Congregational Mergers and Autonomy: Thoughts on a Reader’s Question

MergerIn the last post of this series, a reader described how a proposed merger between a Church of Christ and an independent Christian Church had gone badly because many in the Church of Christ objected to the unification — even though the independent Christian Churches were willing to give up instrumental music. He asked, “What is the matter with the spirit of many from our heritage?”

I added one more question: “How might the leadership of the churches resolve the objections of those who don’t want the churches to unite?”

Several readers posted comments from both the progressive and conservative perspectives. Some argued that there are good, Biblical reasons to refuse to merge. Some argued that the refusal to merge reflects a deep misunderstanding of the Bible. Some pointed out how the congregation might have been better prepared for the merger proposal.

Obviously, it’s impossible to agree with all that’s been said, because so many disagree with each other, but it’s been an interesting, helpful conversation. And you won’t be surprised to learn that I have few thoughts to add.

Now, the question that interests me the most is how the leaders of the two churches might work to allow the two congregations to unify. And the first step in the analysis is to ask: why did some people object? I have three theories —

* Purity. As is obvious from the comments, many in the conservative camp consider the independent Christian Churches damned for their use of the instrument. Therefore, they cannot be restored to full fellowship until they repent by confessing the sinfulness of their instrumental worship. It’s logical.

On the other hand, if a couple from an independent Christian Church were to request to place membership in a Church of Christ, very few even conservative congregations would require that they confess sin and repent. Most would simply ask them not to press their views on other members. However, some churches would actuallly insist on repentance.

There are actually two major theories of apostasy in the conservative Churches of Christ. Both schools of thought were represented at GraceConversation, although Todd and I never got to the point of pointing out the inconsistency.

One school of thought is that all doctrinal error damns, although God will be patient for a season. Others hold that doctrinal error only damns if it leads to sin. Thus, merely considering instrumental music to be authorized does not damn until you either worship with the instrument or else press your views on others. And it’s the first view that particularly leads to a refusal to fellowship absent repentance.

Now, I could insert an argument here pointing out the errors behind those viewpoints, but we’re only at the analysis stage. And I think there’s something more going on here.

* Participation. Church members expect to be consulted on large decisions. The longer they’ve been members, the more ownership they feel of the congregation, because they’ve invested so much of their time and energy in it. And when a decision is made they don’t like — or might not like — they resent not being involved earlier.

Now, the leaders of the Church of Christ had actually made no decision. They’d only met with the independent Christian Church and brought their proposal back to the Church of Christ for consideration. But to some members, the proposal shouldn’t have gone even that far without their participation.

That doesn’t mean the elders were wrong. It means that people often say they should have been consulted when they mean they are opposed to the decision. You see, sometimes an opponent of a decision finds it easier to argue process than substance.

The point is that those who argue process when the process is really just fine are really just unhappy with where they think the decision might be going — and are afraid they won’t be able to defeat it on its merits.Therefore, they try to defeat it — or make it look bad — by complaining about process issues that happened in the past and so can’t be undone.

And, of course, a process argument is rarely consciously deceptive. It’s just how some people react to bad news.

* Power. Although purity and procedural objections are often deeply felt and honest, they are sometimes masks for an even deeper concern — a concern that few church members would even admit to themselves. A merger of congregations means a loss of power, position, and comfort. And they are very unhappy about it.

I know this sounds very cynical, but I learned this by consulting with non-Church of Christ churches. You see, when Baptist Churches merge, they run into the very same problems — they just don’t couch them in doctrinal language. Sometimes, we come up with a doctrinal reason to object. Others just object. But we often object for the very same reasons.

And watch what happens when two doctrinally identical Churches of Christ decide to merge. People still object, even if they can’t state their objections in doctrinal terms. Some will speak of the unique and special heritage or mission of their church. Some will talk about the disadvantages of a larger church. And they’ll imagine that all sorts of horrible things will happen once the merger occurs. I mean, didn’t you hear about the church — at least five states away; I can’t remember the name — that merged and then split 5 ways?! Or that had a horrible sex scandal just 6 months later?!

People can lose a lot in a merger. For example,

* An elder in a two man eldership will lose the ability to deadlock the vote.

