To merge or not to merge: tough questions, living with the result

Nov. 28, 2006  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011 
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0579}

NOTE: A headshot of Stiggins is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

Seven months into the merger of her church with a struggling congregation, the Rev. Dr. Marta Burke is tired and hopeful.

As pastor of Fulford United Methodist Church in North Miami Beach, Burke saw her congregation absorb Miami’s Rader Memorial United Methodist Church earlier this year after the latter church initiated the process.

The merger has occurred in a season when several other larger conference congregations have united with struggling churches amid great promise.

Moving forward

The Rev. Brett Opalinski, the last pastor of the former Rader Memorial United Methodist Church, makes a point at the Florida Conference's 2006 annual meeting related to a resolution brought before delegates. Photo by e-Review Florida UMNS staff, Photo #06-472.

The Rader Memorial United Methodist Church campus is in the process of being sold. One of the premier Florida Conference churches back in the 1950s and 60s, Rader provided a large facility that was once filled with congregants. Its final pastor, the Rev. Brett Opalinski, said the church experienced significant decline from 1968 to 1982, losing nearly 1,000 members.

“From 1982 on it was just sort of on a steady decline as far as membership and giving — really across the board,” said Opalinski, now the pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach.

“When I came in 2004 the church was, as most other churches, experiencing some financial difficulties. It had been relying primarily on a trust fund that had been set up. It got to a point where Rader was taking money from the principal to meet basic operating expenses. By 2006 that trust fund was basically gone.”

Opalinski said at that point Rader was “literally going to run out of money. It found itself in a position of, ‘We have got to make a major decision or we risk closing the doors of the church.’ It went before a church conference, and after about a two-month period of discernment and trying to gather information and options, the church voted to merge with the Fulford United Methodist Church congregation.”

One of Rader’s difficulties stemmed from its large facility, which had served the community so well during the church’s heyday. As the congregation shrunk, expenses to maintain the property did not decrease accordingly.

One of those major expenses was property insurance, which has been an issue for many conference churches in recent years due to the increased number of hurricanes and other factors. Rader’s premium totaled about $31,000 in 2005 but doubled the next year (the merged Fulford church is paying $135,000 this year). Opalinski was quick to note the premium increase was not the final straw, but it pointed to the larger reality of Rader simply running out of the funds it needed to operate.

Rader did not have a specific congregation in mind once its charge conference decided to work toward a merger. Working with the Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the district — whom Opalinski said was “a real godsend” during the process — Rader formed a team to visit other congregations and determine which were open to a merger. Fulford emerged as the best option, Opalinski said, because the merged congregation could build on the strengths of the larger church, such as its new sanctuary with state-of-the-art technology.

“It was a tough process,” Opalinski said. “There were many, many faithful folks at Rader who had a lot invested in the church. Their families had grown up there. They had done weddings, funerals and baptisms.”

Averaging about 85 to 100 people in worship per week before the merger, Rader also had a youth group that included many youth from the surrounding multi-ethnic community on the border of Little Haiti. However, as is typical for many older downtown churches where neighborhoods have changed over the decades, most of Rader’s members commuted from the suburbs to church. “The community just never seemed to feel it was their church,” Opalinski said. “It wasn’t always that way.”

Becoming something new

Burke, in her fourth year as senior pastor at Fulford, already had plenty of mixed feelings about mergers when Rader approached her congregation with the proposal.

The Rev. Marta Burke, pastor of Fulfurd United Methodist Church, addresses delegates at the Florida Conference's 2006 annual meeting. Photo by e-Review Florida UMNS staff, Photo #06-473.

“I had been part of a merger up in Jacksonville around 20 years ago and at that point said I’d never do another one,” Burke said. “I shared with the transitional team that maybe some churches just need to close, to come to that realization that there is a time of completion, of ending. It may be healthier. There could be a new beginning after that.”

At the same time, Burke noted how several folks from Rader have commented how “it was wonderful to come to a place that wanted them and that they knew where they were going. There was power in choosing a church to merge with instead of just closing.”

The time and energy a merger takes — the unseen factors — are incredible, Burke said, adding trying to maintain a creative spirit while fusing the DNAs of two separate congregations and establishing a level of trust is difficult.

One factor that is particularly cumbersome, according to Burke, is “institutional grief.” “It’s a community that divorces and decides to remarry, but not everybody goes along with it,” she said.

One of the members of the merger’s transitional team, which represented both Fulford and Rader, asked for statistics on how members respond when their church merges with another. Of the members attending regularly at Rader just before the merger, Burke said about 25 to 30 have attended Fulford and 25 to 30 have gone to another church that is closer to their homes. It is not known what church, if any, the remaining 20 to 25 members are attending.

“Even the 25 that are coming fairly regularly … it’s just too overwhelming for them,” she said. “There’s signs of grief. One woman said it’s very difficult to come because the Fulford church doesn’t have windows, as Rader did. That’s for me a sign or a symptom of how difficult change is — down to the walls of the church or the windows — much less to trying to get folks’ trust that they can build or continue their spiritual journeys in a new place … that they can baptize their babies, get married and know that someone will give them back to God when their life ends.”

