The merging of churches is a delicate dance in which one leads and the other follows. Regardless of church size and health of two merging churches, every church merger involves a lead church and a joining church. The majority of church mergers are initiated by the joining church. If there is a joining church pastor, he or she typically remains on staff post-merger, but usually not in the same role. Mergers that result in a multisite outcome typically have higher rates of success and satisfaction.
In the fall of 2011, Craig Bishop, pastor of the mega BranchCreek Community Church outside of Philadelphia, initiated a merger conversation with giga-church pastor David Ashcraft of LCBC Church in Lancaster, Pa. That conversation culminated in Branch Creek becoming the sixth campus of LCBC Church in January of 2013. A year later, I asked Craig to share his journey and learnings as the joining pastor of this successful mission-driven church merger.
Why did you initiate the merger conversation with LCBC Church?
There was no single factor but the culmination of many. Our church was aging. Having been involved since its founding 37 years earlier, I noticed the yearly growth we had come to expect had slowed. As a senior leader about to hit his 60th birthday, it was obvious that the church was aging, just as I was. While our church was stepping more slowly, the culture surrounding us was moving even faster.
There was also a financial component. The Great Recession had revealed an operational weakness—we were overleveraged. While we had climbed out of the “red” through some valiant efforts on the part of our finance team, board, staff and congregation, it was apparent it would be a number of years before we had adequate resources to invest in new staff, ministries and refurbishing of facilities necessary for a reboot.
And finally, we had found the right partner. LCBC’s strengths seemed to be a perfect match for the areas where we needed help. They had a long-tenured leader filled with vision and a mission statement that matched ours. It seemed that together we could be better. I approached LCBC’s senior pastor, David Ashcraft, who had initiated four successful campus extensions in the previous five years, and asked, “Would you consider a campus in the Philadelphia area?”
How did your congregation initially respond to the merger proposal?
The best word to describe this would be “shock.” Our congregational polity did not require a congregational vote for a merger, so the process moved forward swiftly. In retrospect, I believe it was hard for people to accept such a significant step when there was no perceivable “crisis.” We were current on our obligations, ministries were holding their own, guest registration and baptisms were consistent, and our leaders communicated a great deal of hope for our increasing capacities to accomplish our mission. The majority of the congregation liked things as they were. We probably could have continued comfortably for another five or 10 years before experiencing a more serious decline in attendance.
What percentage of your congregation voted for the merger and remained post-merger?
While our bylaws did not require a congregational vote, there were two occasions when we took a survey of levels of support for the merger. The first was six weeks after the announcement. At that time, 78 percent of the respondents were either positive or unopposed. At the time of the second survey, about 10 weeks into the process, the positive and unopposed responses totaled 73 percent. In the first year after the merger, 25-30 percent of our attendees began visiting or attending other churches.
What did LCBC do right in making a successful merger?
They were sensitive to the pain and sense of loss many felt at BranchCreek. Their staff, ministry leaders and congregants often joined us on our campus. This helped build trust. Given that the two campuses are about 75 miles apart, this was no small sacrifice.
There was a great investment by LCBC’s ministry leaders and teams to help transition our ministries to theirs. In addition, the faith and vision of the LCBC board led to a multimillion dollar investment in the BranchCreek campus, bringing our ministries and facilities to a higher level of quality and setting them up to match theirs. LCBC sent us a campus pastor and worship leader that were a great match for our congregation and well-received. And most importantly, there was an effort to show the consistency of the vision. LCBC’s willingness to extend their reach beyond central Pennsylvania and use the Philadelphia region as a new hub of extension fit perfectly with our desire to expand and reach more of the Northeastern United States. The match between our past and our new future was frequently highlighted.