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Two Churches Merging Into One Large Community

Research indicates that about 3,500 U.S. churches close their doors every year. In that environment, many church leaders find themselves focusing on how to keep their church doors open. But what would happen if clergy asked a different question? What if the focus was not on how to keep a particular church alive, but how to build the future of the larger church, how to build up the kingdom of God? “When you ask what is right for the kingdom of God you come up with a different answer,” says Rev. Ray Bartel, the former pastor of Interbay Covenant Church, which ceased to exist in 2007 when it was absorbed by a church start-up renting space in ICC’s warehouse building.

The start-up, Quest Church, began as a nondenominational prayer group in the home of Korean-born Rev. Eugene Cho. It began renting space in Bartel’s church in 2000, and soon had 400 members in three Sunday services, along with a coffeehouse ministry during the week. Cho’s congregation is culturally, ethnically and economically diverse. It is also young, with an average age of 27; Bartel’s congregation was predominantly Anglo, with an average age near 60. Over the years of cohabiting on the same church grounds, Bartel and Cho had become good friends and found a great deal of common theological perspective. As a result, Bartel felt it would be good for the two of them to consider a merger. The process took seven years, and involved several fits and starts, but in the end about 30 of ICC’s dwindling membership transferred into Cho’s church, which had joined ICC’s denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, in 2002. Eighty-year-old Barbara Lundquist, former chair of the ICC leadership team, was one transfer. “What eventually turned the whole thing around was time,” she said. “For change to happen, it’s sometimes necessary for the Holy Spirit to have time, to give people time to come to acceptance.”

“There were people in the ICC congregation who were excited for an influx of new life,” says Quest congregant Melinda Anderson, in an article written by Joely Johnson Mork for Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. “We were excited to gain the history and wisdom of their older perspective. I was amazed at the ICC group’s humility and willingness to change.” Cho credits a shared vision and mutual respect, beginning with the two clergy leaders, extending to their respective leadership teams, and on through their congregations, for the success of the merger. An essential element of that shared vision, said Cho in a separate question-and-answer interview, was the conviction of both pastors that the assets of a church do not belong to that church, but to the kingdom of God. “I think what was tugging at his [Rev. Bartel’s] heart, in addition to maybe some of their leaders, is that while they understood the importance of being missional, of engaging the culture, of doing ministry in today’s current context, they ... had a hard time translating that into application, into practicing it,” said Cho. For his part, Bartel stepped down from his position as solo pastor to become an associate pastor in the new combined congregation. He says his first clergy mentor was “humble and caring, he put people before programs — people before anything. I only ever wanted to be a pastor like him.” You might also appreciate our feature article, “Reversing the Exodus: 7 Traits of Churches that Successfully Attract Young Adults.”

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