In this brief article I intend to contribute to the conversation about multisite ministry based upon two pastoral experiences in recent years.
In Springfield, Missouri, with a population of 170,000, I was the lead pastor of a 50 year-old suburban church that was averaging 1,100 in weekly worship. An aging downtown church, aware of this church’s ministries and dynamic outreach inquired about a potential partnership. We discerned that even though it is attractive for a declining congregation to partner with a thriving church with the hope of turning things around, rarely if ever does this work out as intended. Across the country and in Missouri it has been observed that when a declining church votes to close and hands all assets over to the thriving church, only then can a different approach emerge. In this case it was 4 years later, after inquiring about helping them out did the downtown church vote to close and turn its building and assets over to the suburban church, becoming part of it.
One of the first topics to deal with was how the Suburban church, Wesley, could infuse its own DNA into the downtown church. This required clarifying how Wesley understood itself, what defined it. The next step was to consider what needed to be done in the downtown context to truly have Wesley Downtown. This declining urban church had done everything possible to reach younger people and those who live in its community. Nothing it tried would turn it back to becoming a thriving church. After the merger and before launching the new downtown campus of Wesley I was appointed to a different church across the state, and would watch from afar as a site pastor was hired and the strategy for developing a second campus would be developed and activated.
In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a town of 37,000 I was appointed as executive pastor to a 26 year-old thriving regional church. The founding pastor continues to lead this congregation which averaged 2,200 in weekly worship. In a previous year the church leaders of a declining rural church located in a small town 20 miles to the south averaging 30 in weekly worship asked the district superintendent if there was an option other than the typical ¼ time retired pastors they were appointed. He responded that there was another option, and he suggested that La Croix was open to how God might lead them to expand their reach. After a few months they voted to close and turn over assets. La Croix continued to supply a “heritage” service, with hymns, a preacher and song leader for an agreed upon several months, and then stopped worship all together in order to remodel the building and retool the worship service.
Six months later weekly worship was launched in a fashion similar to a new church start in the remodeled sanctuary. A very large rear-projection screen created a “virtual presence” in the chancel area for the morning message, recorded at the mother campus. A site pastor, who had been hosting “come and see” events in the months leading up to the launch served as worship host during the 2 morning worship services (the sanctuary only seated 115 people, so it was decided to launch with 2 Sunday morning services.) What had been a church averaging less than thirty in weekly worship became a second campus that had 220 people its first week. It has been averaging 150 in the 19 months since launch.
There have been several learnings from these two multisite ministries.
- Staffing: In the Springfield multisite, a new site pastor was hired after the completion of the adoption of the downtown campus. An existing musician/worship designer was assigned from the mother campus to the new downtown ministry. In the Cape Girardeau multisite, a youth pastor on staff was reassigned to be the site pastor in the small town second site. A musician on staff was assigned worship leading responsibilities.
- Funding: In the Springfield multisite, the downtown church made the courageous decision to close even with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their bank account. This allowed the suburban church to fund the remodel, the staffing and the launch of the new campus in the downtown facility. In the Cape Girardeau multisite, $200,000 of a previous capital fund campaign had been set aside for a new campus or church plant. This amount was combined with a three-year grant from the annual conference and enabled the remodeling, audio-visual and lighting update, and staffing with a site pastor, part time musician and part time children’s coordinator.
- The Old Members Who Stay Through: In both of my experiences, the members who previously belonged to the church that closed attend the new project. Some are extremely helpful, some are neutral, and a few have a hard time aligning with the new approach to ministry and turning over all of their responsibilities to the new organization.
- What do you call the first location once you have a second?: Both of the examples I provide have struggled with what to call the first location after launching a second. Like a school district that starts with one high school named after the district, then adds a second and a third, there is a strategic necessity to carefully choose how to refer to the original campus. Rather than call it the main campus, or the original campus, or the central campus, we have found that referring to it by location (street address, name of town, section of the city, etc.) is most descriptive and the least detrimental to the other campuses.
- Autonomous/Uniform? Who makes decisions?: We have discovered that the process by which a large church launches a second campus in a smaller venue starts out more simple, and gets more complicated as time elapses. The lead staff make initial decision. The expertise and staff of the large church invest in the launch. After months (and then years, and then additional sites) there is the necessity of clarifying who makes which decisions and who has the responsibility and authority to perform which tasks. Suffice it to say that we still have much work to do in this area.
Resources for Further Reading
In Better Together authors Tomberlin and Bird describe the advantages and disadvantages of using terms such as merger, adoption, launch, 2nd site, campus. This book, subtitled Making Church Mergers Work is an excellent resource that draws upon many examples of multisite experiments.
Vital Merger by Dirk Elliott describes “a new church start approach that joins church families together” and provides wise guidance to churches who are considering taking on a second site, or becoming a second site.
Legacy Churches by Gray and Dumond provides a strong case for declining churches to intentionally choose to become a legacy church rather than simply evaporate and close leaving no legacy for the future