Navigating The Tension Between System and Spirit

The church is a unique combination of the natural and supernatural.

  • The natural brings systems and structures.
  • The supernatural brings the Spirit of God. 

When the two are balanced, the church can operate at its best.

  • All structure with no spirit can result in a lifeless organization.
  • All spirit with no structure can result in chaotic inspiration.

The goal is to bring the two together for spirit-filled Kingdom progress.

All of that is easy to say but challenging to live.

There is understandable tension wherever system and Spirit are expected to live in tandem. When we combine natural and supernatural, we invite the unexpected.

Every church begins with a vision breathed by God and birthed by the power of His Spirit. However, the larger it gets it requires organization to move forward.

Churches and church leaders naturally resist systems and structure for three reasons:

  1. They don’t feel spiritual. (Like money doesn’t feel spiritual, but of course, it is significantly spiritual in nature.)
  2. They seem to contradict a relational approach.
  3. They demand a certain level of discipline that does not allow us to do whatever we want to do.

Let me offer a classic example we can easily connect with regardless of your personal church experience.

During a Sunday morning worship service, you sense the Spirit of God doing something special.

The worship is powerful, and the sermon is “extra-anointed,” so the pastor keeps on preaching, and the worship kicks back in for a few more songs. Many come forward for salvation and baptism.

The congregation walks out with their hearts filled, saying to everyone in the lobby and on social channels, “The service was powerful. It was like a modern-day book of Acts.”

This is what you pray for, right?!

Except that the service was supposed to end at 10:30 am so the next service can start at 11:00 am. And it’s 10:50 am.


Enter holy chaos.

Guests are unhappy, and volunteers are frustrated.

The parking lot can’t empty because new people are trying to get in. The volunteers in the children’s ministry are so ready to be done, but they can’t leave, and their families are getting frustrated because they made plans for lunch!

People who did get in the parking lot are trying to check their kids in, but the kids in the previous service haven’t been checked out yet, so they can’t. The lobby is filling because they haven’t opened the doors to let the first group out yet.

Perhaps this story isn’t yours, but I’m sure you can substitute your story to fit. The leaders are emphatic that “somebody” needs to fix this because it’s the third time in five weeks.

Let’s take a very different situation.

The church board needs to make a major decision, but church policy and governance are blocking the heart and discernment of the board. 

1/3 of the board is justifiably adamant about the rules, by-laws, and constitution. 1/3 third of the board is passionate about the heartfelt decision they believe is led by the Spirit. The final 1/3 third of the board remains silent because of the tension.

The larger the organization, the church, the greater the difficulty in integrating the freedom of the spirit and the structure of systems.

The marriage of system and spirit is a tension to manage, not a problem to solve.

Problems must be solved, and tensions can’t be solved.

If you achieve a “pseudo solve” to real tension, you have unintentionally tamed or neutralized an essential part of your culture. 

Two examples of a pseudo solve:

1) Dumb down one (or both sides) of the tension to relieve pressure.

Compromise is rarely a good option when attempting to make progress for the mission of the church. The alignment of the team to the strongest position is best.

The senior pastor and the board talked about shortening the length of their service to gain more time to make parking easier.  

Even though the tensions were genuine from the parking lot to the children’s ministry with the short turnaround time, if they changed the length of the service, they would have probably lost a big chunk of who they are in terms of culture.

After much prayer and discussion, they decided not to shorten the service time and chose to manage the tension instead.

2) Sacrifice a priority to solve a frustration.

The spirit of good church staff is trust, freedom, and empowerment.

It can be frustrating to some staff managers wondering where their staff is in the morning, or any time for that matter.

It might seem like a policy (a structure) to have everyone in the office at 8:00 am and stay till 5:00 pm would solve the problem. It might be easier, but trust is challenged, freedom is lessened, and empowerment is reduced.

Not everyone works in the same rhythms, and their jobs require different hours. Trust your team and measure by outcomes, not hours.

The reality is that most staff work hard. Identify who it is you think is not working hard and have a personal conversation with them.  Don’t make a policy.

So how do we navigate the clash or tension of Spirit and Structure?

4 Practices to Help Integrate Spirit and System:

1) Design systems and structures you actually need.

Systems must always serve a measurable purpose aligned with your vision.  Your vision is God-breathed, so operations that serve you give the Holy Spirit room to guide you.

They need to noticeably help you make progress. Systems were never designed to replace the lack of leadership, only to help to guide principles extend beyond the immediate physical proximity and scope of the leader.

2) Make sure the systems serve you and not you serve the systems.

Structure is vitally important. We see the value in such things as staff and salary structure, multi-site campus structure, and various policies.

But don’t create a culture that requires legalistic bondage to your structure. Exercise freedom for decisions that serve and advance the mission. Pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

So how do you determine the difference between freedom and chaos? Good question.

First, the exceptions should be very few and far between. That alone will cover 80% of the potential abuses. Second, always require agreement among multiple leaders.

3) Be careful not to use the “Spirit” trump card to get what you want.

Ultimately, the church is a supernatural institution. The Spirit must prevail, but that doesn’t mean that playing the “God card” should be used for anyone to get their way.

If humility and unity are both in place, playing the “God said,” trump card rarely happens.

Remember, the Holy Spirit whispers. He never yells or demands.

4) The systems and structures must glorify God and advance His Kingdom.

Let’s use a financial example since money alone frequently causes tension.

Good financial structures allow you to exercise limits, boundaries, and practice generosity with your financial resources.

Here’s a sample. It would be common for churches to limit personnel expenses to less than 50%. (Very large churches no more than 40%) 10% is often given to outreach. And perhaps 5% held for margin.

In this way, a structure or system brings honor to God and advances His mission.

These 4 practices will help you lead through the tension and reduce the tension between System and Spirit.

8 thoughts on “Navigating The Tension Between System and Spirit”

  1. i serve on a pastor search committee. we are down to two applicant of GREAT character. One is already on staff & the other is from far off but appears to be more dynamic in his delivery of the word. we as a church have been through a great struggle that though the staff member wasn’t here he knows the situation & has and has a vision how to move forward in the furtherance of our work towards the kingdom. is there any biblical insight or a word you might have to help guide me towards a decision?

    1. Marilyn,
      I’m hesitant to offer any specific guidance because I know so little about your situation. But I can offer you basic process thoughts that may help.
      1. Don’t rush. If you are not sure, slow down till you get the mind of God and agreement on your team.
      2. Spend more time with the candidates. Get to know them in real life settings. (The one on staff has an advantage, but you may need more time with the other.)
      3. Ask the question, what does your church need the most right now. Assuming character and chemistry, what competency is most needed for your church to move forward?
      4. Have you flown to the church to see the candidate from the outside in his own setting? That is often very insightful.

  2. Joseph Steeves


    This is a good and balanced perspective on how we as Christian leaders need to depend on the Holy Spirit. I would like to use this as a devotional with my church council tonight is that alright with you??

  3. Brad Farnsworth

    I began ministry as a children’s pastor. I often said, “When the Spirit is moving in the adult service the Spirit left the children’s ministry 10 minutes ago.” Children’s ministry relies on a consistent start and end time and kids know when it’s going long and they will let you know. Now that I’m a lead pastor I keep this in mind at all times.

  4. Acts 6 – the feeding of the widows is a great example of a system that solved a problem. Systems aren’t the enemy.

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