Lessons from a Merger
by Steve Hardy
Seven lessons learned from the successful merger of AEF and SIM.
The psalmist said, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). Our creeds have always affirmed our belief in the global body of Christ. We have participated in international consultations, networks and cooperative ministry efforts. Yet I wonder if unity is precious precisely because it is so rare. We probably know more stories about personality clashes and the fragmentation of ministries, such as occurred with Paul and Silas, than we do about collaboration or cooperation. We may sense that we are rejoicing more in creative new initiatives that emerge from things that break apart than lamenting yet one more failure of trying to work together.
Occasionally, two ministries opt to become one. In October 1998, our mission, AEF (Africa Evangelical Fellowship) merged into SIM (Serving in Mission) so that both organizations could more effectively do together what God had called each of them to do. This was a marriage not of convenience or necessity, but one born out of prayer and strategic thinking. Formal partnership or merger is an option that other organizations should perhaps consider. The process that AEF and SIM followed can hopefully serve as an encouraging example to others.
As I reflect on that process, working on a merger was not a particularly easy or enjoyable task. It was a long and often slow process as we struggled to understand and accommodate many legitimate concerns of members of AEF who held strong views on diverse issues. Perhaps no one was completely satisfied by what we did. Nevertheless, we became convinced that we were doing the right thing for the right reasons. Everyone involved seems satisfied to be a part of the new mission. As the dialogue went on, we did several things that turned out to be very important.
1. We clarified who we were and why we were investigating a merger. Careful analysis, including understanding motives, is an important part of a strategic process. We did not want to expend energy on something that did not need to be done. Neither did we want to distract ourselves from what we were really good at by spending time trying to become something we were not—and never would or should be.
The process began before we even considered the concept of a merger. Our AEF international board did a thorough assessment of our organizational health. We concluded that we were happy with who we were, what we were doing, our structures, policies, personnel, leadership and relationships. However, when we did a projection of where we might be in ten years, we discovered we might not even be viable. Doing a good job in transitioning successful ministries to national leadership meant that we were unlikely to need as many missionaries in the future. As a faith mission, there is a critical minimum that an organization needs in order to maintain a sending office. We sensed that we would be below that critical minimum in several of our sending countries. We felt that we needed to choose one of three paths: (1) vastly expand our own ministries; (2) disband entirely, helping the handful of people who might really be needed in the future to find other organizations with which to work; or (3) merge, thus expanding our structural base to strengthen our sending councils.
After a year of discussion and prayer, we felt that there were significant needs where we worked in Southern Africa for which we had special competency as an organization. That included reaching the cities (especially youth and women), training leaders and responding to HIV-AIDS and to the rapid and fairly militant growth of Islam. We also concluded that we would probably be able to do these things better if we worked more closely with another organization that shared a common vision. If we were going to develop a formal partnership or a merger, it needed to be with an organization that was at least as large as AEF. Yet, was bigger really better? What might we be losing (besides our unique identity as AEF) by becoming a part of another organization? As we began the process, we were not convinced that a merger was the best option; we also realized that taking smaller ministries under our umbrella would not solve our administrative problems.
2. We clarified what was really important to us. As our board analyzed our overall ministries and personnel, we came to see that there were four big areas that mattered to us:
a. We were multi-denominational and evangelical. We were not specifically Baptist, Anglican or Presbyterian, although AEF members came from all of these church groups. We all wholeheartedly subscribed to a theologically conservative statement of faith, although we did not have strong collective convictions about issues such as eschatology or charismatic practice. We had members who held a variety of viewpoints on these areas.
b. We were an international fellowship. We liked the fact that we were not exclusively American, British, Australian or any other nationality.
c. We were church-focused. Although we deeply appreciated the work of mission organizations like MAF, IFES, Wycliffe and World Vision, everything we did involved planting churches and working in partnership with the ministries of local churches and church fellowships.
d. We were Africa-focused. It did not matter to us if another mission had concerns that were broader than Africa; however, if ministry in Africa was not a part of their passion, we did not feel that a partnership would be particularly successful.
