. Things will get tough, some conversations will be hard, and if you don’t have the kind of relationships that allow honest, frank dialogue without your feelings getting hurt, it won’t work.

Justin Anderson
Justin Anderson is the Lead Pastor of Preaching and Vision, Redemption Church. He has been married to his wife, Emilie, for 5 years, and they have a 2-year old daughter named Lily.