The Thistle

A Story of Unification in the Age of Division

Conflict in churches leads to splits so often as to make them commonplace, though no less sad. This makes the story of church unification all the more compelling—as in the case of two PCA churches in Ackley, Iowa.

West Friesland Presbyterian Church was more than 140 years old when Shawn Willis (MDiv ’10) first applied to become its solo pastor. The church replied to his application with a unique invitation.

“They told me that there were two churches—West Friesland and Faith—that were actually seeking a pastor together,” Shawn remembers. “They asked me if I still wanted to apply knowing I would pastor both.”

The two churches are located in Ackley, Iowa. “You can actually see one church building from the other,” Shawn says. Ackley itself is an old farming community, with a population of roughly 1,500 people. So how does a small town end up with two PCA churches within sight of one another?

Shawn laughs, and says, “That’s the question isn’t it?” West Friesland was originally organized as The Second German Presbyterian Church of Grundy County, a Swiss-German congregation, in 1873. The congregation became part of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. It later transferred membership into the PCA. By comparison, Faith Presbyterian Church is young. It was started by a group that left East Friesland Presbyterian Church (USA) because of the increasingly liberal leanings of that denomination.

“I suppose the people who started Faith could have joined West Friesland,” Shawn muses, “but at that point both congregations were large for this area. Combined, they were certainly too big for the West Friesland church building. In the end, Faith ended up forming its own church and building its own building.” In 2001, West Friesland had 117 members, with an average weekly attendance of 70, while Faith had 146 members, with 100 in attendance. By 2010, however, the churches together had a combined weekly attendance of 90.

“There was a desire for the churches to combine even when I was still in the interviewing stage,” Shawn says. “Particularly, the leadership had the vision for this. They saw that it was the right, good, and ultimately the necessary thing to do. We started having conversations about joining the churches within six months of me being here.” Shawn and the elders of each church met with the respective congregations, at first informally, to gauge receptivity and identify concerns.

Shawn shares, “The biggest concern was that each church had its own established identity. Dr. Douglass [Phil Douglass, professor of applied theology at Covenant Seminary and an acknowledged authority on church personality] is absolutely right about that. West’s personality is really different from Faith’s. Some members didn’t want to give that up, particularly for the West Frieslanders. These are practical people, salt of the earth. They are farmers with a German heritage. The West Friesland church building is more than 140 years old and the Faith church building is only 30 years old. The people knew it would mean moving to Faith and having that be our church building.”

The elders of both churches believed that the unification of the two churches would only occur if at least two-thirds of each church approved the merger. The leadership created a committee made of members, but no elders, from both churches to explore the merger. The churches began to experiment with rotating worship between the two congregations, but the initial vote for the churches to worship together all the time failed. The elders took up the task of visiting those members who had voted against it.

Shawn recounts, “Many were multigenerational members of the church, being asked to give that up. Of course they were sad and angry.”

Loss is part of the post-Genesis 3 narrative. Steve Benson (MAC ’09), a Covenant alumnus and Licensed Practical Counselor practicing in Charlotte, North Carolina, says, “When losses grow out of transition, I want to know the backstory. Why is this a loss and how does that loss impact your identity? On the flipside, are there gains that will come out of this loss? What did you learn? How did you mature? And how is the Lord leading you through all of this?”

Steve reflects, “It is hard to give up history. We are built of story, so when we give up a church building or a pew, we are giving up history. We are giving up memories and years of hard work. Whenever we embrace change, we willingly release something in order to get something greater. That is all part of our story, part of loss and grief as the Lord moves us to different stages.”

Shawn’s elders took the difficulty of transition into consideration. Shawn says, “The Exploratory Joining Committee—commonly dubbed the EJC—recommended we have the churches worship together as a trial. After four months, the congregations voted to worship together every Sunday, rotating between the buildings every month. At the end of that period, during the summer of 2015, the churches again took up the vote to worship at Faith all the time.” This time the vote was overwhelmingly positive.

Shawn recounts, “I stepped into the West Friesland building after the second vote. It was empty. Up until that point, I don’t know that I fully appreciated what the West Frieslanders were giving up: their history, even part of their identity. It hit me, and I stood there and cried.”

Steve, drawing from his experience as a counselor, says, “Caring for people means diving into the relational dynamics of change. Whether in a marriage or a business venture or a church, loving people well means helping them see that they aren’t failures, even in the face of circumstances that look or feel like failure. Our traditions are valuable. We take pride in them. Giving those up is like going into the unknown. We don’t know what the unknown looks like. The unknown is uncomfortable. But that is where we go back to our dependency upon the Lord.”

For the congregations of Ackley, the unknown led to something wonderful and vibrant. Shawn reflects, “Many of the original families are still here. Some even spoke up at the second congregational vote in favor of merging. And they spoke with such humility, kindness, and love. It has been beautiful to see how the Lord works in that and works in them, to grow them in Christ. It is what he so often does when we go through a difficult time or trouble, a painful trial and come out the other side having grown in Christ and grown in our faith.”

Recommended Reading:

The Healing Path: How the Hurts of Your Past Can Lead to a More Abundant Life, by Dan Allender

The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal our Deepest Questions About God, by Dan Allender

To Be Told: Gold Invites you to Coauthor your Future, by Dan Allender

Inside Out, by Larry Crabb

Grief, Transition and Loss: A Pastor’s Practical Guide, by Wayne E. Oates


Joel Hathaway (MDiv ’04, DMin ’16) is director of alumni and career services for Covenant Seminary.