Why does our church need to move to a neutral location to have a healthy Vital Merger?
Not long ago I was consulting with the Leadership Team of a Vital Merger of two churches. They were six months past the initial merger and had chosen to locate in the bigger of the two church buildings. I asked the leaders how the merger was going.
People were polite. They all said positive things about the merger. They had no regrets that they had merged and were glad they were together. New ministry was happening. They had a new church-planting pastor, and, overall, things were good.
I asked if any tension remained over the merger. Were they getting along well?
Those originally from the larger church where the Vital Merger located responded that there was no tension. They were loving life together. All was good.
I shocked them with my reply, “I don’t believe you.”
I asked those originally from the other church – the group that had left their building, left many of their traditions, and moved in with this new group of people – how they were doing. “Do you feel like outsiders?”
Their resounding answer was, “Yes!”
The members from the larger church were shocked. They believed they had done everything they could to make the others feel welcome.
I then pointed out the bulletin board in the room where we were meeting. Six months after the merger, it still had the former church’s name on the bulletin board.
You cannot make those who are moving into your church feel at home when they are continually reminded that this is not their church.
One of the most difficult decisions that a church going through a Vital Merger must make is to move to a neutral location. People argue “moving will disrupt the current ministry;” “it will alienate current members;” and “it will cost more to rent a facility rather than remain in the building we already own.” These are all solid reasons not to move. However, there are positive benefits to moving to a neutral location.
Here are 8 Reasons a church undergoing a Vital Merger should move to a neutral location. A neutral location:
1. Reminds the members they are a new church start.
The Vital Merger is a new church. It is a new day in your history. Treat it like a new church by moving to a new location.
The new location creates a break with the past and helps all realize this is something new, a new church start.
A new location shouts to the community that this is a new church start. When the church remains in one of the existing buildings, the community does not realize that something new is happening.
A new location, a new name, along with new traditions and ministries invites everyone to this new ministry.
2. Creates excitement in the community
As stated before, the average person in the community does not see a new church if you are remaining in one of the former buildings. They may recognize that one or two churches of your denomination are closing, but they don’t see anything new. It really makes no difference to them that the people from the closed churches moved into an already existing church. Even a name change on the sign outside isn’t enough to show the community anything new is happening.
Moving to a new location draws attention to and curiosity from the surrounding community. They see something new is happening.
3. Eliminates turf issues
One of the biggest stumbling blocks that Vital Mergers encounter if they remain in one of the existing buildings is turf or ownership issues.
It is rare that the congregation remaining in their own building is able to release all of their hold on the “stuff” of their building. Likewise, it is rare that an incoming church feels completely at home in someone else’s building.
Plaques commemorating memorial gifts, names on the stained glass windows, decorations and banners all scream ownership to those remaining in their building and those coming in.
4. Allows you to start new traditions
Creating new traditions for the new church is a healthy way to move forward. New ways of decorating the worship center for Christmas or Easter, new banners on the walls, new ways of recognizing new members, celebrating All Saints Day, and every other tradition should be prayerfully considered and thoughtfully designed create new traditions for the new church.
5. Provides an avenue to start new programs and ministries
In a new location, people can envision new ministries that are not tied to the building, especially ministries that get them out of the building to connect with the community.
Instead of VBS being held at the church, move it to a city park. This gives greater visibility, and people who do not attend your church are more likely to attend.
Instead of holding the yearly children’s Christmas party in the church building, one church moved it to the YMCA and by being more visible and invitational the church was able to show hospitality to more children.
Instead of traditional Sunday school, use the opportunity to launch a Small Group ministry with groups meeting in homes.
Rethink every ministry and program to identify ways to reach beyond church walls into the community.
6. Reaches new people
Some people feel like outsiders when they try to attend an established church, so they don’t attend. Some people will not go to a “traditional church building” because it reminds them of unhappy past experiences with churches. Some people are pioneers and like to start new. A new church allows them the opportunity to start at the beginning.
In our current culture, many people are more comfortable going to functions at a school, theater, or mall than attending a church. Moving your congregation to a neutral location opens the doors to more people.
7. Makes room for guests
When a congregation has been meeting in the same location for a long time, most ministry opportunities are assigned (either explicitly or implicitly).
During a merger as new ministries are formed and old ones are redesigned, new people attending and “checking out” the new church are more likely to see places to use their gifts.
8. Provides better funding for a new, more functional facility
Moving to a neutral location allows the new congregation to put all the vacated buildings up for sale. Selling the buildings will increase the building fund so the new church can purchase land more accessible to the mission field and/or create a new building that functions to serve new, relevant ministries.
New Leaf UMC is a Vital Merger of 3 churches in Conneaut, Ohio. They merged in 2009 with a combined attendance of 190. In 2015 they moved to their new facility and attendance has grown to 375.
New Leaf did not move to a totally neutral location. They moved out of the other buildings and began worshipping in the fellowship hall of the largest building involved in the merger. Watch as Scott Walsh, the pastor of New Leaf, tells some of their story.
While moving to a neutral location is a difficult move for the newly merged church to make, it is an important decision, and one that will decrease the long-term pain and increase the likelihood that the new church will become a vibrant new church reaching more people for Jesus Christ.
Dirk Elliott is Director of New Church Development for the Michigan Area. Dirk has been a congregational developer for 15 years after serving 18 years in pastoral ministry. He serves on the Path 1 Team, the New Church Start movement of the United Methodist Church. Dirk authored Vital Merger: A New Church Approach that Joins Church Families Together to Change Lives and Communities.