An Interview with Jim Tomberlin on What Makes Church Mergers Work
Over the past decade, we’ve seen an increasing trend in churches merging together for many different reasons. Two churches are seeing themselves as better together than apart. And it seems likely that this trend will only increase in a post-pandemic world.
Why? Well, the decline in church attendance in recent decades due to things like the general secularization of American culture, the fading cultural value of church attendance, and most of all the inability or unwillingness of many churches to adapt the unchanging Gospel to a post-Christian culture, has made a lot of churches economically vulnerable and candidates for a merger. Many of them had a “pre-existing condition,” so to speak, before this pandemic hit. The events of the last few months are only accelerating the advancement of decline.
For this episode, I connected with Jim Tomberlin, co-author of the book Better Together, for the beginning of a two part conversation on the emerging trend of healthy, mission-driven church mergers as an alternative to the old, failure-prone mergers of two declining churches.
In particular, Jim suggests multisite churches that will flourish after the pandemic will not be bogged down with expensive big-box campuses, huge mortgages and struggling sites. Multisite churches that have a financially sustainable model (launch big in small facilities with multiple services) will flourish in the new normal and be big beneficiaries of the increase in church mergers.
In this conversation, Jim and I discuss…
- Characteristics conducive to merger compatibility, and the things you should be considering as a healthy church initiating a merger conversation
- Why the best mergers come out of a foundation of an existing relationship—and some practical steps you can take (even during the COVID-19 pandemic) to begin facilitating those relationships
- Why a desire for greater community-impact can be a driver that unifies two congregations into one
- Whether or not a lead church is usually negatively affected by a joining church’s lack of health (and how to guard against it)
- 5 next steps for a Lead Church to take to evaluate merger potential
How can you lead a successful church merger?
What does that look like? Why do some mergers thrive and others fail?
Join us on August 27 at 1pm EST for a practical conversation on how to make a church mergers work, hosted by Tony Morgan and featuring Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird.
Learn how to successfully lead a church through a merger, what landmines to avoid, and the best practices to implement to create a thriving church.
Register to join us today! You’ll gain clarity and practical next steps to:
- Assess whether or not a merger is the right fit for your church
- Understand the 5 Stages of a Church Merger—and recognize what potential pitfalls to avoid each step of the way
- Lead effectively through the transition with best practices from pastors who have been in the same position
- Learn insights proven-in-the-field on how to do a merger well.
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- How Joining Churches Take the Follower Role in a Successful Merger | Part 2 | Episode 155
- Successful Church Mergers | Free Webinar
- The Unstuck Mergers Process
- Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work, updated and expanded edition by Jim Tomberlin & Warren Bird
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Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over the past decade, we’ve seen an increasing trend in churches merging together. For many different reasons, two churches are seeing themselves as better together than apart. And it seems likely that this trend will only increase in a post-COVID world. On today’s podcast, Tony sits down with Jim Tomberlin, co-author of the book Better Together, for the beginning of a two-part conversation on healthy church mergers. But before we get to today’s conversation, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. When you do, you’re going to get resources that go along with each week’s episode, access to the archive of our podcast resources and from time to time bonus resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Jim for today’s conversation.
Jim, it’s so good to reconnect with you. And, it’s been a joy for me over these last several years, just to talk about coming together and bringing our ministries together because for so long, you’ve helped so many churches, particularly around multi-site and mergers. And I just grateful to have had a partnership with you in recent years, but more importantly, just to have friendship with you. It’s been a joy to engage with you in these last years.
Well, it’s mutual Tony, and, you know, our merger, the merger with Unstuck Group, really reflects all the things that we’ve been learning about church mergers. It’s been one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Am so delighted for how this has unfolded with us, and it’s been a delight to be a part of the Unstuck Team.
Well, speaking of church mergers, you wrote a great book with Warren Bird back in 2012 on church mergers. And, I’m excited, and I know you are too, because the book is rereleasing this fall. In fact, it’s available today. So I hope, if you’re listening, you’ll jump on to Amazon and grab a copy for yourself. But you wrote the book several years ago and are rereleasing it. Church mergers, are they still a thing, Jim?
