When Stuff Happens

It was a parliamentarian’s worst nightmare. Last week, three of the five amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church were approved by an aggregate two-thirds vote of all the conferences in our global church. However, the first two amendments, which related to the rights of women, girls, and various other groups, were narrowly defeated.

Many United Methodists were both surprised and disappointed in the vote and wondered what happened. Then, last Friday, it was announced by the Secretary of the General Conference that an error in the wording of constitutional amendment #1 had been discovered. A new ballot is being prepared for distribution to all the annual conferences to consider at their next meeting.

I’m glad that the error was discovered but am not too concerned because stuff happens. Yes, this was a whopper. But the human condition is that sometimes we make mistakes. And when we do, we hope that we can learn from our mistakes, make amends, be the recipient of grace, and move on. The funny thing is, I learned about the amendment mistake just as I was beginning to write about another mistake.

The text message came at 2:39 p.m. a week ago Friday. “American Airlines. We’re sorry, but one of your two checked bags will arrive on a later flight in Des Moines. Set up free delivery at aa.com/delaybag/V5QU1CW”.

At least my suitcase disappeared on the way home from the Council of Bishops meeting in Chicago rather than on the way to the meeting. Nevertheless, it was annoying. After all, I was on a direct flight from Chicago to Des Moines. What could possibly go wrong?? Well … plenty!

After vainly checking to make sure that my bag was not on the carousel, Gary and I went to the baggage claim counter at the Des Moines airport to confirm the plan. I had already checked out the “delay bag” website and signed up on www.wheresmysuitcase.com to receive free delivery.

The young woman at the counter said, “Unfortunately, your bag was rerouted to Manhattan, Kansas.” I remembered Dorothy, who said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”Please, purple suitcase, don’t let them take you to Kansas!

“The good news,” she said, “is that someone detected the error and removed your bag from the plane before it actually took off. The bad news is that we couldn’t get the bag back to Gate G-8 in Chicago in time for your flight. But the good news is that your bag will come on the next flight to Des Moines and will arrive at 6:30 p.m. It should be on your doorstep by 9:00 p.m.”

“Who will actually deliver my bag?” I asked. “Oh, we contract with a delivery service. There’s nothing to worry about, and it’s free!” In hindsight, we should have driven a half hour home and then returned to the airport at 6:30 p.m. to retrieve my wayward purple suitcase, but we trusted the system.

At 8:33 pm., I received two identical texts from wheresmysuitcase.com, one again saying that my bag had been delayed. I filled out all the information online, which indicated that my bag would arrive at the airport late in the evening. If I wanted the delivery company to bring the bag to my house by 3 a.m., we could make sure the porch lights were on and sign a waiver (which I did) so the driver would not have to ring the door bell and wake us up.

We called the phone number that was given, just to make sure everything was on the up and up. I like my purple suitcase and wanted some assurance that it would not be lost forever in conveyor belt heaven. Plus, I had a lot of material from the Council of Bishops meeting in my suitcase that I needed ASAP. The rep said the suitcase would arrive at our doorstep at 4:30 a.m. “Now I lay me down to sleep…”

I woke at 6 a.m. and opened the front door. The outside light was still on, but no suitcase. Gary got through to a customer service agent for American Airlines after being on hold for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, I received one email, saying that the bag was delivered at 11:55 p.m., and another saying, “Case closed.” Hmmm. The person who finally answered was very pleasant, but when Gary asked why my suitcase hadn’t arrived yet, he said, “We don’t deliver bags during the night.”

“But my wife received three emails, one saying the bag would arrive at 4:30 a.m., and another that it would arrive at 3 a.m., and another to say it had been delivered at 11:55 p.m. What’s up with that?”

“I don’t know, but we don’t deliver bags at night.”

“You mean, it was fake news?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“Don’t you coordinate with the airlines, wheresmysuitcase.com, and the delivery company? Why did we consent online to have the bags delivered overnight when they were not even going to be delivered? And why did we get an email saying the case was closed?”