With the merger, Fulford’s various ministry teams fully incorporated Rader’s leaders. Internally, veteran Fulford members refer to their church as the “new Fulford.” At the same time their perceptions of their new friends from Rader have varied. Some, Burke said, “see it in a paternal sense — ‘we’ll bring them in and take care of them.’ The majority have really seen it as, ‘this is something that gives us new life, and we’re going to have to make some changes.’ It brings new spiritual gifts and resources.”

Burke said Fulford has initiated a process of visioning together with the revamped leadership, with plans to seek buy-in from the general membership and put together a mission statement. “It’s been slow. People are weary and tired.”

A merger’s realities

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, the conference’s director of Congregational Transformation, has a particular focus on trying to help congregations embrace a new vision and incorporate the components of a healthy, growing church. When asked about mergers, he said the historical math is “4 + 3 = 5, or more often 3.”

“While the economics of mergers seems sound — why not just pay for one facility and one pastor instead of two — the fact is that we are not talking about two struggling businesses, but two struggling communities of faith, each with its own culture, practices, leaders and values,” said Stiggins, who emphasized he was speaking in general terms rather than referring to the particulars of the Fulford and Rader experience since he was not familiar with the details of that merger.

“A merger is like the combining of two families in a marriage where both the husband and the wife have children from previous marriages and then have a child of their own — his, hers and ours. This is a very complicated pairing, which can only be successful when the leaders are really invested in making it work.”

Stiggins added: “It certainly can’t be an administrative, top-down option that is forced on two congregations to solve an appointment issue; not, that is, if there is any hope of the resulting congregation being healthy and vital for the long haul.” 

The best scenarios in which he has read about mergers working, Stiggins said, is when both congregations move to a new location, adopt a new name and “choose to do so for missional, rather than survival reasons.”

“One hybrid type of merger that might be workable in some situations is when a healthy, larger congregation has a ‘friendly take over’ of a struggling congregation,” he said.

Stiggins cited two recent examples: the mergers of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, under the leadership of the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, with Olga United Methodist Church in Fort Myers Shores and Christ Church United Methodist in Ft. Lauderdale, lead by the Rev. Phil Roughton, with First United Methodist Church in Pompano.

“In both cases the ‘merger’ required the smaller church becoming a satellite campus of the larger congregation and taking the name of the larger congregation,” Stiggins said. “There is one budget and one administrative structure and one lead pastor. There may be a handful of situations across the conference where this option could be cultivated. This has the effect not just of infusing resources (financial, staff, lay leadership) into the struggling location, but bringing new leadership with a healthier missional DNA.”

Photo by Michael Wacht, Photo #06-474.
Stiggins said one of the factors pushing congregations to consider and resist mergers is their commitment to facilities, compared to commitment to ministries. “Christ calls us to be a community of disciples, gathered around him and commissioned by him to make disciples who are light and salt in our community. The building and maintaining of facilities can be idols that get in the way of us doing this. They are ‘tools’ for facilitating ministry; maintaining these ‘tools’ can easily become the main focus of a congregation, instead of being in ministry.”

As a result of demographic shifts in Florida many congregations find their facilities no longer located where the people are, according to Stiggins. Other congregations find themselves strapped with facilities that are too large, outdated and in need of expensive repairs.

“Congregational leaders might wonder if a primary commitment to being in ministry would suggest them, perhaps, selling their often valuable property in order to relocate to a better place to live out their ministry in the 21st century,” Stiggins said, adding the conference is encouraging the formation of a task force to begin studying the issues and theology surrounding property and ministry in its current context in Florida.

Burke said she personally feels more mergers are likely across the conference and hopes the conference will provide the leadership and resources to help those congregations who choose such a direction. She noted that members from Rader had been working on the merger since as early as January and are exhausted.

“We’re going to make recommendations to the conference to form a resource team that helps churches with visioning and merging. It’s a lot to ask church members to do this, on top of their jobs and other responsibilities and the whole legal aspect,” she said.

In the meantime, Burke offers four items merging churches should keep in mind during the time of transition: pastoral care of the congregation and staff, financial development and visioning, property and legal issues, and programming.
 
Opalinski noted: “One of the things I’m real excited about is there’s some folks from Rader who are really on fire for doing ministry. It’s my hope that this will give them a place to really plug in and live out their call to be disciples. Fulford is a church really involved in its community, which, again, is very diverse.”

The former Rader pastor agrees with Burke that more conference mergers are on the horizon.

“I think it’s hard, but in the end I think it’s really good,” he said. “It’s tough to be in that survival mentality. For us to be about our mission of making disciples, we’re going to have to start partnering as churches together and making each other stronger so we can start fulfilling our ministry. It’s going to take congregations giving up some of the things that are so valuable to them, but at the same time create a new identity and find new ways to fulfill our mission.”

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This article relates to Congregational Transformation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.


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