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These two shall become one: A study of the merger of Northeast Baptist Church and Northwoods Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

Dissertation
Author: Brian D. Wright
Abstract:
In 2007, two local Atlanta congregations participated in a merger where the two churches blended their programming, staff people, and members into a single church. Some church consultants say that congregational mergers rarely result in increased vitality and that when you merge a church four plus six equals four to seven and not ten to twelve. This has led many to discourage church mergers and think of them as a last resort just before closing. This project is a study of the merger of Northeast Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA and Northwoods Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA. Information is collected from both congregations prior to the merger and charted for two years after the merger. Surveys and interviews of the members and participants in the merger provide insight into the merger process and results of the integration. Conclusions drawn from this single experience are offered with the hope that the insights will be instructive for the larger Christian community especially those considering a similar move.

TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS iii ABSTRACT vi CHAPTERS 1. INTRODUCTION TO THE PROJECT 1 History and Background 2 2. THE ENGAGEMENT 10 Northeast Baptist Church 10 Northwoods Baptist Church 12 Biblical Issues 15 Theological Issues 22 3. THE WEDDING 32 Limitations and Assumptions 34 How the Merger Happened 36 Merger Goals 50 4. THE HONEYMOON 60 5. THE HONEYMOON IS OVER 72 APPENDICES A. INFORMED CONSENT 83 iv

B. CONGREGATIONAL SURVEY 86 C. SURVEY RESULTS 96 D. INTERVIEW QUESTIONS 116 E. INTERVIEW RESULTS 117 F. ATTENDANCE NUMBERS AFTER MERGER 127 G. TERMS AND DEFINITIONS 129 BIBLIOGRAPHY 131 v

ABSTRACT BRIAN D. WRIGHT THESE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE: A STUDY OF THE MERGER OF NORTHEAST BAPTIST CHURCH AND NORTHWOODS BAPTIST CHURCH, ATLANTA, GA Under the Direction of DR. PETER RHEA JONES In 2007, two local Atlanta congregations participated in a merger where the two churches blended their programming, staff people, and members into a single church. Some church consultants say that congregational mergers rarely result in increased vitality and that when you merge a church four plus six equals four to seven and not ten to twelve. This has led many to discourage church mergers and think of them as a last resort just before closing. This project is a study of the merger of Northeast Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA and Northwoods Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA. Information is collected from both congregations prior to the merger and charted for two years after the merger. Surveys and interviews of the members and participants in the merger provide insight into the merger process and results of the integration. Conclusions drawn from this single experience are offered with the hope that the insights will be instructive for the larger Christian community especially those considering a similar move. vi

CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION TO THE PROJECT Even a casual look around the mainline Church today reveals a deep and abiding problem. Congregations are and have been in decline for years.' "Total membership in the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations - United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (USA), Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches - fell a total of 7.4% from 1995 to 2004, based on tallies reported to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.''''2 There are dozens of books offering suggestions on how congregations can attempt to stem the downward turn from simple tasks such as adding lighting and nametags to complicated and drastic maneuvers such as relocation. One of the attempted renewal strategies that some congregations are undertaking is congregational mergers where two or more congregations join their people and assets together into a single congregation. 1 Cf, e.g., Religious News Service, "Church Attendance on the Decline," Christian Century, 11 September 1996, 843-44. Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950-1975. Dean R. Hoge and David R. Rosen, eds. (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979); George Gallup Jr., The Unchurched American: 10 Years Later (Princeton: Princeton Religious Research Center, 1988); Church and Denominational Growth: What Does (and Does Not) Cause Growth and Decline, David A. Roozen and C. Kirk Hadaway, eds. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). 2 Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Some Protestant Churches Feeling Mainline Again," USA Today, 31 October 2006. 1

Congregational mergers, while offering many obvious benefits such as greater attendance and more money, are long and difficult because of the complex administrative issues, the relational nature of congregational life, and the difficulty of what is, essentially, restarting a church. History and Background Northeast Baptist Church and Northwoods Baptist Church, only a few miles apart, and with almost identical stories became the main characters in a congregational merger that occurred in 2007. Both churches were founded in the early 1960s.3 Northwoods was a few years older than Northeast but was very similar in its early history. Both churches were planted by other local churches with assistance from the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association and grew quickly as their neighborhoods, then on the outskirts of the city, grew and developed. Most of the charter families lived in the immediate neighborhood, many within walking distance of their respective church. Many of the members of the two churches were participants in the "white flight"4 from inner city areas such as Little Five Points, Druid Hills, East Point, and Grant Park. They moved to the newly built suburbs following other middle class, blue collar couples chasing new schools, new 3 Northeast Baptist Church was founded by a group of people that left Druid Hills Baptist Church. Druid Hills Baptist Church assisted in the founding of Northeast Baptist, as did the Atlanta Baptist Association and Northwoods Baptist Church which had already started worshiping as a church. 4 White flight is a term for the demographic trend in which working and middle-class white people move to white suburbs and exurbs, away from suburbs or urban neighborhoods that are becoming racially desegregated.

