A Merge Made in Heaven

By Sharon Mager

ASHTON, Md. — While grieving the death of their beloved long-time pastor Gary Scarborough, members of Ashton Baptist Church (ABC) in Maryland prayerfully sought to discern God’s will. Less than five miles away, Christ Community Church (CCC) of Olney, Maryland, a second-generation Asian-American, church prayerfully sought a more diverse congregation to reflect their community and a meeting place to call their own.

God saw the needs of both churches and brought them together. Following a slow, careful process, the two congregations joined as one.

Ashton Baptist Church — Gary Scarborough prepared the church for his death
2018 was a painful year for the Ashton congregation as they mourned the loss of Gary Scarborough, who lovingly pastored the church for 17 years. Some members left after his death and those who remained dealt with the turbulent emotions of grief as they prayerfully initiated the pastoral search process.

Leaders called Gayle Clifton, a former pastor of Olney Baptist Church and later Upper Seneca Baptist Church, as their interim pastor. Not only did Clifton know the church family, but he also knew Gary Scarborough’s love for his flock.

Gary Scarborough lovingly prepared his congregation for transition following his death.

Scarborough was aware his time was limited and that the church was in decline and so he began monthly key leadership group meetings the September before he passed away. Clifton said, “He was trying to re-dream the dream, keep the church going forward, and help them think about options.” Clifton continued the leadership meetings to pray and discuss options.

Sadly, the church realized by the end of 2018 that they would eventually run out of funds. “They did not have the resources to go the traditional way of calling another pastor, even a bi-vocational pastor,” Clifton explained. Leaders began considering a different avenue — a merger with another church— one  that Clifton said, “would make a good marriage possible.”

The leadership team consulted with Montgomery Baptist Association Director of Missions Ron Blankenship, Mid-Maryland Baptist Association Director of Missions Larry Steen and Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware Church Services Consultant Randy Millwood. ABC leaders prayerfully asked God to show them a “match,” and after reviewing the possibilities, they looked to Christ Community Church (CCC) as a viable merger option.

Gayle Clifton (r) served as an intentional interim pastor and worked with ABC to help the church transition after Scarborough’s death. Clifton, Don Sweeney, and other leaders met with Chul Yoo to prayerfully discern whether a merger was feasible (photo provided by CCCA).

Clifton and Ashton Lead Deacon Don Sweeney met with Chul Yoo, the pastor of CCC and his key leaders in formal meetings and later in a more relaxed setting, sharing a fellowship meal. All agreed to take the process slowly, allowing ABC to pray and honestly decide if they could see Yoo as their pastor.

The answer was an unequivocal, unanimous “yes.”

Christ Community Church – a primarily Asian church in search of diversity
In 2015, Yoo became the pastor of Higher Connection Church, birthed as a second-generation, English-speaking Asian congregation and a ministry of Global Mission Church of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland. Three years later, the Higher Connection congregation felt the need to begin ministering independently. They moved from Global Mission Church, became CCC, and began meeting in a Lutheran church building in Olney.

The CCC family dreamed of reaching their community and serving their local schools. “We wanted more ethnic diversity, to draw people from ‘different stripes,’” Yoo said. They also had a vision of purchasing their own building but expected it to be 10-15 years down the road. “Building in Montgomery County is difficult,” Yoo explained. God answered their prayers more quickly than they expected. They were amazed when ABC’s leadership approached them with the potential offer of a building and a primarily white congregation. “We’re really thankful,” Yoo said.

Discussing ABC, Yoo said, “Their pastor died, and they were struggling and interested in talking about a merger, as long as it was a good fit and wouldn’t blow up both churches.

“When the conversation started at the beginning of summer [2019], I brought an elder and met with Gayle Clifton and Don Sweeney to see if this was even possible. We all walked away with the feeling that this had real potential. We wanted to pursue it and see where the Lord led.”

While enjoying a time of fellowship and a meal, the leadership from both churches felt at ease. “The atmosphere was comfortable. It was easy to be around one another. We thought that was a good sign,” Yoo said.

Sweeney and Yoo began to discuss specifics such as bylaws, how each church envisioned a merger and the areas that could cause discord. “All of that went smoothly,” Yoo said. ABC members readily agreed with the bylaws and church statements. There was no dissent. “It was a blessing,” Yoo emphasized.

Chul Yoo shares a message at an outdoor worship service in August (photo by Sharon Mager).

Christ Community Church’s structure was a bit different. “Our church is elder-led and that was foreign to ABC, but we talked through what that meant and the people were very receptive,” Yoo explained.

CCC also had a different worship style from the Ashton congregation. ABC was a more contemporary-styled church and CCC was blended. “We had always taken the approach of singing good songs from all time periods – a mixture,” Yoo shared. “Also, the liturgy was new for some of [the members].” In addition to using both contemporary and traditional music, CCC incorporated responsive readings, the Gloria Patri, and prayers of confession. They had a Tenebrae service on Good Friday and introduced the church to an annual observance of the Protestant Reformation in October. “We build a giant door and we nailed verses on the door,” Yoo said, referring to Martin Luther and the 95 Theses.

In 2019, both congregations met again for Thanksgiving and twice in December. They also shared a Christmas Eve service. They began meeting together every Sunday, starting in January 2020.

“We realized it was a big risk,” Yoo acknowledged. “If things didn’t go well for our church, we would have had to go back. Emotionally, I don’t know if we could have done that, but all of our elders thought it was a risk worth taking. On Feb. 23, we voted unanimously to move forward.”

Lauri Yoo shares a children’s message at an outside worship service (photo by Sharon Mager).

After the vote, the combined church, now Christ Community Church of Ashton (CCCA), gathered for two worship services and a fellowship meal before the COVID-19 pandemic required them to stop their public worship services. During the shutdown, the church began the process of modernizing the sanctuary.

They continued meeting through Zoom, online services, and later had several services in the parking lot.

Yoo worked hard to keep in contact with his newly combined flock. The CCC leadership made many calls to check on people and provide encouragement. On Mother’s Day, Yoo and his wife, Lauri, delivered gifts to moms and hand-written letters with books to some of the older women.

When Montgomery County lifted restrictions in June, the congregation began to meet outdoors, bringing their own chairs, wearing masks and observing social distancing. Some of the older members remain in cars. About one-third of the members watch online.

Don Sweeney is an avid University of Maryland supporter and Chul Yoo is a Duke graduate. The two enjoy ribbing each other over the rival colleges (photo submitted by CCCA)

Yoo said, “It’s interesting. If the shutdown happened before that vote, we wouldn’t have been able to meet in person – we wouldn’t have merged. On the ABC side, multiple people told me the church would not have made it through the pandemic. They didn’t have the resources and manpower.

“Nobody anticipated this pandemic and the way the Lord worked it out for our churches.”

Sweeney was the primary liaison between the churches. He and Yoo met frequently to discuss merger details and then chat and get to know one other. They became friends and developed a running joke, as Sweeney is an avid supporter of the University of Maryland and Yoo is a graduate of Duke. Yoo laughed as he shared that Sweeney had said that he never dreamed he’d have a “Duke grad” as his pastor.

Reflecting on the merger, Yoo said both churches were aware of the pitfalls and potential difficulties. “By the grace of God, we didn’t experience any of that.”

Looking ahead, Yoo said they’ll have to regroup and see what “normal” may seem like as they move forward in the coming months. But there’s enthusiasm. “We’re really excited about what this could potentially mean in our community.”