By Jennifer Johnson
More than 4,000 churches close every year, many because their dwindling attendance can’t support a senior minister or the rising costs of aging buildings. While simply closing their doors may be the best option for some, Creswell Christian Church made a different decision, choosing instead to initiate a merger with Mountain Christian Church.
Today the majority of Creswell’s families are enthusiastic Mountain members, working together to honor the past and build for the future in new ways that neither could have accomplished alone.
This article tells how that happened.
Creswell Christian Church a 55-year-old congregation in Bel Air, Maryland, had struggled with finances as about 50 committed members tried to cover debt payments for the church building as well as maintenance and insurance on the church and a parsonage. But in 2013, two families—both of which gave significantly to the church—moved away and the septic system at the parsonage failed.
“On top of that, another leader who gave generously to the church told me he also planned to move away after his retirement,” says Eric Stangland, who served as minister at the Creswell church. “I knew we weren’t going to be able to make it to the end of the year.”
Fortunately, Creswell also enjoyed a good relationship with Mountain Christian Church, which averages around 5,000 people at three locations, all of them just a few miles away. Mountain had helped with worship and music leadership in the past and filled in to preach and teach when Eric was away, and Eric considered Ben Cachiaras, senior pastor at Mountain, a friend. Although the two churches were very different, they were also just two highway exits from each other, and they had developed a connection over the years.
“During this time, I read Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud and began to differentiate between hope and wishful thinking,” Stangland says. “It became obvious to me that this chapter in Creswell’s history was coming to an end. We wanted to end in a way that would maximize kingdom impact. I met with our elders and we decided to talk to Ben.”
“Creswell approaching us is key in terms of process, I think,” says Cachiaras. “We had built a friendship with Eric and the church without motive, but the meeting could have been perceived much more negatively if we had tried to start the discussion ourselves.”
While Stangland was reading about endings, the leadership team at Mountain was working through Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird.
“Ironically, we had just had an elders retreat that included significant prayer about the potential for multisite options or other types of collaboration,” Cachiaras says. “When I heard from Eric, it felt like the hand of God was on it.”
As the two churches talked, they quickly realized each group had something to offer.
“Mountain wanted to continue growing and launching new campuses, but we were struggling to get that done because we lacked resources,” Cachiaras says. “Creswell couldn’t stay open on their own. The idea of joining forces and using Creswell’s assets for something new was exciting to both of us, and the real contribution they could make to our ministry gave a sense of dignity and mission to their decision. It wasn’t about us ‘rescuing’ them or them feeling like second-class citizens. We needed each other.”
Stangland and the elders worked hard to help the Creswell contingent feel a sense of “win” about the process. In addition to talking and praying as a leadership team, Stangland and the elders took seriously their obligation to “define reality” and communicate it to the people.
“If this was the end of Creswell, we wanted the Lord to be honored with it,” Stangland says. “And when you start talking about solutions that honor God and bring people to God, it changes the conversation.”
Although Stangland was only 35 and Creswell was his first ministry, he demonstrated strong leadership, coaching his flock to focus on how to make the maximum kingdom impact—not just how to keep the doors open.
“Sometimes God brings you to a point of desperation because he wants you to do something different,” Stangland says. “We believe there will be more people in Heaven as a result of this merger than there would have been otherwise; that vision helped us move forward.”
Meanwhile, groups from the two churches continued their own conversations, with a task force formed at each church.
“The idea was to keep pressing in as long as the doors seemed open,” Cachiaras says. “We used a dating analogy; if we got to the point where it wasn’t going to work, we weren’t ‘married’ to each other. We could all walk away and still be for each other.”
The two leaders are quick to praise each other’s role in the process, and each other’s humility.
“They allowed us to drive the process,” Stangland says. “They set boundaries and let us lead our people toward a decision, so we felt like partners. Mountain’s team also took a learning posture, asking us for feedback and input.”
“The irony is there’s often a stereotype of a large church pastor with a big ego and small church pastor who can’t lead,” Cachiaras says. “But Eric and his elders showed amazing leadership, and I’m not saying that to be kind. The way they pulled their folks into this vision was remarkable.”
By June 2014, the groups had decided to move toward “marriage” and began planning the logistics of closing Creswell, welcoming its people to Mountain, and moving forward together.
“We decided four or five weeks was enough time for people to process the decision and for the elders and leaders of each congregation to meet with the people,” Cachiaras says. “We didn’t want to go too slow or too fast.”
Cachiaras preached at Creswell a few weeks before the church’s final service, sharing the history of friendship between the two churches, the cohesion of both groups’ mission statements, and extending a welcome to Creswell members. Other leaders from Mountain attended the last service at Creswell on August 31.
“A Christian funeral is both sad and celebratory,” Stangland says. “We wanted people to be able to grieve the loss they might feel, while also feeling excited about what’s to come. And Mountain bent over backwards to welcome us.”
These efforts at Mountain included a welcome weekend on September 7 with pictures and video sharing Creswell’s journey and the mission work they’d been involved in.
“We encouraged all the Creswell members to attend the same service that weekend,” Cachiaras says. “When the lights came up after the video, we asked them to stand and everyone burst into applause, cheering their vision and communicating our welcome.”
Beyond that first Sunday, the leadership team encouraged the new members from Creswell to connect in small groups and attend a “Welcome to Mountain” class.
“We didn’t want a Creswell church within Mountain,” Stangland says. “We wanted them to join existing groups and ministries and become part of the larger body.”
Today, about 60 percent of the former Creswell members are now attending one of Mountain’s three locations. Stangland, Cachiaras, the Mountain eldership, and other church leaders continue to be intentional about helping people assimilate and move forward.
Progress on the shared vision for a new campus has helped the process. Mountain’s team prepared the Creswell property for sale, and in February they sold it and designated the assets for the launch of a new campus.
“The folks from Creswell will get the special joy of knowing they made that happen,” Cachiaras says. “And another sister church nearby bought their old property—another kingdom win.”
The Mountain team has also worked closely with Stangland to help him figure out his own next steps.
“We didn’t want to put the Creswell leadership in a difficult position where they felt moving forward with us was going to harm their pastor,” Cachiaras says. “At the same time, neither of us wanted to make long-term commitments. We decided the best thing in this situation was to make sure Eric had a safe place to land and time to rest while processing what God was calling him and his wife, Suzanne, to next. We brought him on our staff in a provisional role (but with real work!) and promised him at least six months of a steady paycheck.”
Mountain also gave Stangland and his family a one-month sabbatical for renewal and reflection, including a week at Blessing Ranch for Stangland and his wife. Stangland returned with clarity about remaining in ministry, and the two leaders continue to move forward one step at a time.
“We gave him a healthy place to get his feet under him,” Cachiaras says. “And we’re still figuring it out together.”
In the end, the partnership between Mountain and Creswell worked for many reasons—the humility and leadership of both pastors, the commitment to kingdom over personal agendas, the connection to strong elders and church leaders, and the willingness of both groups to learn and study.
“The ending of one church’s life cycle doesn’t have to signify some sort of failure, and it’s not necessarily a leadership issue,” Cachiaras says. “Leading a church into a new identity might actually be the greatest and most fulfilling leadership challenge you can have.”
“If I could say one thing to another pastor in a similar situation, I would say it’s God’s church, and he is responsible for its fate, and he will take great care of you regardless of how things turn out,” Cachiaras says. “This was definitely difficult. But in the end, God was glorified, his kingdom was expanded, and we all look forward to serving him in new ways.”
Jennifer Johnson is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.