There are almost as many ways for churches to cooperate in mission and ministry as there are churches – Merger, Federation, Cooperative Parish, Shared Pastoral Services, Combined Mission Activities – and the list goes on. Churches choose to enter into these cooperative relationships for a multitude of reasons. They may find themselves confronted with mission and ministry challenges too great to be effectively addressed alone; they may be facing an unbearable financial burden of maintaining individual properties; they may experience increasing costs associated with supporting pastoral and other staff; or they may face any of a multitude of other realities that challenge churches today. Whatever challenges motivate churches toward these cooperative ministries, and whatever form of cooperation they choose, the identities of the individual participating churches will be significantly changed.
Whether cooperating congregations remain in their own buildings or leave some or all of those facilities, their sense of LOCATION will be altered. They will no longer be known as the little church at the corner of …… The RELATIONSHIPS between pastor and congregation, between congregation and neighborhood and between members within the congregations will be upset and re-formed. And the MISSION of the newly formed cooperating churches will change, not only to include the traditions and patterns of the individual participating churches, but will begin to take on a shape of its own – perhaps quite unlike that experienced by the individual participating churches.
These fundamental changes in identity can produce no small amount of anxiety for members, pastors and friends of the churches. Even the parent denomination(s) are not immune to these anxieties. Old assumptions about everything from worship to education, from pastoral care to outreach, from tradition to innovation come into question and are subject to revision. In the old configurations, each person knew where they fit. In the new, each one must search for their place in negotiation with others.
Such fundamental changes in church identity have within them the seeds for either confusion or excitement, for exhaustion or enthusiasm, for decline or growth. For some, these cooperative efforts will be just one more stop on the road to extinction. For others, these same efforts will enable them to thrive as effective outposts of mission in a struggling world. The challenge is to find ways to weight the process toward thriving.