Two Churches in the Same Town Vote to Reunite

Two Churches in the Same Town Vote to Reunite

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Unlike the phoenix, a mythological bird that could regenerate after it died and rise from its ashes, there was no death involved in the formation of a new church in Granby, CT.  It was a mutual decision to re-unite and re-ignite.

In May 2022, First Congregational Church (founded 1739) and South Congregational Church (founded 1872), both of Granby, voted overwhelmingly to come together as a new church to better serve the needs of the congregations and the community. It is anticipated that an effective date and the legal formation of this new entity will take place January 1, 2023.
 

Background

In many communities in New England, Congregational churches were often built in the same town – or even to form new towns – to accommodate the growing population of folks who had to travel miles by horse and buggy to attend services or gather in community. As Granby grew, a second church, South Church, was formed by a group of members who left the First Church in Granby, and the two churches served their members and the community well and maintained a friendly, increasingly collaborative relationship with one another. (First Church is located in the geographical center of Granby while South Church is located in the commercial center of Granby.)


Times and thoughts have changed; automobiles can take us many miles in minutes and most Christian denominations in our country have seen a steady decline in membership. 

“The timing of this decision to unite as one was no surprise,” explained Charlie Kuchenbrod, Chair of Stewardship at South Church. “With Granby’s current population forecast to remain flat for some time, it made sense to unite rather than compete for membership and resources.”

Some folks may find that a success story about churches re-uniting is unusual. Some Conference staff have noted that whenever the word, or even the idea of, consolidating comes up, people mention previously attempted mergers in other communities that failed.

In many cases, members resort to consolidations because of empty pews and coffers. Desperation, however, is not a predictor for success.  Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg of Potentials Coaching & Consulting notes that research has shown that successful consolidations involve churches that are proactive, deliberate, and cautious in how they approach the situation.
 

Re-Unite to Start Something New

In the case of the Granby churches, they weren’t in dire straits, they didn’t have to reunify – they wanted to – and they planned for success. The process leading up to the vote and the decision to unite was an extremely careful one.

“Early on we realized that the word 'merger' held a negative connotation for many folks in each congregation,” said Bob Giles, Moderator of First Church. “We worked hard to avoid the word 'merger' and spoke of our work as collaborating to form a new church entity.  Throughout our process we have viewed what we are doing as a reuniting of our congregations to form something new.  We are in fact looking at ourselves as a ‘new church start’.”
 
In a joint statement that Giles and Becky Sielman, Moderator of South Church, made to the combined congregations just prior to the vote, they wrote: “One hundred and fifty years ago, a group of people in Granby made a decision that they believed was in the best interests of their successors, rightly or wrongly, and they split the Granby UCC in two. We now have the privilege, and the burden, of making an equally momentous decision to come back together.”
 

The Process

The idea to re-unite bubbled to the surface over five years ago and the churches hired Rev. Dr. Bamberg to lead the churches in the endeavor and slowly move more and more folks into the process. She had experience in working with and guiding other congregations through the steps necessary to get to a successful outcome.

“Many deep conversations and careful explorations of the realities of uniting had to be discussed and shared by the members of both churches,” said Bamberg. “It was important for all the participants in the process not only to understand the challenges that would lie ahead, but also the many opportunities the new church can foster.”

One resource that was used extensively was Steve Zuieback's work called Below the Green Line – which Bamberg noted supported their approach to the whole initiative.

“The process was a challenge because the two congregations were at different places in their lifecycles,” said Rev. Todd Yonkman, who served First Church as a trained transitional minister to help lead them through an intentional transition process.  “The key to creating a space for productive conversation about consolidation was hiring what amounted to be a team of coaches through Together We Thrive to facilitate the process.”

Together We Thrive, an ecumenical initiative focused on clergy leadership & development (funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment), is a collaboration between the Southern New England Conference UCC, the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and the New England Synod ELCA, Lutheran. 

Since Dr. Bamberg had trained all the coaches for the Together We Thrive initiative, she was able to work closely with Heather Ramsey Mabrouk, the Together We Thrive Program Coordinator for the Southern New England Conference, to come up with some creative approaches to adding coaches to the work of this consolidation. “It was important to make sure the coaches involved worked well with groups as not every coach does,” Bamberg explained. “Heather is a great thought partner, and, because of this, and the coaching I did with these coaches during the process that was behind the scenes, my guess is the church leaders themselves do not know that they got this kind of Conference support.”

There were six coaches to start. The groups decided when to stop, depending on when they reached their goals or desired outcome.

“To be very honest, we may not have achieved the same results without Claire’s guidance and leadership,” said Giles.  “Without her we would still be floundering and in my estimation, we would not be joining together as a new entity.”

The success of the re-unification vote was helped not only by outside coaches, but by a thoughtful planned process and surveying of the members. 

