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Merging for mission – Part 1

Two case studies reveal the blessings and challenges of mergers and multi-site ministries.

Julie K. Wietzke

If you talk to Nathan Strutz, pastor at Resurrection, Verona/Monroe, Wisconsin, about the recent merger between Resurrection, Verona, and Mount Olive, Monroe, he will be quick to point out it wasn’t about keeping the doors open on the beautiful church building in Monroe. “It is all about keeping the doors of heaven open to lost souls,” he says.

It was about finding a way to continue to share the gospel

Case study: Wisconsin

Things didn’t look that way at first. Mount Olive, Monroe, started in 1945. Membership grew, and members secured land and bought a former schoolhouse in 1949. After renovation, it became its first church building. Then in 1981, the congregation bought an existing church building in town. The beautiful church seemed to promise a bright future.

But then the congregation began to struggle, and over several decades it slowly lost members—some due to deaths in an aging congregation and some due to families leaving because they wanted a more active children’s ministry. By 2016, membership had dwindled to 80, with about 20 people worshiping each Sunday.

When their pastor announced his upcoming retirement, members knew something had to be done. Calling a new pastor would be extremely challenging. They had to face the reality that it would be difficult to afford their own pastor. Talks with another small parish about forming a dual parish didn’t work out. They even tried putting their church up for sale so they could downsize.

Members weren’t sure what to do next. “We were on an island. We didn’t know what direction to turn to without disbanding,” says Richard Meske, long-time member and church president. “We didn’t have many options. As president, I tried to assure members that we were not going to close our doors; one way or another we would attempt to keep it open.”

Some members from Mount Olive began attending Resurrection, Verona. Together with Resurrection members who had ties to the Monroe community, they started talking to Strutz about Mount Olive’s situation. Resurrection had been discussing its long-range plan, which included looking into starting a new site. The congregation had already daughtered a church, Good News in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, in 2013, and was ready for its next opportunity.

The conversation brought about a meeting in November 2016 for both congregations to discuss possibilities. One option was Resurrection offering Mount Olive some financial assistance so the congregation could afford to call a pastor and keep its doors open.

But that option wasn’t appealing to the members at Resurrection. They saw the outreach potential. “We were not going to continue talking just for the survival of a church in Monroe—just to do hospice care before a church died,” says Strutz. “This was going to be about expanding the kingdom of God—reaching the lost in Monroe and, God-willing, establishing a growing, thriving congregation.” Monroe was a community of 10,000, and their vision included the opportunity to bring back former members of the congregation who still lived in the neighborhood.

Strutz continues, “We wanted to convey to both locations that we are all-in on this. This is a long-term thing. This is not going into a temporary survival mode until things get better.” It was about keeping the door of heaven open In Monroe as well as in Verona.

Merging for mission

Merging for mission is key when congregations begin discussing working together either to create a multi-site ministry by merging into one congregation. “For a multi-site to work well, there has to be a servant mentality,” says Jon Hein, director of the Commission on Congregational Counseling. “It has to be about Christ and his gospel and his mission.”

Maintaining that mission mind-set can be difficult, especially when you’re talking about “closing” a struggling congregation as a new multi-site emerges. But the outcomes can be inspiring.

“It doesn’t have to be a loss. It’s totally a win for the kingdom of God,” says Strutz. “God be praised for that.”

Another case study: Arizona

Financial burdens also played a role for two more struggling churches—this time outside of Tucson, Arizona.

Both Peace, Sahuarita, and Bethlehem, Benson, with memberships of 39 and 10 respectively, had their own land and church buildings, but neither congregation could afford a pastor. They became a dual parish in 2012. When the congregations became vacant in 2013, ministry was difficult at both churches. “While we were under the vacancy as Peace, there was literally no opportunity to do outreach,” says Bob Breiler, church president at Peace at the time. “It was just a struggle to keep the doors open.” The congregations began working together to call a pastor so both congregations could remain open.

Six months and several calls later, Breiler approached Ron Koehler, pastor at Grace, Tucson, to ask him for help in getting weekly preachers. Bethlehem made a similar request. Koehler suggested to both congregations that instead of just helping them out occasionally with preaching, that perhaps they should consider a longer-term option: becoming new sites of Grace.

