In November 2013, about 70 church members ‘freely, joyfully and solemnly’ covenanted together to form a new church in Shepshed; a union of the Belton Street Baptist and the Free Evangelical churches in the town.
This was the culmination of a seven-year journey. When we set off, we had no idea how long and testing the expedition would be, but we always believed and trusted that the prize at the end was more than worth the price.
As we stood together on that Lord’s Day morning, we praised God for his grace and faithfulness in guiding us and helping us along the way.
Why had we embarked on this project of unification? We desired to please God and to bring glory to him by demonstrating the unity of his people in Christ (John 17 and Ephesians 4).
We wanted to discover and enjoy new fellowship, care and support (Psalm 133). As an aside, there would be some practical and financial benefits of sharing one pastor and one set of buildings.
Shepshed is an ancient town in north-west Leicestershire with a population of around 14,000 people and a variety of churches.
Belton Street Baptist Church was established in 1880, with the help of the Baptist New Connexion. In 1969 a group broke away to form Shepshed Evangelical Free Church, erecting its own building five minutes away on Kirkhill. Both churches continued to serve God under different pastors. In 1990, Belton Street ceded from the Baptist Union.
When Simon Clarke was called to be the pastor of the Evangelical Church in 2002/2003, he challenged the members to consider reuniting with Belton Street. We were both independent evangelical, gospel-preaching churches; what justification was there to remain separate?
In the providence of God, Belton Street’s retiring pastor, Benny Clark, was keen to leave the flock there in what he considered to be good hands and was equally committed to the marriage of the two churches. In November 2005, both churches agreed to explore the possibility of a union, and so the journey began.
The officers of the two churches met together and discussed many issues and challenges. Matters were discussed with both sets of church members. As in any marriage of any two congregations, there were natural concerns, suspicions and some differences of opinion. It was a bumpy ride at times.
In 2006, we began to meet together on the Lord’s Day, on a monthly basis. Over the following months and years, we got to know and love one another and behave as one body and act as one church. Meanwhile, the officers started to explore the myriad of legal and practical implications.
A statement of faith and constitution, confirming the critical matter of a unity in the foundational truths of the Christian faith were drawn up and agreed by both churches in 2007.
This took a considerable amount of time, care and energy. While this was primarily important in relation to spiritual unity, we also had to demonstrate and confirm to the Charity Commission that the old and new statements of faith were ‘essentially doctrinally the same, although worded differently, and in no way conflicting’.
In May 2008, we held an inaugural meeting of those who had pledged their membership to the new church and elected a pastor, officers and trustees-elect. We began to meet together every week, alternating between the two buildings.
We chose our new name: Shepshed Word of Life Church. We believe that this particular name of Jesus Christ, within this title, embodies so much of the gospel we preach. In September 2010 we were formally registered as a new charity.
We had chosen from the outset to set up one new church, rather than subsume one into the other. This meant it would be a marriage of equals, and that we could look at all matters of church practice afresh, retaining what was God-honouring and helpful, and being prepared to change what wasn’t.
By God’s grace we have resolved potentially difficult questions, such as which Bible version and hymn book to use. We have been able to do this as one church, working the issues out amongst the joint-congregation and leadership.
The biggest practical and legal challenge has been that of the Belton Street chapel and manse. Both are subject to a set of trust deeds, written in wonderful gold script in 1880.
First of all we had to decipher the words (some were easier than others); then we had to understand the language (without a jot of punctuation!); and finally we had to try to apply a set of conditions written 130 years ago to a situation not envisaged — that of the church joining with another.
The key question was how we could honour what are called the ‘ultimate trusts’. This is the clause in the deed which determines what happens to the property if, and when, the church closes.
It cannot be changed and must be respected. The Belton Street deeds state that, should the church close, any remaining assets should revert to Baptist New Connexion, effectively now the Baptist Union.
We were clear on our objectives. We did not want to make a decision on the future building requirements of the new church at this stage. We believed this to be a matter best addressed by the new church once we had covenanted together.
