The Issue of Merging Churches
Hello, my name is Earl J. Griffin, Sr. I am a candidate for Bishop in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. I am asking you to pray, contribute and vote for me at the General Conference in June 2022. By way of introduction let me say that I am the President, Connectional Presiding Elder’s Council, CME Church.
A Presiding Elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church plays pivotal roles within the episcopal district in supervising pastors, other clergy, and lay leaders within the denomination. As President, my role is to ensure training, education, and support is given to the over 64 presiding elders in our denomination.
Additionally, I am the Pastor, Lewis Temple CME Church, Grambling, LA 71245. Please visit my website at www.drearlgriffin.com for more biographical information. I’m excited about the opportunity to put forth my candidacy and again I am asking for your vote.
To that end, I will publish monthly views concerning issues that have been highlighted by you the members of our church. However, my aim is to ensure none of these conversations take more than ten minutes of your time. Therefore, please contact me with questions and let’s continue the conversations either offline or in an extended conversation later.
The Issue of Merging Churches
The first issue I wish to address is that of merging churches. Let me state upfront I consider such actions as traumatic. Let us explore what considerations I would give as Bishop in making a decision to merge churches.
According to the website MyUnite, “Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.” I contend therefore, that the merger of churches could prove traumatic in the lives of members of the congregations involved. Likewise, depending upon the circumstances of the creation of separate churches, a merger could prove destructive.
The issue of merging churches in my view is not to be taken lightly but something that must be engaged in with the utmost care and consideration of the church and the individuals that comprise the church which also includes the district and episcopal region.
Here are some of the considerations I would use to make my decision.
First, what is the history of the churches involved? This helps me consider the way the churches have existed as a part of their community and the region at large. A careful study of the history of the churches involved should reveal how this church has functioned in the past. In other words, how did these churches contribute to the life of the community, connection, and district in which it resides? Who are or were its leaders and what contributions have, they made?
Second, how is the church edifice deeded and what interests do the members have in remaining a viable local church? For example, some churches were built by the founding families of the church and see the church as part of their Christian legacy or heritage. To close their church would be a serious blow to the self-esteem the members would have as a part of the community, connection, and district.
People have pride of ownership which we know was denied to many black people during slavery, Jim Crow, and a great part of the history of the people. For many the church is seen as their church; they take pride in ownership and upkeep of “their” church. No decision should be made without a clear understanding of how the church has built confidence and pride in its members and their progeny.
For example, the Mineral Spring Church in Calhoun, Louisiana served as an educational and cultural center for most of the black residents of that city. Members prided themselves in the education and uplift of their people executed at a time when the black community had little to be proud of. Such a legacy should be honored by the region in some noteworthy manner.
Third, what has been the history of their financial and spiritual support of the district and region? When we see a declining congregation, we must look at the why. Churches decline for several reasons, migration being the most obvious. Children in the black church leave their rural communities in search of employment and opportunity for a better life. When they leave, their parents and other relatives are left behind to sustain the church and community. Should they leave communities that cannot sustain the growth of their families, they seldom return because most communities resist the changes that economic growth brings. Thus, they remain small and demographically challenged. This often produces a church where the congregation is aging without any accompanying growth in membership in young adults, middle adults, and children and youth because the economic base of support is missing from the community.
These churches therefore overtime become unable to sustain connectional and district apportionments. They seek redress of their budget only to endure years of inaction by the episcopal leadership. No action is taken primarily because people will try to continue to pay the now high apportionments because of their heritage and legacy. They want to be seen as still able to maintain when in fact the debt has become unsustainable. And they end of up just doing the best they can or taking out loans against the property to pay their assessments.
This one factor coupled with the financial corruption some of our local churches had to endure renders the church helpless and due to lack of influx of new people into the community or their children returning home the church becomes non-performing and stagnant in terms of financial ability.
Let me say today that I do not believe any church should be considered for merger for non-payment of connectional, regional, or district financial obligations. I do not believe a merger should be considered without the buy-in of all stakeholders, all parties concerned after much dialogue and negotiation. The trauma that would be inflicted upon our aged members after decades long exceptional service to their church and connection would produce intolerable outcomes (trauma). I contend it would be akin to taking an aged relative and moving them from one community to another strange and familiar community. We have seen the fruit of these type of moves. In their later years our aged members need stability more than drastic change.
We must ask how this merger will affect all parties concerned and will it indeed help with failing budget goals and evangelistic efforts. Is there purpose and power in just holding on to a church that has born the faith in the heat of the day with or without the ability to contribute to the financial viability of the denomination?
Alternatives to Merger of Our Faithful Churches
I am reminded of the passage in Revelation 3:7-11 which reads, “7 To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Here are a few alternatives to church mergers. First, give churches in decline due to a change in the demographic who have paid their assessments regularly throughout the years a sabbatical. This would demonstrate to the churches that their contributions to the Connection were valid and appreciated. This would allow faithful churches in our Zion the relief needed to remain CME and to remain a part of our denomination as viable members. Churches who have been a staple of resources and support but are now in decline should be rewarded not penalized.
Another approach would be to plant churches in areas of each Episcopal District where churches are in decline. A review of the new demographic should indicate where best to begin. When I speak of planting new churches, I speak of fully funded programs which include education of ministers who are called to church planting, a fully resourced program of funds for building, salaries, and materials. Presently, we ask Episcopal Districts to plant churches without adequate financing. Presiding Elders are charged with monitoring and supervising the churches on each district. Therefore, they should be cognizant of the personnel and locations best suited for such ventures. The churches with aging members and that have been identified as declining should be relieved of their Connectional obligations to ensure their viability until the church’s lifespan is complete.
Finally, another approach could be returning to the circuit ministry in areas where churches can be grouped together under one pastor. The budgets would be reconfigured, and the churches would become sister churches. Under this premise, the idea of a merger would be more feasible and probably more reasonable.
When a church is on the decline As Bishop Marvin F. Thomas would say, these are my rambling thoughts; they are not my only thoughts. Thanks for listening and may God give us Bishops with wisdom as we navigate through these turbulent times.
Rev. Dr. Earl J. Griffin, Sr.
President, Connectional Presiding Elder’s Council