When churches merge

By Dr. David R. Fletcher

The merger of churches is gaining popularity for increased effectiveness and growth. The Chapel of Akron had financially supported Valleyview Chapel of Wadsworth for several years. Valleyview wanted to merge with The Chapel, but The Chapel was unsure. In the fall of 2009, the board of The Chapel decided to take three months to discuss the issue, with the November meeting set for a decision.

The engagement

In the three-month review, all church staff was invited to share about the merger. A multi-site specialist, Jim Tomberlin of MultiSite Solutions, was brought for meetings with senior leadership.

To prepare for the November board meeting, Senior pastor Sartarelli created a document to explain his vision and reasoning for sites. After lengthy prayer, the board unanimously approved an engagement period. This would allow formal dialogue between the churches and preparations for the wedding. As with any bride and groom, it was understood that the engagement could be cancelled.

In early December, Valleyview overwhelmingly approved the engagement. A wedding needed to be planned—arrangements needed to be made.

Marriage jitters

Just as in the planning of many weddings, people get the jitters. Questions from Valleyview began to surface. This phase of jitters proved to be the most tenuous in the process. It was fine to talk of a future merger, a wedding, but the planning caused people to realize the substantive changes.

In January and February, many important events happened. Senior pastor Sartarelli included Valleyview in his State of the Church address. This helped The Chapel begin to understand implications of the merger. The Chapel engaged a search firm to find a future campus pastor for Valleyview.

Meetings were held with the leaders of both churches. A staff person was assigned from The Chapel to be the full-time liaison for the engagement. A worship leader was moved from The Chapel to Valleyview. A board member from Valleyview was asked to be a guest on The Chapel’s board. Staff members from The Chapel drafted transition reports and found green lights, red flags, staffing issues and personal evaluations. These and other events were the beginning of the wedding plans.

Q and A document

In March, The Chapel produced a seven-page Question and Answer document. It was designed to help both congregations understand the issues. In an honest and forthright manner, the topics explored: What will happen to Valleyview’s staff? Who will preach and how much via video? Who will visit me if I am in the hospital? Who will lead our youth program? Who will our church leaders be?  Are we going to feel like a huge church?  What about facilities, finance and debt?  What will the new name be?  What if the wedding is called off?

The response to the written Q and A was varied. While a majority of people liked it, some at The Chapel stuttered at the $1.75 million debt on Valleyview’s $4 million property. The Chapel had never had debt before and this was a culture change.

From Valleyview, some felt that the Q and A document was too businesslike, that it did not convey a warm tone of an engagement. For example: Will we keep staff at least for some time for stability? Who will do books, office management and bulletins?  I’ve have concerns about the video preaching. What autonomy will our leaders have?   How can we keep a local small church feel? When making change, don’t go too fast with too much change. The questions expressed a sense of loss of independence and identity.

At a Town Hall meeting at Valleyview, leaders answered the questions with candor and gentleness. While some people had angst over the details of the transition, the Town Hall went well. The vast majority of the people were strongly in favor of the merger. Yet, the leaders sensed the jitters that some members were working through.

Final transition

The jitters were over by June. As with many wedding plans, people work through their problems and are ready to move forward. The next step was to work out the final aspects of transition. The board of the Chapel went into high gear on issues of due diligence. It became apparent that Valleyview would not be ready to vote on the “marriage” until mid-summer. This caused some consternation, as Senior Pastor Sartarelli was on sabbatical in the summer. This would delay the vote with the congregation of The Chapel until early fall.

The Chapel’s Due Diligence Committee researched issues, such as church records, finances, property and insurance. The committee examined options about how to acquire the property, landing on a formal dissolution of the Valleyview church. This helped The Chapel not acquire known or unknown liabilities from Valleyview’s staff (such as sexual misconduct) or property (such as a past liability).

It was time for each congregation to vote. In July, Valleyview overwhelmingly voted with 95 percent “yes” to merge with The Chapel. To prepare The Chapel for a vote, a document was prepared for the congregation that included the vision, plan and goal and history and finances. In October, The Chapel voted and approved the merger with 88.6 percent of the vote.

Valleyview Chapel now had a new name, The Chapel, Wadsworth Campus. One of The Chapel’s pastors, Zac Derr, was named as the Campus Pastor for the Wadsworth Campus. The Akron newspaper even wrote about the merger. Then, each department at The Chapel reviewed their Transition Reports and created an Integration Timeline. Some things could be done quickly, such as email addresses. Others took more time, such as phone extensions and new signage.

What made the merger work and how did people overcome the jitters? The answers are: honesty in communication, accepting the grieving process and a focus on what Christ is doing in the merger. People needed to repeatedly hear the vision and values of The Chapel and the merger. Plenty of gentleness was needed to speak the truth in love and to not respond aggressively to the honest jitters that people expressed.

By Dr. David R. Fletcher is the executive pastor of The Chapel, Akron, OH. He is also the founder and host of XPastor.org, a global ministry tool for leaders. Fletcher also teaches XPastor concepts to Doctor of Ministry students at the Dallas Theological Seminary, where he is an adjunct professor and facilitator of the XP/AP track of the D.Min program. He is also a professor and the Director of the Doctor of Ministries Program at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of India. His latest endeavor is 5macro.com. The site hosts the People Patterns Indicator, a way of learning about how we lead others.


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