Yes, they are. And actually almost a decade we published that book last fall, Tony, our publisher came to us and said, we’d like to repost this or republish this in a paperback format. And would you guys be okay with that? And we said, we would be okay with that with one condition, if you would allow us to do some more research, updated research, and add some more tools and update the book. And they said, we would love that. So last fall we decided that we would release it this fall and you know, fall of 2020 had no idea, of course, what was coming when we submitted our book, our final manuscript, about a month before COVID hit. Then COVID hit, we said, can we have more one more look at our book just to incorporate what we’ve learned, even in this one month of COVID. But, they said, you know, Jim, we’re only gonna release one book. I mean, we’re not going to release any books this fall, except one book, your book, because it’s so timely. But, we were delighted to know when we went back and we were reviewing our first book, the good news is we didn’t have to repent of anything we wrote. Everything that we wrote there is in the new book, plus three new chapters, a brand new survey that you helped us do last fall with churches, nearly a thousand churches. But there’s more tools and resources that we’ve been able to add since our first edition, so it’s the expanded and updated version, Better Together.
Well, Jim, again, I appreciate you sharing about the book and looking forward to rereading it again. I read it actually before your manuscript was submitted, and it’s great. And I would just confirm, I mean, just a lot of fresh information, especially from some of what you’ve been learning in recent months and years from churches that are going through the merger process. And there’s no doubt mergers are continuing to increase. What’s your sense of what’s continuing to fuel that?
Well, that was one of the things we discovered in our survey from last fall of about a thousand churches that completed our survey, and what we saw there and what we were anticipating is what we saw are some surprises. One is that first of all, the multisite church movement, which was the major catalyst a decade ago for these new kind of mission-driven mergers, which changed the conversation about mergers from a negative to a positive conversation. Back then about 30% of all multisite campuses were a result of a merger. Now our latest research says 40%, well over 40%, of multi-site campuses are coming by way of a merger. And so that has continued to go on, but we also have seen that now mergers are becoming a pastor succession strategy and a pastor search strategy that is increasing as well. The third big development is that denominations and networks, church networks, are proactively encouraging church mergers now, where in the past, they weren’t so sure about it, but now they’re seeing this as a great way to help their strong growing churches and revitalize or salvage their declining churches. And so this is becoming a proactive aspect of denominations and especially mainline denominations. Now, we also are seeing a small, but growing number of churches, seeing a church merger as a way to increase diversity in their church. We just had a multisite survey Warren Bird did with ECFA that revealed that about 85% of mega churches are intentionally striving to be a diverse church. It’s almost now becoming synonymous, if you’re a multisite church, you’re a church of diversity, which means 20% or more of another people group or another racial group. So we’re seeing these are some of the developments. And I think one of the cool things, Tony, is that 20% of church planters have acquired a facility through a church merger. So this is having a huge church planting impact.
And here’s, you know, just in the midst of everything we’re experiencing, Jim, too. I’ve have had conversations, not only with churches, but denominational leaders. And even in recent weeks, one of my most recent conversation with denominational leader was expressing concern, obviously, for some of the churches within the network and recognizing, and their thought is close to 20% of those churches because of what we’re experiencing now may actually have to close their doors. And I think as a result of COVID and really just accelerating the trends that we were seeing even before the virus, they’re going to be more and more churches interested in this merger conversation. Are you sensing that as well?
Oh yeah. I was giving you all the positive things that we saw, but the dramatic thing that we have been seeing for the last decade, as the culture has shifted away from church attendance and the value of church attendance has declined because of the secularization of American culture, we were seeing more mergers because of that. That churches were, you know, not able to transition into the 21st century. And so that was happening more. Now, as you know, at Unstuck Group, we have our bell curve of the seven life cycles of a church, and you know, our latest survey and it’s included in the book about, about 60% of the churches in America today are in maintenance mode. About, 7 or 8% are in preservation mode. And about 15 or 18% are in life-support mode. And so that’s about 25% of churches that were in serious trouble before COVID. They had like a precondition, and now the COVID is only going to accelerate this. And so what we discovered, you know, everything we wrote in the book leading up to COVID is still spot on, and it’s only going to be accelerated because of the COVID experience. And by the way, Tony, I’ve had almost weekly, all through these four months. a call from churches around the country saying we’re in a merger. They were having virtual meetings, town hall meetings. They’re approving that all during this period. It’s going to increase.
Yeah, I agree. So this is going to be an easy question. This is a softball question. Jim, from your perspective, working with so many churches through the merger process, what’s the likelihood of a church that’s in maintenance merging with a church, another church that’s in maintenance or life support or preservation, and them merging and then becoming a healthy church because of the merger? Is that going to happen?
What you just described is the fourth of the four merger models, the ICU model, two struggling, declining churches joining together with a last ditch hope that we can survive at the expense of the other. Those don’t usually have a good outcome.
They don’t work. So here’s where I wanted to focus our conversation today. And actually I’m going to be, next week, talking with Warren kind of on the flip side of this. But for today, I’d like you to kind of give some thoughts and coaching for the churches that you described them as the lead church, those churches that are going to be taking the lead in this merger conversation and process. And I would hope we’re talking about the kind of the 15% of the life cycles, those churches that are launching or gaining momentum, or hopefully in sustained health. What, for the pastors of those potential lead churches, what are some things they should be thinking about today to prepare them for a future merger down the road?
