Thursday, April 7, 2016

Church Amalgamation before the Death Watch Begins

Mountainside United Church in Westmount (Montreal) is moving or amalgamating. As the article below suggests (to me at least) this raises all sorts of interesting questions for all of us, regardless of our denomination. Montreal’s situation is unique, of course, given the role language (to some degree) has played in the equation. But the underlying dynamics, where only a fraction of the people who used to go to church still do, is relevant to all church members, especially those of us who worship in large urban/suburban centres.

One of my parishioners who grew up at Mountainside noted that Montreal churches seemed more adept at amalgamating than Toronto churches. The subtext of her comment was something like this: “Why are there so many churches that insist on struggling on to the bitter end in Toronto? Why don’t we talk about amalgamation earlier, before the death throes set in, when there is still opportunity to do something new and exciting together?"

I think that when churches are forced to amalgamate because the alternative is death there will be little energy left over to do a new thing. Staving off death is the overriding goal, after all. I also believe that earlier, strategic amalgamation might allow the pursuit of other goals before energy and resources have evaporated. Such churches could consider multiple types of worship throughout the week and on Sundays, targeting services to different demographics. Resources for appropriate staffing, marketing, and outreach would not yet be used up. Congregations would arrive at the amalgamation service less anxious about survival and more willing to work on new ventures.

Lyle Schaller, the (mostly) mainline church admin expert, told me once that when two churches amalgamate, the final attendance numbers would finally level off at the level of the best attendance of the largest of the two churches amalgamating. He also suggested that the only way around this trend, which he had long observed, would be to amalgamate before the death watch set in. Death-watch amalgamations are so tempered by sadness, regret, emotional loss, and often, conflict, that they rarely succeed. What is needed to make amalgamation work, in other words, is vision and resources, not the last best hope for survival.

I think that those of us who have thought of amalgamation know this in our guts. But we have little stomach for change and its risks—including for ministers, potential job losses, and for members a whole new Sunday routine in a strange place. We’d rather soldier on till retirement, or till a better opportunity comes along, and we’d all love to avoid conflict and the pain that goes with hard (even if strategically smart) decisions. But maybe it is time for many more local churches to sit down together and talk this through, and maybe even dream a bit. It seems a small thing given that much of what we’ve tried in the past hasn’t worked at all.

What do you think?

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