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Merging Churches... Part 4

A New Pair of Glasses (more vision!)

This is Part 4 of a 10 part series on how two churches in Oregon merged. See the first three posts are here: Merging Churches... Part 1 and Merging Churches...Part 2 and Merging Churches...Part 3

There is a story in the gospels about some people who approach the gatekeepers to Jesus – the disciples – about wanting to see Jesus. The crowds so desperately wanted to experience Jesus for themselves so they could make meaning of their lives. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t every person of faith’s hope – to be able to see a glimpse of the holy in their lives and to make meaning of it. As the churches in North Bend and Coos Bay moved forward to begin to figure out how we could uniquely help people encounter a living Christ in our vision for ministry, we knew we needed a new pair of glasses. We weren’t able to “see” Jesus, or even help others “see” Jesus with the glasses we were wearing. We needed to see Jesus through a new set of frames and lenses.

I was appointed to both FUMC North Bend and FUMC Coos Bay beginning July of 2013. Several months earlier, I discovered I was pregnant with my second child. It just happened to be the same week I talked to the District Superintendent about serving both churches. I remember calling her back and telling her the news, in case my pregnancy status caused her or the cabinet to change their minds regarding appointing me to the two churches. Obviously, it didn’t.

I had already been serving the Coos Bay congregation since July of 2010. We had already begun cultivating our vision together. The North Bend church had been working to discern their future following their building fire. Some held tightly to the old city divisions. Others just wanted something - anything to happen and move forward from the place where they had been paralyzed following the fire. Discernment is tricky and holy work – especially for a group of people who had been through so much. After much grieving, building consensus, and conversation, the North Bend congregation decided that they needed a partner in ministry. Some visionary congregation members reached out to members from FUMC Coos Bay hoping that the two congregations would agree to partner together.

In October 2013, the First United Methodist Church, Coos Bay Administrative Council voted to offer to North Bend an option to be “two churches, one site” beginning February 1, 2014. In early November 2013, the North Bend Administrative Council accepted the offer, and asked our District Superintendent, Gwendolyn Drake to recommend to an all-church conference to prayerfully begin the process of merging with Coos Bay. On November 24, 2013, just 5 days into my maternity leave (my kiddo came a week early!), the North Bend congregation, by a majority vote at an all-church conference, voted to begin a conversation and prayerful consideration regarding whether a merger of the two churches would be beneficial.

Here is the thing: I was on maternity leave, so they would have to do this step entirely on their own! While the North Bend UMC folks didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, there was lots of coordination to move their church operations, which had been worshipping at an empty space in the local Mall. Church folks are amazing! When I returned back from Maternity leave, we were two churches, one site. I opted to come back two weeks early and work part time the entire month of February. If I were allowed a do-over, I would have done all 12 weeks of my leave (or asked for 16). That is another blog entirely - in the realm of parenting and pastoring.

February 1, 2014, with both congregations worshiping in the same building, they began taking incremental steps toward a merge. These steps included “Get-to-know you” activities, combined worship teams, combined staff, and combined trustees duties. The trustees developed a capital plan for the funds - merging endowments, building funds, and insurance money from the fire. They began to accomplish a long list of building improvements - including windows throughout the building, and a new roof. They also included the parsonage in their capitol building improvement plans.

We started to increase in worship attendance, and new members were joining both congregations monthly. We began to see God’s spirit working through both worship services. We determined that we needed to see some intentional change in our worship, so we crafted a worship survey, and invited people to voice what they wanted worship to look like. Resounding in the comments was the need for unity and togetherness rang through the survey results.

We knew that the most important thing we would need to accomplish together first was to thoughtfully plan and define our purpose and future together. Having a stunningly clear and articulate vision statement was vitally important. As a United Methodist Church, we know that our main objective (and how we do that) is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. A vision statement is a desired future for the church. We knew that pair of glasses (a vision) would help us put into focus that goal.

Our leadership team (stakeholders from both founding congregations) took the answers from a survey we gave to the congregation and circled the words that kept repeating themselves. Our “survey” was folks answering the open-ended questions from Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic by Adam Hamilton: Why do people need Jesus Christ? Why do people need the church? Why do people need OUR church? What does the UMC mission statement 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?

The words that came to the forefront were: share, connect, serve, and grow. Additionally supportive words that rose to the top were gathering, community, fellowship, support, and unconditional love. By listening to one another, we realized an important value about our congregation. People don’t just want to be told stories of Jesus. They want to encounter Jesus. If we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, our church needed to help people encounter the incarnate, living God.

So what was the vision statement that our congregation finally settled on?

Share: the unconditional love of God

Connect: with God and each other

Serve: with compassion, hope, joy, and prayer

Grow: on our journey of faith.

The words and values that are important to a congregation might vary. However, the process of finding something that articulates the vision of where folks want the congregation to go is the goal. We felt it needed to be so clear that an unchurched 12 year old could understand it. For us, the above statement was compelling – enough that everyone who hears it wants to say it again, and again. It propelled us to action - to share, connect, serve and grow.

It took us a whole summer to help the two congregations claim this vision for their own, in the form of a summer sermon and study series. While we technically were two churches, one site, the lines between the two were getting blurry as we marched toward merging. We talked about our mission and vision all summer long. We combined worship services beginning in September 2014. The leadership of both congregations worked hard to cast a shared vision for our congregation so that we might become united as we share God’s unconditional love, connect with God and with others, serve with compassion, hope, joy, and prayer, and grow on our faith journey.

By the early fall, everyone knew “share, connect, serve, grow” and could mostly name each reason why they should share, connect, serve, and grow. It compelled every person in the congregation to act – and to take on ways that we could share, connect, serve, and grow. I’ll talk more about that in another blog post. When folks stop living and breathing the vision for your church, that is when it is time to re-evaluate and go back to the drawing board and get a new pair of glasses.


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