Churches still choose multi-campus approach, but mergers keep popping up

Redux on City of Grace’s merger, while two more Arizona churches go the merger route.

Three years ago a large church of 4,000 merged with a smaller church of 1,500 people, and the pastor of that smaller church, Terry Crist, became the senior pastor. The other pastor, Gary Kinnaman, stepped into a pastor-at-large role with his own personal ministry. Word of Grace church of Mesa, AZ, and CitiChurch in Scottsdale, AZ, chose a new name, City of Grace.

The story of that merger was told in the January 2009 issue of Church Executive. In a time when mergers, in addition to multi-site expansions, are becoming more attractive [see sidebar article on another Arizona merger], we visited again with Pastor Crist to see how the merger was progressing.
“Pastoral transitions are difficult under any circumstance,” Terry Crist reflects.  “In our case there were several layers to the transition.  On the surface, there was the pastoral transition from Gary Kinnaman to myself.  A little deeper there was a generational transition with Gary being a Boomer, and myself being a Gen-X-er. At another level there was a transition in our style of worship and teaching.

“And finally, we transitioned from being a single site church to a multi-site church.  So, there were transitions within transitions and any one of those transitions alone is enough to stop progress of a church. To compound matters,  when you wrap all of that in an economic recession, and a highly charged immigration debate, you have a recipe for a very difficult season in the life of a church.”

But, says Crist, “by the grace of God, we have not only survived, we are thriving.” The two churches identified 10 DNA markers and they obviously shared seven of them immediately. Three others, teaching style, worship, and congregational lifecycles, differed, but they’ve made progress in all three areas.

The worship and communication styles on both campuses are more aligned than ever, says Crist, with some slight differences. “Some of the difference between our two campuses is relative to the scale of our auditoriums. The Scottsdale campus auditorium only seats 633 and Mesa seats 2,241. So in a larger auditorium, a speaker tends to communicate slightly different.

“It may not be intentional, but subconsciously, you are communicating in a louder or more demonstrative way feeling as if you are trying to connect with the person on the back row, and in a smaller venue, it feels a little more intimate.

“But, apart from some slight nuances, the campuses have aligned, and most importantly, the Mesa campus here has begun to reach both a younger and ethnically diverse audience as well,” he says.

When we spoke with Crist in the summer of last year, he shared some numbers on attendance and revenue. “From 2009 to 2010, our Mesa campus is up 5 percent in attendance and 9 percent in revenue.

“Our Scottsdale campus is up 6 percent in attendance and yet interestingly, we are down about 20 percent in revenue over this time last year. Part of what skewed the numbers for us last year [2009] in Scottsdale, was that we received a million dollar gift and that gift created a wonderful new reality that is not sustainable.

“When you receive that kind of a gift, you have this moment of joy followed by the realization that the numbers are going to drop dramatically the following year.  If you pull that generous gift out, and examine our general revenue trends apart from it, then you see the actual growth on the Scottsdale campus.

“That also occurred on the Mesa campus about three years ago. In that case it was a gift of a property that was valued and sold at more than a million dollars, so we saw a significant spike in revenue here for one year, that you have to pull out when you are looking at longer trends.

“But, it sure looks good on paper and feels wonderful when you are reporting the year end contributions back to the church.   But, it is not the norm.  I am thrilled over the fact that we are seeing growth on both of our campuses as new people are coming to Christ.  The weekend before last [in December], we baptized another 153 people, which brings our total this year to more than 300.

In 2009 the church had 501 baptisms, a banner year, and a similar number is expected for 2010. The Mesa campus currently has 3,200 active attendees and there are about 2,000 on the Scottsdale campus, for a total of 5,200.

The congregation in the past three years had two smaller mergers that, says Crist, were more like acquisitions in that those campuses were not continued.

“We had another church here in the community that was struggling and was absorbed into the life of our congregation in 2009 and we inherited some extraordinary leaders through that experience. More recently, we had a Latino congregation in Mesa join us which forced the launch of a seventh weekend service that is geared toward the Latino community,” Crist reports.

“Overall the original merger between CitiChurch and Word of Grace has been exceptional,” he says.  “It has worked for us for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have had the complete and continued support of the previous pastor of Word of Grace.  Gary Kinnaman has been a champion of this merger both from the pulpit and in personal conversations and his continued commitment to the merger made it successful.

“There has not been any sense of ‘merger’s remorse.’  We gave full support to Gary as he entered the next season of life and ministry.  And, since congregations follow the course set by leaders, Gary’s support helped to settle those people who were uncertain about the changes that were taking place at the church. With that said, not everyone made the transition. There were those who did not connect with our vision, mission and values and they settled into other congregations.  On the other hand, many others have connected and they are thriving here.

