Multiplication Center

DNA Infusion – Making Multisite Mergers Work for Detroit Church

October 23, 2012

Published on 10/23/2012

by Warren Bird

Pioneer Congregation
This historic and pioneering congregation in Pontiac, MI, declined over many decades but is once again vibrant and growing as a merger of Woodside Bible Church.

Through six successful mergers and numerous church plants, the senior leadership team at Woodside Bible Church, Detroit, MI, has learned several secrets about how to do a merger in a healthy way. One of their best breakthroughs is to have someone play the role of culture integrator. The face of that role is Beth McKenna. She teaches the “Woodside way” to various new leaders. She is also prominently profiled in Better Together, a recent book on church mergers. 

“We would love to raise up enough Woodside pastors from within our congregation, to grow them, and to move them out into our new campuses,” Beth says. “But we weren’t raising them up fast enough, so as we bring in people who are good pastors and leaders in other ministries, we help bridge the gap between their background and how Woodside works.”

First Step: Changing the Guard

Through the six mergers to date, Woodside leaders have learned that their best approach is to replace the senior pastor of the joining church. “Staff at churches that join us are welcome to apply for different positions at Woodside but there are no guarantees,” Beth says. “While we do our best to honor and help transition staff, they know that our priority is to make the decisions that will best rebuild the ministry.” Most joining churches become a new campus of Woodside, which has been multisite since 2006.

“At the end of the day, the joining church is saying ‘yes’ to new leadership. We’re not looking for an arrangement that’s merely a little of them and a little of us,” she says.

After new leadership is in place, Beth’s first focus is on infusing Woodside’s DNA and culture into the new campus’s Sunday morning services. In one merger, a long-time member and hospitality coordinator of the merged church had for years been identifying newcomers, and then asking them to please sign their guest book. This approach was not a “safe place” strategy in the “Woodside way” because it makes guests feel singled out, perhaps uncomfortably so.

“Her heart was to capture their information so that she could send them a note to say thanks for worshipping with us,” Beth says. “So I affirmed her intent, and then talked about how we could do it differently. That way she came into our values.”

On the first day after another merger, the phone rang and the church’s receptionist wondered aloud, “What do I say when I answer the phone?”

“There’s a great deal of care and discernment that’s needed to step into someone’s church to walk them on the journey that moves from ‘us and them’ to ‘we,’ ” Beth says.

Ribbon cutting ceremony for opening day at the Farmington Hills campus with Pastor Steve Baker’s sons Drew and Josiah.

That was never truer than when Woodside began merger discussions with First Baptist Church in of Pontiac, MI, the leading church in the state in the 1920s, and one that boasted Billy Graham and other national figures as guest speakers over its rich history. In the 1970s the church relocated outside of Pontiac, and more recently  was in danger of closing its doors.

“Picture this: you’re on the church board there and your great-grandfather started that church,” Beth says. “You have countless years of incredible history on your shoulders. You feel great responsibility to see this ministry live on.”

Woodside Senior Pastor Doug Schmidt used great care to work through the merger with First Baptist’s board and senior leadership, and transitioned it into a new Woodside location that now five years later has 700 in weekly attendance.

“A lot of emotions went into their decision to merge,” Beth says. “We felt honored and privileged to join arms with them and rebuild that story.”

Building a Transition Team

Beth and Woodside’s transition team set up an office at the new site, attended all staff meetings, and trained the staff in the DNA of Woodside’s various ministries. “We’re there for support and coaching as people transfer from the way they do it to the way we do it,” she says.

“It’s onsite training,” Beth adds. “My job is to work myself out of a job by helping create that sense of being part of Woodside. I help the new campus pastor and the new congregation to learn to work together. We can bring the walls down if we build the relationship right.”

Part of the Woodside core staff team that transfers culture, from left to right: Steve Zarrille, Beth McKenna (profiled in this article), Vince Messina, and Kelly McClelland.

As Woodside’s leadership model has transitioned from a single executive pastor to a directional team, the next progression calls for the church to develop a “core staff” covering worship, family ministry, neighborhood groups, assimilation, and team development (currently Beth’s position). In the future, Beth will serve as the project manager for the multi-person team that will help transition a merged church.

“This way we can all go together to a campus to transfer the DNA,” Beth points out. “I will continue in my role, but will have a whole team doing it with me. We try to take each staff member through a whole year, walking beside them tightly, and then they don’t need us in the same way. The relationship transfers to more of consulting and resourcing them.”

With strong skills in organization and big-picture analysis, Beth is uniquely suited to her position as Woodside’s “culture integrator.” Her background in student and children’s ministry and also 13 years on staff at the church give her a deep understanding of Woodside’s culture. She also adds a necessary soft side to the sensitive nature of merging ministries.

“I have a big heart for people,” she says. “I’m concerned when churches approach mergers too much like a business transition or acquisition. We need to include the feeling piece where we honor people, value them, and give them hope. I see people hurting, scared, nervous, and they don’t know who you are or what you will do with their church’s heritage. We want to help them see that their church, the one they’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into, will have a new cycle of life.”

For Woodside, that new cycle of life comes with the fresh DNA of a thriving congregation.

“We’re not just changing the sign in the front yard,” Beth says. “We’re reproducing our ministry in another place, but there’s a world of difference from seeing that on a piece of paper and really seeing how that works. You can change your sign or hand someone a manual. But to understand our hearts, you have to be relational.”

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