As we looked at mission organizations that were members of the EFMA or IFMA, we discovered that there were only two organizations that were our size or larger for which all four of these values were true. SIM was one of these. As we continued to internally discuss the possibility of cooperative partnerships or merger, our board decided to do a survey of the broader AEF family, including retirees, to get a better sense of what mattered concerning policies and practices within the mission. We wanted to know where we could and could not be flexible. This included understanding how people felt about housing, children’s education, pastoral care, field leadership structures, decision-making, financial support policies and a host of other practical areas. As we identified what mattered to our colleagues, we decided it would be appropriate to discontinue our merger discussions if we were to run into a mountain that we could not get over. On several occasions, we thought that we had reached one of those mountains with SIM, as after much discussion, we concluded that AEF was unwilling to make any more changes that would be needed for a merger to work. However, to our amazement, at these crucial points in our discussions, SIM was willing to change! One of the many impressive things we learned about SIM was that although they were bigger than we were, they were also more flexible.
3. We clarified the process. We knew that SIM had previously done two mergers and were intrigued by the reasoning and the process they had used. Therefore, very early on, I sat down with the top SIM leadership and asked them what AEF might need to know or do in order to intelligently investigate whether a merger was a good idea. Rather than give me theoretical answers, they treated the question a bit like a board game and began to discuss among themselves what steps might be involved were an organization like AEF to merge with an organization like SIM. I watched in fascination as they spent several hours creatively free-wheeling ideas. Someone suggested using post-it notes, which they arranged and re-arranged across a table. When they were finally satisfied with their work, they put the notes on pieces of paper and photocopied the conclusions. I still have those photocopies, as this became the process we followed. It was helpful to have a broad comprehensive plan concerning the process from the beginning. Part of that involved having both missions designate a couple of people to become “merger negotiators.” This article reflects how we tried to follow that plan.
4. We clarified compatibility before making a commitment to each other. Despite what some of our AEF colleagues thought at the time, there was never a “done deal.” Our board had not decided to make a merger happen, irrespective of what we learned. It was true that SIM had agreed to look with us at whether a marriage between our two organizations would be beneficial to both. However, both AEF and SIM understood that our “engagement” could be called off at any point (although we did hope that we could continue to be friends). There was much that we needed to learn about them, and they about us. We studied their manuals, visited their fields and sat in on board and committee meetings. They did the same with us. Our sending councils held joint retreats and looked at the compatibility of documents and processes. We asked many questions to discover whether we could comfortably work together—not just to preserve existing ministries, but to discern whether the work of both organizations would be enhanced. In what ways might they make us better, and how might we make them better?
We learned that it makes a difference whether one organization is merging into the other or whether two fairly similar groups will need to re-configure most of their policies and processes to functionally form a whole new organization. It is clearly much simpler to “merge into.” We concluded early in the process that this is what we would be doing, and that AEF would become a part of SIM.
5. We needed to clarify what needed to change. In any merger, there are legal issues, public relations issues, financial issues, structural issues, personnel issues, procedural issues and more. We assigned work groups to unpack the implications of what needed to change in each of these areas if we were to merge. It was only after we were both satisfied that all of these things could really work that our boards were willing to consider giving their approval to a merger between us. One of the biggest changes came in considering issues of ethos. Many of our AEF colleagues had much invested emotionally in the organization’s history, people and name. A good marriage embraces the entire family. SIM was willing to make our history a part of their history and even suggested including our AEF name on their official letterhead.
We knew that to merge two organizations together would be a process that takes time and a lot of talking to allow everyone to feel comfortable about being a part of a new family. SIM sent missionaries and church leaders to visit our fields. They participated in retreats and field conferences to get to know the AEF family and to help us sort through whether or not we really wanted these people to become a part of our family, and for us to become a part of theirs.
6. We clarified who needed to give their permission to a merger. Legally, only our board needed to say yes in order to merge with another organization. However, we felt that it would be foolish to do something this important without having overwhelming public approval from our missionaries, church leaders, retirees, partner churches, key donors and sending councils. We did not push for a “decision”; instead, we traveled extensively to listen to those involved with AEF. My colleague in the merger negotiations made himself available electronically and he responded to every question regarding the merger. Periodically, he released summaries of questions that people had raised and the answers that he had given. We also invested time with several key influencers. We only did a mission-wide poll about the merger when we were confident that we knew what the results would be.
