At Different Church Organization Types, Who’s in Charge?

Knowing not only the type of leadership structure each of the different church organization types has, but also who within the congregation actually holds and wields that leadership power, is a critical element in guiding any HOW technical project from concept to completion.

In a recent webinar created for the WFX Expo audience (available online here), we discussed this, among other topics, but in a 30 minute on-line event it was impossible to explore the topic in detail.

Therefore, it would seem to be useful look at this issue in a bit more detail with the goal of helping both HOW organizations and those seeking to do business with them to understand each other and find common ground.

Based on extensive research conducted by the Hartford Institute and others including the 2012 national congregation census, the church organization types (for the most common denominations found in North America) can be designated as follows:

Common Church Organization Types

Type Examples Overall Leadership Structure Local Leadership Structure
Episcopal Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Orthodox, LDS, Methodist Regional and national hierarchy; often rigid Bishops, priests, pastors
Presbyterian Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran Regional and national hierarchy; less rigid Board of elders with pastors/ministers
Congregational Baptist, United Church of Christ Primarily local; some unifying organizations Members with pastors/ministers
Other Non-Denominational, Lutheran Primarily local Board of elders with pastors/ministers

Based on the same database the top denominations by membership breaks down as follows:

Table with membership numbers of different church organization types

There are many other church organization types (and subgroups) within the HOW community and it is vital that you research their structure and leadership styles BEFORE attempting to provide services or systems to the organizations.

Understanding not only how they “govern” the congregation, but what significant outside influences might impact their decision-making process, is essential to developing a solid and viable relationship, both initially and long term.

For example, if you are working with or plan to work with a Catholic church, it’s important to understand that while the local “committee” may indeed be the obvious point of contact, based on their typical structure, it is also highly likely that there is a substantial amount of input and influence from both a regional and potentially a national hierarchy as well. Not considering this up front is likely to produce, at best, a non-decision and, at worst, a rejection of your proposal.

Understating the probable external influence(ers), and including their needs and specific requirements within any proposal is not only a good idea from a business standpoint, but it also demonstrates your commitment to recognizing their unique and specific rules and concepts which impact that particular HOW’s decision tree.

Our essential rule for this process is really quite simple: Church organization types are highly diverse. Treat each church as a unique entity and you will almost always have a better chance of success.

While there are very likely to be common application requirements, options will be necessary for any HOW within a group or denomination. Being 125% sure that you understand the details for that particular congregation’s needs, capabilities and abilities is something you must invest the time in and commit to.

There is never one answer even within the same denomination or structural style. Each HOW we have ever worked with had its own “flavor” and fine-tuning your approach based on knowledge and understanding is the only way to insure you are both delivering the right solution and presenting it to the right people.

I can hear the hue and cry now! How can we possibly understand all the nuances and details of any HOW?

It will require you to commit the time and resources to learning the skill set needed to ask the right questions and determine who to ask.

Perhaps the single most important skill needed is the ability to ask questions and vet and weigh the answers so that the resulting proposal or design is matched to the specifics of that HOW and that they realize you have made the effort to “customize” your solution to meet their individual needs.

If you expect to sell or provide services and solutions to any client base you need to understand that base’s ground rules and more importantly their real decision-making process.

The only way to ensure that this occurs is to collect, analyze and validate the details for each HOW project so that the congregation feels that it is getting a solid, thoughtful and well researched solution to their needs, not just a pile of technology and cables.