Structured for Decline? Understanding the Strengths and Weaknesses of Denominational Systems

In order to examine factors relating to the decline of traditional denominations, a greater understanding of how denominations are structured is necessary. In many ways, the structure of trans-local covenanted church collaboration is the primary focus of my recent posts. Therefore, it is critical to have a knowledge of the basic organizational patterns that have been employed throughout church history.

In the present case, these structures have not been neutral in responding to both the internal and external factors affecting the decline of denominations and the churches within them. Only recently are some denominations beginning to realize that the foundational manner by which they are structured (beyond simply their division of labor or the operational structure of staff) is a component of their difficulty (Dilday, “Leonard: Baptists Must Express Ideal in New Ways”). Following a brief description of each organizational pattern, I will offer a brief analysis.

Three Systems

Within church history there have been three primary structures that have guided these various networks of churches. Some denominations use a mixture of these three structures, but Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational forms of governance generally describe the organizational structure of most denominations (Roozen, Nieman, eds., Church, Identity, and Change). The effective denomination of the future will have expressions and components of each of these forms of governance as well as additional components that are not currently represented.

Episcopal System

Of the three major church governance systems, the Episcopalian form is the most hierarchical and the oldest. Many would make the case that this was the form of the earliest church during the period of the Pre-Nicene ancient fathers (Viola, Barna, Pagan Christianity?). This form of governance places the authority of a church into the hands of a single regional bishop.

Depending on the particular denomination, there may even be further lines of authority that move upward, as in the Catholic Church, which gives its ultimate authority on earth to the Pope. Eastern Orthodox denominations also have an episcopal hierarchy, but not to the extent of Catholicism. They do not place one person in the authority of the pope, but they have a conciliar hierarchy consisting of twenty-four elders, who preside in the place of the papal role (Wikipedia, “Episcopal Polity”).

In the Protestant forms of Episcopalian rule, the regional dioceses are headed by a single bishop and those dioceses join together into national associations. The role of the national assemblies is to set general policy, but it is the regional divisions under the bishop that mediate and elaborate this to the local congregations (Roozen, Nieman).

The Episcopalian forms of government also have church courts and judicial systems that allow them to maintain consistency of theology and polity. In the area of property ownership, the denomination almost always owns the property over and against the local congregation (even if the local congregation has paid for the building). Also, the denomination ordains and places clergy for local congregations, and significant amounts of programming and liturgy may be prescribed. Monetary contributions can also be set by the denomination in relationship to the local church (Ammerman, Pillars of Faith).

In the Protestant tradition, the Episcopal Church USA, the United Methodist Church holds to an episcopal form of government in addition to the Four Square denomination and the various African Methodist strands (Ammerman). It should be noted, though, that these are not as rigid as the Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican traditions (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church). The strengths and weaknesses of this approach are similar to the Presbyterian system, though they are more magnified because there is an even smaller circle of leadership and authority. For instance, Ammerman reports that the hierarchically governed denominations have the lowest participation in national activities of the three streams and have the weakest denominational identity among the churches within them.

Presbyterian System

In contrast to Episcopalian rule, Presbyterian church government is a less hierarchical form of church interrelationship. This organizing system predominantly developed out of the Protestant Reformation in which the Reformers abolished the office of bishop and reduced the singular priest over a congregation back to a position within the presbytery (Viola, Barna). In the local church, the authority does not lie primarily in the hands of the laity, but rather in the hands of the elders/church presbytery (Roozen, Nieman). While the local church leadership in the Presbyterian model is formally distinct from the Congregationalist approach, often in actuality it functions in a similar manner.

However, the major distinction comes at the next level(s) of regional and national leadership as local churches are responsible to the wider church, with judicial systems in place to enforce and maintain polity and doctrine (The Layman, “Hollywood Church Aftermath: One Pastor Leaves PCUSA, Others Cleared of Accusations”). Church elders are accountable to the regional presbytery, which are in turn accountable to the national organization for both discipline and elements of instruction. At a previous general assembly of the PCUSA the following statement was adopted that expresses the centralized governing belief of this model:

That the several different congregations of believers, taken collectively, constitute one Church of Christ; that a larger part of the Church, or a representation of it, should govern a smaller part or determine matters of controversy which arise therein; that a representation of the whole should govern and determine in regard to every part … and consequently that appeals may be carried from lower to higher governing bodies, till they be finally decided by the collected wisdom and united voice of the whole church (Richey, Reimagining Denominationalism).

Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other Reformed churches tend to follow this organizational pattern. Additionally, some more conservative Protestant evangelical groups also fall into this category, such as the Assemblies of God, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Nazarenes, and the Presbyterian Church in America (Ammerman).

Specifically, the national assemblies tend to recognize the regional ecclesiastical bodies as authoritative over the local churches within their jurisdiction and democratic within the national structure of interrelationship with other regional bodies (Ammerman). This is the reason that, within the PCUSA and Episcopal Diocese, some regional bodies have voted to withhold funds from the national organization because of disputes over theological matters (Swanson, “Why Our Session Decided to Withhold Our Per Capita”). Furthermore, often the regional body (sometimes called a “session” or “presbytery”) has a decision-making influence in the choosing of the pastor/teaching elder. Many Presbyterian governed denominations refer to this as the “authorizing of ministry” upon an individual on behalf of the local congregation (Wikipedia, “Presbyterian Polity”).

The strengths of the Presbyterian approach come primarily through the recognition of clerical leadership. This is not to state that all clergy are equally gifted to oversee the local congregation or the regional or national body, but within the Presbyterian system there exists the possibility that people could serve in roles of leadership because of their gifting and not because of a congregational vote. Elders are granted spiritual responsibility for the local church and are endowed with the necessary authority to exercise their responsibility.

