Help ease the process of a merger by providing a clear plan for members
Shifting population levels and changing demographics often force worship centers into a position where change is inevitable. Whether that change is one in venue or structure depends on a variety of factors, but a merger is one option to consider. A merger allows a religious community to join another like-minded organization. While a merger can help organizations collaborate and share resources, it can also bring about tension and conflict. In order to reduce the stress and anxiety that can occur with a merger, it’s best to have a plan that is both well-defined and transparent to all members.
Test the waters
Before beginning the merger process, it’s best to explore all options. As with any change, there might be resistance from some members. In an effort to put their minds at ease, and to find the best solution, have open conversations about whether a merger is right for your organization. What will happen if your congregation continues down the path it has been on? Are there other options? What would the result of each option look like?
Choose the right type of merger
If, after asking these questions, a merger still seems like the best option, then it’s time to determine what kind of merger is best. To decide on one, your members will need to discuss the goals and outcomes they envision resulting from the merger. There are three types of mergers: continuation, absorption and rebirth.
- In a continuation merger, the two organizations can maintain a small level of autonomy, but legally become one entity. This usually means traditions and programs will continue for each organization, but resources and staff are consolidated.
- During an absorption merger, the smaller organization will integrate into the larger. All assets from the smaller entity will be signed over and the structure of the larger organization remains mostly unchanged.
- In a rebirth merger, both worship centers close and reform under a new entity. Typically in a rebirth everything is restructured - including leadership. According to some research, this method has the highest success rate for long-term survival as it allows a renewed sense of purpose among members.
Form a merger committee
The next step is to form a committee that will lead the charge when it comes to approaching other worship centers about a possible merger. This committee should be prepared to handle negotiations, but ideally would not make the final decision. Leaving decision makers off of the committee frees leadership up to continue their daily duties and it serves as a buffer between negotiations and decisions. This buffer ensures that there is an official approval process and helps to reduce the risk of miscommunication through informal agreements.
Assess your religious organization
The first task the merger committee should perform is an internal audit. This should be an honest assessment of the worship center, including both strengths and weaknesses. Consider the following when evaluating your organization:
- What are the demographics of the congregation? Do they reflect the greater population within the community?
- What programs are important to your members? If some of these were to discontinue, what would be the effect on the community?
- What is the financial state of the organization? What assets can you offer another worship center? How substantial is your inventory?
- Are there formal agreements with vendors or businesses that need to be honored?
- Who are the decision makers within the organization? How are disputes among members/decision makers resolved?
- If part of a larger denomination, are there requirements that need to be met to maintain membership?
Keep the mission in focus
Once a complete assessment of the organization has been made, the committee can begin developing a list of possible partners. When approaching other worship centers, it’s best to have the goal of a mission-driven merger. In other words, look for other organizations that share your values and vision for serving the community. If your only goal is survival, your priorities will likely be self-defeating. This often leads to short-term solutions that ultimately fail to keep the doors open.
When seeking a mission-driven merger, be sure that your partner aligns with you in these three key areas:
- Doctrine – Do both organizations view key issues similarly? Is there flexibility on views, or are there hard lines drawn by denominations, leaders or clergy?
- Culture – How inclusive are the organizations? Is there an “us vs we” mentality or are both groups open to adopting new members and ideas? What attitudes do the groups carry towards community members outside the faith?
- Governance – What roles exist within each organization? Is there overlap? Will these be consolidated? Should a new governing structure be created after the merger?
If both groups share the same vision, it’s now time to move into the negotiation stage. Besides the merger committee, you may want to consider seeking a third-party mediator to oversee the negotiations. A neutral mediator can help keep negotiations on track and emotions in check. They can also help document conversations, helping to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
During these negotiations, be sure to set a timeline for hitting key milestones and goals. For example, if a rebirth merger is the desired outcome, how long will you give each center before they need to legally dissolve their corporations? What’s the deadline for deciding on a new venue? When should the first service as the new entity take place? While the excitement of a merger may drive members to want to begin as soon as possible, it is important to create realistic, thoughtful deadlines. Don’t be afraid to go slowly.
The decision to merge with another worship center can be an emotional one. With the right outlook and planning, you can help make it joyful while avoiding some of the anxieties that come with big change.
Has your congregation undergone a merger? What lessons can you pass along to other organizations? Let us know below!
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