Is it possible for a five-year-old church and a 155-year-old church to effectively merge and grow? Michael Ester, associational missionary for the Liberty Baptist Association, believed the time was right for First Baptist Church of Thomasville (FBC) to take such a bold step.
Last year in a conversation with Barry Surratt, the pastor of a church plant in Lexington, Ester raised the idea of a merger with FBC. “Mike [Ester] and I became friends a few years ago, not long after I started Centerpoint Church,” Surratt said. “If we ever organized as a denominational church, I always said I wanted to join be a Southern Baptist (SBC) church.”
A friend had encouraged Surratt to talk to Ester about organizing Centerpoint Church. After two years of discussions, the church did not have a constitution and was not prepared to constitute.
But last summer Ester told Surratt that the pastor at FBC resigned. Ester said, “The attendance is down and they’re looking for a new pastor. You’re looking for a location. This might be something we want to talk about.”
When two churches joined together in Thomasville it brought new life to the congregations.
“I won’t say I was positive about it at the beginning,” Surratt said. “I was willing to listen, but I just didn’t know what would go along with the merging of two churches. I wasn’t sure if I was up to that, … but I was open to whatever the Lord wanted.”
Surratt’s hesitation was based on the confidence he had in Centerview’s growth, combined with his lack of familiarity with FBC. “I knew we had a really great group of people, and we had a good spirit in the church,” he said. “The only thing we didn’t have was a building. We had good growth, a willingness to work, good outreach and ministry. I didn’t want to do anything to hurt that.”
By merging with FBC, the people at Centerpoint would not only be moving to another facility, they would move to another town 10 miles away. As a seasoned pastor of more than 20 years, Surratt imagined all of the things that could go wrong. He was concerned about losing good people and upsetting the dynamic of the church.
“I didn’t know anybody at First Baptist,” he added. “I had no history or relationships with anybody there. I knew that my style of preaching and my direction would be in agreement with the church. I just didn’t know the way they have done things in the past.”
This was not the first time Centerpoint had considered a merger. “We had been approached three times about merging with other churches, and we considered it,” said Surratt. “But it never got to the point where we felt like it was something the Lord wanted us to do. So merging with FBC was the fourth time we considered merging. But this one was a whole different mindset, even though it was farther away than the others.”
Blending the two churches has eliminated Centerpoint’s monthly rental and utilities, saving more than $36,000 a year just in facility-related expenses, according to Surratt. They deposited their bank balance into FBC’s account and merged two groups of worshipers into a larger congregation. Seventy-one of Centerpoint’s members joined FBC, more than doubling the 50 regular Sunday attenders.
“It’s been a real good fit and gone very well,” Surratt said. “We only lost a few people from Centerpoint. They came to me and said they supported the move and voted for it, but they didn’t believe it was right for them. There were no hard feelings at all.”
Bynum Orr is a third strategic leader in the merger of the two congregations. He has been involved with FBC for more than a decade. In 2002 Orr began serving as the church’s interim pastor.
In its best days FBC saw 500 people attending, but an unfortunate disagreement created a split in the church in the ’90s, he said. Several pastors came and left.
Orr stayed with the church for five years until a younger pastor was called. Again, that did not work out well for the aging congregation. The pastor left, and Jay Lambeth was called to serve as the interim pastor last year.
“Lambeth and the church asked me to come back and serve as a pastoral care associate because I knew all of the older people,” Orr said.
His familiarity with the people at FBC and the church’s downward spiral, prompted Orr to join the discussions between Ester and Surratt. They served as a transition committee that met weekly for three months to work out the details.
“I know that merging is not something that happens frequently simply because both churches are usually afraid they will lose control,” Orr said.
“But we emphasized that everybody only gets one vote anyhow. Our church was not afraid of them coming in … it’s worked very well and God’s blessed us. I’m excited about it.”
The merged congregation officially launched on March 15 and is seeing from 130 to 200 people each Sunday, according to Orr. There were 198 people in the Easter Sunday service.
Surratt is the senior pastor. Orr is preaching once each month and providing pastoral care to the church family. A music director and youth director serve the church. Six deacons, three from each church, serve with the staff.
Surratt is bi-vocational, working as a bailiff and a part-time, deputy sheriff for Forsyth County.
Orr has been a strategic connecting point for the people. “The people ask me, ‘What do you think about this?’ God has allowed me to be a connector in this merger and tell people that I support it,” he said.
“It’s pretty hard for older people to change, but they have a good attitude,” Orr added. “Pastor Barry Surratt is an excellent preacher and their people are wonderful people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any group of people that were willing to change, to do what needs to be done and to accept what needed to be accepted in order to be successful.”
After 15 years as the associational missionary for the Liberty association and three pastorates, Ester has helped a lot of struggling churches. He said many churches don’t see the problems and don’t realize that the director of missions (DOM) in their local association is a valuable resource.
“There are a lot of good DOMs across the state that want to be involved in helping churches,” he said. “Churches that are struggling don’t see the problems,” but a DOM can help church leaders talk honestly about the future of the church.
“When you haven’t baptized but one [new Christian] in a year, you’ve got some problems,” Ester said. “People can grow complacent, they don’t see the need to change and they are not healthy. Folks who have been there 20 or 30 years are doing the best they can, but they don’t see the barriers that are there.”
When a church is in decline, Ester said, “everyone wants to blame someone else.” Churches need to rediscover their vision and ask, “Why are we here, and how are we going to be proactive in ministry?”