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2023 brought many opportunities for our family to grow and change. One of the biggest opportunities was the sixth months our church spent in “conversation” with another local church about a potential church merger. After six months, the church merger was decided against, and our two churches parted ways.
It has taken me months of writing and pondering to sort through my thoughts on this, but I finally feel ready to share some of the positive highlights from this process and discuss what my family learned from it.
I started writing these posts while the merger conversation was still ongoing. Even during the process, it was deeply impactful. Now that the door is closed, it’s tempting to simply move on from all of it, but I find myself unable to do so. It happened. And I cannot pretend like something that consumed our family for the better part of six months didn’t impact us deeply.
Before I go any further, I need to make a few disclaimers:
1) I am writing this as an individual member of my church. I speak for myself and myself alone. My words are not representative of my church, our church leadership, or any ministries in which I serve.
2) The reasons for both the beginning and ending of the church merger “conversation” rest in the hands of those I respect, trust, and love – and are therefore irrelevant for the purposes of this post. I may speak in the vaguest of terms about the differences between our churches insomuch as they impacted our family; but the reasons the merger ended are layered, complicated, and not something that needs to be discussed in such a public forum.
3) The use of the word “conversation” regarding the potential church merger was the word used by our churches’ leadership. I will refrain from using quotation marks from here on out, with the understanding that the word refers to the discussions, meetings, combined events, and all related things that were leading toward our potential merger.
The Start of the Church Merger Conversation
The merger conversation began on March 12, 2023, the Sunday after our 15th anniversary. We knew there was a very important church business meeting about something that would involve the entire church. As much as I tried to guess what the meeting might be about, I was still very surprised – blindsided even – by the announcement.
Our church has a growing congregation in a facility that has been described by leadership as a “straight jacket.” The other church had a bigger facility with a small congregation and was looking to join themselves to another church for stability and growth.
Members of our church were encouraged to visit the other church’s website, visit their church in person, and get to know the people. The first step would be an initial vote to “start the conversation” two weeks later.
After growing up in a conservative, fundamentalist background, my faith has taken a wandering and sometimes painful path. This path took our family out of fundamentalism. After a few “stepping stones” and leaving more than one congregation that wasn’t meeting our needs, we landed at a small church 8 years ago that was a true oasis of hope, healing, grace, and strong gospel-centered teaching.
Two years ago, I also stepped into the role of main church pianist – a role that continues to be a source of joy for me.
I love my church so much it’s frightening. I know all too well that there is no perfect pastor or perfect church, and it’s dangerous to put a church or leadership up on a pedestal when it’s Christ who should have the preeminence. But God has also used His people in my life in a big way. My church is my family, my support network, my dearest friends, and one of the biggest things in my life that keeps me tethered to God and hope in spite of brokenness. As of 2022, I’ve been attending our current church longer than I’ve attended any other church in my lifetime. This has offered me and my family much-needed stability.
If I’m a boat floating on the sea of God’s grace, then my church has been the anchor keeping me there.
While I sat in the business meeting and was facing the news for the first time, all of my thoughts and emotions were basically positive.
The freaking out happened a few hours later.
And when it hit me – the realization that everything I had come to love was facing momentous change that was threatening our fragile stability – it hit me hard. I ended up sobbing my heart out in sheer terror.
What happens to us if this works?
What happens to us if this doesn’t?
I’m married to a very outspoken and opinionated man who is generally resistant to change, overly analytical, and can tell you a thousand reasons why something won’t work before he will tell you one reason why it will.
My husband’s reaction to the announcement was analytical: that very afternoon, he drove to the other church to count parking spaces to see if a merger was even possible given our churches’ combined parking needs. While he was freaking out about parking, I was freaking out about what would happen if he didn’t like the other church, the other pastor, or changes that could possibly come. What if the church wants to do this and Russ doesn’t? Or worse…what if he does or says something to mess it all up?
