ST. JOSEPH – Dennis and Brenda Riggs figure they got the best deal when their church blended with another congregation.
“We got a granddaughter out of the merge,” Dennis Riggs says.
The couple are long-time members and serve in the food pantry ministry of King Hill Baptist Church in St. Joseph. Several months ago, King Hill merged with Carnegie Baptist Church to form a new congregation.
That’s when the Riggs met 17-year-old Destinee Steele, who attended Carnegie, and discovered they lived in the same block. Now, Destinee is over at their house at least once a week and shares hugs and teasing with her adopted grandparents.
“I think it’s great, I can’t think of anything bad to say about it,” Dennis Riggs said of the joined congregations. “The best thing is we have two fantastic pastors. We are blessed.”
What at first seemed like a merger between two neighborhood churches evolved to become more like a marriage that birthed a new family – Journey Baptist Church.
The relationship dates back 70 years when King Hill Baptist Church sponsored a revival on Carnegie Street and a new mission was started.
“In 1944, when Carnegie was started, it was a good model,” said Carey Pearson, who had been a member since 1983 and served as associate pastor. “It was still working, but in the last 15 years it was not as big or as effective as we thought it could be.”
Jacob McMillian, pastor of Carnegie since 2010, saw the value of bringing families of the same phase of life together to build more connections and a broader foundation for a church. His church had about 85 members and King Hill had about 175 and the churches were located less than a mile apart in South St. Joseph.
“We really felt God was calling us to do something greater than we could do on our own.” McMillian said.
The idea of a merger had been on some people’s minds for years. A group of 14 ambassadors – seven men from each church – began meeting to discuss the possibility.
“We saw this as an opportunity to strategically consolidate and form a new work to reaching this part of town,” said Greg Dixon, pastor of King Hill since 2012.
The churches started cooperating on activities such as men’s breakfast and Vacation Bible School. Members formed relationships and saw possibilities in uniting into one larger, stronger fellowship.
“What got my heart started was how they liked to go out visiting,” said Denise Jennings, who serves in children’s ministry at King Hill.
A gentle process
Dustin Miller met the Lord through Carnegie’s door-to-door visitation ministry. It was the only church he’d ever attended and the thought of going somewhere else was intimidating. Then he and his wife met other couples through a home fellowship, and now they’re glad for the chance to grow deeper.
After a “summer of engagement,” the combined church held its first service, Nov. 1. In January, they settled on the name Journey Baptist Church. Services and church activities are held at the King Hill campus; members worked together to paint and redecorate, creating a new feel for the space and uniting the two congregations into one.
The changes have been significant, but members say it helped that both pastors guided the transition and are still serving. Nona Miller’s family had been actively involved at King Hill for generations.
“You have to take it gently because you have a lot of feelings involved. There is a lot of love in both places and people can get uneasy,” she said. “It’s been a gentle process. People have had time to think about it.”
The Carnegie location is now used for The Lord’s Store, which gives away clothing and household goods. Dustin Miller did carpentry work to refit Sunday school rooms into storage space. Journey envisions more ministry from the site, perhaps services in Spanish or Burmese to serve the growing immigrant population in the neighborhood.
By bathing the transition in prayer and seeking God’s leading, McMillian and Dixon say what could have been very difficult has been a sweet experience. They would encourage more Missouri Baptists to consider the possibility of joining forces.
“It would not be for everybody. But if more churches would pray about it, it could be really good,” Dixon said.
McMillian said the merger makes the church stronger for the future.
“It secures both churches’ futures to have a kingdom minded, sound biblical church in South St. Joe,” he said.