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The Two Shall Become One

A weak, struggling church has three options to survive: make it work; merge with another church; or close its doors. Consider how a church merger can help your church to survive and grow.

By John P. Joseph

Introduction

Sometimes faith and law work together to further Christ’s kingdom. As a church attorney, it is exciting seeing this occur. One way this takes place is through a church merger. This legal method that has blessed many churches may also bless yours.

The Bible says in Ecclesiastes 4:12 “Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (NKJV). This is a spiritual and business principle. The business world has embraced this concept for years. Mergers and acquisitions are a common method for growth.

Businesses recognize not all growth is organic. Neither is all church growth organic. Our Lord engrafts His people together to advance His handiwork. On occasion He also merges churches.

Recently I have seen an increase in church mergers in my law practice. There are several legitimate reasons for this. First, the advent of church satellites has required church leaders to look outside their immediate area for growth and opportunities. Second, the general economy has deteriorated.

It has always been true that some churches are stronger than others. But in today’s climate it seems larger churches are getting stronger while smaller churches are plateauing, struggling, or getting weaker. Weaker churches have three options to survive: make it work; merge with another church; or close their doors.

What is Church Merger?

A merger or consolidation occurs when two or more churches decide to combine into one entity. Mergers and consolidations are technically different. If a merger creates a new entity, it is a consolidation. When a church or surviving entity absorbs another, it is a merger. This article will focus on the second option: merger.

Churches need to consider merger in a variety of circumstances. For example, when a church plateaus or experiences a decline from which it is unable to turn around or when a declining church becomes so small, a merger with one or two other churches may seem like the right move. A merger may also occur when a larger church is looking for a location for a satellite church.

Regardless of the reasons there are benefits to merging.

Benefits to a Church Merger

The most important benefit is probably the spiritual witness to the community. If a church is failing, there is no glory to God for closing its doors. The efforts and donations of countless families go to waste by shutting the church doors. But at the same time handing the keys over to the bank or a bankruptcy trustee is not appealing either. But in a merger the surviving entity, or church, keeps the doors open for people to minister, which is key.

In a merger the community has not lost a church; only the corporate and leadership structure has changed. And that can be good. The surviving church is often stronger and can invest money into the absorbed church to help it get back on its feet. In turn, the surviving church benefits by having a new location to reach the lost.

Drawbacks to the Merger

There are negatives to a merger. First, for the absorbed church its unique legal status no longer exists after the merger and its leadership will most likely change. Existing members who continue to attend the merged church may find a new pastor and a new board. Finally, there are legal costs associated with a merger. Usually the surviving church covers the expense.

Process of a Church Merger

The most important aspect in a church merger is listening to the Holy Spirit. Has the Holy Spirit brought the two pastors together for this reason? Does the leadership sense peace and excitement in the prospect of merging these two churches? If the answer is yes, then maybe the Lord has laid the necessary foundation to begin the process. But what is the process?

Each state has its own statutes and laws on merging two or more not-for-profit corporations or churches. The process I am sharing with you may be different from your state laws. It is critical that you follow your state law. I recommend that you seek the services of a competent church attorney to represent your interests.

Here is the process I follow.

Step One: Informal discussion and creating a plan of merger

During this phase both pastors discuss with their key leaders how God has led them in this idea, describing the advantages of combining the churches. If this group agrees to continue in this direction your attorney would draft and present to both boards a proposed Plan of Merger. This document sets forth the terms and conditions of the proposed merger and other provisions deemed necessary or desirable.

After both pastors and boards approve the informal move forward, I recommend informational meetings with members of both churches. Creating a transition team comprising of lay leaders from both churches may be helpful. This team can meet and discuss the idea of merger and monitor how the members and leaders of each church react. This team may also help disseminate correct information and answer questions to address untruthful rumors that invariably occur.

Clearly establish your shared common values, vision, theology, and culture before you start the merger. Leaders and members must be prayerful during this point. Having clarity of vision is critical. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10, NKJV).The transition team can help in this regard.

Step Two: Presentation to denominational authorities and board resolution.