3 shopping centers, and brand new homes and fleeing the quickly changing inner city neighborhoods. Both churches flourished throughout the first decade they existed reaching over 300 in attendance in the late 1960s, but as the children of the church aged and left for college and as neighborhood growth slowed, the churches had a more difficult time reaching new people. The 1970s and 1980s brought another new challenge, especially to the Northwoods neighborhood: diversity. Many of the "white flight" families that had settled the neighborhoods on the edge of town twenty years earlier, moved farther north to escape the growing sprawl of Atlanta. They were replaced by African Americans and a flood of immigrants brought about by President Lyndon B. Johnson's Immigration Act of 1965, which opened doors that had been closed since 1924 to immigrants from all over the world, most notably Asia and the Middle East.5 Northwoods experienced a dramatic decline dropping hundreds in attendance from 1975 to 1995.6 As the neighborhood around Northwoods became increasingly diverse, the church lost almost all contact to its neighborhood. Northeast Baptist, despite being in a much different social context and more affluent neighborhood, experienced a similar decline. According to a consultant's report prepared for the church in the late 1980s by a former pastor, Northeast Baptist Church's 5 Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America, New York: HarperCollins, 2002, 6, 7. 6 Joel Harrison, Church Trend Profile for Northwoods Baptist Church, Atlanta Metro Baptist Association, 2001 - 2006.

4 worship attendance declined by about ten people per year during the 1970s.7 Efforts to revive the declining congregation at Northeast started almost thirty years ago but were largely unsuccessful. When I joined the staff of the church in 2003, church membership and Bible study attendance have been steadily declining over the past five years. Worship attendance and undesignated receipts have also declined, although not as steeply as membership and Bible study attendance. Giving dropped every year and attendance and participation declined in all aspects of church life. This trend began to change at Northeast when more members joined in 2005 than the church has experienced in twenty years. Statistics from 2005 indicated the declines in the church have stabilized or slightly increased since 2004 In 2006, another significant number of new members joined the church.8 Northeast had started to grow and was operating in the black financially for the first time in years when the merger happened. On the other hand, Northwoods continued in decline, and in January 2007, contacted Northeast Baptist Church indicating that it would no longer be able to sustain its ministry in its current location to ask if they could reopen conversations about a congregational merger. The idea of merging initially surfaced in 2004 while both congregations were struggling to maintain their financial health, aging buildings, and staff. Northeast was in 7 Truman Brown, Northeast Baptist Church Report, Hendersonville, TN: Church Growth Ministries, 1999. 8 Ibid.

5 severe financial stress and initially approached Northwoods about the idea but it was rejected by the Northwoods congregation at that time. The members of Northwoods did not want to merge in 2004 because of Northeast's long history of church conflict and abuse of clergy. The congregational leaders that were dreaming for the future knew that "no" does not always mean "no;" it could just mean "not at this time." Despite the initial negative response to the idea of merger, in the time between 2004 and 2007, the two congregations made a deliberate effort to get to know each other by working together on mission projects, collaborating on a joint Vacation Bible School, and worshiping together on special occasions. As a result, when the idea of uniting resurfaced again in 2007, it was much more warmly received by both congregations. The members of the two congregations were not strangers anymore, but partners in ministry in their neighborhood and decided to make their partnership official. Northeast had undergone a transformation and was no longer the small, conflict ridden church that lead Northwoods to reject the idea three years earlier. Knowing the historical decline trends changed the way that the merger process was designed. It would not be enough to simply create a bigger version of either of the two churches as they were before the combination. Northwoods was clearly headed in the wrong direction and Northeast, while still small and having a long journey ahead, had turned the corner. Would the merger be the spark that could propel Northwoods into growth, health and vitality or would the decline trend be too much for Northeast Baptist Church? To change the decline direction, it would mean changing the core of the