“All I know is that bags are never delivered at night. Our records show that bag will be at your house at 9:30 a.m.”

“How can I contact the delivery company to make sure the suitcase is really on the way?” “I’m sorry, but there is no one you can contact. The emails are automatically generated.”

Clearly, it’s a deeply flawed system. Sigh. I go out for an early morning bike ride and when I return, there is my purple suitcase, delivered at 10:16 a.m. by Joseph, the driver, safe and undamaged. Gary said, “It’s good I was here. Joseph was driving a car that looked like it was in an accident, with a gaping hole where the right headlight had been. When he came to the door, he gave me a beat-up black suitcase. I said, ‘That’s not my wife’s suitcase.’ He replied, ‘Oh, it isn’t?’”

Evidently, Joseph went back to his car and had to open the front door on the passenger side from the inside because it was too banged up. My purple suitcase was on the front seat. Twenty-two hours after parting with my bag in Chicago, we were reunited. Case closed.

My experience with both the bag and amendment #1 reminds me a lot of the local church. As leaders, we all mean well, but sometimes stuff happens. When we don’t have our act together, it can really irritate others. I’ve heard hundreds of complaints about the church over many years, some of which are amusing, others of which are sad, and still others that cause me to roll my eyes in amazement. And for the sake of full disclosure: I have accepted responsibility for all of the following mistakes at one time or another.

  • Why didn’t you visit Aunt Mabel when you knew she was very ill?
  • Why wasn’t my financial statement correct? It’s missing a huge contribution.
  • Why didn’t you let Johnny go on the middle school field trip? He’s almost old enough.
  • Why are there no safe sanctuary procedures for children?
  • Why did you let the announcements run on for 15 minutes this morning?
  • Why did a stranger sit in my pew today?
  • Why are major decisions made by a few “influential people” and not by the Administrative Council?
  • Why did you let Rachel and Judy get into an argument about who’s in charge of the mission fair without intervening?
  • Why weren’t you in your office when I dropped by yesterday?
  • Why didn’t anyone call me back when I signed up to help at the Wednesday dinner?

Our reality in the church is that when stuff happens, we too often minimize the issue, avoid taking responsibility, or make excuses. Whether it’s constitutional amendments, runaway suitcases, or church goof-ups, the questions for leaders are always the same when stuff happens.

  • What actually took place and how will we admit responsibility?

As leaders, there is no substitute for honesty and transparency about our mistakes, even if we personally did not make the mistake. In my experience, church folks are usually very gracious and tolerant if we admit our gaffes and apologize. When we refuse to admit failure, we project an image of ourselves and the church as incompetent, unresponsive, and uncaring.

  • Where and how did the failure take place in the system?

When stuff happens, it’s critical to humble ourselves and take the time to thoroughly investigate the problem. Hoping it will just go away never works. Carefully and prayerfully examining processes and procedures against our mission, vision, and values is critical. Other common problems include sloppy systems of accountability and lack of clear and frequent communication.

  • What commitment will we make to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

The key to healthy organizations is having the will to change, taking the time to create better processes and procedures, and continually evaluating and communicating our progress.

I have more confidence that The United Methodist Church will “fix” the constitutional amendment issue than American Airlines will “fix” their lost baggage delivery system. But I do know this. The greatest secret to a healthy response when stuff happens is creating transparency, always showing grace, and continually going on to perfection. But I still wonder. Where did my purple suitcase actually go?

9 thoughts on “When Stuff Happens

  1. this was great! Really got me thinking. I could picture you walking up anddown the church isle. Sure do miss you!

  2. We had a very difficult experience. From Chicago to Detroit the case was missing for 6 weeks. Are claim for $1,200 was filed and paid for. We received a call that day telling us that our case would be delivered the next day. It was and we not only got our stuff back minus a. valuable bottle of wine and got paid for the trouble. Frank & Diana

  3. AWESOME! post so down to earth. Loved the “fake news” comment..humor in the midst so good for the soul. Prayers to you & family as you serve our God.

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