Many of our congregations are faced with the question of whether they should consider merging with another congregation. In our work, it is a story we have heard for years. The question whether to merge can be complicated, not just because of the legal, staffing and building issues but because of the emotional toll it can take on congregations. It is a decision that takes strong leadership, thoughtful prayer, a clear discernment process and wise decision-making.
If you google “merging congregations”, you will find there is no shortage of articles and theories. A great deal of them talk about intention and alignment. Do the two congregations have the same intention in terms of whose facility to use? Will it be an absorption, a rebirth, or a continuation? Are the missions aligned? However, even with clear intention and alignment of mission many congregations struggle with merging and often find that it doesn’t bring the growth and vitality they had hoped it would. Why? These best laid plans are missing two key things: knowledge of what drives the congregation’s energy and satisfaction and an understanding of congregational culture.
And the Two Shall Become One
It is common to hear that the first year of marriage is a tough one. Two people are coming together with different ways of communicating, different ways of viewing the world and, yes, different backgrounds or cultures.
Both people might love dogs or enjoy hiking or feel committed to helping in their local food pantry – their life missions are aligned. They might have decided where to live and whose couch they are keeping – they have clear intention as to the logistics of their life together. But it is the other things that need attention as well. Why does he walk out of the room when he is hurt? Why doesn’t she like having people over every weekend – isn’t that fun for her? Can’t we spend Easter like my family always did? It is these differences in communication, differences in how each person feels revitalized and differences in culture that will need the most work and the most compromise.
Like a marriage, a merging congregation needs more than just the knowledge that their missions are aligned, who will lead them, or what building they will use for worship. When looking at how congregations will work together, there also needs to be an understanding of how each congregation is driven towards a higher level of energy and satisfaction. And, it cannot be stressed enough, that there must be an understanding that each congregation has a culture and that culture is a big piece of who they are. If the two congregations are coming from two different cultures, then it will be essential to understand what are the strengths of each culture, as well as the possible traps. Without understanding what drives each congregation and its culture, all of the best intentions may fall flat. How can congregations avoid the trap of just best intentions?
Three Steps – Over the Threshold and Beyond
We know that the first year of any relationship is a transition period and that brings a need for commitment to learn, compromise, and adapt. Merging congregations must commit to these three steps. Holy Cow! Consulting has created a map for these steps and we have integrated our tools to help bring congregations clarity as they go through this process.This process is called Emerge© for Merging Congregations. The word emerge means to come forth or arise. Perhaps more profoundly emerge is a verb, it is movement. It is the act of arising.
Emerge takes the form of the three levels of commitment.
- Discernment – The Stage of Learning
What happens: In this phase, merging congregations are determining what kind of relationship they will have with each other. Congregations will have to determine whether to merge, who will be in leadership, the applicable doctrine, etc. Goals will need to be set for the first year after merging with clear follow-up and deadlines.
Tools needed: Each congregation will take the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)® with a merging congregations module. This tool will show where each congregation is in terms of energy and satisfaction, what their drivers are for vitality and the culture of each congregation. It will also show how folks feel about the merging, if they feel that the leadership is adequately communicating, and where they believe energy should be placed as the merger moves forward. The CAT results for each congregation will be run separately and then combined to show, if merged, what the new merged congregation would look like in all of the areas the CAT measures.
Application: Holy Cow! Consulting will run a transition report to help determine identity/direction, remedial issues, administrative needs/issues, opportunities and vulnerabilities, and trust in current leadership. We have a network of trusted and experienced consultants who can help congregations walk through this discernment process where needed.
- Transition – The Stage of Compromise and Adaptation
What happens: Six months after the merger, congregational leadership (clergy, staff and governing body) needs to look at how they feel about the effectiveness of their leadership at this point in the merging process.
Tools needed: The leadership will take Focal Points™ which strategically evaluates the leadership team’s core functions, satisfaction, energy, effectiveness, strengths, and areas for further development.
Application: Next steps will be designed from the Focal Points report so the leadership can continue moving forward during this transition period.
- Resolution – The Stage of Emerging
What happens: One year after the merger the congregation will need to assess final steps to solidify the merger and any needed follow-through.
- The Leadership Clarity Check™, a simple, ten question survey, which will help your leaders evaluate how clearly they perceive the climate of the church they lead.
- The Pulse™, for a staff of 7 or more paid part-time or full-time staff members, which provides clear, reliable information on the health and trajectory of a staff that can be useful in team building, staff development, conflict management, and strategic planning.
- The Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) for the one merged congregation with a strategic planning module. This will show the energy and satisfaction levels, the culture of the merged congregations, the drivers, and areas of performance, as well as whether folks are ready for a new vision and mission. A comparative analysis of the first combined CAT at the beginning of the process and this CAT will be run.
Application: Holy Cow! Consulting has a network of trusted and experienced consultants who can help congregations with any remaining issues or new issues that have become apparent through the data.
We know that any relationship worth fighting for requires intentional hardwork and continuous nurturing. As merging congregations begin to understand the importance of the three steps from the above process and use careful application, their ability to discern next steps will become profound and transformative. It is our job is to help merging congregations along this path and celebrate with them as they emerge as the vital congregation they were meant to be.
For more on how we can help please visit us at www.holycowconsulting.com.
President of Holy Cow! Consulting