Tony, we gave some language to this conversation in our first book, which has gotten real traction across over the last decade. We basically described that every church merger is like a delicate dance where one leads and the other follows. You can’t have two leads or two follows. One leads and the other follows. And what has made mergers become a successful thing in this decade is that it’s usually a stuck or declining church joining a strong, lead church who’s healthy, and they are joining their mission, their vision. And the lead church is leading and the joining church is following. Those have a high rate of success. Matter of fact, in our survey last fall, over 80% of churches said, would we do this again? Absolutely. And so we’re seeing a high success rate on that. So what are lead churches looking for? We asked the question, why did you do a merger? Asked the lead church that, and the joining church. The lead church has said two reasons, which surprised us, the first one, the stronger ones, slightly stronger, was for church revitalization. There was a real heart of lead churches to help other churches be strong and revitalized. Almost a close second was evangelism. We saw this as a way to reach more people. So revitalization and evangelism. The joining churches said, we did this out of survival reason. And there’s usually two reasons, two parts of that survival. One is financially we’re not gonna make it. And that’s a lot of churches right now, but not all declining churches are financially in trouble. And that was another interesting fact that we discovered, but many of them, those churches, even though they have the money to sustain, they recognize we’ve lost our ability to reach people. What we did in the last century doesn’t work for us now. And we don’t know how to get out of that, but you do, lead church. And so we want to join you with you so that we can truly be better together.
Yeah, that’s good. All right. So let’s talk about the lead church and specifically for the lead pastors of those lead churches, help me understand what are some of the key next steps that the lead church needs to be considering as they’re maybe moving forward in a conversation with another church about a potential merger, Jim.
Three characteristics that we think is very important to be conducive to a merger opportunity. One is, first of all, humility. Humility goes a long way, but from both churches, recognizing as the lead church, you know, we may be succeeding and growing, but, you know, we don’t have all the answers we’re learning and we’d recognize God’s favor on our church, but we recognize we don’t have all the answers, but we want to keep growing together. Secondly, an attitude of kingdom mindedness. That is that they have a concern for God’s kingdom and not just their own, little kingdom. And so they have a sense of a concern about the other churches in the community. And lastly, it really is helpful for a lead church pastor to be very compassionate and understanding of the grief cycle that churches will go through that join them. Every church, joining church, will go through the five cycles of grief. And it’s important to understand that this is not easy for them to hand their church over to someone else. And no church leaders wake up every morning thinking, hey, maybe one day we’ll get to merge with somebody, you know? And so there’s always a sense of a death here. But the nice thing about this is that it can be a rebirth. And I tell joining church leaders if you stay on this path you’re on now, you’re going to eventually go out of business, but you have a chance to choose your destiny and choose your next chapter. And so if you go out of business, then your story is over. But if you choose to join with a healthy, growing church, the chapter is over, but the story continues on.
Yeah. All right. So hopefully, before even engaging a potential conversation with a church about merging, we’ve demonstrated that humility, kingdom, mindedness, and compassion. What’s next? What would you suggest to be the next step?
We get this question asked all the time is how do we initiate this conversation, as a lead church, without being abrasive or misunderstood, or convey an attitude of takeover. And so we suggest in our book that first thing is to connect with the other churches in your community, build relationships, the best mergers come out of a foundation of relationships. You know, during this COVID time, a number of churches have taken the initiative to offer to their church community, hey, we have recording studios. We can help you learn how to teach your people how to give online. We can help you with some of the different ways of doing this because we’ve been doing this. And there’s been a huge response to that. And so connecting with other churches, first of all. Have a cup of coffee together, or a virtual cup of coffee together these days, but then resource them. Resource them with the kinds of things I just mentioned. You know, we have some things that we,, tools that we could pass on, some skills that we’ve learned, we’d gladly share them with you. And then a third step would be, hey, where can we partner together in our community to better serve our community as two, you know, local churches. And then out of that kind of relational foundation, make the ask. Ask the church, could we be better together joining our forces together? Would you consider it?
Yeah, I think it really is a lot like a dating relationship almost at that point where you have to be bold enough to actually ask, will you come out with me, right?
Before COVID, I suggested to churches like if you know where you want to go, you have people, you know, multisite-ing isn’t going to the next community. You’re already there with a handful of people, a large group of people, that are driving and coming. And so in every community, 80% of the churches are in trouble. It’s an easy ask just to find, you know, if you have a relationship especially, would you be willing to rent us your space? Just can we just rent some space from you? And that would give a financial lifeline to them, for many of them that would need that. And, and we’re two churches under one roof, but out of that can come a relationship that could evolve into a merger. And I’ve seen that happen numerous times over the last decade.