I was worried about my kids – (one of whom had a meltdown at the end meeting because he was SURE that Pastor had called the meeting for the express purpose of keeping him from getting to go home). How will they handle a new place and new people? Will there be new friends for them? And then…what if it doesn’t work? How will we handle all of that?
Then there was the fear of what would become of my role as pianist of the church – because they had a pianist too, a talented one that they loved. What could a combined music team look like going forward? Will I still be able to use my gifts to serve God? Will I still be able to do what I love?
I talked with a lot of friends and family that afternoon and into the following week. Everyone had thoughts and opinions, but all of us were tentatively positive. Nobody really knew what things in the future would look like, because we couldn’t know until we actually started getting to know the other church.
Some words get used frequently in church merger conversations, like the “marriage model” and the “adoption model.” These topics were discussed very early on. But the reality of what happened next really was more like a an old fashioned courtship than anything. The dad (pastor) of one person (their church) approached the dad (pastor) of another person (church) about the possibility of a relationship. Once the dads (the pastors) talked about it for awhile, they brought it to us kids (the congregations). We then had a chance to either start the conversation or not, as both churches had an initial vote two weeks later.
Once that vote passed, we started into the courtship phase where our congregations got to know each other. These “dates” included combined Wednesday night prayer meetings twice a month, a combined worship service, a combined music night, and a combined church picnic within the first few months of the courtship period.
Who the Son sets free, oh is free indeed…
It took me about a week to work up the courage to check out the other church’s livestream to get a feel for their worship style and their music team. The first song that they sang that day (March 19, 2023) was Who You Say I Am by Hillsong. I had never heard the song before. Within a week or two, this song came on my Christian Workout playlist on Pandora. It quickly became one of my most frequently played songs. Every time I hear the song, I still hear it in their voices.
Two parts of the song stand out in my mind. The first one are these lines:
Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God, yes, I am
I am chosen, not forsaken
I am who You say I am
You are for me, not against me
I am who You say I am
These lines are an anthem in which one can “preach the gospel to yourself.” At the end of April 2023, our pastor began a sermon series on 2 Peter entitled, Live as People Who Remember. This series stressed the importance of remembering what God has done for us and who we are in Christ.
On March 30, 2023, I began listening to Jinger Duggar’s book Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear. I wrote a little bit about this book’s impact on my heart here:
When I began to have this perspective shift – AWAY from my being in debt to God and TO praising God for the righteousness He has given to me – I found it so much easier to view the Lord’s Table as a celebration instead of a risky game of Russian roulette.
As my fingers have learned countless (okay, it’s 30, not countless) new accompaniments of hymns I’ve known from my childhood, my heart has been disentangling them from the meanings ascribed to them in legalistic environments. The words have washed over me afresh and given me a new perspective – a perspective of gratitude:
Gratitude for what Christ has done for me…
gratitude for a true understanding of God’s grace…
gratitude that I am no longer in debt to God…
gratitude to be in a place and working with a worship leader that still sees immense value in the hymns of old…
gratitude for the gift God has given me to be able to play the piano and worship Him in this way…
…and gratitude for the frequent reminder in the Lord’s Table of all of these things.
So all of these concepts swirl in my mind regularly, particularly when this song comes up on my playlist: Remembering what God has done. Remembering who I am in Christ. The Lord’s Table. Who the Son sets free oh is free indeed. Disentangling faith from fear. Live as people who remember. I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who You say I am. Live as someone who remembers.
And I hear it all in their voices – the music leaders from the other church who sang it to me the first time. It’s all intextricably bound up together.
In the next half dozen or so posts, I will be delving deeper into these concepts. I will be speaking about how events during the church merger conversation intersected with things God was teaching me and my family at the time. I will be sharing music that beautifully depicts and gives structure to the scattered thoughts I’m still trying to sort through. Finally, I hope to encourage every believer in the areas of unity within the body of Christ, personal and corporate worship, Christian hospitality, and – above all – the glory of God and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.