When two churches become one

Northwest Hills Community Church

Torrington, Connecticut, was a bustling manufacturing town rife with hardworking blue collar families attending churches throughout the downtown area. Calvary Baptist Church has stood in the center of town, for the past 119 years. The iconic brick building looks as every New England church should, but things change. Pastor Mike Ambrose led the gospel-centered church for 25 years.

“When I first came here in 1990, a lot of people worked at the plants,” Ambrose said. “But virtually all of those plants have closed and those kinds of jobs have moved out of the city.”

The families left for other jobs. The children of families who stayed grew up and moved out, including three of Ambrose’s four children. With that change came new people, mostly from other inner cities. New problems arose and the church had to come up with new ways of ministry. Ambrose says they started programs for substance abuse and continued to reach people with the gospel, but the congregation was shrinking.

“I used to have 35 kids in Sunday school; in the past few years we were down to 10 kids,” he said. “We peaked in 2000 with about 100 to 110 people in attendance, but last year it was just 60. I just turned 60 years old, and I knew I wanted to finish my ministry here, but I want to see it continue after I’m gone.”

Eight years ago Scotty Neasbitt planted Northwest Hills Community Church on the east side of Torrington. Neasbitt and his congregation have a heart for the downtown area, but they were growing and couldn’t find the space to get them there. As NHCC’s elder board began to look for property for the growing congregation of 150, Ambrose began to pray for the next steps for Calvary Baptist.

“I thought about Northwest Hills and how they attempted to buy property three blocks from us, but it fell through,” Ambrose said. “As my wife and I began to pray the thought began to arise, here we are with 60 people on a Sunday morning in a church that can seat 300 and there they are on the eastern side of town looking to move downtown, stuck in a building they are outgrowing.”

Ambrose says the Holy Spirit began to move him. He went to his deacons about possibly bringing the two churches together. With their encouragement, Ambrose stopped by Neasbitt’s Vacation Bible School to tell him what God had put on his heart. For Neasbitt, it was a jaw-dropping moment.

“Mike told me he was disappointed our property deal fell through,” Neasbitt said. “He told me he and his deacons had been praying about it and he said, ‘We think Calvary might be your church building.’ I had to collect myself and ask him what he meant.”

All summer long, the two pastors met for breakfast and began researching what it would take for the two churches to merge. There were governing deacons, governing elders, children’s ministry and even administrative tasks to talk about. Neasbitt says communication was the only way to dig through it all. It was mutually decided the larger church would take the lead. Neasbitt picked up the book, Better Together; Making Church Mergers work, by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird, to help guide the process.

“The book helped us to see if it was going to work, early on,” Ambrose said. “We knew more adaptation would be required of my church. I’m very grateful and in a godly way proud of the people of Calvary for how they have accepted and understood Christ’s mission is what was at stake.”

Both pastors say the decision to merge is gospel driven. There are other churches in downtown Torrington, but they are not evangelical. Neasbitt can see two churches from his office but social life is missing in the historical buildings.

“God has equipped me with a church planter’s mind and pastor’s heart,” he said. “Trying to integrate these two churches have come with new opportunities and challenges, but I remember years ago my wife and I dreamed about planting a church in the Northeast just hoping for the opportunity to fill an historical building with an actual living church. It’s a testament to how good God has been to us.”

Ambrose is transitioning from senior pastor to associate. While he says it’s a welcome change, it is a strange one. Twenty five years of teaching 47 weeks a year to only a handful is a much different routine. Ambrose says he’s been praying for someone to take care of his flock after he’s gone, but could not have imagined God would reveal his plan in this way.

“I have so much respect for Scotty. From the very first meeting there’s been really good chemistry between us, like God has prepared us to work together,” he said. “He’s very generous, very encouraging and a good listener. When he asks for my opinion, he really wants it. I know there are other churches out there that need to consider doing something like this. It’s not easy, but by the grace of God we are doing it.”

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    Point - September 2018

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