— Welcome to the Gunslingers Church of Christ.
But that characterization might not be too far off in describing the Lord’s body in this Wild West state capital over the past 25 years.
In a Big Sky community founded with the 1864 discovery of gold, personal disputes, doctrinal issues, allegiances to ministers and sins by leaders all have contributed to repeated church splits and hurt feelings.
“I think it’s been like, this is kind of the Old West, and if we don’t like something, we’re going to draw our gun and shoot,” said Jerry Botts, who joined the ministry staff of the Rocky Mountain Church of Christ eight years ago. “And that’s not the nature of Jesus.”
On a recent Sunday, however, Helena’s three remaining Churches of Christ came together under an open-air tent to make a fresh start — as a single, merged body.
At the construction site for what will become the newly named South Hills Church of Christ, about 170 men, women and children sat in folding chairs overlooking the cloud-covered Rocky Mountains.
Noisy tractor-trailer rigs buzzed along Interstate 15 as church members shared blue and maroon hymnals and gold and silver communion trays. The mix of colors reflected the coming together of the 125-member Rocky Mountain Church of Christ, the 50-member Helena Church of Christ and the 25-member Big Sky Church of Christ.
“You have to understand, up until about three years ago, these bodies didn’t even fellowship. I mean, there was no cohesiveness whatsoever,” said Randy Yaeger, a member of the former Big Sky church and one of the new congregation’s six elders. “And so, over the course of this last year especially, we could see God’s hand change people’s hearts, people’s attitudes toward this whole thing.”
SMALL GESTURE, BIG RESULT
The Sleeping Giant Church of Christ — referring to a mountain that can be seen across the interstate from the construction site — was 13-year-old Caleb Peterson’s suggestion for the new congregation’s name.
“I thought it was appropriate, but it didn’t make the cut,” joked Caleb’s father, Shaun Peterson, a Rocky Mountain church elder who will continue in that role with the new congregation.
Peterson credits God’s providence for the reconciliation efforts that led to the merger. It helps, too, that some people who might have opposed the idea are no longer around, he and others said.
“The hearts of the leadership of all three congregations are very humble and considerate of one another,” Peterson said.
One small gesture that contributed to improved relationships came when Helena minister Tom Anderson developed an illness. Rocky Mountain minister Roy Ramsey, who moved to town in 2006 and was not a part of the history of splits, offered to preach for the Helena church for a few Sundays while Anderson recuperated, Peterson recalled.
As members grew closer, the two churches combined to offer a larger Vacation Bible School than either could organize on its own. At the same time, teenagers from the two congregations started going on a joint mission trip to the City of Children orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico.
“That put a lot of the parents together,” said Carey Burnside, a member of the Rocky Mountain church for nine years.
The teens already knew each other from Bible camp and youth rallies, said Lisa White, a Helena church member.
“I think it was harder on them to understand why there were three of us,” said Diana Janicek, a Rocky Mountain member, referring to the separate congregations. “When you teach your kids love and respect, they all wanted this years ago.”
HEALING OLD WOUNDS
Early this year, Ramsey and Anderson got together for coffee and discussed bringing together the Rocky Mountain and Helena churches.
That talk led to meetings between both churches’ leaders and, ultimately, a decision to merge.
As the effort progressed, Ramsey called Brandon Moore, minister for the Big Sky church, and invited the third congregation to join the discussions.
“Our church, in particular, had a lot of people that had been pretty beat up by churches in the past,” said Moore, who moved to Montana in 2010 after falling in love with the wide open spaces during an elk-hunting trip to Idaho. “And so, we tried to be a place of healing and really committed ourselves to that.”
Moore said he had built up enough trust that Big Sky members listened when he encouraged them to sit down with the other churches and at least talk.
Still, he said, “They were pretty hesitant, extremely hesitant at first. … And part of that was they wanted to make sure that it was a God thing … and that the leadership was doing this with humility and not just for self-satisfaction.”
Mark Wilson, one of the Big Sky church’s founding members, said his family had been “really hurt by the Rocky Mountain group.”
Given that history, suspicion and tension characterized the first reconciliation meeting, Wilson said.
“But that went away,” he said. “Within a month, that initial suspicious hostility was gone. I think that what we saw is that everybody was sincere, and nobody was trying to bring all that past history forward.”
Nonetheless, the Big Sky church proceeded with caution.
Before committing to merge, the smallest of the three congregations asked to enlist expert assistance.
“So often, when churches merge … most of the members think just in terms of getting together to worship and not in terms of being a body together,” said Evertt Huffard, vice president and dean of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.
Huffard and Scott Laird, minister for the Great Falls Church of Christ in Montana, encouraged leaders to examine four key areas of their congregational lives: spirituality, organization, relationships and ministry.
“You’ve got to have a mission that’s bigger than what you would be as three individual congregations,” Laird recalls telling the group.
In many cases, declining churches merge only to drop back down to the size of the larger congregation within five years, said Flavil Yeakley, retired director of the Center for Church Growth at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
“The problem is that a merger gives the illusion of growth without any real increase in the family of God,” Yeakley said. “If the motive is to increase the opportunity for evangelistic outreach, church mergers are a good idea. If the motive is just to have the appearance of growth without any evangelism, then merger is not a good idea.”
The process of deciding whether to merge is as important as the outcome, said Charles Siburt, associate dean for ministry programs and services at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Issues such as who will serve as the ministers and elders and what property and church name will be used must be negotiated, Siburt said.
“If they’re not negotiated in the process of making a decision about merging, then they’re very likely to become problems later on,” he said.
In Helena, starting with a fresh name in a new church building should help eliminate the chances of the largest congregation simply absorbing the smaller two, experts told The Christian Chronicle.
Two ministers from the Rocky Mountain church and one each from the Helena and Big Sky congregations will remain on the payroll for at least another year.
At least one man from each church will serve as a shepherd.
On the weekend of the Dedication Sunday, members fasted for 24 hours and then marched to the top of a hill near the city’s historic fire watch tower.
There, they prayed for the community and asked for God’s blessings on the merger.
“This is a risk, but we just feel like God has taken risks for us, and he expects us to the do the same,” Shaun Peterson said. “We can be better and more effective, and offer more to one another and more to our community, as one body.”