* The deacon over missions may lose his control of a deeply loved ministry. He may not be able to keep the merged church from canning a favored mission.

* The woman who teaches the ladies Bible class may lose her teaching position and may see some of the class’s favorite good works put on the shelf.

* The 60-year member without position may lose his influence when the elders he grew up with and who also consult with him become a minority of the eldership.

* Any member can lose the sense of intimacy and familiarity that comes from meeting people you know well and who’ve known you for decades. A merger means you’ll be attending church with strangers. It’s almost like being forced to join a new church. It really is.

* And all the members will lose the undefined but very real culture of their church. They are used to a certain way of doing things, a certain way of worship, a certain style of teaching — and a lot of people look for stability and familiarity in church because the rest of the world is changing all too rapidly.

Now, even though people articulate these fears by talking about other things — doctrine, process, whatever — there’s never been a merger where people didn’t feel this way. Of course, sometimes they feel the joy of unity more. But everyone is going to feel some of this — and few will admit it to themselves.

The leadership, therefore, has to develop a process that addresses these concerns, as well as the stated concerns. It’s never enough to only address the stated concerns. Here are some ideas —

1. Find ways for the members to get to know each other. To someone in the Churches of Christ, a member of the independent Christian Church is an abstraction. He may have been taught that these are people who care nothing for the Bible or for Jesus. He may have been taught all sorts of things. He may know intellectually that this isn’t true, but the other-ness may still be in his heart.

Therefore, monthly Sunday night covered dish dinners together, joint congregational picnics and softball, some joint ladies Bible classes — maybe even some Sunday school teacher exchanges — will help the two churches to see each other as people rather than stereotypes.

Makes sure the leadership of both churches shows up at every joint activity. People don’t want to be overseen by elders they don’t know.

2. Make sure everyone is heard — and feels heard. I’d seriously propose that the elders meet with each family one at a time. Don’t let the decision be made based on threats and demands. Sometimes the threats and demands are just adolescent ways of being sure to be heard. Make sure they feel heard.

3. Teach. If some members really have doctrinal objections, address them, but address them in a Bible class. There are two reasons —

a. Some people who are very much in the minority feel that they are speaking for the silent majority. They are astounded when the class doesn’t agree. They need to be gently shown that most people disagree.

b. To be persuaded, people need a chance to state their case . Preaching doesn’t give the other side a chance to explain why they feel as they do. A gently led class discussion lets everyone be heard.

4. Talk to the ministry leaders — not just the deacons — about what their role would be in a merged church. The woman who handles the nursery may be thrilled to rotate her job quarterly with her equivalent at the other church. The deacon over the teens may be glad to be re-assigned so the other church’s teen leader can managed a combined program. Some leaders may feel better just knowing that their beloved ministry will continue and they’ll get to continue to be a part of it.

You see, people fill gaps in the knowledge with their fears. If you discuss these questions openly, and come to a resolution, at least they’ll know.

5. Preach a vision. “Unity” is an abstraction that few of us have ever actually experienced. Why should I give up my comfort and familiarity for an abstraction?

And bigger isn’t better to everyone. My church experienced a merger and move several years ago, and it was extremely disorienting to us all. We didn’t know where to sit!! We didn’t know the people we were sitting next to. We didn’t know who to complain to about the temperature in the auditorium! And while these sound silly in retrospect, these were in fact very disturbing to us all at the time.

Explain why the merger is worth the price.

When we moved, we were fortunate to have been counseled by others that after a merger and a move, people will struggle because the vision — the merger and move — will have been accomplished, and so the church will feel purposeless afterwards.

So what will the merger do for the kingdom? What will the church be able to do for the kingdom that it couldn’t do before? How will it help our children remain true to the faith? How will it help us be better ministers? How will it help the community?

And it’s not a vision until you can see it. Words on a page and slogans are useless until the congregation can envision the blessings of unity.

6. As tempting as it might be to get miffed and even angry, make it a point to talk to and hug the dissidents. They’ll wonder whether they’ll be informally shunned for being against the move. They’ll expect it because they fear it. Hug them. Call on them for comments in class. Meet with them.

