You're not trying to solve a problem here, just manage the differences. (Photo by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash)

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.

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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.
  4. 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 a.m. so the next service can start at 11 a.m. And it's 10:50 a.m.


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.

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

The larger 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 side (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.

  1. 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 a.m. and stay till 5 p.m. 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 guide principles that extend beyond the immediate physical proximity and scope of the leader.

  1. Make sure the systems serve you, as opposed to you serving the systems. Structure is vitally important. We see the value in such things as staff and salary structure, multisite 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.

  1. 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. It never yells or demands.

  1. 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 and 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%), and 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 four practices will help you lead through the tension and reduce the tension between system and Spirit.

Dan Reiland is the executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY.

For the original article, visit danreiland.com.

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