“When we first discussed this merger three years ago much of the conversation centered on the ‘pacing’ of the transition. We all wondered, ‘How quickly should we pull the band-aid off?’”

“There are two schools of thought concerning pastoral transitions and mergers. One view says transition is going to be painful, so just get through it as quickly as you can, make the hard decisions, do not take into account the emotions of the people involved, just do what is right.  In other words, if you pull the band-aid off quickly you will get through it.

“The other school of thought is, take it slow, and ease the band-aid off one centimeter at a time and more people will be accepting of the pain of change. We spent a lot of time in considering that.  We had long conversations both within our team and with others who were consulting us about what pace of change we should implement.

“To a great degree our pace of change was set by the fact that we had two somewhat dissimilar congregations interacting with each other. And even more, our staff members on both campuses were interacting with each other and were asking questions such as, ‘Why do they get to do that on that campus?’, ‘Why do we have to maintain this on this campus?’, and ‘Why don’t we just align everything immediately?’

“So because this was a multi-site merger, it forced the pace of change quicker than what I would have naturally been comfortable with.  I would have moved things just a little slower in spite of all those who said pull the band-aid off quickly, but the force of the two cultures colliding generated a quicker pace of change,” Crist says.

One of the areas that has quickly changed on the Mesa campus is the amount of revenue devoted to staffing. Before the merger the Mesa campus was spending 68 percent of its general budget on staff costs in 2006, and Scottsdale was at only 18 percent, due to a smaller campus and a higher percentage of volunteers.

The 2010 budget for staff costs in Mesa is 50 percent and Scottsdale has increased to 32 percent, which, he says, “feels a little high for that campus, but is still considered a ‘lean church’ by definition.  As the Scottsdale campus has grown in attendance that number has increased and as the Mesa campus has grown in health that number has decreased.”

Says Crist: “We have been very open with our Mesa campus congregation about our financial challenges and yet we have framed it with a genuine sense of faith for the future.  We have noticed that our business meetings are better attended than ever.  People are interested in what we are doing, and coming out of that I feel a greater sense of support from the congregation.

“I would say that as challenging as the process has been, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because we have come through it wiser and stronger and we are emerging more efficient, and most importantly, better positioned for the future. Our staff reductions have been more about right-sizing than downsizing and it has positioned us to seize God-ordained opportunities for the future,” he says.

The congregation has some ambitious plans ahead, including building a “Third Place” lobby on the front of the Mesa auditorium and a 1,200 seat auditorium in Scottsdale.

The congregation has plans for a campus in downtown Phoenix, or in the high fashion Biltmore area near 24th Street and Camelback Road. “We have looked at probably 15 or 20 sites at this point and nothing seems to suit us,” says Crist. “We would love to find a great movie theater or a performing arts theater, so we are still looking.”

The leadership has identified 150 people who drive from that part of town to one or the other campuses and will start a campus in Phoenix knowing that they have enough of a constituency to give it a strong jump start.  “We have identified a pastoral couple on our team and they have moved from Queen

Creek and relocated to Central Avenue, getting in position to be able to serve the campus. They are going to be stretched very thin because we have also started a Bible school this past year.  We have a Hillsong franchise Bible College and by the grace of God we actually have the largest Hillsong Bible College apart from their primary campus,” Crist says.

City of Grace is looking differently too at its strategic focus and plan, says Crist. For them “visioning is no longer about developing and executing a five-year plan as much as it is about creating margins and putting ourselves in a position where we can be open and sensitive to the movement of God’s Spirit,” Crist explains.

“We have noticed that when we execute our plan, invariably we miss divine opportunities. So planning for us is more about creating margins. It’s about getting into a place where we are not stressed to the breaking point and we have margins in every area, so that when God shows up to do something unexpected, something unplanned for, we can seize the moment.

“I have tried to create those very margins in my own personal life which helped when I recently received a call from the Governor asking if I would chair a taskforce focused on alleviating the pain of suffering families in Arizona. Although I was busy I could swallow hard and say ‘you know, I can do that now,’ where I could not have two years ago.  There are those God moments we want to be sensitive to,” Crist says.


Two more Phoenix churches go the merger route

Churches are increasingly choosing to join together in mergers as an alternative to opening new campuses. It sure looks that way in the east valley of Phoenix.