Grace already was a multi-site congregation; in 2011, it opened its second site in Vail, 20 miles southeast, to celebrate the congregation’s 100th anniversary. It already was seeing the benefits that one site with multiple locations could offer.

“These were brothers and sisters in Christ who needed help, and we felt we had the ability to offer that help,” says Koehler. “We also felt that they deserved more than just a Sunday preacher.”

In addition, Grace saw the outreach opportunities this merger could provide. Sahuarita is a growing community of young families and professionals who commute daily to Tucson. The adjacent town, Green Valley, is a retirement community that explodes in numbers during the winter. “We felt that this was a viable mission field,” says Koehler. “So not only would we be helping our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we also would be poised to reach this growing community with the gospel.”

As for the rural community of Benson, “if that [congregation] goes away, the district mission board probably won’t go back. But if we can save that location, we can do ministry there and be poised for any future growth in that area, if that would happen,” says Koehler. Since the merger Koehler has begun reading stories about future growth in the Benson area.

Gains and losses

As both Resurrection and Mount Olive in Wisconsin and the three congregations in Arizona began seriously discussing merging and becoming multi-site congregations, mind-sets and views of identity had to be adjusted, especially for the struggling congregations.

“The spiritual preparation to engage in a multi-site or a merger is infinitely more important than the logistical preparation,” says Hein. “It’s getting people to that point of selflessness and self-sacrifice. It’s getting people to have a mission mind-set—what serves Christ first.”

Feeling like you are “losing” your church can be quite emotional. “Our children went through Sunday school [at Mount Olive] and got confirmed there,” says Meske. “It means a great deal because we didn’t want our local church to leave.”

While a merger could preserve the church location, Meske says the initial discussions about the merger were met by apprehension at Mount Olive. “The word merger means ‘absorption from another,’ the way I interpret it.”

That can mean a new identity, new ministry goals, and different ministry plans.

“We wanted to instill positive DNA,” says Strutz. “People wouldn’t go back if it was the same old Mount Olive.”

He continues, “You have to be up front and say it’s the start of something better. For the good of the kingdom, this has to mean the end of Mount Olive as you know it.”

Koehler agrees about the importance of having a new ministry outlook. “The benefit of the merger is that difficult issues the congregation had to deal with before won’t cloud the ministry anymore,” he says. “Merging with another congregation means a new identity, a new start, a new philosophy of ministry, and a broader base of support.”

It takes a lot of trust for both congregations involved. Members from the healthy congregation may worry that they are losing too much of their pastor’s time as he works in another location or that their resources may be stretched too thin. For the struggling congregation, concern focuses on the things it will have to give up: its identity, its “say” in what happens, and probably even its name.

“We have to trust each other enough to say we’re going to do what’s good for the entire congregation and, more important, what’s good for God’s kingdom,” says Strutz.

Besides trusting each other, the congregations had to trust God. “It was a combination of doing our homework and trusting that God would make it successful or would use it for his purposes. That was how we approached it,” says Bryan Guenther, then president at Grace, Tucson.

Arizona merger

The congregations held numerous discussions and member feedback meetings as they worked on a plan of how the multi-site merger would work. After those meetings, Grace presented a proposal for the congregations at Benson and Sahuarita to review.

“I was worried to ask our congregation for an official vote,” says Breiler, Peace, Sahuarita’s, church president. “When the time came and everyone was behind it, it was a big huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t want to see the church have to fold up and close its doors.”

The Benson congregation followed suit. After more legal work, both congregations merged with Grace in late 2014, making it a four-site congregation with the name: Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Arizona.

And now the real work could begin.

With one congregation and four sites, communication and coordination are key. “It’s hard to over communicate when you have four sites in four cities over two counties, with a half hour between each site,” says Koehler. Grace’s plan is to have a site pastor for each location but to have one council to make decisions, with representation from each site. Logistics can be tricky for seemingly simple things like how and where to hold all-site meetings. Leaders and site representatives need to be trusted. Calendars and events have to be coordinated.

Members of all the sites also had to get used to the idea of being one congregation and analyzing important ministry plan decisions through that lens. Breiler says that at the beginning, people were asking, “What about our congregation?” when decisions were being made. “It was about getting into the habit of remembering we’re one congregation—we just have four sites,” he says. “We’re all the same; we’re all just in different places.”

