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Merging Churches... Part 1

The beginning of an adventure in death and resurrection

A church building (First UMC, North Bend) engulfed in flames.
First UMC North Bend on August 7, 2012

For the next few weeks, I am going to take time and reflect on my experience in merging two (United Methodist) churches together for ministry. The plan is for it to be a 10 part series about the journey of two churches to become Harmony UMC. When you have seen two congregations merge, you have seen two congregations merge. Every church merge is unique. But while every church merge is unique (there are all kinds of varieties of church merges), I think there are some important lessons I gleaned while merging these two congregations. If by telling my story I can help other congregations build up their own version of harmony, who am I to stop God’s spirit?

When I was first appointed to First United Methodist Church, Coos Bay, if you had told me that I would walk with that congregation through major capital building improvements, a merge with another church, and the building of a shelter for unhoused families in the community, I would have scoffed at you. But that is what they accomplished. I say they, because I don’t see myself as a visionary, but rather a midwife who coaxes out of congregations what is in themselves.

Then afterward I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Joel 2:28

I talk a lot about this, but I see my role as a pastor as a midwife. When I had my son, I used a skilled midwife, who could be tough when necessary, was an ardent advocate, and shared the same vision as I did: a healthy baby. I have had appointments where it was hard to discern what a congregation’s vision was. Sometimes it has taken a lot of coaxing for folks to even agree to go through the deep discernment that it takes to realize what their mission is. In other congregations, the resistance to any kind of discernment or listening to the spirit was so strong that we had to hire a professional to come in and help them figure it out. I think smaller congregations have a more difficult task at hand, because the people who have visions and dream dreams have, for a variety of reasons moved on. Part of the reason this merge worked was that we were able to tap into the vision of some amazing people. That, of course, is more difficult if you add the complications of a pandemic and lack of engagement that some congregations find themselves in right now, 7 years later.

On January 11, 2015, in a unanimous vote of those present, the members of First United Methodist Church, North Bend and First United Methodist Church, Coos Bay voted to merge together into a new church: Harmony United Methodist Church. But to say that the story starts or ends there would be misleading. The two congregations had a deep and wide history within their community that began over a hundred years ago when good folks began the founding congregations in North Bend and Coos Bay.

On the surface, the process of merging these two churches together seemed to just come together seamlessly. We cast a vision, got to know one another, settled on a name, merged, and worked toward a common mission - to make disciples and transform the world. While all of the above is true, the whole process was much more nuanced than that. The reality was that this process took deep spiritual discernment and listening to God's spirit from each of the founding churches. It also took visionary lay people who could help the process along - people who were willing to be early adopters of the vision of what church could look like. It meant figuring out what folks were willing to hold on to, what they could let go of, and what perceptions we needed to work on in the process.

Every good story has a major catalyst. For these two churches, it was the day that First United Methodist Church (UMC), North Bend experienced a catastrophic fire. August 7, 2012 started as a boring, normal day for me. My daughter was sick, so I was working from home. In small towns, news spreads swiftly, especially tragic news. I got a call from my office manager who had received a panicked call from one of my congregation members who had overheard at the Post office that the United Methodist Church was on fire. Of course, she thought her own church was on fire and called the Coos Bay church. We quickly realized that might be First UMC North Bend. Only I didn’t want to take a sick toddler to the scene of a fire. So, I called my spouse, a retired Firefighter, and asked him if he could drive over and see what was happening and if we could be of any support to the Pastor who was there. He confirmed that there was a fire, and took pictures of the building engulfed in flames. I called the conference and district offices immediately, to let them know what was going on.

My spouse quickly called work, rushed home to swap childcare duties with me, while I scrambled to put on something more appropriate than the PJs I was still in. I rushed over to the North Bend UMC site which was still burning. It was scary. It was shocking. It was tragic. It took the firefighters all day to put the fire out. The fire originated in the sanctuary, they think from electrical sparks that are common in older church buildings. I stood with members of the congregation who weren't even mine yet, and my heart ached for them. We were all in shock. The pain on my colleague’s face was palpable. He was in the middle of a vacation and had just arrived home the day before.

“If God is going to make changes, there needs to be ground tilled and ready. The Spirit wasn't ready yet.”

What were they going to do? As I listened to folks as we sat in the dirt across the street memories of Lenten Suppers, congregational meetings, inspirational worship flowed out of them. I felt God's stirring at that moment, but pushed it aside, saying to myself, if God is going make changes, there needs to be ground tilled and ready. The spirit wasn't ready yet.

**This blog is an expanded version of what I originally sent to the conference office when our two churches merged. You can find that document here: A Name in Harmony


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