Church Collaboration

How Congregations Can Work Together for Mission

How to Explore Collaboration

Start with faith-building

ChurchFuture strongly recommends that congregations incorporate faith-building measures into the collaboration process Pick a good book or develop a top-notch Bible study and get all your leaders involved in the discussion. Weave your study theme into sermons and newsletter articles and Christian education to expose the entire congregation. This can be a good time to use short-term small groups. Church consultant Linnea Nilsen Capshaw recommends that the cluster team prepare a "spiritual support plan" to integrated faith building into the process. Your objective is to move people from “what I want for me and my church” into asking what God wants his congregation to become.

Congregation-wide visioning

ChurchFuture also recommends that you engage your entire congregaTown Hall Visioning Sessiontion in thinking about why their church exists and what it might become. We use a “Town Hall Meeting" technique to get members talking and sharing in an open but well-structured process. An outside facilitator and objective process is necessary to get an honest picture of congregational attitudes. After you have identified a prospective partner, ask that church to conduct the same visioning so you can see how the congregations compare in their sense of purpose and their vision for the future. Visioning leads to better decisions and it shows members that the leaders are listening to them. It often starts a sense of excitement about collaboration.

Be honest about where you are

Atonement Lutheran Church was a small, older urban congregation that was doing OK. Its energetic young pastor attracted new families to replace older members as they died. Bills were paid on time, attendance was stable, and the building was decently maintained although it was inadequate and out of date. Atonement decided to form a strategic planning team to look at its future. The outcome of the team’s effort was a comprehensive plan to revitalize the church and re-engage with the community. There was one flaw, however. Atonement did not have either the financial or the people resources to implement its ambitious plan.

Atonement’s team then looked at several options for securing more resources. Consolidation seemed to have the most potential. There were two other Lutheran Churches, Bethel and Calvary, within about a mile that could be potential partners in a consolidation. Bethel's situation was similar to Atonement's except that Bethel was slowly declining and experiencing big budget deficits. Calvary was aging and declining at a faster pace. It had some very dedicated members but could not afford a pastor and was unlikely to last more than two or three years.

Both Bethel and Calvary found it difficult to admit their plights. Declining churches are often in denial, hoping that God will save them or that next year will somehow be better. A small group of Atonement leaders set up informal coffee shop meetings with Bethel and Calvary leaders. Atonement talked frankly about its needs and shortcomings, which prompted the other leaders to recognize the grim circumstances of their churches. More importantly, Atonement shared its vision for a revived mission and this vision energized the Bethel and Calvary leaders. This combination of self-honesty and vision formed a foundation that led to a new blended congregation about 18 months later.

Get the facts about prospective church partners

If you haven't already identified a prospective partner, list the nearby churches that might be candidates. Don’t exclude those of other denominations—some of the most successful partnerships are ecumenical. Look for both similarities and complementary differences. Quietly gather some basic facts about each church, especially their membership and attendance trends. Denominational offices and web sites and often have this data available. Assign leaders to visit each prospective partner church during worship to get an impression of the church’s values and culture. Get as much information as you can, because you don't want negative surprises about a partner after you are well along in the process.

Look objectively at collaboration options

Get your leadership involved in studying the various options for collaboration. Be sure to include the option of not collaborating in your list of options. Identify the pros and cons of each option as it fits your circumstance and the situation of prospective partner churches. It can be smart to keep two or even three partnership options on the table at this stage before you approach other churches so that your prospective partners can be involved in the options process too.

Talk with the leaders of prospective partner churches

Churches often send out letters at this stage, but we’ve found that face-to-face meetings are much better. Have the president of your church call the president of the prospective partner. Arrange an informal meeting with a few key leaders from each church or arrange for the church councils to meet together. At the same time your pastor should meet with the prospect’s pastor.  Explain why you are looking at some form of partnership, describe the two or three options that seem to make the most sense, and invite the other church to explore possibilities with your church. Successful collaboration intentionally involve both lay leaders and pastors throughout the entire process.

 Form a team

If one or more other churches are interested, ask each council to appoint members to a joint team to explore collaboration in depth. We have found that 4 members from each church is the best number. Make sure that team members represent different constituencies in the congregation. It is very helpful to have team members with strong personal faith commitments. We recommend that the pastors attend all the team meetings and participate but not vote.

It is very helpful to bring in an outside facilitator at this point. (See the Resources page.) Set some guiding principles for your deliberations and guard that leaders from one church don’t end up dominating. Spend some time educating yourselves on the options and assemble key information about each church. Talk frankly about your objectives. Do you prefer to carry on pretty much the way you are, or are you willing to change for the goal of revitalization? Set a target date—maybe six meetings over three months—to make a report and recommendation to the councils and members of each of the congregations. It this report calls for collaboration talks to continue it is very smart to bring the recommendation to a vote in each church. At that point it is also important to engage your denominational officials, if you haven’t done so already.

 Three critical rules

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Church leaders often assume that the members know what is going on or that they don’t care. Neither assumption is useful. Keep your congregation up to date with the team’s progress, even when there is not a lot to report. Often the recommended collaboration will require dramatic change on the part of congregation members, and they will accept the change easier if they feel like they are in the loop from the beginning. Use a variety of communication methods:  newsletter articles, announcements, temple talks, special meetings, and informal conversations. ChurchFuture has found that a web site specifically for the collaboration effort can be invaluable as both a communication tool and a paranoia reducer. Post your meeting notes and handouts on the site and include information about each of the church’s involved.

Copyright 2009-2012