The merger of Praxis Church of Tempe, AZ with East Valley Bible Church of Gilbert, AZ is a good example of what is being called missional mergers, says Jim Tomberlin, founder and senior strategist of MultiSite Solutions, Scottsdale, AZ.

“These are two healthy local churches at different life stages leveraging their common DNA and complementary differences to generate greater synergy for stronger regional impact,” says Tomberlin, who consulted on the merger. Tomberlin was also the consultant on what became the merged entity City of Grace in Mesa and Scottsdale, AZ (see main story). He was the strategist for the regional approach taken by Willow Creek Community Church in greater Chicago, and now is the go-to guy for churches across the country desiring help with mergers and multi-site campuses.

Mergers drive multis
Says Tomberlin: “Multisite-driven, mutually desired church adoptions, absorptions and acquisitions are dramatically increasing. One out of three multisite campuses across North America are the result of a church merger. These mission-driven multisite-oriented church mergers, ‘We can do better together than separate,’ are revitalizing and transforming the church landscape across the nation.”

Tom Shrader is senior pastor of East Valley Bible Church and Justin Anderson is lead/teaching pastor at Praxis. Church Executive asked Tyler Johnson, pastor of city engagement and church multiplication at EVBC, to respond to a few questions about the merger, which became effective January 1:

What did the two churches see in each other that suggested this merger/marriage?

We had a three-fold standard that had to be in place to make this work. First we needed to have doctrinal unity, second there needed to be philosophical unity, and third we needed to have relational unity. The doctrine of Praxis and EVBC is virtually identical. We also both value a simple low program philosophy of ministry. Last, we have had a very good relationship for the last five years and the relational cultures meshed very well.

Describe the two congregations and what each brings to the merger?

Praxis Church is six years old and is experiencing very rapid growth. They have very strong young leaders and a vibrant youthful congregation. The lead pastor, Justin Anderson, is a very good, young leader as well as an excellent communicator. Praxis brings youth, young leaders, strong vision, energy and idealism. EVBC brings the wisdom and experience of 19 years, a proven track record of leadership development, church multiplication and growth.

Commonalities expressed
Were there “DNA markers” of the two churches that they brought to the mix [as in theology, view of ministry, commitment to missions, commitment to relational evangelism, commitment to the community, expressive worship, staff led church, teaching style, worship style, congregational lifecycle]?

The key “DNA Markers” that we have in common are Reformed Theology, commitment to expository preaching, conversational preaching styles, strong commitment to missional engagement through small groups, as well as elder/pastor led staffs.

How will the merged church affect budget, staffing or overlapping ministries?

The merged church will operate under one budget that is developed by each site and approved by the leadership team. The whole church (three sites to begin with) will be led by a leadership team.

Each site will have a site pastor who leads the staff at his site. Each location will abide by three to four core ministries; from there they will be able to contextualize their location. The core three or four ministries will have central leadership setting direction and will provide coaching to each location.

Were there any difficult road bumps in the negotiation?

Not really. The big question was determining whether we were strong together. The setting of the leadership teams’ roles and responsibilities has been somewhat nuanced.

Who came to who in suggesting the merger? Have you known each other along the way?

We have known each other for five years and had a really strong relationship for three years. Because of the strength of the relationship it is very challenging to say who initiated the conversation.

The name game
How did you arrive at the new name?

We wanted a name that had theological and historical significance. We did not want it to be generationally or geographically limiting. Redemption Church communicates that we are living as a part of God’s redemptive story as recipients and carriers of the gospel message.

What is your goal for church planting and expansion; your vision for reaching Arizona?

We would love to see Redemption Church multiply to 12 sites across the State of Arizona. We also would like to plant many other autonomous churches outside of the Redemption Church umbrella.

Will you be using video or driving between the campuses?

We are open to both video and live preaching. We will take each site on a case-by-case basis.

Might there be another church in the area who might later come into the new church?

We are open to what God may do but we have nothing in the works.


One Response to “Churches still choose multi-campus approach, but mergers keep popping up”

  1. As a member of City of Grace/Word of Grace that made the transition, it has been a wonderful experience to be part of a church that did not depart from the central message – Jesus Christ. Focusing on Him makes all else exciting as a growing church. Realizing God is in charge with a call on our former pastor’s life and an equally important call on our now pastor’s life, makes accepting change easier; for me loving both as they are annointed, still hearing the voice of God in the spoken word, embracing all the new that we now have, plus learning and becoming all that he has destined us to be through spiritual growth. Father God doesn’t quit, he moves through his people, congregation, and releases His bride into a new dimension of life for “such a time as this!”

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