As a former standup comedian, Scott McKee is quick to point out that a church merger is no laughing matter. It requires a lot of prayer, planning, and hard work.
More than 18 months of planning and work will come to fruition on October 9 as Ward Church in Northville, Mich., and Grace Chapel in Farmington Hills, Mich., hold their first services together as a merged congregation—Ward Church in two campuses. McKee, Senior Pastor of Ward Church said the historic connection between the two congregations made the merger easier.
“Grace Chapel is our daughter church,” McKee said. “Ward Church started Grace Chapel 40 years ago, so it’s an adult daughter. There was a family affection to say a daughter wants to come home. I don’t think it would have worked any other way. It’s a church we know. It’s a church we love. It had been without a pastor for four years, and our staff had already been out there helping them fill the pulpit. This is not a stranger. This is not a cold business decision. It is totally out of a relationship.”
It was out of that relationship McKee said the leadership of Grace Chapel originally approached Ward Church leadership asking for a “tighter partnership.”
“When they said, ‘We would like a tighter partnership,’ it didn’t initially mean multi-site. We talked about we could keep filling the pulpit for a while, how we could provide a video feed of our sermons, help with curriculum, and do bookkeeping,” McKee recalled. “So, we could on one end help fill the pulpit, or on the other end do a full-blown church adoption as a multi-site. Surprisingly, they went there pretty quickly.”
He added that Ward Church has been exploring multi-site ministry for some time, but the time “never seemed right” until now.
For such a time as this
“We have studied the multi-site model over the years, and thought about it, prayed about it, read books about it, but have never pulled the trigger,” McKee said. “There are reasons for that, and then Grace Chapel approached us. This is admittedly passive leadership. They came to us and said they would like a stronger partnership.”
Roy Yanke, Executive Director of PIR Ministries who served Grace Chapel as a Ruling Elder and Transitional Pastor, said the merger will assist the Farmington Hills congregation as it continues to reach its mission field for Jesus Christ.
“One of the challenges that Grace Chapel experienced over the last few years is that we became a far more ‘drive-in’ church than what it had been when planted 40 years ago,” Yanke said. “The adoption back into the Ward family will mean that there will be new energy and a larger pool of believers to engage in reaching people for Jesus. The mission field for Grace has always included our annual outreach to Appalachia, and that has been folded into the overall work of the Ward family—which is exciting.”
Yanke said one of several factors leading Grace Chapel to approach Ward about merging was the struggle to find a permanent pastor.
“I know that many churches have experienced the same thing, which certainly contributes to the instability of a congregation over the long haul,” Yanke said. “I am absolutely convinced that the other factors that led to Grace needing to merge with Ward—all of the challenges the evangelical church has been dealing with for the last two and a half years—were very typical but could also be a very good thing in the long run.”
He added that much of the Farmington Hills congregation has committed to the church’s new chapter, though some have not.
From necessity to opportunity
“This is new territory for all of us, and the church cultures are very different. But those who are engaged are praying and working hard for a successful relaunch. This was initially a move out of necessity that became an opportunity for fresh ministry. We are trusting that the Lord will help us navigate the grief and loss of the particular expression of church as the Grace family, while at the same time ignite our hope for what He will do going forward.”
McKee noted that multi-campus ministry—though new to his tenure—is part of Ward’s history. When Bart Hess served as Ward’s pastor, the church had campuses in Detroit and Livonia. Hess served both churches simultaneously for 12 years, and during that time the Livonia campus grew to 5,000 members.
“Dr. Hess would give the sermon in Detroit, and then his wife, Margaret, would drive him out to the suburbs where he would give the sermon a second time. We were one church in two locations in 1956. No one had ever heard of that. We have history to draw upon.”
Yanke, who served as a pastor before leading PIR, brings a different kind of experience to the merger.
“In my own pastoral days I led a redevelopment-relaunch, and our mantra was a quote from Oswald Chambers: ‘Beware of harkening back to what you once were, when God wants you to be something you have never been before.’ A timely word for us all.”
by Tim Yarbrough