Churches, just like people, can be reborn

Haberfield Life Church

Haberfield, a suburb full of heritage houses on Sydney harbour, is known for preserving things. Even churches, although you might not have thought that a couple of years ago. Haberfield Baptist had shrunk to services of ten. But since then, the church has s come back to a healthy life through what its interim pastor, church consultant Ian Duncum, told The Other Cheek is an “adoption merger”.

Manly Life, a lively church at the other end of the harbour, is nurturing Haberfield back to life.

“Haberfield (now called Haberfield Life church) had a really difficult time through Covid, with the loss of five staff & many attenders,” Duncum told the Other Cheek.  “I was invited to commence as an intentional interim pastor (which involved a combined role of consulting plus pastoring). The initial focus was on assisting the church through a recovery process and it was very important to do a lot of listening to people’s stories and encourage hope.

“The church doubled from a low base in the first four months of 2022.” 

But with people stretched, some involved in seven ministries, yet with Haberfield attenders taking on a sense of rising hope and becoming convinced that God had more for them, Duncum raised the idea of an adoption merger. He began to pray that they could connect with a church committed to church planting and revitalising other churches.

“So I thought about a couple of Baptist churches that might fit the more charismatic expression of Haberfield. Manly Life popped into my mind, and I continued to pray that God would lead both churches. A couple of weeks later, in January 2023, I rang Tim Giovanelli, Senior Pastor of Manly Life, and he mentioned that he had been talking to his church planting funder that very morning. Tim was interested in exploring this further. The background to this was that Manly Life Church had celebrated its tenth anniversary as a church the previous November by making a commitment to planting & revitalising other churches, so this was a clear answer to prayer.”

Secrets of a successful adoption

Four things have to come together to make an adoption merger process work, according to Duncum. 

• The adoptee church is open to new ways of thinking. The track record of the fruitfulness of the adopting church gently challenges ways of thinking that don’t lead to fruitful ministry.
• A team from a larger, healthy church with a heart to serve and reach out locally.
• The consultant gets out of the way and, together with others, seeks God’s agenda. “There is only so much that anyone can do with facilitation skills unless God shows up. And that definitely happened in this situation in a number of unmistakable ways.”
• A challenge: “The church being adopted has to say ‘yes’ to a kind of death to be reborn. So some churches in this situation hold on tightly & fearfully to what they have rather than letting it go for a larger Kingdom vision. But those churches willing to give up their life, name, ways of doing things and so on receive a chance at new life.”

Adoption mergers have a better track record than a church seeking to be revitalised on its own. Citing US researcher Thom Rainer, Duncum explains in a blog article reasons why revitalisations within the same church are difficult and only 2 per cent succeed, while 90 per cent of adoption mergers succeed. He predicts that we’ll see many more adoption mergers in Australia.

 “There are many churches across Australia that have experienced successful adoption mergers, and I estimate we will see this increase rapidly. It is very common in the US. And the Holy Trinity Brompton network of churches in England [numbers] more than 77.

“Church planting is great, but there is a high rate of church plants failing within the first three years, plus they require significant external funding. Instead, churches that adopt and use the existing buildings of other churches are more successful, and it is a more efficient use of resources.”

Enthusiasm for evangelism should be the motivation for adoption mergers, Duncum insists

“For the adopting church, the key is relentless leadership development in the context of passionate mission – more people need Jesus! That leadership development is birthed out of the urgent need in the new/adopted church for more evangelists, worship leaders, small group leaders, kids church volunteers, preachers and so on that will be needed. Tim Giovanelli is one of the best examples of developing and releasing leaders I have seen.

” “For the church being adopted, there needs to be a growing relational connection. I use the terms dating, engagement and marriage to illustrate growing levels of commitment. So going to each other’s church services, social activities and fun over a few months are vital for relationships to develop.” 

Carefully pursuing this model of adoptor and adoptee church has meant The Manly Life merger adoption of Haberfield has worked.

“To their credit, Haberfield did this, and it has already quadrupled in 5 months post-merger. It was great to go to the relaunch and see new people, young families and also leaders from Manly Life who have moved churches so they can play a part in building a renewed church that is impacting its community.”

Even a moderate-size church – Duncum specifies 140 attenders or larger – should be looking for opportunities to plant a new church

“We desperately need churches to plant churches that will, in turn, plant or revitalise other churches. And, of course, for smaller churches who are declining or plateaued to be open and receptive to seeking an adoption merger with a church that has the vision & capacity for doing so.

Red Flags

“There needs to be an essential compatibility between the two churches. I think the biggest red flags are selfishness & lack of vision for the lost.” The Haberfield and Manly example worked because both red flags were not there.

” Manly Life served sacrificially in so many amazing ways. And Haberfield was clear that hanging selfishly onto what they had would eventually result in death. I think there is some false thinking by churches that if another church gives them money &/or people, they will be okay, but they will not because the way they have been doing church leads to decline. They need a DNA transplant from a thriving church to relearn how to grow again.

” “The other red flag I mentioned is a lack of vision for the lost. If the focus is just on the church instead of concern for people going to an eternity without Christ, if there is not a compelling vision for local mission, then maybe an adoption merger isn’t the best way forward. 

“But when a spirit of generosity and a vision for the lost prevail, then there is a good prognosis for a successful adoption merger.”

The Other Cheek thanks Ian Duncum for answering our questions. His blog article The Essentials for an Effective Adoption Merger gives more detail on the Manly/Haberfield journey.

Rev Dr Ian Duncum is a trained and accredited church consultant with over 20 years experience of working with non-profit enterprises and churches across a number of denominations. This has also included denominational leadership in church health and development, consultancy, and church research in the tertiary education sector. Ian also trains church consultants, facilitates training for ministers and leaders, and mentors/supervises pastors and other leaders. He can be contacted at or [email protected]