As time went on, that togetherness became more obvious—as well as the blessings. “Instead of struggling to get by, the congregations have this energy and this hope to expand God’s kingdom. This opens the door for them to do the things that they want to do,” says Koehler. He stresses the blessings of a new extended church family, ministry planning, people power to help with ministry, and financial resources to support God’s work. “For outreach, it is also a great blessing,” he continues. “You’re more accessible to people. With two locations—and now four locations—no matter where you’re living, our church is available to you.”

Currently, Grace is building a new church and child learning center in Sahuarita to serve the growing community. All sites had to be on board with this direction, even the Vail site, which currently rents space for worship. “You’re committing all four sites to the one project, so you really have to think it through,” says Guenther. “Does this mean we can’t do other things at other sites? Perhaps. But this is the commitment. This is the biggest opportunity right now.”

Merger in Wisconsin

The conversations in Wisconsin resulted in a merger too. Resurrection and Mount Olive voted to merge as a multi-site, officially becoming Resurrection, Verona/Monroe, in September 2017.

The name change proved difficult for some, including one long-time member at Mount Olive. “He said [to me], ‘I lost my church,’ ” says Meske. “I said, ‘No, you didn’t lose your church. We changed the name, but the Word and sacraments are still the same as they’ve always been.’ ”

David Plenge, then a member at Resurrection, Verona, Wis., but now church liaison for the Monroe site, highlights the larger significance of the change: “It’s not Mount Olive’s church; it’s God’s church. Don’t think of the name change that you lost something—you’re gaining something.” Those gains include more people and more financial support to conduct ministry in the Monroe community.

The new name also can signify a new start. “From an evangelism standpoint, it almost made it easier,” says Plenge. “We could go out and promote that there’s a new direction, a new life.”

And that’s just what the members did. People from both sites began visiting former members of Mount Olive who had left the church for some reason. They canvassed door-to-door, using new move-in lists to discover people who may be looking for a church home. They also started participating in local events to make connections in the community.

And people started coming. Some former members returned to church, and new people visited for the first time. Sunday worship attendance more than doubled, including some families with small children. The Sunday school restarted. Seeing the excitement and the new faces, people began inviting their friends to worship as well.

“God just had a lot of things lined up for us,” says Strutz. “We haven’t done anything. God has done everything.”

With a new seminary graduate assigned to the congregation in May 2018, Resurrection, Verona and Monroe, is still navigating the challenges of being a multi-site, whether in communication, coordination, or joint decision making. “It’s not always rainbow and unicorns and cotton candy,” says Strutz. “But any of the issues so far pale in comparison to the growth.”

And the congregation is already looking ahead. Its ten-year plan calls for it to be in four sites. Says Strutz, “Being part of this merger has raised the sights of our members to say, ‘God can do this again.’ ”

This is the first article in a three-part series about church closing, mergers, and multi-sites.

Extra content

“I’m really not sure if I chose the church or the church chose me.” Terri Keegan moved across the street from Resurrection (then Mount Olive), Monroe, Wis., in 2014. At that time, she was watching sermons on TV and felt that was enough for her. “I believed in God,” she says. “Did I really need to join a church?” The church across the street was just . . . a church across the street. In late 2017, she started feeling differently. “I would look out my window and I would see the cross and the lights of the church,” she says. “That’s when I started noticing how beautiful it was, and it was pulling me toward it.” She also noticed acquaintances of hers walking into the church on Sunday. She contacted them and asked if she could come too. They welcomed her with open arms. Once she started attending, she never stopped. She began taking Bible information classes and started reading the Bible—a book she had never read before. “When I started learning about God, I just felt like a different person—it was the church for me,” she says. “I feel like I am at peace.” She became a member in April 2018. Terri’s daughters have seen the difference in her and are visiting Resurrection as well. “Terri wouldn’t have had a church to go to if we wouldn’t have merged,” says Nathan Strutz, pastor at Resurrection, Verona/Monroe, Wis. “This is why we have a church. It’s about saving souls.”

Author: Julie K. Wietzke
Volume 106, Number 1
Issue: January 2019

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This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series closings-mergers-multi-sites

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