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fischer, a former attorney who came into ministry as a second career, was in a unique position because she was a Member in Discernment at one congregation and was ultimately called to serve as an Associate Minister at the other. Fischer’s role was primarily one of observation and co-drafter, with Scott Thumma, PhD. of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, that helped address the compatibility of the two churches to see if there were points of unhealth that needed to be addressed before coming together.  For reference, she also provided a copy of her doctoral thesis which addressed how churches could respond to the changing landscape, social trends, and help create a path forward.

“One difference between the two churches was in the nature of each congregation – one was a smaller congregation with a central family feel and control, the other larger and more minister-led with a dynamic senior minister.  Two distinct ways of functioning as faith communities had to be addressed because the differences did come forward and cause conflict,” said Fischer.  “But because people were now aware of these differences, they were able to resolve points of contention as they arose.”

“Churches, like people, have personalities, and church cultures operate a lot like family systems,” said Bamberg. “Sandra alludes to one of the ways in which these churches were different from one another. Differences drive the decision about what to do when consolidating, too. As I told the leadership team, they were neck and neck with other consolidating churches I am working with. Those churches were ‘ahead’ of the Granby initiative at one point, but uncovered some unexpected issues, and Granby ‘finished first.’ It is exciting work and I am honored when I can assist.”

While Fischer observed a few of the very early meetings of the church leaders as the project kicked into gear, it was agreed that due to her affiliation with one of the two churches, she could not participate in meetings of the leaders or in the process, other than her right as a member of one church to cast a vote when the time came. 
 

The Journey

“The original vision really energized me,” said Yonkman. “As I understood it, two UCC churches in the same town were interested in doing a "merger-restart," that is, dissolve the existing corporations and use the assets to create a new UCC congregation with a new identity and mission for the town. Consolidation was one option among several that the churches considered as possible directions toward creating a sustainable future.”

“This has been a lengthy journey,” said Giles.  “I would not want others to think it is easy nor a quick fix.”

“It is important to have a meeting of the minds on which consolidation model the participating congregations will pursue together and the implications for both on mission, staffing, buildings, programs, and the like,” said Yonkman.”

“This is a very exciting and dynamic time, not only for our churches, but for the Granby community as well,” said Sielman. “Both First Church and South Church not only share a common history, they also share a long history of serving those in Granby.”

Bamberg added: “Over the last year, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving opened up the grant application process for faith-based initiatives. This was huge. In my 18 years of working with HFPG, this is the first time that has happened. These churches were some of the first recipients of a grant shared under this new opportunity. They were able to expand the really good programming they were collaborating on – and add some new initiatives in service to the wider Granby area. We stayed up late and worked hard on this. To Becky’s comments, this is just one example of the new and creative things in the air for these churches.”

Fischer explained how important it was that both churches recognize their part in the “Halo effect” -- the phenomenon of how organized religion in the center of communities does so much good – regardless if people are affiliated with church. 

“Food insecurity, addiction meetings, funds for people in emotional or financial crisis, connection to caregivers – all these issues go on under the iceberg so that when these churches fail, the community is affected broadly, so anything we can do to collaborate in a way to keep these institutions alive is best for the whole community,” said Fischer.  “The fiber of the community is lost when the church disappears.  Pooling together as a group of Christians to love and act kindly, justly and humbly, was always foremost in mind.”

“I believe that this type of openness to creative collaboration between congregations will be increasingly necessary over the coming years,” she said.
 

The Future         

 The hoped-for future was laid out in the Moderators' joint statement before the vote:
  • Together we can have more helping hands working to feed the hungry, and making beautiful music, and raising our children, and paying the bills, and tending the garden, and walking in the way of Jesus.
  • Together we can dream up new missions, new ways to leverage our campuses, new ways to serve our community, new ways to improve the environment.
  • Together we have the financial resources to continue to be viable and vital.
  • “Together” feels like the right way to be responsible stewards of what we have.
  • “Together” feels like the answer to the question “What does God want us to be?”
With the vote being affirmed, the togetherness can start.

Bamberg commented: The overwhelming support and vote to unite is an excellent indicator that a vibrant and promising future can be had.”

Editor’s Note: For the time being, both church campuses will remain as they are and will be used in some fashion. The immediate work being undertaken now is the search to find a Designated Term Minister. First Church said goodbye to the Rev. Todd Yonkman who moved to a new congregation earlier in 2022. The Rev. Denny Moon of South Church retired on June 12th after a long career in ministry, the past 16 years with South Church. The Rev. Dr. Sandra Fischer, Associate Minister at South Church for 11 years left on June 19 to consult and “help guide other faithful congregations through this challenging and rewarding journey” and is also Minister at East Granby Congregational Church. Claire Bamberg continues to work with the SNEUCC and other conferences in the capacities noted here.
 

Author

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Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane

Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane is the Storyteller for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ

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