Recently, a friend in local church ministry asked a question related to the merging of groups. Surprisingly, neither of us could find articles, books, blog posts, chapters in books, or tweets about this part of group life. Not much has been said about this. Just try a Google search and see for yourself.
Is it ever a good idea for two groups to merge? Should we stick to our guns and never let “the two become one”? Would there ever be a reason why merging groups might make sense? If we allowed groups to merge, could there be unintended consequences?
Occasions When Groups (and the church) Would Benefit from a Merger
- When a group leader is unable to lead a session. It would make sense to combine two groups, albeit temporarily, if one of the group leaders was unable to be present for a Bible study. Although not ideal, the two groups could meet together rather than one group being left without a teacher/leader for that Bible study session. If you’ve been in church leadership long enough, you know this happens occasionally. Sometimes a group leader becomes ill, or is called away because of a work-related emergency. In this instance, a merger makes sense. I used to dread those 9PM Saturday night calls from group leaders that started with, “I’m sorry to call you this late, but I’m not going to be there tomorrow…”
- When groups are in severe decline. We’ve all seen them – groups once thriving now in a free-fall with regard to attendance. Perhaps the group forgot the real mission of Sunday School – to “go and make disciples.” Inwardly-focused and without any momentum, some groups languish for years before even the most committed group members no longer attend. At some point the group simply dissolves. When groups no longer carry out the Great Commission, no longer reach new people, and cannot (or will not) refocus on the mission, it may be time to merge two or more groups. Sometimes an influx of people brings new energy and synergy to the group, and growth begins to take place again as people become excited and hopeful that the group will survive. When people have hope, good things happen. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope delayed makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (CSB). New people, new energy, and a new focus on reaching people can result from a class merger, and hope for a brighter future seems to be within the grasp of the group again.
- When small, dying groups occupy needed space. Every church seems to have them – groups that become attached to a room, and then refuse to give up the space when it is needed for healthier, growing classes. How many of us have been told by a group leader whose group is no longer healthy and in decline, “Don’t mess with my group,” or “Don’t you move us – we’ve been in this room since 1978.” Groups in decline must give up their claim on space that was never theirs in the first place. By merging with another group, a dying group helps the church continue its mission of reaching people and making disciples when a room is suddenly available after the merger of two groups.
We’ve focused on the positive benefits of merging groups so far. Are there any negative consequences of doing this? The answer is yes. Here are some things to think about before committing to merge groups.
- Merging groups may be a sign that we’ve not trained apprentice leaders. Groups often merge because there is no one to lead the group. This happens when a group leader retires, moves away, or takes an extended sabbatical. If no one in the group has been apprenticed to lead the Bible study (and the group itself), there can be a temptation to merge the group with another one. Recruiting a new leader is hard work, and even harder is the work of apprenticing that person. This is something that takes time, and when there is a leadership void, time is not on your side as a church leader. Perhaps the real issue is that we’ve done a poor job preparing the next generation of leaders. Every group needs at least one apprentice, but sadly, most do not have this crucial person in place. In my new book Breakthrough: Creating a New Scorecard for Group Ministry Success, I wrote a chapter on the importance of raising up apprentice leaders, and I provided a six-month timetable of events to help make that happen. A group could literally produce two apprentice leaders per year, and would never face the danger of having to merge with another group – at least if the absence of a trained group leader was the issue.
- Merging two groups solves a leadership problem, but it can create a relational problem. Bringing two groups of people together who have had different leaders, different ways of doing things, and especially a different history, can be challenging to say the least. Sometimes you end up with two groups merging into one new group, but they never truly accept one another and become one new group; you end up with two distinct groups meeting in one room. “They have their friends and their leaders, and we have ours” can become the unintended mantra of two merged groups. When this happens, people stop attending – they vote with their feet – and the merger fails. Look in the book of Acts at the trouble the first-century church had in merging Jewish and Gentile believers into one new institution. That merger was harder than anyone anticipated. And so it can be today with two groups from within the same church!
- Merging groups can create a span of care issue. As groups get larger through mergers, it becomes more difficult to meet the needs of the people. Smaller groups tend to be better at this than larger groups, although some larger groups are hyper-organized and caring for the members is a high priority for them. A merger of two groups requires a new organization in which people are assigned to care group leaders for a deeper level of ministry and follow-up. Large, post-merger groups can be challenging – people’s needs must be met, but the span of care becomes so much broader in the newly formed group. This requires a commitment from the group leader, the church staff leader, and members of the group to creatively solve this challenge before people feel they are not on anyone’s ministry radar.
- Merged groups keep the attention of the people on the group, not on the unreached. Two merged groups may believe they’ve dodged the proverbial bullet and survived to “fight another day.” The merger may create new energy and new life, but the attention will be focused primarily on the survival of the group. When our attention turns inward as a group, we lose sight of the mission field all around us. The unreached no longer consume our thoughts. Instead, group members may relish the fact they still have a group, albeit a new one. As David Francis, Lifeway’s former Director of Sunday School said, “The natural inertia of any group is to turn inward.” I’ve seen this in groups I’ve led – and it’s not pretty. When groups merge, it takes a very strong leader to keep attention focused on the fields that are ready to be harvested.
Tips for Merging Groups
If you choose to merge groups at your church, here are several tips that may make this transition a bit easier for everyone concerned. I’ve taken some of William Bridges’ suggestions in his book Managing Transitions that particularly apply in this scenario of merging groups in the church:
- Help people deal with their perceived loss. When two groups merge, people will have perceived losses. It may be they feel a loss of control, a loss of history, or a loss of identity. Help people identify “the loss behind the loss.”
- Remember that words create worlds. Use positive phrases to describe what is happening to the two groups. Avoid phrases like, “The end has come to the two groups.” Instead, focus on the positive by saying, “We are about to write a new chapter in the history of both groups,” or “We are about to embark on a new voyage together.”
- Listen, empathize, and talk openly. People need to talk, vent, and grieve. Don’t judge…just let them talk – and be a good listener! Nod, repeat back to them what you hear them say, and don’t talk over them. As TV’s Judge Judy says, “Put on your listening ears!”
- Focus on what will remain the same. It will be good for the two groups to focus on what will remain, and what will remain the same. The mission hasn’t changed, and hopefully the curriculum the two groups have studied won’t change, either. The groups will still meet at the church (that’s my assumption), and they probably will meet at the same time or general location, which won’t require any major switching to a new time.
As wise King Solomon once said, “Here is the conclusion of the matter…”
I would urge church leaders not to make the merging of groups a habit. Under the right conditions, merging two groups could have long-term benefits. In most cases, though, the church is better off raising up new leaders and finding new places for groups to meet, rather than merging them. I believe that more groups are better than fewer groups, so merging them works against this best practice of starting new groups and having more “hooks in the water.”
If you have any success or failure from merging groups, people reading this post would greatly benefit from your insights. Leave a comment and help us all – there has been surprisingly little written on this topic. Enter your comments below, and lead the way in starting a meaningful discussion about whether to “merge, or not to merge.” That is the true question. At least it may be in this ever-increasingly post-pandemic church world.
To read two blog posts on the combining/merging of groups, check out these two posts from my friend, Darryl Wilson, Sunday School and Discipleship Consultant on the staff of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. He blogs as The Sunday School Revolutionary and you’ll find his thoughts helpful, I know!