6 churches as they merged. In January 2007, Northeast Baptist Church began an intimidating and exciting process of merging its congregation with a partner congregation a few miles away, Northwoods Baptist Church. Various surveys show that since the early 1960s, church attendance in the United States has fallen by 10 to 12 percent, and involvement in other forms of church social life (Bible study groups, socials, educational programs, etc.) has declined by between 25 and 50 percent. Actual attendance could be significantly lower, researchers note, because survey responders tend to over-report involvement in the life of the church. Consistent with what we repeatedly hear, mainline denominations have suffered the greatest declines during this time. Perhaps even more ominous are the results of polls that reveal our attitude about the body of believers. Almost 80 percent of Americans who believe in God assert that participation in a church community is not a necessary part of their faith.9 The way these two churches attempted to address the problem Vander Brock identifies is through a congregational merger. Lyle Schaller calls merging congregations a "dangerous venture" and at the bottom of his suggestion list, right above closing churches or trying to transform the church culture.10 Historically, he says, when you merge a church "4 plus 6 equals 3 to 7 and not 10 to 12."11 Congregational mergers rarely result in increased congregational vitality and making a congregation larger does not free it of the old destructive habits that had resulted its decline before the merger. In 9 Lyle Vander Broek, Breaking Barriers: The Possibilities of Christian Community in a Lonely World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 11, quoted in Steve deClaisse- Walford, Mission as Holistic Ministry (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2008), 5. 10 Lyle Schaller, A Mainline Turnaround: Strategies for Congregations and Denominations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 145. 11 Ibid.

7 fact, Schaller says the larger the size of the congregations seeking to merge, the poorer the result in terms of membership and attendance after the merger.12 This project is meant to study the congregational merger of Northeast Baptist Church and Northwoods Baptist Church to see if these trends hold true, or if a merger can provide a new beginning for a dying congregation. The hypothesis driving the proposed study is that if the key features of the integration experience developed for Northwoods Baptist Church and Northeast Baptist Church can be identified and analyzed, the results may refine the process and be a useful and valuable resource for the combined congregation moving forward and may also be generalized to the wider Christian community, especially those considering such a move. The method of research for this project will involve several modes of data collection. First, a collection of census data from the five years preceding the merger for both congregations will be undertaken. Analysis of this data will reveal attendance numbers, growth or decline rates, average age of the congregants, levels of participation in missions and small groups, and other information pertinent to an analysis of the vitality of the churches pre-merger. Then an analysis of the integration process that the churches went through will be studied. Survey questions and interviews will capture the impressions of the members of the congregation two years after the merger. Survey 12 Lyle Schaller, The Small Church is Different (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982), 177.

8 results and another data collection for the two years after the merger will be compared with data from the five previous years before the merger. The census data collection for both churches, drawn from church attendance records and denominational reporting forms, will inform the study and provide the foundational quantitative comparisons for the pre-merger churches and post-merger congregation. In addition, interviews and surveys will attempt to capture the qualitative results of the merger and give insight into the people's perceptions of the merger process. The churches began worshiping together in August of 2007, just seven months after the initial conversation and well before the "merging" was completed. As the proposed project begins, both congregations will have been worshipping together for over twenty-four months and the time seems right for a comprehensive evaluation of what has been accomplished, and to seek direction for what future course of action will best serve the combined congregation. Enough time has elapsed for a good snapshot of the initial results of the attempts at community building and evaluation of the processes that shaped the merger. At the time of the project, it has been over two years since the congregations began worshiping together at Northeast Baptist Church and the merger as a process has faded from the forefront of people's minds. While congregants may not think and talk about the merger weekly, the work is still unfinished and the results are still uncertain. At the beginning of the process, it was anticipated that joining the two churches together would ignite enough of a spark in the newly formed congregation to bring about new

9 church growth, energy, excitement, and vitality. A special effort was made during the process to keep track of members' attendance so that accurate numbers can be reported as well as, pastorally, no one gets lost in the process. The proposed study of the congregational merger will highlight exactly what has happened and where the congregation should be looking and going in the future. It is anticipated that this study will both enrich the merged congregation, as well as serve as a tool for other congregations in the wider church community who may be considering congregational merger. Change can bring out the best and worst in people. The change process, while never simple or easy, can be a time of great visioning for the congregation if it is handled in a responsible and skillful manner. Attempting to change a congregation can be a wonderfully rewarding or a painfully trying task depending on the process and the skill of the change leaders.

