Future Church: Part 10

By: Justin Anderson

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In the last two decades, multi-site church strategies have become commonplace across the country. Mergers and strategic partnerships are widespread and effective ways for churches to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Even though the economies of scale are often overstated, some efficiencies can be realized.

This next season of ministry life will provide churches with prime opportunities to leverage these strategies. In fact, I think they will become crucial ways for churches to navigate the coming changes, and I highly recommend that all churches consider how they can partner more closely with other like-minded churches.

These kinds of arrangements exist on a spectrum of centralization and interdependence. On one end of the spectrum, you have straight acquisitions. Acquisitions happen when one church completely dissolves and fully assimilates into another—often larger—church. Sometimes, staff are retained and membership transferred; other times, it’s a simple asset transfer. Building assets is the most common motivating factor for the larger church. Dying or aging churches will choose to wind down their ministry and be a blessing to a thriving church by providing them with a building, which is often a difficult barrier for younger churches.

Further down the spectrum is a merger, which takes on a myriad of different forms. The core issues always at the center of discussion are the degree of centralization, roles and titles for existing staff, language for the different branches, and the distribution of funds. All mergers have to deal with these (and other, lesser) issues; no two mergers deal with them similarly.

A prominent multi-site and merger consultant once said that there is no such thing as a true merger of equals, and I think that’s probably true. It’s not like a divorce where you can split the money and the kids 50/50; someone has to lead, the money is never equal, and there has to be one name (although I’ve seen churches try to merge names, unsuccessfully). The spectrum of these partnerships is wide, and mergers take up most of the middle. I’d estimate that 90% of partnerships fall somewhere in the broad merger category.

The other end of the spectrum from acquisition is the strategic partnership, and I’ve seen these take a few different forms. They can be as tight as taking two churches and making them two sites of a single church but maintaining all the roles and structure. The benefit of this kind of arrangement is typically that the churches have already been working closely together and choose to simply formalize their relationship to benefit from some economies of scale, momentum from doing something cool, and complementary geography (for instance, two churches that bookend a city).

Other, less formal possibilities include partnering together for missions, church planting, mercy ministries, sermon planning, counseling centers, and unity movements. These tend to be one-off or seasonal things that don’t require churches to make formal commitments to each other. There is little risk in these arrangements, and they can have a really significant impact when done consistently over time.

My own experience with mergers has been extensive. My first church plant in Phoenix, Arizona, merged with an older, more established church in the area to form a brand new church with a new name, vision, and leadership structure. It was about as close to a merger of equals as I’ve seen. Our church was about seven years old and had just under 2000 people on two campuses. The other church was over 20 years old and had around 2500 people. Our church was younger and had more momentum than they did, but they were far more mature and financially stable. A third and fourth church joined in the following years, growing to ten campuses.

In Seattle, our little church plant was approached by another small church as their pastor was leaving, and they asked us to absorb them. That was a true acquisition, and if we hadn’t been on the cusp of COVID, I think it would have been fairly successful. We were like-minded and had partnered together on some initiatives already. Our church was actually in a second conversation about a merger with a larger church in the area that didn’t pan out. I mention this simply because I want you to know that I think mergers and strategic partnerships will be key for churches to survive this next season of ministry.

If you are a large church or simply solid and stable, I would encourage you to reach out to churches in your area who may need help. Start by thinking of ways to encourage and support them so that they, too, can be strong and stable. We need more churches, not fewer, and if you are in a position to add gas to the tank of another church, please do so. Our merger in Phoenix was born out of collaboration. The senior pastor of the church we merged with had been my mentor for several years before the merger, and one of their other senior leaders was a good friend with whom I had partnered on several other initiatives long before we started discussing a merger.

Working together and demonstrating a Kingdom-first desire to see other churches in your area thrive will have a huge impact on your city and build trust so that if another church encounters a need, it knows that you are the kind of church that will try to help them, not just absorb them.

On the other hand, If you lead a church that is vulnerable and in need of help, reach out to churches that are strong and see if you can partner together. Ask for help, assume a humble posture, know what you need, and be realistic. I’ll be frank: I’ve talked to several churches that have been going for 6+ years and are still only 40 people; the pastor is bi-vocational by necessity, not choice, but they enter into partnership discussions assuming they are equals with a large, thriving church. This is not the way to engage the conversation. Be honest with yourself first and the church you are leading second. Then, approach the other church with specific needs that the church may be able to meet.

Relationships are at the core of all of this. I’ve consulted on dozens of mergers and multi-site strategies over the years; the constant is relationship. If you don’t have strong, trusting, honoring relationships between the pastors and an incredible amount of humility, it won’t work. Mergers are hard. Everyone loses something in a merger. They probably fail as often as they succeed, but I think they will be crucial strategies in the coming years.

Things are going to get hard, and we will need each other. Don’t go down with the ship; hitch your ship to one that isn’t leaking water and float together. That starts with you reaching out and building relationships with guys in your area long before you need something from them.