Church Merger Reveals Harmony Is Not Racial
It was a white church and a predominantly black church. It’s was a white minister and a black minister. It was an Assemblies of God congregation and an independent Pentecostal congregation.
And now — they’re one church!
In what Pastor Mark Smith and Pastor Patty Burns call a divine act of God, they explain that over the past few years God has been readying both their churches for something that is totally out of the norm.
About two years ago, Cornerstone Assembly of God in Hillsboro, Ohio, purchased a larger facility as their new home. The 10-year-old building, a former church, had been vacant for about two years.
“It was a big, beautiful building,” Smith says. “The owners had turned down several offers for it and then decided to put it up for sale on an online auction. The church was valued at a half a million dollars — we won the auction with a bid of $209,000 — and paid cash for it. Now we have a great location and a great building with maximum seating approaching 250 people, debt free, which is a miracle in itself!”
Smith says the church sits on five acres alongside the main highway entering town. He explains that although his congregation was only about 65 members at the time they made the purchase, the members are great tithers, which enabled the church to pay cash for the property. Once they purchased the new building, they moved to sell their old building on the south side of Hillsboro, which has a population of about 6,700.
Patty Burns, the pastor of Resurrected Truth Ministries, a primarily black independent Pentecostal church in Hillsboro, explored the possibility of her congregation purchasing Cornerstone’s old building, as they had been renting their facilities. It so happened, Burns’ congregation of 35 to 40 members was located about one-quarter of a mile away from the new location of Cornerstone.
“They weren’t able to get the money together,” Smith recalls, “so that sale fell through and someone else purchased the building. But through the process, Pastor Burns and I developed a friendship — and then the Holy Spirit began dealing with me and speaking to my heart about inviting her and her church to be a part of Cornerstone.”
Meanwhile, God was also speaking to Burns, who had been pastoring Resurrected Truth since 2000, following the passing of her husband.
“God had been blessing us in all sorts of ways,” Burns says, “but I kept feeling like He had another plan for the church — only I didn’t know what it was.”
Smith went to his church board with what he felt the Holy Spirit was impressing upon him, and asked his all-white board to pray about inviting Pastor Burns and her 75- to 80-percent black Resurrected Truth congregation to become a part of their church body.
Things could have become quite dicey, but God had already prepared the way, Smith says. His board confirmed what God had been speaking to him by fully supporting the idea. “I then shared the idea with one of the prayer warriors in the church, and he tells me, ‘Funny you should say that . . . I had a dream that a congregation was going to merge with our church!’”
Smith asked Burns to meet him for lunch and presented the idea to her. For Burns there was a quickening in her spirit — she knew God was in this!
“When Pastor Mark met with me, I felt that his offer was an answer to prayer,” Burns says. “I had been keeping an open mind and an open heart, trusting God, and it was like His master plan was unfolded . . . but I never dreamed this was God’s plan for us.”
Burns feels it was also no coincidence that when Smith met with her, she “happened” to be speaking a series of messages on unity and unity in the body of Christ. “And here God opens up this opportunity to manifest exactly what I was preaching and teaching about!” she exclaims.
However, both ministers still had a significant hurdle before them — getting the approval and support of their congregations. The opportunity for dissension and discord when considering merging any two churches is great — but add in the potentially volatile racial differences, and things could get ugly in short order.
Yet that was not to be. When Smith and Burns presented the idea to their congregations about a merger, it was clear that God had been at work in more than just the ministers’ hearts. Both congregations were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea.
Burns explains that prior to asking her congregation about the merger, she had accepted an invitation for her church to visit Cornerstone AG for a service. Burn still bubbles with excitement about how well the service went and how well received she and her church felt.
On January 17, 2016, the two churches became one, with Smith the lead pastor and Burns the associate senior pastor.
“The transition has been so smooth,” Burns says. “This has been totally orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. The harmony is there, sweet fellowship, the lovingness of the people of God. We feel accepted as part of their church family.”
Smith says that to this point, the new members of Cornerstone are still becoming accustomed to the church, but in addition to already placing one of their members on the church board, teaching and music ministry opportunities also are on the table.
“We’ve adjusted our song service to include more hymns,” Smith says, “and there’s a new energy in our church services that’s exciting!”
How unusual is this kind of racial harmony? Burns says a Methodist woman in Columbus, Ohio, drove the more than 70 miles just to come to church to see if the merger was for real. “She came and just enjoyed everything about the service,” Burns says. The two ministers also recently accepted an invitation to speak on the local Catholic radio station about the unique merging of two churches and two cultures.
Both Smith and Burns say they expect that the church will run into challenges, but add that every church has challenges. Pointing to the Holy Spirit and His guidance throughout the process, both ministers also believe this merger is not limited to the church, but is meant to impact their community as well.
“I believe the church is really going to grow,” Burns says. “I believe this is part of God’s plan to show the body of Christ that we can fellowship, whether we have two cultures or not — we are one in Him!”
As far as Smith is concerned, he isn’t sure what God has in mind, but he remains open to whatever He has in store. “I’m not even ruling out that there are some other congregations that may want to merge with us . . . in order to reach this world for Christ, we need to come together in Christ!”
Pictured: Pastor Mark Smith and Pastor Patty Burns