CHAPTER 2 THE ENGAGEMENT Northeast Baptist Church Northeast Baptist Church had a tumultuous history in its suburban neighborhood. At its peak, Northeast had over three hundred in Sunday School and worship but as the young family neighborhood changed and kids grew up, went to college, and moved away, the neighborhood began to age and the church began to decline. Conflict was another major factor in Northeast's history. It had gone through several splits and had been declining since the late 1970s by about ten people a year. By 1999, worship attendance had dropped to its all time low of fifty-six. Several consultant's reports from the late 1970s and early 1980s mark this decline and offer solutions to remedy it. I came to the church in 2003 when the church averaged sixty-five in worship and fifty in Sunday school, almost a low point in the church's history. The one bright spot in Northeast's history was the four years prior to the merger, the church began to curb its decline and was growing. From 2003-2006 worship attendance had grown from sixty-five to ninety-five and baptisms were up from none to four in 2006. Undesignated receipts had grown from $185,000 to over $205,000 during that period as well. While the bigger picture of Northeast's history was a downward decline, the last few years before the merger had shown some improvement. Northeast 10

11 was one of five out of ninety-five churches in the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association that experienced growth in 2005 and 2006. Northeast Baptist Church was forty-three years old at the time of the merger and many of its members at that time had been members of the church for over twenty years. The members who had been young adults with children when the church was young, remained in their homes in the neighborhood and aged with the congregation. By the time of the merger in 2007, the community was seeing a large influx of young families into the surrounding brick ranch homes. The church, though behind the community, was beginning to see visitors and new members, many of whom were young families. The church was beginning an upward swing in attendance and membership when they were approached by Northwoods Baptist Church about the possibility of a merger. This exciting part of Northeast's recent history had completely changed the congregation. Northeast historically, had suffered through years of decline and conflict but was now beginning to believe in itself again. The realization that the neighborhood around the church was becoming a young family community again brought a great deal of hope to the church. The new members that were joining and visitors that were attending Northeast before the merger were working age. The largest Sunday School class in the church before the merger was the baby boomer class. The schools around Northeast are some of the best in the county and highly desirable. Demographically, the community is about fifty percent white, twenty-five percent African American with the rest being Asian and Hispanic.

12 Northwoods Baptist Church Northwoods Baptist Church met for the first time in January 1955 in the basement of a dry cleaning shop in Chamblee, about four miles from where Northeast would start a few years later. The church grew as the young neighborhood grew, from twenty-three charter members in 1955 to over three hundred a decade later. Under the stable leadership of its founding pastor Fred Cox, who stayed for twenty-nine years, the church was bursting at the seams with young families and children. The homes in the neighborhood surrounding the church were new and full of young families, many of whom moved to the Chamblee area chasing new schools and fleeing inner city diversity. Northwoods, like Northeast, experienced an early boom in attendance, but like Northeast, the 1970s brought a slow but steady decline to the once bustling church. Northwoods' aging founding pastor retired in 1983 and the church had several short pastorates over the next few years. In 1996, Northwoods called Tim Hobbs, pastor of Cherokee Forest Baptist Church, as their fifth pastor. Upon his suggestion when he left Cherokee Forest, his previous church closed and merged with Northwoods Baptist Church. The merger of these two churches was an early attempt by Northwoods to bring younger members to their congregation and increase their missional vitality. The members of Cherokee Forest were younger than the members of Northwoods and seemed to be more mission minded and active in their congregation. Both congregations were relatively small. At the time of the merger, Cherokee Forest had around 70 active

13 members who joined around 70 members of Northwoods. The Cherokee Forest Baptist Church property in Doraville was sold and about $200,000 was placed into an endowment for the merged church. The two churches began what they thought was a new day in their history. This merger was not enough, however, to turn around the decline that the church experienced as the neighborhood became more ethnically diverse and young families moved out to the suburbs. Demographically, the community around the church was sixty percent Hispanic and thirty percent Asian. Most of the homes around the church, once filled with young white families, were now run down rental homes. The few white people that would have been attracted to the Northwoods Baptist Church were elderly residents who had been in the neighborhood for decades before the transition. Despite the money from the sale of the Cherokee Forest Baptist Church property and the new people from Cherokee Forest who joined Northwoods, the church failed to reverse its decline. It maintained active ministries to its community, but never was successful in integrating the diverse community into the church culture. The church culture remained much the same as it was in the glory days of the church in the 1960s. The conservative, all white Baptist Church culture was foreign to the diverse community in which the church now found itself. Even though the merger didn't drastically alter the course of Northwoods Baptist Church in terms of its attendance decline and money problems, the church members involved in that merger probably would not call it a failure because of the relational bonding that occurred between the members of the two

