Merging Perishing Parishes? Perish the Thought!

August 15th, 2013

Last week on Ministry Matters, United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon kickstarted a debate over small churches and their worthiness of denominational support and subsidy. Ignoring the accusations of extreme infighting and inward focus in small churches (which, let's face it, can happen in any size congregation), the central issue that may have been lost in Willimon's characteristic bombast is the sheer number of small churches in areas with smaller populations and higher mobility than when those churches were founded.

Bishop Scott Jones opens his response to Willimon by reminding us of "the Gospel mandate to preach the good news 'to the ends of the earth,'" emphasizing that that mandate "includes rural communities where United Methodist churches will be small." The implication that rural people are insignificant or unworthy of our attention was not likely Willimon's intention (though some of the 100+ commenters on his article took it that way) but the question remains whether "the ends of" rural counties could be reached just as effectively with a different allocation of resources that takes into account population shifts, financial realities, and people's ability and willingness to drive ten miles or more on a regular basis.

When there are two or three churches of the same denomination just a few miles apart, both with just thirty people worshiping in their sanctuaries built for 150, there is no missional reason to justify operating both congregations, whether their pastors and bills are being paid for by the denomination or not. It is poor stewardship for Christians to invest so much in what amount to clubhouses for their meetings. If the churches pay their own way, that's their prerogative to spend tithed money as they choose, though denominations shouldn't feel obligated to put much effort into their oversight, Willimon and even Jones seem to say.

It is not mission but personal attachment (be it sentiment, pride, or power) that keeps many struggling churches from merging. Stories abound in clergy conversations about tiny congregations that refuse to merge for various reasons: Our building is prettier. My parents got married here. They use praise songs. They use NIV. We've always started worship at 10:45. Or, as one commenter on Willimon's article mentioned:

In one town, there are two UM churches on the same block. Both are struggling. Why won't they combine? Because 150 years ago, one was a "north" church, and one was a "south" church. Another town has two UM churches within a mile of each other. The membership of one, very poor church is primarily coal miners. The membership of the other, well-to-do church is primarily coal executives.

Traditions and preferences matter, no doubt, but struggling to sustain an entire organization—however small—for the sake of our own likes and dislikes, comfort, feelings of ownership, or nostalgia is making ourselves an idol in place of God and our calling to serve, welcome, and reach out in his name.

The temptation to preserve our preferred way of doing things is common across churches small, medium, and large. Attachment to buildings is as well. When the small, rural church my husband pastored lost its historic, picture-postcard-perfect building to fire, merging with the United Methodist church down the road was not an option. Instead, the congregation rebuilt a near-replica of the destroyed building. Lest we think that is just a small, rural mindset, note that the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, are currently fighting over the same decision: rebuild the iconic, historic cathedral that actually did grace so many postcards of the city, badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake, or start over with a new design.

John Muzyka, senior director of Service Realty, Inc., a Texas-based real estate firm that specializes working with religious groups seeking to purchase, sell, rent or merge, told Associated Baptist Press that "at the heart of most failures [to merge] is a tendency to cling to the past on one part and lack of communication on the other."

“Missional thinking is, ‘I want to be able to put the dollars in ministry instead of struggling to survive to keep an emotional tie in this,'” Muzyka said.

The article in which Muzyka is quoted focuses on the trend of smaller churches merging with larger ones, becoming campuses of multisite churches. While some in small churches believe it is predatory on the part of large churches, the experts cited say it is more often small churches approaching large churches about the arrangement. (The multisite trend is exploding: read this case for multisite by Bryan Collier.)

"The most successful transitions occur when the [smaller] church enters the process willing to surrender its identity, if necessary, to ensure its facilities continue to be used in a way that serves God," writes Jeff Brumley of the ABP.

Brumley and his sources indicate that mergers of two small, struggling congregations are often less successful than a small-large partnership, but I suspect that in a denomination providing more oversight and assistance, like the United Methodist Church, such mergers might have more of a chance.

With district administration to assist with financial arrangements and facilities liquidation, and a huge connectional pool of third-parties to help facilitate visioning and identity questions, there is hope for small churches to increase their fiscal viability, become better stewards of space and resources, and create critical mass to reenergize the committed core. Churches have a life cycle like other living things, but as members of the body of Christ, we know death is not the end. Our dying congregations can be resurrected to new life, and bring life to their communities.

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