In this step, each church brings its denominational leaders into the discussions to elicit their approval to move forward with the merger. This step may or may not be necessary. If all parties agree then, your attorney drafts a Board Resolution approving the proposed Plan of Merger that each board votes on. Should both boards approve the resolutions, the churches can move on to formalizing the merger.

Step Three: Articles of Merger

Once the respective boards pass the Plan of Merger and Board Resolutions, the next step is drafting and approving the Articles of Merger. The Articles of Merger will include the Plan of Merger. This document details the merger, vote required, and the effective date of the merger. Your state laws will give further direction in this regard.

Step Four: Disseminating the proposed Plan of Merger and Articles of Merger.

Each church leadership will need to provide written notice and the proposed Plan of Merger and Articles of Merger to each voting member of their churches. I recommend that both church boards update their membership roles before they take this step. Both churches need to avoid nonattending members a say in this matter. Churches will also notify its members of a special congregational meeting as required under their governing documents. Proper notice must be given.

Step Five: Special-called business meeting and vote.

In this special business meeting, leaders answer any questions from members. The members then vote to approve or disapprove the merger. If approved, each corporation will execute the Articles of Merger they previously agreed on to be filed by the secretary of state. Depending on your state, the merger is complete once the church executes and files the required documents with its state. All that is left now is to bring the two church families together with a new excitement and renewed vision to reach the lost.

Conclusion

Merging churches has many benefits both to the community and the churches involved. The absorbed church can continue ministering while the surviving church expands its ministry. A merger prevents a church closing thereby avoiding a poor witness for the community, denomination, and the Lord.

Keep in mind; a vote to merge is not the final word. The participants will ultimately vote with their feet and giving.

On balance, merger is a great mechanism to consider whether you are the surviving or the struggling church. We want the kingdom of God advanced and merging two churches may just be the ticket.

John P. Joseph, Esq. FCBA is an ordained Assemblies of God minister, attorney, and fellow in church business administration. He practices law representing churches and can be reached at his Web site: churchattorney.org, or by calling (727) 490-1782.

A Church Merger Testimony

I had no idea what we were getting into when I proposed the possibility of a merger of Destiny Church in Ruskin, Florida, with Faith Assembly of God in Temple Terrace near Tampa.

An interim pastor had served Faith Assembly for 18 months. Although the church could pay its bills it could not pay a full-time pastor. Our vision at Destiny Church is to be a church of regional influence and impact. We believed we could best accomplish this through revitalizing a church that was struggling. Faith Assembly of God was that church. Faith Assembly consisted of a small group of faithful people who needed leadership and a vision. The church was in the middle of a residential area mostly untouched by the churches in the area.

The board of trustees agreed that the prospect and timing were right for the merger. Everyone involved wanted to do it right. We needed legal advice. This was the best decision we could have made. When I called John Joseph and told him what we were trying to do, he laid out a plan that enabled both churches to understand the merger process. His recommendation for a transition team composed of representatives from both churches aided immeasurably in paving the way through the Plan of Merger, Articles of Merger, a new constitution and bylaws as well as informational meetings at both churches.

While some pastors may be reluctant to seek legal advice because of the cost, we did the right thing. We could not have answered the questions about the protection of our vision and the assets of the churches without his help. Because of our diligence in complying with the legal requirements we did our merger properly. No one can come later and accuse either church of failing to do the right and legal thing.

What began as an idea we shared over lunch is now a reality. Each congregation voted in favor of the merger. We have filed the documents with the state, and the church can now concentrate on its vision to reach the community. Destiny Church of Ruskin, Florida, had its first satellite church in Temple Terrace. We believe we will touch the lives of people we would have been unable to reach otherwise.

In our view, revitalizing existing churches stands alongside planting new churches in the Great Commission mandate Christ gave His church. Doing the merger with the benefit of legal counsel enabled us to pursue that mandate without questions that might later give way to distractions and prevent us from seeing the vision come to pass. The cost was worth every penny for the peace of mind.

Jerry Lubrano, lead pastor, Destiny Church, in Ruskin and Temple Terrace, Florida

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