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Merging Churches...Part 5

The Boring Stuff...

This is Part 5 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 and Merging Churches...Part 4.

Momentum was finally building for the communities in North Bend and Coos Bay! We had a clear vision of where we wanted to go, people had been getting to know one another, our building improvements were coming along, we were worshipping together and yet there was still a missing piece of the puzzle. One of the pressing items, in the midst of combining worship experiences and styles, staff, and building maintenance and care, was the idea that to truly be a restart for both congregations, we would have to lose the identity of “First” “Coos Bay” and “North Bend” in our newly merged church. So, we went through a process of asking for suggestions regarding our name.

There were several major camps: geography, mission, and new age. We had 30 name suggestions heading into our initial vote in September. (Seriously - 30!!) By the middle of October, it looked as though our two congregations would continue to be divided. At least regarding our name. But choosing a name felt so much bigger and more important than all the details of everything else. The combined Trustees made quick work of the projects, but we were sluggish in figuring out a way to define ourselves in the community. I was worried that a name would only "win" by a narrow margin. Would that be an indicator of our hopes for our final merge decision? I should have trusted in hearts being warmed because that is what has happened as we moved toward connecting in ministry, mission, and vision.

In late October 2014, we held 5 small group (we called them cottage meetings) gatherings, where we invited members to come together for a time of questions and answers regarding the merge process. There, we revealed the top 5 names from a straw "vote" to narrow the names down. We listed all 30 and had folks choose their top 5 names. We got nearly every survey back and made a list of the top 5 names (each receiving more than 25 votes each). The names that rose to the top? Geography. Not ministry, not mission, not vision, but geography: Bay Area UMC, United Methodist Church, Coos Bay-North Bend UMC, First UMC, UMC of the Bay Area. The first meeting went off without a hitch. People seemed to understand the process, and with very few exceptions, desired change and growth. Folks were pretty ... well... meh... about the names presented, but since they were a practical bunch, they had resigned themselves to the choices.

When I arrived at the second meeting, I was pleased to see a usually homebound member there, Frosty. Frosty had been a school principal in the community, and both congregations knew him well: as a teacher, a mentor, and as a beloved member of the community. I knew there would be a moment of tension because the name he had chosen was not on the narrowed-down list of 5 names we were presenting. A few months before, Frosty had called the church office to suggest a name for our church. He wanted me to know that the name God had written on his heart was “Harmony United Methodist Church.” We added this name to the list of names that were put forth in front of the congregation for a vote. But it had received only 5 votes and was nowhere near the top of the list of names.

At the small group meeting, Frosty proceeded to talk about why he thought our new name should be “Harmony UMC.” He spoke of the need to move beyond geography – because the world was our mission. He talked about musical notes on a staff, and how, while different and equally beautiful, they are even more beautiful if they work together in harmony. “That is what we are trying to do here with our churches. Work together in harmony.” In the tradition of John Wesley, I think everyone there would say that our hearts were warmed by the passion and conviction that Frosty spoke that evening.

This story becomes even more poignant when we know that these were some of Frosty's last words spoken. That evening, on his way home from the small group meeting, Frosty had a stroke that ultimately cost him his life. But his words of God’s grace, passionate love, and a reminder of how God is always making beautiful music in our lives resonated throughout our community - everything we were trying to accomplish in bringing these two congregations together. The morning Frosty passed away, we had another informational cottage meeting. A person who was at the meeting Frosty had attended told the story of Frosty’s impassioned speech and vision of harmony. News of Frosty's death came to us during that meeting.

The last words that Frosty spoke to our congregation spread through the congregation with the swiftness of the wind of the Holy Spirit. The church became Harmony United Methodist Church, not because they sought some kind of perfection in unity or even because folks wanted a permanent memorial to Frosty. No, this was a group of people who continually discerned its vision and place in ministry for the community. They didn't become Harmony United Methodist Church, because they always sing the same notes either. They arrived at the name knowing that each person is wonderfully created in the chaos of the earth. We each come from unique backgrounds and perspectives. But we live in harmony - different notes singing the same song - together.

Next Up: Merging Churches...Part 6: The vote and final merge document


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