Nevertheless, we felt that it was important to take a formal poll to allow the entire AEF family to indicate to our board how they felt about a merger with SIM. I had read somewhere that about thirty percent of a group cannot envision the future, although once there they tend to say things like: “If you’d only explained it better, this is exactly what we needed!” Practically speaking, that meant that a seventy percent positive vote would have been about as close to unanimous as we were likely to get. In fact, almost eighty percent said yes to the merger—with no “blocs” (i.e., sending councils or fields that might have pulled out to create a whole new mission) voting against it. Our two international boards met in June 1998 in the UK to review the recommendations and the process leading toward a merger. While the votes taken were adequately positive, neither AEF’s board nor the board of SIM voted unanimously in favor. We were disappointed in our lack of unanimity, although our SIM colleagues convinced us that this actually was a good way to document that the decision had been painful for some people.
7. We clarified what should be done after the merger. One of SIM’s merger negotiators told us that only about thirty percent of the real work of a merger is finished before the merger is actually formalized. People and processes thus needed to be in place not only to help implement the changes that had been discussed and mapped out before the merger, but also to deal with the many things that we had not even considered. One important part of that was to facilitate ongoing interaction to allow people involved in both missions to feel that they were part of the same family. This involved encouraging feedback, making evaluative visits and developing extensive public relations both internally and externally to make sure that everyone understood and was comfortable with the implications of what had happened.
CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE MERGER
During our negotiations with SIM, we asked why they would consider taking the time to consider a merger with us. AEF was only about one-quarter the size of SIM. Merging was not one of SIM’s felt needs, and after all, AEF had initiated these discussions. They responded that two things were important to them. First, they had learned that taking time to consider a merger, whether or not they ever entered into it, had enriched and renewed SIM by forcing it to reconsider why it existed at all.
Second, they indicated that they were impressed with our leadership as well as our structures, relationships and policies.
After the merger, our ethos and history did become part of the collective official story of SIM. Many AEF leaders were immediately placed into leadership roles within SIM. AEF people headed up some of SIM’s sending councils. Some experienced SIM field leaders became field leaders in what had been AEF fields. AEF people were invited to join work groups and strategic teams. Conferences and consultations were held to help build a sense of being a part of one family. Our merged sending councils immediately became healthier than before.
Both AEF and SIM were already healthy organizations prior to the merger. Yet God allowed us to be even better after the merger. The new leadership at SIM has recently finished a creative rethink of what a mission needs to be in order to be effective in the twenty-first century. I do not know the extent to which the merger has contributed to new paradigms within SIM, but one of the strategic conclusions affirmed recently at SIM’s international council is a desire to do better at partnering with emerging mission efforts throughout the non-Western world. Could it be that the same spirit that allowed AEF and SIM to merge together for our enhanced effectiveness in ministry is a part of an internal organizational commitment to partnership so that SIM can facilitate and encourage what others are doing to reach out globally in the name of Jesus?
When we conducted our poll to see the extent to which people involved with AEF were in favor of a merger, we were a bit surprised when the strongest affirmation of this actually came from AEF retirees. We had assumed that these people might be nostalgic for the past and thus reticent to have AEF disappear into another organization. Yet one mission retiree wrote these encouraging words: “AEF’s motto has always been ‘God First—Go Forward.’ So if this is of God, how can we not go forward?”
Bigger is not better. But being independent, isolated and smaller is also not necessarily better. We are satisfied to have had a part in making a merger happen and are confident that God has been glorified. For the good of the kingdom, we all need to find ways to creatively work together so that the world may know that Jesus sent us (John 17:21). May you and others have the courage to consider this.
Steve Hardy worked with AEF (Africa Evangelical Fellowship) from 1984 until its merger with SIM (Serving in Mission) in 1998. He is currently SIM’s theological education advisor and lives in South Africa.
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