Meanwhile, we wished to use the Belton Street buildings, alongside the Kirkhill buildings. We wanted to honour the intention (as best we could understand it) of the trust deeds, but did not want any restriction or conditions on what we could do with these properties in the future.
To cut a long story short, we spent several years and thousands of pounds with our solicitors unravelling all this and considering at least three different ways forward. We had to arrive at a position which we, the Charity Commission and the Baptist Union were all happy with.
We enjoyed two very helpful and constructive meetings with the Baptist Union and eventually agreed a way forwards which met everyone’s requirements. We agreed that Belton Street Baptist Church was not closing, but effectively continuing, and that the ultimate trusts should now apply to the new church.
If and when the new church should ever close, the Baptist Union will receive a proportion of any remaining assets. Meanwhile, we are free to alter, refurbish or dispose of any of the properties as we feel fit.
God has graciously and wisely overruled to bring about an outcome which satisfies all of the requirements and, we believe, enables us to move forward for the good of the gospel.
We have (hopefully) learned countless lessons (and no doubt missed even more). We humbly present these, should they be a help to others embarking on a similar journey.
Keep the principles before you at all times. These encourage you when the going gets difficult and guide you through important decisions.
Our principles included the primacy of: our oneness in Christ, spiritual union and truly loving each other; honouring the gospel in all things; and acting with integrity and honesty.
These principles were preached and restated as often as possible, so that we would set our hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things.
The principles are irrefutable, but there were secondary matters on which you have to be prepared to compromise — matters of preference, tradition or practicality, such as bricks and mortar or church practice.
When a couple marry, both parties have to leave some cherished ways behind, and gladly do so for the greater prize. We must strive to do what is good for the body, forbearing with one another, and considering others above ourselves (Philippians 2).
Likewise, legal matters are not a campaign for vindication, but a humble mission for the good of the gospel. We were prepared to give up the building, rather than keep it under restrictions from a third party.
We all started on this journey from different places. Keeping the principles foremost and helping us all to embrace them was a battle which had to be won! Otherwise, we would have drowned in a sea of diverse opinions, concerns and preconceptions.
For some of us it was a challenge to our insularity, faith, comfort, patience, pride and spiritual health.
Regular updates to church members are vital, even on complex legal matters. Silence may be misinterpreted as lack of action; and, in the absence of information, we sinners often make up our own stories!
Needless to say, the unity of church officers is paramount, and needs to be established and expressed very early on.
Perseverance and prayer
We never envisaged how long it would take. An early plan, with a wonderful dose of optimism, anticipated completion five years ago! Learning patience was a hard lesson.
We learned the limit of our wisdom and that the Lord has no such limits. He guided and overruled across commissions, solicitors, denominations and ignorant, sinful human hearts.
So, however impatient we feel, the need is to turn to our Sovereign God in prayer, before we act.
This was a project which needed a plan. There is a long list of practical matters to consider: bank accounts, gift aid, insurance, noticeboards, websites, resolutions, managing and holding trustees, and employment contracts.
It also helps to have a ‘project manager’, who is a single point of contact to the charity commission and the solicitors. Don’t underestimate the cost, time and energy needed.
These are some of the practical lessons we learned, particularly concerning building trusts.
Be prepared for shades of grey in legal matters, especially in old documents.
Do not expect solicitors to lead you or to make decisions for you; they are there simply to advise.
The Charity Commission is there to protect the ultimate trusts of charities. They provide free (but limited) advice.
Deal directly with the other parties (in our case the BUC) as much as possible, not through solicitors.
Meeting face to face is far better than emails and letters.
In all communication, be conciliatory and gracious in manner, but clear and firm in content (Colossians 4:6).
As I write this, we have just announced the ‘Word of Life Church’ in the town. We leafleted every house, inviting everyone to a meeting, to explain who we are and what we do, and enclosing a tract.
That meeting took place this afternoon and was attended by a good number of folk from the town. We launched a new website and have erected new signs and notice boards at both chapels. We trust and pray that this public declaration of unity and truth will be to the glory of God.
The author is a deacon in the Shepshed Word of Life Church