This seems to be the form of church government (at least at the local level) that was advocated in the New Testament writings (Acts 6, Acts 15:4, 23, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1:5). Furthermore, strong leadership at higher levels can often correct weak leadership or theological errancy at lower levels, whereas this possibility does not exist in the same manner within Congregational churches.

In addition, this system seems to promote the most regional identification with other congregations in the association, as it is the region that has a voice in the national assembly and not simply one local congregation. This could promote actual community and relationship as the churches and their members are typically within a reasonable geographic distance from one another and must collaborate on decision-making.

However, these same strengths could serve as glaring weaknesses of the Presbyterian approach as poor leadership could influence a greater number of people without the checks and balances provided by Congregationalists. In addition, local congregations tend to see the denominational entity as the mission arm of their local church, and they “outsource” the mission of the church (church-planting, social justice, international missions) to the denomination. Thus, the buy-in that is more readily present in the Congregationalist denomination is not as present in this form.

In some ways, this is demonstrated by the fact that congregationally governed churches tend to give more towards the budget of the denomination than Presbyterian governed churches, and those within congregational systems identity more significantly with the denomination as well as in their level of participation with national activities, even as regional participation is fairly equal (Ammerman).

Also, necessary changes are harder to make, and the speed at which those changes need to be made, both in mission and method, is significantly slower than a “local” congregational system. Obviously, the changes could be quicker than in the larger congregational system that has to develop a greater degree of “buy-in” from constituents because of their democratic nature. Finally, because of the mixed Presbyterian system of government, these denominations can easily be bifurcated over longer periods of time as whole regions can make decisions that are in opposition to the general assembly of the congregations (Ammerman). This has been particularly challenging to these denominations on several of the debated theological matters of the present religious context.

Congregational System

Congregational government has been the primary form of church governance that emerged after the Protestant Reformation. While many of the initial churches involved in the Reformation (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican) do not hold to the congregational model, it has still prevailed over the last four hundred years, primarily through the work of Baptists, Pentecostals, and the growing number of non-denominational churches (McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness). Its predominance in this era was strengthened by its closer alignment with the emerging model of political government in the newly developing United States.

The basis of Congregational government stems from the theological belief that the local church is the full realization of the entire body of Christ, though in a local setting. From this vantage point, every local congregation is independent and it alone makes decisions for the doctrine and direction of the congregation among its members (American Baptist Churches USA, “Autonomy and Interdependence within the American Baptist Denomination: A Declaration”).

There is a strong emphasis on checks and balances within the Congregational model as the pastor is normally accountable to the membership of the church, which may or may not be represented by a board of elders or deacons (McBeth). Also, church property is owned by the local congregation, as opposed to by the regional judicatory.

The major difference between Congregational rule and the other two primary forms of government occurs as organizational structure moves out beyond the local setting. Congregational churches choose to be part of any broader association by the self- governing choice of the local congregation (The Layman, “UCC Has Lost 104 Congregations”). They are not constrained by fixed financial obligations or strict ordination requirements. Any regional or national body is normally a distinct legal entity from one another and from the local church. Voluntary interdependence is a key term that would describe the relationship between various churches and denominational bodies in the Congregationalist form of government. Others refer to this as the “Free-Church” tradition (Ammerman).

The strength of Congregationalism lies in its spirit of volunteerism, which assures that people and churches are bought into the denomination at the level they desire. Typically, this varied buy-in would ensure that churches and their leaders would demonstrate greater passion and enthusiasm for the joint causes of the denomination that they participate in, as they have full choice in whether to engage in those causes. Recent research by Ammerman has demonstrated this to be the case.

Pastors and church leaders also recognize that they have the possibility of influencing the denomination because of the more democratic form of government, and thus usually attend annual meetings to a far greater degree than those in the other systems. From the side of the denominational body, the Congregational approach puts the onus back on the agency to ensure that they are fulfilling their intended role in aiding the mission of the local church or the collective mission of the collective churches. In other forms of government, the denomination does not have this level of accountability. By and large, the strengths of the Congregational approach occur primarily at the trans-local level.

However, Congregationalist church government is not without clear weaknesses. Perhaps the foremost weakness is that power can often remain in the hands of the majority who are not equipped or gifted to lead the church or denomination. Obviously, an elder board, presbytery, or bishop could also supplant the mission of the church in other models, but in the congregational model the democratic nature of governance stifles the exercise of the biblical gift of leadership (Driscoll).

Also, from a trans-local perspective, Congregationalist denominations can have a great amount of theological diversity. The Southern Baptist Convention of the 1970s, and the current United Church of Christ and American Baptist Church, are indicators of this reality. The voluntary ties can easily lead to denominational divisions, as have occurred regularly throughout Baptist history.


Clearly, the historic denominations of the western world, regardless of governance or theological belief, are going through tremendous transition and loss. This shows clearly that issues facing most churches and systems in the west are not simply the product of one or two poorly mismanaged or inept organizations. While there are most certainly a host of contributing factors to the decline of church associations, the internal structures of these organizations are a significant contributing factor to the viability of the organization in the future and their inability to grow during this time of transition.

However, environmental and contextual reality also plays a significant role in the situation facing most denominations. As a matter of fact, it is these contextual factors that have made the denominational structures that worked during modernity impractical or obsolete. A look at the specific sub-factors that have effected denominations within the wider socio-cultural milieu will help to clarify the extent of these transitions and provide beginning contours for the appropriately needed changes.


Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *