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4 Different Church Leadership Models

Christianity has three major divisions--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant--and at least four different leadership structures. Catholics and Orthodox (for example, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox) basically use the same leadership structure whereas Protestants use four different leadership structures. This summary will briefly describe these four leadership structures. Note: these categories can be fluid, with some churches using a combination of styles.

1. Episcopal: These churches have bishops: A bishop is often a leader of a number of churches within a geographic region sometimes known as a diocese. Examples of churches with bishops include Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian/Anglican, and Methodist. In the case of Catholics, their head bishop is called “Pope.” In the case of the Orthodox, their head bishop is called ”Patriarch.” Episcopalians (the Church of England which is in the USA) have a head bishop who is called the “Presiding Bishop.” Methodists do not have one head bishop, instead a bishop will have authority over an area, called a Conference, and a General Conference, which consists of all conferences, makes decisions for the entire denomination. An example: if the head minister dies in an church using this structure, the bishop will either decide or play a role in choosing the new head minister. Another example: the denomination usually owns the church building; therefore, if the church members of one church want to leave the denomination, they have to buy the building or move out.

2. Presbyter: This leadership role involves individual churches sending representatives to a larger body where decisions are made. Presbyterian churches use this type of leadership structure. Each individual church is governed by elders in what is usually called a “session.” Individual churches are grouped together into a “presbytery,” presbyteries are grouped together into a “synod,” and synods nationwide form the “General Assembly.” At each level outside the individual church, both clergy and lay (meaning non-clergy) leaders are involved and make decisions. An example: if the head minister dies in a church using this structure, the presbytery will either decide or play a role in choosing the new head minister. Another example: the denomination usually owns the church building; therefore, if the church members of one church want to leave the denomination, they have to buy the building or move out.

3. Autonomous church: These churches maintain all decisions from within the individual church (called the "local" church). Baptists use this form of church leadership. Individual churches voluntarily join together to form “associations,” associations join together to form a “convention” (such as the North Carolina Baptist Convention), and small conventions join together to form a large “convention” (such as the Southern Baptist Convention). The larger Convention makes policies; local churches can choose to accept those policies or not. Therefore, all decisions are made in the local church, and local church agrees (or not) with the Convention’s polices and thus are members (or not) of that Convention. But the Convention cannot force the local church to abide by the Convention’s decisions. If a local church disagrees, then it leaves the Convention. An example: if the head pastor dies in a church using this structure, the local church will decide on a new pastor; the associations or conventions play no role in choosing a new pastor. Another example: the local church owns the building; therefore, if the church members of a local church decide to leave the denomination, they can, and the denomination has no control over the physical property.

Exception, or maybe not: Many churches are independent. Nevertheless, they act in the same manner as autonomous churches and so they belong that category. While independent churches claim no loyalty to a denomination, diocese, association, or convention, usually they link with other like-minded independent churches for the purpose of educating pastors, producing church literature, pooling money for missionary activities, etc. This falls into the category of autonomous church.

4. Megachurch: A relatively recent innovation (since the 1950's at the earliest), a church which executes a business model to run the church. These churches may or may not be formally connected with other churches or denominations and may or may not come under the authority of bishops or presbyters. Since a business model is used, the pastor functions like a CEO, the associate/assistant/executive pastors function like vice presidents of different areas within the church, and the “shareholders” (the average church members) have a limited voice in how the “business” (church) is run: the CEO/pastor (usually with guidance from pastors within the church or elders) makes major decisions, hires like-minded church members who often are trained within that church, and controls the functions of the church. Typically a megachurch will have 2000+ members and often use multiple campuses.

©2010, 2017 Mark Nickens