Don’t cater to them. Treat everyone fairly and the same way. Just don’t let your resentment lead to an unconsious ostracism that pushes them out of the church — or pushes them to try some sort of power play, such as splitting the church. All church splits begin with an emotional split. Don’t let them pull away emotionally.

7. Pray without ceasing.


13 Responses

  1. Jay

    Thank you. I like your last comment. Pray without ceasing.

    It is a mystery toe why good people can’t get along. I know more than a few in the Independent Christian Church. I know two ministers very well. I would say they are as biblically sound as any of the COC. But I am not a preacher, just a sheep.

    Thanks for your sound logic.

    In Christ


  2. There’s lots of priceless wisdom in this post. Thanks Jay.

  3. About a month ago, the congregation where I worship invited Dr Charles Siburt of Abilene Christian University to present a workshop on the role of elders.

    I’ve known Charles since my college days, so it was a great pleasure to see him again.

    He has frequently been involved with congregations facing serious differences of option, including both threats of splitting, as well as real splits.

    He make this observation: Every serious disagreement he’s witnessed in a congregation, regardless of the topic, is actually about power and control.

    I think he’s right.

  4. Oh so true, and the shocking thing is how often the real power is among the otherwise inactive but strongly connected. It can kill the activity of a congregation in a hurry.

  5. Some great insights here.

    With our emphasis on family, small groups, and connections, it’s tough seeing the match in vision when a merger means getting bigger..

  6. Powerful wisdom in this post.

    You say: “To someone in the Churches of Christ, a member of the independent Christian Church is an abstraction. He may have been taught that these are people who care nothing for the Bible or for Jesus. He may have been taught all sorts of things. He may know intellectually that this isn’t true, but the other-ness may still be in his heart.”

    This is so true. There is such a strong tendency to create straw men out of our argument partners that we forget that there is a real, flesh and blood person behind the arguments–a person with which we share much in common, including a love for God and a willingness to serve Him. Once we realize that our caricature of the other person is wrong and that they in so many ways are like us, then there’s room for God to work in our hearts.

  7. “Once we realize that our caricature of the other person is wrong and that they in so many ways are like us, then there’s room for God to work in our hearts.”

    This is so true. I was astonished to learn that many (okay most) of the things that I was taught about other christians (in fact, we were taught they weren’t christians) were so false.

  8. Nancy

    I have worshiped with nearly all kinds of Christians or as you say other Christians. Yes it is astonishing to me also that they are just like we are in their love for the gospel. They have other so called doctrinal differences but the Gospel is central. Most live an exemplary Christ like life, guided by the holy spirit.

    They are all over the world and are Coptics, ortodox, catholic, syriac ethinoic, etc, ect.


  9. Alan,

    That means a lot coming from you.

    I’ll see you at ElderLink in a couple of weeks?

  10. David,

    For those who, like me, treasure Charles Siburt’s work for the Churches of Christ, you should know that he has just undergone a bone marrow transplant to fight off blood cancer. is his online journal. You can sign up for email updates and say a kind word or two in his guestbook.

  11. Matthew and Nancy,

    One of the biggest steps in my escape from legalism was to meet and discuss Jesus with people from “the denominations.” I was shocked … SHOCKED! … to know that they’ve read their Bibles and care deeply about obedience to God. They prayed fervently. I mean, they were supposed to be acting solely to please men and satisfy their carnal appetites. I found I’d been misled about some very good people. Some of my teachers had slandered others just to win an argument. Well, that doesn’t speak well of their Christlikeness.

    And so I wondered whether I’d been misled about other things …

  12. Yep…my story too! It took “denominationlists” to teach me the Gospel.

  13. Here is the crux of the matter to me:

    Is a congregation looking inward or outward?

    Is our group about ‘us’, or about doing whatever possible to reach out to the world around us with the message of Jesus?

    It our goal to make ‘us’ comfortable, or to stretch our vision, reach, and influence as far as possible beyond what we know?

    Are we looking to find more people like ‘us’, or seeking to find as many different people as we can so we can share the Spirit of what God did through Jesus?

    Sadly, most of the C/C’s I’ve attended in my years are internally focused. I’ve finally found one that is externally focused and the difference is transforming. I’ve finally understood that God tells people to ‘go’, never to ‘stay put’.


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