14 churches. The Northwoods/Cherokee Forest merger of 1996 failed to make any long term change in the church in quantifiable terms other than prolonging the life of Northwoods. Attendance at Northwoods, by the time the churches began merger talks in 2007, had dropped to under fifty people. The average age of the small congregation was over seventy. The leaders of the church realized they were financially unable to maintain their aging property and pay staff to work at the church. The church had to spend much of the endowment money from the sale of the Cherokee Forest property in order to sustain their ministry and property. Seeing that the end of the money was in sight, the church sought another solution. In January of 2007, Northwoods approached Northeast Baptist Church, indicating that they were considering a merger as a way to maintain the church's ministries and transition to live into their future. Graham and Mimi Walker, who had been serving as co-pastors since 2004, provided bold and skillful leadership during the merger for the people of Northwoods. Their kindness and compassion and the confidence that the congregation had in them was vital to the merger even being considered and their work cannot be underestimated in the process. There are many good reasons for congregations to consider merging. Practical issues usually dominate the conversations about congregational mergers as people anticipate a larger community, a new beginning, new staff, a new building, more people in the community, financial stability, or renewed mission ventures. That optimistic outlook is tempered by the plethora of challenges that congregations must consider when

15 thinking about merging. New people have to be assimilated, institutional structures have to be blended, and hundreds of details can overwhelm even the most prepared leaders. While these issues tend to dominate the conversation and offer endless problems to solve, institutional considerations should not be the sole driving force of the congregational merger. It is hard to separate the practical risks and benefits from the necessary theological discussions that must be a part of the conversations all through the process. Even if the primary reasons a congregation has come up with to merge are not theological, a careful consideration of the biblical themes and theological issues related to the merger can give much needed direction and depth to the discussions. Congregations care about the spiritual images that shape their lives together in community and a careful study of the biblical images and theological issues will give the congregation much needed focus and remind them of the higher purposes of the task. At the heart of the merger process is taking two congregations and making them function as one. The institutional demands of this process are great but are actually much less important than the community building that has to take place for people to "merge" into a single unit. Unlike corporate mergers where employees are told where their new office will be, who their new boss will, handed their new salaries, and told what their jobs will be, churches are volunteer institutions and the people that make up the church participate because they believe in the mission of the organization and feel like a part of the group. Therefore, it is critically important in the merging of congregations, to build the necessary relationships among the members of the church. The heart of the church is

16 people who chose to live in community with each other. As we consider community building, the place to start is the Bible. Biblical Issues As we search for a biblical image that captures the sense of community within the Christian church, we find many options from which to choose. Paul Minear has done a careful study of the more than ninety images of the church in the New Testament. Minear argues that images we receive from the New Testament regarding community are based on evidence that the earliest Christians "had received from Christ a unity that was manifested at least in the consciousness of New Testament authors and that was not destroyed by their diversity of gifts."1 Even more difficult than settling on a biblical image to represent the community is the task of finding one that can travel the distance of two thousand years to assist today's church in the search for a meaningful image of unity. Two images from Minear that offer guidance for our merger discussion are the Eucharist and the body of Christ. The Eucharist The oneness of the church is exemplified first of all in participation in the Eucharist. Paul reminds the church at Corinth of their unity with one another in their sharing at the table. "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor 1 Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 15.

Full document contains 141 pages
Abstract: In 2007, two local Atlanta congregations participated in a merger where the two churches blended their programming, staff people, and members into a single church. Some church consultants say that congregational mergers rarely result in increased vitality and that when you merge a church four plus six equals four to seven and not ten to twelve. This has led many to discourage church mergers and think of them as a last resort just before closing. This project is a study of the merger of Northeast Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA and Northwoods Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA. Information is collected from both congregations prior to the merger and charted for two years after the merger. Surveys and interviews of the members and participants in the merger provide insight into the merger process and results of the integration. Conclusions drawn from this single experience are offered with the hope that the insights will be instructive for the larger Christian community especially those considering a similar move.