Jim, I appreciate that kind of giving us some direction about the next steps a lead church can take. But I actually want to circle back to the beginning of the conversation with the title of the book, Better Together, because there’s actually an underlying principle behind that. It’s actually, when we come together, we should end up better. And you kind of referred to this as a math problem in your writing. And one plus one doesn’t necessarily equal two when it comes to this merger process, isn’t that true?
Absolutely. In our research for the first book, we discovered that mergers did not have a good reputation that has a lot of baggage because no one saw that as a win. The best of the mergers of the past was one church joining with another church and five years later, those two churches were the same size as the original larger church was before they merged. And so it was equal. It was a one plus one equals one, five years later. And those were the good stories. The worst case were one church joining another church, and five years later, they’re both gone. You know, it’s so one plus one equals zero. And that was pretty much that view about mergers, church mergers, and business mergers, by the way, as well often in the past. But what we saw within this decade and when we published the first book was we’re seeing a new kind of merger where there’s a one plus one equals a three, a synergy is one pastor wrote. We went from one plus one equal 10 because we’ve discovered we truly could be better together. And there’s a synergistic outcome of that when they’re united on a common mission and vision, and they’re joining their resources and skills together, usually under, I should say, not usually, always under a lead church that is clear on their mission and vision and strategy and another church joins with them and buys into that. Those work and those have a synergistic outcome.
Yeah. And Jim, again, from the perspective of the lead pastor of the lead church or the board from that lead church, I think there’s always a bit of concern when we’re going into a potential merger, especially if it’s a church that is on that right side of the life cycle, that this might pull us in the wrong direction. What’s your encouragement for pastors as they consider the opportunity that might be here? And I mean, can you give us some hope that this might actually be a good thing, not only for the existing congregation, but for expanding, and you said it well earlier, expanding our kingdom impact in our region?
Every church merger has 25 distinct issues that they have to address going through the conversation. Most of those issues are benign. That is they’re not deal breakers, but there’s usually four or five that are game changers or deal-breakers, potential deal breakers. But for a lead church, this is a chance. One of the issues is are we clear on our mission, on our discipleship pathway, on our vision and for a lead church, they need to not compromise that in any way. This is what a joining church is benefiting from. And so here, as a lead church, here’s a handful of people which has always the greatest asset of a merger are those people. But many times they have a facility that’s an empty facility in desperate need of a vibrant ministry. And here’s a lead church with a vibrant ministry in desperate need of more facility space as they are expanding. So there’s a huge win-win there. The biggest challenge for a lead church is can we afford this building, if there’s some mortgage or usually they’re going to have some upgrades and all that’s needed. But what we’re saying, one of the reasons why 40% or more of multisite campuses are coming through a merger, is even with that expense, that’s a whole lot less expensive than buying a building or building a building. And so that’s why church mergers are very appealing from a lead church point of view because facility space is so expensive. But also often in these mergers, we talk about rebirth mergers, which is really an absorbing of a congregation. They don’t really bring anything to the party, so to speak, except some dedicated people and a building maybe. And that’s a great asset too, but other mergers are more like adoptions that they actually bring some programs that get integrated into the lead church. They bring some staff that come, that are needed in the lead church. They often have a reputation of a history in the community that’s positive, and they bring that with them as well. So it’s more like an adoption. And then some mergers are like marriages, very few are like a true marriage of two partners, but sometimes they come together and together they make even a recalibration of these two churches into one overall mission/vision, bringing the best of both churches to the party like a marriage does.
Well, Jim, there’s no doubt in the midst of crisis, there are also opportunities. And I just have to think, as a result of what we’ve experienced in recent months, that there are going to be opportunities for churches, both on the lead side and the follow side, to make greater kingdom impact by going through a merger process. So again, the full title of the book is Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. I really appreciate the work you’ve done here. Any final thoughts from our conversation today?
You know, Tony, I get asked many times, is this for struggling churches? Is this good? I can see where it’s an asset or a benefit to a struggling church to join with a strong church, but is this just for them? And I would say, look, there are stuck churches. There are struggling churches, declining churches, and they’re strong churches, and who’s the beneficiary of a merger? All of them.
Well thanks for joining us on this week’s conversation. If you’d like to learn more about the process for how The Unstuck Group is helping churches become better together, just go to theunstuckgroup.com/mergers. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast and it’s been helpful to you, we would love your help in getting the content out farther. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Have a great week.