Earlier this year, I got to spend some time with leaders from First Baptist Church West Monroe and The Way Church in Denham Springs to talk about their successful church revitalization endeavors over the last few years.
Fairbanks Baptist Church in Sterlington, LA, had a history of decline and was struggling to keep systems running in the life of their church. They reached out to First West Baptist Church which accepted the challenge of helping them revitalize. Fairbanks Baptist became First West Fairbanks. A campus pastor was chosen to restart the work. Today, several hundred worship where 3 years ago there were several dozen.
Calvary Baptist Church in Denham Springs, LA, had a history of decline and was struggling to keep systems running in the life of their church. The Way Church was in their third year as a church plant and had baptized over 100 in three years by successfully reaching unchurched young adults in the same community. However, the Way Church was paying very high rent and began looking for other facility options. David Brown, the Associational Director of Missions, connected Calvary and the Way and they began exploring the possibilities of sharing facilities or merging. Calvary officially closed its doors in the Fall of 2014 and the Way took over the property and today several hundred are worshipping each Sunday, where last year there were several dozen.
During a round table discussion with leaders from First West, that included sr. pastor Michael Wood, global mission Pastor Mark Fenn, Fairbanks campus pastor Chad Merrell and leaders from the Way, which included co-pastors Scott Cheatham and Josh Spinks, I wrote down 9 keys to a successful church revitalization that includes merging and multi-site development:
9 Keys to Revitalization
1. Healthy Church Life & Multiplication Happening
Both First West and The Way were growing, multiplying leaders and groups. Healthy systems were in place and functioning at both churches.
2. Healthy Relational Networking Among Churches in the Community
Both First West and The Way are involved in their local associations and these relationships laid a foundation for the development of merger talks. The Way Church had even began hosting a quarterly community worship experience where they first met the pastor of Calvary and conversations were initiated.
3. Realization of Need by Declining Congregation
Both Fairbanks Baptist and Calvary Baptist had reached a point where they were willing to admit their need of help from the outside. For most congregations this will probably come in the form of financial struggles. Many will be faced with a loss of pastoral leadership. But something happens to initiate the idea that help is needed.
4. A Healthy Mediator
In both scenarios a healthy mediator began the conversation of merging. For Fairbanks, a deacon at First West was good friends with some of their leaders and they asked him if First West would be willing to help. For Calvary and the Way, David Brown, the Director of Missions in the area, served as a healthy mediator beginning and walking through the details with the congregations.
5. Everybody Seeking God’s Will & the Good of the Community
There had to be a declaration by all parties that we’re not seeking our own will, but God’s and the good of the lost community around us.
6. Defining Terms
There had to be a moment where hard realities were laid out and hard decisions made. In these scenarios, the older congregations had to come to understand that nothing would stay the same and it was time for their congregations to die that something new may be birthed for the good of the Kingdom.
7. Accepting Responsibility
These transitions WILL NOT be easy or cheap. Both First West and the Way said you can expect it to be costly. Broken systems can create some messy situations with taxes and debt and building needs. Jim Tomberlin with Multisite Solutions says you can expect to pay about $250,000. Both First West and The Way spent that in the transition period.
8. The Right People at the Right Time
Everything rises and falls on leadership. The Way Church was blessed to have Scott Cheatham, who had a business background and knew the right steps to take to raise money, get the property legal, and assure the Calvary faithful few that their church would be in good hands. First West also had a businessman, Chad Merrell, who knew how to build great relationships and solve problems. These were the right people at the right time.
9. Keep the Good, Retire the Bad
Fairbanks Baptist had 70+ kids coming on Wednesday night for a Kids program. Chad Merrell made the healthy decision to keep that ministry going. At the same time, they held services off campus at the high school for a season, to increase their capacity for attendance and build relationships with the community. Moving back to the campus of Fairbanks meant they moved back into the gym, because the worship center was too small.
Merging and multisite are two healthy scenarios for churches in need of revitalization. These 9 characteristics of a healthy transition may help guide you through a process with a partnering church.