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Confessions of a Church Merger Pastor

What could have been done better?
A large staff at BCC needed to be transitioned. We may have overpromised by giving the BranchCreek staff the impression that nearly all of them would be retained. This was not possible. That being said, I do believe each staff member was dealt with personally, professionally and generously.

Some ministry leaders complained of the short time-frame in turning over the reins to LCBC. There were concerns that ministries were stopped or put on hold that could have made a significant contribution to the combined church.

It was also noted that there could have been better public integration of key leaders from the joining church after the launch. While a number of these persons would be staying, their visibility was minimal. Perhaps their presence from the platform would have reassured the congregation. We also discovered that we needed to dig deeper into the behaviors of each church. While we often used the same language, we sometimes practiced our commitments differently.

What were the hardest challenges to overcome?
The initial acceptance of the high-definition video used to deliver our Sunday morning teachings was an issue. BranchCreek already had a high-caliber live teaching team in place, and to some going to video seemed a step backward. This was more of an objection for those who had not visited other LCBC campuses to see the quality of the experience, as well as for those losing connection with their “favorite” teacher.

A tension-point arose in defending the increased music volume. Branch Creek already had music that was considered by some to be on the loud side. For those who did not like “louder,” they felt it was a “take it or leave it” proposition.

What were the biggest surprises?
One was the unpredictability of those who stayed and those who left. There were defections by those who we thought would be loyal to our new church and excited about this step. There were others who we thought might use this opportunity to slip out the back door. But the merger provided some marginal attendees with a fresh start—and many jumped right in. This led to another surprise, which was the lack of perceptible change in attendance. We expected an initial drop-off in attendance, but new attendees rapidly filled the seats of those who had left. The church maintained its attendance equilibrium through our recently completed first year. (In our most recent newcomer’s class, 25 of 30 people in attendance had come within the last year.)

One other surprise was the surfacing of an old, unresolved lawsuit against BCC that was left unaccounted for in the due diligence process. This created some delays and legal hassles that neither board was expecting. This, along with a reversal of LCBC’s decision to place a BranchCreek representative on the LCBC Board, created some tension as we got closer to the finish line.

What is your current role with LCBC?
Initially, my responsibilities included aiding in the transition of our church to LCBC BranchCreek, documenting the process of the merger and archiving our 37-year history. Currently, I visit various campuses for learning and evaluation and serve on the central operations team. In addition, I assist with special projects that align with my gifts and interests. (So far, these have been risk management, systems improvement and donor development.)

What advice would you give to a pastor considering merging with another church?
I felt we prayerfully made the right selection in a merger partner and had a good sense of the timing for this step within the overall flow of church life. Of course, a leader must do their best to prepare the congregation for such a massive change. This isn’t something to try to do alone. Get good guidance. We contracted with Jim Tomberlin and MultiSite Solutions. His wise counsel and instruction gave us confidence and clarity about the path forward.

It is important that the senior leader goes “all in” and completely surrenders to his understanding of God’s Merger Plan. One of the ways to guarantee this is to keep your eye on the prize, which is God’s Kingdom expansion—not personal kingdom-building. Mergers are just another tool to accomplish God’s goal of reaching the world with His love—and very often we can do that “Better Together.”  

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Jim Tomberlin is founder and senior strategist of MultiSite Solutions, a company dedicated to assisting churches in multiplying their impact. Over three decades of diverse ministry, Jim has pastored a church in Germany, grown a megachurch in Colorado and pioneered the multisite strategy for Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Jim is the author of “125 Tips for MultiSite Churches” and co-author of “Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work.” Jim is based in Scottsdale, AZ. You can email him directly at jim@multisitesolutions.com, subscribe to his MultiSightings blog or follow him on Twitter at @MultiSiteGuy or @MergerGuru.