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By Dirk Elliott

DownRiver Church celebrated its first worship service as a new church start on July 7, 2013, with 186 people in attendance.  DownRiver is a Vital Merger of four churches in the Detroit area.  In December, 2012, each of these four churches voted, with over a seventy percent majority, to become a new church together.   On July 7, 2013, Carlisle UM Church also celebrated their first worship service as a new church.  Carlisle UMC is a Vital Merger of three churches.  They celebrated their first worship service together at the grandstand of the Carlisle Fairgrounds.  Over 600 people attended their first worship service in their newly remodeled and updated facility on July 14.

These two examples of Vital Mergers provide a model of merging churches in a way that produces a healthy new church.  As a Vital Merger, they made commitments to each other to:

  • Sell all church buildings and relocate to a new location
  • Worship in a neutral location from the day of the official merger
  • Reset the new congregation’s focus on the mission field and begin new ministries to reach the new mission field
  • Receive a pastor that has been assessed and trained as a church planter
  • Choose a name that is not a part of the name of any of the merging churches

Sometimes, people hear the word “merger,” with anxiety because it implies uncertain change. Some people view the idea of a merger as a hostile takeover with winners and losers. Others immediately see issues involving loss of identity. Any kind of merger requires foundational change that on the surface, tends to feel impersonal. Still others may point to a merger that did nothing but more of the same.

It is true that some church mergers have failed to create health, growth, and vital ministry.  What makes the difference? The answer often lies in the process used to vision, transition, blend cultures, and form healthy leadership-teams.

Church mergers take various forms. Traditionally, the most common form has been two or more churches deciding to consolidate their resources by moving into the best facility they already own and retaining only one pastor. These mergers rarely bear the fruitful ministry anticipated by the merging churches.  While there may be occasional exceptions, often the resulting congregation from this traditional form of merger will eventually lose participation and decrease in attendance to the size of the larger church before the merger. So instead of 1+3=4, you get 1+3+ much drama = 3.  Often, the lack of fruitfulness and growth in traditional mergers stems from its primary motivation: the need to survive rather than the need to further its mission.

Research of traditional mergers from 2000 to 2015 reveals that traditional mergers have not brought the significant growth that the merging churches had anticipated. A study of thirty-three mergers during this time showed that twenty eight churches never achieved the worship attendance of the combined worship of the merging churches. In fact, twenty-two of the merged churches lost the equivalent of the attendance of the smaller church within one year.  Traditional mergers seldom result in the growth or health of churches.

In response to the poor results of traditional mergers, while addressing the fact that many churches can no longer be viable as a single-church parish, a new model of merger is needed to decrease potential conflict and increase healthy growth. The Vital Merger model was developed over a ten-year period, working with the pastors and lay leaders of several mergers.

Instead of consolidating resources, the Vital Merger strategy creates a new church—a healthy, growing, new-church-start with a fresh focus on the mission field and new ways of doing ministry. Using a Biblical metaphor, the traditional merger is attempting to pour new wine into old wineskins. The Vital Merger, on the other hand, creates new wine that is poured into a new wineskin.  Vital Mergers create new churches that are stronger, healthier, and more fruitful than any of the individual churches were before the merger.  Attendance is greater than the combination of the merging churches, finances are healthier, and more people are involved in mission and ministry.  

Vital Mergers have worked with churches in urban, suburban and rural areas.  Small churches have merged together, as well as mid-sized and large churches.  The churches need to commit to work together as partners, agreeing to the five basic commitments, and have a willingness to be in ministry together.

Want to learn more about vital mergers?

Dirk has successfully led congregations in vital mergers all across the United States. He will personally lead a Vital Merger workshop on March 10, 2016 in Winston-Salem, NC. The workshop will be held at First Baptist Church, 501 West Fifth Street from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm.  The workshop is sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health. You can register for the workshop by clicking here.

Dirk’s book, Vital Merger: A New Church Start Approach that Joins Church Families Together, will be available for purchase at the workshop. You can also pick up a copy at www.vitalmerger.com.  Vital Merger is a practical handbook that outlines the key elements necessary for a Vital Merger and provides instructions for exploring, beginning, and walking through the Vital Merger process.  The advice, examples, and stories are taken from actual churches that have merged—including processes and practices that have and have not worked well. The stories from these churches inform and infuse the process with authentic insight and witness.