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Merging Churches... Part 3

Growing A Vision

A very pregnant Laura and her kiddo

This is Part 3 of a 10 part series on how two churches in Oregon merged. See the first two posts are here: Merging Churches... Part 1 and Merging Churches...Part 2

Discerning a congregation's vision is difficult. It takes a lot of focus. Some folks might derail the process. If the process takes too long, leadership changes might result in a different focus. And yet deep discernment and commitment to reaching consensus takes time. Merging the two churches in North Bend and Coos Bay wouldn’t be easy under normal circumstances. I laid the groundwork for merging two churches while pregnant with my second child, struggling with postpartum depression, and a toddler who eventually would be diagnosed with an intellectual disability. I name that not because I want to wear a badge of honor for making it through, but rather in sheer bewilderment in how I actually made it through all of that AND succeeded in merging the two churches! As a result, it has taken me nearly 10 years to process and sort out my experiences and memories related to the merge and the time after. I will tell you, that the only way I made it through, was amazing congregation members who also carried the vision. You’ll hear about some of them in a future blog post. All of this is a good reminder that nothing derails the momentum of the Holy Spirit!

Before North Bend UMC’s fire, the leadership in both congregations had made the decision to participate in a connectional program offered by the Oregon Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. Right after that commitment was made, the North Bend church building was destroyed in a tragic fire. They were being served by a Pastor who helped lay the groundwork for change (not me!). He did amazing work with that congregation, although I suspect that not everyone felt the same way at that time. He led them through the fire and 10 months after with grace and compassion. Each congregation was at its own crossroads and needed to discern its purpose with willing leadership. The two churches were noticeably different in culture. The Congregational Leadership Development (CLD) program put on by Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference’s Health Vital Church Project was a perfect opportunity for each church to assess its vitality. Both churches knew that things could not remain the same, a conclusion they came to quite separately even though they were participants in the same program. I have to believe that God was stirring the ground and warming hearts.

Through the CLD program, FUMC Coos Bay realized that their capacity for ministry was strong; we just needed to cast a new vision - to figure out how we could partner with others in our community. We worked hard to make partnerships with other churches, a deeper connection to the Elementary school we already served, and the organizations helping people who were houseless in our community. As United Methodists, we already had common ground in the way of our mission statement: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Our task was to define how we could uniquely carry on this mission and allow the rubber to hit the road so to speak.

Together with the lay leadership, the CLD team worked on developing a process to help shape the vision for the congregation. We held several congregational meetings with what was affectionately called “Pastor Laura’s Big Notes.” When we needed to gain consensus throughout the process, I went old-school and opted for markers and poster-print (did you know they make ones that are like BIG post-it notes?) The reality is that I found I listened better as a facilitator if I was writing down people’s ideas on a big poster print. It also helped everyone see what we were accomplishing with these meetings. We left the big poster print notes up for everyone to see throughout the week.

For the purpose of visioning, we asked the following questions, adapted from Adam Hamilton’s book Selling Swimsuits in the Artic:

  • Why do people need Jesus Christ?

  • Why do people need the church?

  • Why do people need OUR church?

  • What does the UMC mission statement ("To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.") mean to you personally?

  • How are you already living out that mission?

  • How can our church live out that mission in our community?

  • If you were asked by an outsider to describe the vision of our church in just a few words, what would you say?

Pondering these questions 10 years after I began asking them, in the midst of a continuing global pandemic, you might be curious if I think they stand the test of time. I think they do. The 2020-2022 pandemic has changed how people engage the gospel, the church, its mission. The church will never look the same again. The focus for the time following the pandemic needs to be admitting that we are in the midst of change. We cannot develop a clear road map for the unknown future without asking questions that deeply discerns why people even need a congregation of messy, imperfect humans. Canon Stephanie Spellers, in The Church Cracked Open, uses the image of the woman that breaks an alabaster jar over Jesus’ feet as an example of the state of the church in the 21st century post-pandemic world. I know that for many (laity and clergy alike) this can be unsettling. We don’t want the world to crack open. We want our churches to be set in a routine, set in ritual, set in sameness.

And yet, I wonder what it looks like for the church to become the healing balm that pours over the tired weary world. I know that in part, folks could say that the merge process Coos Bay and North Bend participated in several years ago would look nothing like a merge today. That is likely true. Churches that were failing to grasp a vision before the pandemic, are in an even deeper rut now. And yet by asking these questions, there is always an unknown asset that reveals itself for ministry potential- often right under our noses. It's kind of like what Jesus taught the disciples when they were frustrated with the hungry crowds pressing in - someone always has fish and bread to share. When we have a mindset of abundance, there is always an opportunity to meet someone's need. When we crack the surface and look underneath, we can let the light in through the cracks, and a vision will emerge. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

“I'd much rather say that it was born out of chaos inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

As I reflect on the journey I took from 2012 until I left in 2018, that was the constant thing that kept us moving forward - our trust in the Holy Spirit to lead us to a place of vitality in our community. In part, one could say the merge was born out of necessity: one church had no building; neither church could sustain a full-time clergyperson. I’d much rather say that it was born out of chaos inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Next up: Part 4: A New Pair of Glasses...


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