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Church mergers take time, energy, work

 
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Second in a series: Mergers are one way churches often address declining membership, but they also can help create rebirth and begin new, vital mission work.

6:00 P.M. EST March 14, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)



The Vacation Bible School from the merged church of St. Peter in Columbus, Ga., sports no lack of enthusiasm, as youth programs have blossomed. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of St. Peter United Methodist Church.
The Vacation Bible School from the merged church of St. Peter in Columbus, Ga., sports no lack of enthusiasm, as youth programs have blossomed.
A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of St. Peter United Methodist Church.

When two congregations with declining membership and attendance merge, the resulting church must make changes, says a member of the rebirth team for a merged church in Winona, Minn.

Corwin Osterloh believes the two churches have much more work to do.

“Two congregations with declining membership are still going down the same path,” said Osterloh, a member of Central United Methodist Church, which merged in July 2010 with McKinley United Methodist Church.

“We really started talking about the fact that what we were doing wasn’t working.”

Osterloh said the churches must still decide on a new name. “We want it to feel like merger, not a takeover or an adoption.”

“A rebirth is when two groups look at new identity and are reborn, usually with a new name,” said the Rev. David McBride, Central’s pastor. “We are still in the process of working out the rebirth.”

For now, the new church is looking at developing its mission and laying out its vision.

“We found McKinley had a lot of ideas about doing different things,” Osterloh said. “McKinley brought some specific strengths. They had a really good music program; we had a stronger kids' program, and now we have more kids.”

Osterloh said he is pushing for more programs for children and youth because “parents follow their kids.”

He also believes the merged church will come up with new outreach, possibly a safe house for women with young children who are victims of abuse and have nowhere to go.

“If we have to spend the endowment and it doesn’t work, we’ll die 10 years sooner than we would have. Why wait until the church is going to die to make the changes we need to make?” he asked.

Some of the church’s endowment has been used to create a three-year position for the Rev. Justin Halbersma, who spends three-fourths of his time at Central and the rest as a campus minister for Winona State University. The church hopes that will help build stronger connections to the student community.



Members of Central and McKinley United Methodist churches in Winona, Minn., witness the baptism of Kai Halbersma during an outdoor worship service. The merging congregations, which are still trying to choose a new name, held the service in a park halfway between both church buildings.  A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of GBHEM.
Members of Central and McKinley United Methodist
churches in Winona, Minn., witness the baptism of Kai
Halbersma during an outdoor worship service. The merging congregations, which are still trying to choose a new name,
held the service in a park halfway between both church
buildings. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of GBHEM.

The Rev. Randy Cross, a staff executive at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said mergers sometimes only put off the inevitable.

“A merger should always be so that it brings health,” Cross said. “Two churches barely hanging on take so much effort to merge, it’s not worth it.”

Trust is the key

Churches do not have to have huge attendance for a successful merger. Two churches in Columbus, Ga., discovered that when they merged in 2004.

St. Andrew United Methodist was a growing church with about 125 members in 2003; it needed more space but could not afford to build at a new site. St. John United Methodist had completed a new facility in the late 1980s and purchased new property adjacent to the church, averaging 180 in worship in 1993. But over the next decade, the congregation dwindled to only 40 and was $400,000 in debt for the facility.

The South Georgia Annual (regional) Conference suggested the two churches might want to consider a merger.

“Both churches were praying for specific things … and God answered their prayers,” said the Rev. John Stephens, who was pastor of St. Andrew at the time of the merger.

Stephens credits the success of the merger partly to the spiritual maturity the two congregations displayed through their willingness to sacrifice what they loved for the greater good.

Stephens said he later sat in on talks between two other churches that could not agree to a merger. “Neither church was willing to give up anything, so that merger failed,” he said.

The Rev. Larry Rollins, now the pastor of St. Peter, the congregation created from the merger, also credits the core leadership in each church with being able to seek a new vision. Average attendance is now 200 to 230 and growing.

“For so many years, the merger was on everyone’s mind,” Rollins said. “Now we are trying to build up our children’s program.”

Leadership from the annual conference is important, Stephens said, noting a conference staffer identified the potential for a merger. He said the conference also provided $50,000 to support the merger.

‘We could do more’

Members of two small United Methodist churches in Iowa had a vision when they decided to merge and build a new church in the 1990s.



Ten years after the merging of two churches into Prairie View United Methodist, the congregants pose together in 2005 for a large group photo in Ollie, Iowa.  A UMNS file photo courtesy of Prairie View United Methodist Church.
Ten years after the merging of two churches into Prairie
View United Methodist, the congregants pose together in
2005 for a large group photo in Ollie, Iowa. A UMNS file photo
courtesy of Prairie View United Methodist Church.
View in Photo Gallery

Dave Gentry, the chair of the staff/parish committee of the new church, Prairie View, was a member of Ollie United Methodist when three churches began discussing the possibility of merger.

“We had some people that saw a vision that we could do more,” Gentry said.

Only two of the churches – Ollie and Packwood – actually participated in the merger, which resulted in building a new church between the two towns where the churches were located.

The Rev. Dave Peterson, pastor at Prairie View, said the church now has about 250 members, with people coming from four or five different counties to attend.

Gentry said the new church has become a center for ecumenical meetings and mission work.

Ollie and Packwood would still probably exist had they not merged, but Gentry thinks further decline would have occurred.

“I think we would have 25 or 30 people. People like to go where they see something happening.”

*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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