News and Tribune


March 7, 2014

STAWAR: Is bigger always better?

— It seems like we Insight customers have just joined the Time Warner family. Now if Comcast, the East Coast cable giant, has its way, we may be changing our e-mail addresses again.

In February, Comcast announced its plans to buy Time Warner for $45 billion, creating a gigantic company that would have far-reaching control over America’s television and Internet services. We’re among the 11 million Time Warner subscribers who would become Comcast customers, if federal regulators approve the deal. There is a lot of concern that this merger might eventually reduce competition, raise prices and lower the quality of service for all customers. It is like back when our mortgage kept changing hands, and I felt like I was constantly being sold without my permission.

America has been suspicious of large corporations, at least since 1911, when the Supreme Court broke up the Standard Oil Co., ruling that it was an illegal monopoly under the Sherman anti-trust act. Many industries have undergone periods of consolidation where there just weren’t enough customers to support all the businesses that existed. Banking is probably the best example. Our Florida bank was involved in at least three mergers and I couldn’t even guess how many bank mergers have lead to the current Chase Bank.

Mergers are usually arranged so that an organization can grow, increase its market share or align itself with an organization with needed or complementary assets, so that together they can better fulfill a shared mission. Some mergers are obvious takeovers or shotgun marriages, in which one or more partners have little to say about it. For some organizations, merger may be the only way to economically survive.

As many for-profit businesses have been negatively affected by harsh economic conditions, smaller nonprofit organizations have not been immune. At least seven of the original 29 or so community mental health centers in Indiana have been merger partners, and in Florida I was hired in Orlando when five mental health agencies merged. Later, I worked at a center that was involved in a failed merger attempt after it became clear that it was really a takeover by the larger organization.

Perhaps not surprisingly, religious organizations are yet another venue disposed to mergers. Dirk Elliot is an ordained United Methodist elder who works on congregational development for the Detroit Conference who authored a guidebook for church mergers titled “Vital Merger.” He reports that 2 percent of America’s 300,000 Protestant churches have already been involved in mergers and another 8 percent are potential candidates.

Somewhere among these numbers are five United Methodist Churches in the New Albany area: DePauw Memorial, Centenary, Main Street, Silver Street, and Jacobs Chapel. My wife Diane and I attend DePauw.

I don’t know how these other churches are doing financially, although it’s common knowledge that many older and smaller churches have been struggling with diminishing attendance and fiscal challenges.

“Vital Merger” offers a blueprint for what he views as a successful church merger. The basic principles include: 1. Selling the property of the churches involved and moving to a new location; 2. Worshiping in neutral locations from the first day of the merger; 3. Focusing on new missions; 4. Getting a pastor trained in church planting; and 5. Picking a new name that is not part of the names of any of the merged churches. Elliot likens the first stage of a “Vital Merger” to an ongoing courtship.

It troubles me that Elliot is so sure that a “Vital Merger” is almost always the best remedy for churches that he seldom questions his basic premises. While he rightly emphasizes the need for missions, his basic metric of success is almost always attendance.

He quotes one pastor, involved in a vital merger in a nearby state, as complaining that church members opposed to the merger untruthfully claimed that “the clergy had been sent by the conference to shut them down — that we had skewed the numbers to make it all seem more dire than it actually was and that we only wanted to make a big megachurch ...”

I believe truthfully they didn’t only want to make a megachurch, but it seems clear that a megachurch is seen as the most desirable outcome of such a merger. Elliot tips his hand in advancing the mission statements from Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and Willow Community Creek Church as models for newly merged entities.

In one section, Elliot cites merger authority Tom Bandy as saying, “All successful mergers depend on awaking the experience of Christ in the hearts of at least 20 percent of the members of each church. Those 20 percent will have the credibility to lead another 60 percent into the merger. The remaining 20 percent can and should be left behind no matter how much they give.”

I wouldn’t have thought that such comments were unusual in the corporate world, but I found this rather cynical for a church merger. In so many words, Bandy is saying that if you oppose such a merger, you must not be experiencing Christ in your heart. He then asserts that 60 percent of the membership are easily led sheep and that 20 percent is an acceptable loss rate.

And I believed mental health mergers were a hardball game.

Finally, Elliot says that a “Vital Merger” should not be just a financial strategy. He wants to reframe it as broader spiritual commitment. While I don’t question his sincerity, does he seriously believe that if there weren’t fiscal pressures, the merger issue would ever arise at all?

Despite my numerous concerns, I’m personally not opposed to any merger or megachurches, but I do believe that people need to be up front and transparent about their motives and the processes involved.

Some of the things, however, that I still ponder regarding such mergers are: 1. What would be the impact of losing small neighborhood churches, especially in locations where outreach is crucial? 2. What will be the fate of many older faithful church members? 3. How might the abandonment of important long-held missions effect schools, teenagers and neighborhoods in need? 4. What can take the place of the autonomy and self-direction that a smaller church provides? and finally 5. How have we come to believe that the size of a church somehow equals its success.

I recently read Pastor Karl Vater’s blog at aptly titled, “I Am a Small Church Pastor, and I Am Not a Failure,” in which he asks the rather important question, “What does Jesus measure?”

Somehow I doubt that it’s either attendance counts or profits and losses.  

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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