Orbiting the UMC hairball

Original Publication April 12, 2010

Dear Friends,

How do you solve a problem like Maria? In Rogers and Hammerstein’s show tune from the 1959 musical, The Sound of Music, the nuns in the abbey are befuddled by Maria’s flighty ways.  

She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee; her dress has got a tear.
She waltzes on her way to Mass; and whistles on the stair.
And underneath her wimple she has curlers in her hair.
I even heard her singing in the abbey.

How, indeed, do you solve the problem of people who don’t fit the mold of a United Methodist clergyperson, like Rev. Joe, Pastor Amy, or Preacher Samantha? In the past, The United Methodist Church has been good at producing clergy who know how to “manage the system.” They often pass through the Board of Ordained Ministry with flying colors rather than red flags. And they don’t cause any headaches for district superintendents, who don’t have to worry that the fragile stability of “the system” will be disturbed.

What we don’t know what to do with are our clergy and lay persons who think outside the box, are entrepreneurial and are visionary leaders. We often seem to come up with objections to their crazy ideas and unorthodox approaches to ministry. This won’t possibly work, that will cost too much money, and the other thing will step on another committee’s toes. The pushback from those who want to maintain things as they are sometimes so discouraging that leaders with vision just give up after a while.  

The whispered truth has been that The United Methodist Church suppresses creativity and genius in favor of the status quo. We want to tame entrepreneurs because we don’t know what to make of them. When they do wildly successful ministry, we remain suspicious of anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the “image” of a United Methodist. Even when such leaders bear luscious fruit, we’re still threatened because the fruit looks more like oranges than typical West Michigan United Methodist apples.  

The problem with The United Methodist Church is that this way of thinking has not worked for the last fifty-plus years! Business as usual is no longer acceptable. Not only has it produced a fast-declining denomination, but we are losing some of our brightest and best leaders whose ministries are unconventional and who are not given the freedom to witness to the gospel in new and innovative ways. 

When you tire of being part of a stuck system, I invite you to read Gordon MacKenzie’s book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball; A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. The book has been around since 1996, but it is every bit as pertinent today as it was twenty years ago. MacKenzie worked at Hallmark Cards for thirty years and was responsible for encouraging company leadership to embrace creativity, innovation, and daring within a bureaucratic environment.   

MacKenzie likens the accepted norm or corporate culture of an organization to a giant hairball. The laws of physics tell us that as a mass increases so does the gravitational pull of that body. Layer upon layer is added to the hairball as every new idea gets sucked into the tangle of this mass of “Corporate Normalcy.” The result is a sameness, flatness, and safeness that leads to stagnation.  

The key to visionary leadership is to orbit this giant hairball – to keep our balance, uniqueness, and authenticity and remain self-differentiated from the system.MacKenzie writes, “Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond ‘accepted models, patterns, or standards’ – all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.” 

It could be said that The United Methodist Church has had the world’s longest-lasting bad hair day. In reality, our giant hairball of a denomination gives us an excellent framework for ministry, but it should not determine our every move or stifle our imagination. At the same time, in connecting with the district, conference, and denomination, our local church pastors and lay leaders must not lose connection with their own spirits and hearts. I am convinced that each local church and pastor can contribute something unique and transformative to The United Methodist Church that is true to themselves and is congruent with who God created them to be.

  • So, how do we solve a problem like Rev. Joe, Pastor Amy, or Preacher Samantha?  
  • How do we encourage churches like On the Edge UMC, Enlarge Your Borders UMC, or Change is Good UMC to resist the pull of gravity?  
  • How can we challenge our congregations to courageously explore new lands and faithfully discern where God is calling them?
  • How can leaders with the gift of creating daring visions work in concert with leaders with great management skills in order to bring dreams to reality?  

Guidelines for Successfully Orbiting the Giant UMC Hairball 

  1. Don’t be afraid to dream big, dream crazy, and dream bold.
  2. Visionary leaders don’t wait for the system to rouse itself out of its stupor but go on ahead and invite others to come alongside.
  3. Clearly define the vision, why it is important to the life of your church, and how it fits into your unique mission. Remember, every church has its own orbit.  
  4. Create buy-in from others. A solitary vision will go nowhere. Visionary leaders have the charisma and communication skills to persuade others to join them.
  5. Issue an invitation for others to become champions of the vision. As a leader, you cannot do all the work, but you must identify others who have the skills to promote and carry out the vision. Finding a few key champions will make all the difference.
  6. Form a team to work on the vision. Teams consisting of both idea people who are comfortable with chaos and those who are great with procedures and details dance and improvise well together.
  7. Visions are meaningless unless there is follow-through. How many great ideas in history withered on the vine because no one created a strategic plan with defined goals, objectives, benchmarks, and timetable to accomplish the vision?
  8. Create momentum through constant communication, pep talks, and an openness to feedback and new ideas.
  9. Be flexible and willing to tweak the orbit and adapt the vision as circumstances change. 
  10. The key to changing local church and conference culture away from maintenance, survival, and turf-protecting is to intentionally nurture key lay persons and clergy who have the potential to lead the way in bold, risky, courageous ministry. 
  11. Constantly evaluate.  
  12. Everything that we do must be undergirded with prayer and discernment. We must continually ask the question, “How is God speaking to us right now?”

Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

It’s a lot easier to hold a moonbeam in your hand if you are in orbit.

Blessings, Laurie

P.S. The UMC hairball does not get any easier to manage twelve years later!

“Take your elbows off the table, Laurie Haller?”

(Originally posted 3/10/2008)

Take your elbows off the table, Laurie Haller,
Take your elbows off the table, Laurie Haller,
We’ve seen you do it twice, and you know isn’t nice.
Take your elbows off the table, Laurie Haller.

Do you remember that crazy old song from church camp as a kid?  It came back to me last week because of my newly acquired interest in elbows.  On Wednesday, while jogging early in the morning before a cabinet meeting in Okemos, I slipped on the ice and landed directly on my left elbow.  After 30 years of injury-free running, I guess I was due for a bad fall, so it didn’t really surprise me.  What did surprise me was that I needed a metal plate and 5 screws to put my elbow back together.  Although one person wrote, “Are you sure you didn’t really elbow the bishop or another cabinet member trying to get someone appointed to YOUR district?” I really am telling the truth!

So I now have a love-hate relationship with my elbow.  When googling the word “elbow” to determine the severity of my injury, the first thing that popped up was “Elbow; official site with news, pictures, audio and video clips, releases, gigs, biography, lyrics and merchandise.”  Wow! I thought.  I didn’t know elbows were so popular.  Then I discovered it was a web site for a rock band from England.

I stumbled across Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolates, with stores in Kansas City and San Francisco, “where the art of chocolate is expressed in a single, beautiful, decadent piece that’s hand-created one at a time.”  Fasting before surgery, I quickly passed over that site before temptation set in.

I also read numerous etiquette sites, which offered reasons for the elbow prohibition on the table:

  • Elbows on the table invade your neighbor’s personal space.
  • Elbows on the table can squeeze the stomach, which is bad for digestion.
  • The more body parts there are on a table, the less hygienic it is.
  • It is okay to rest your forearms on the table because slightly leaning forward indicates interest in your neighbor’s conversation (always good advice for pastors).

My adventure into the world of elbows has taught me a few lessons that have been around for centuries but often slip our minds when things are going well.  My primary learning is that God’s angels are all around us when we need them and if we humble ourselves to accept their help.

  • Joe was plowing the parking lot of an elementary school when I fell.  Seeing that I was in trouble, he asked if he could help, then drove me back to my hotel.
  • My brothers on the cabinet were right there to assist, and Bill Dobbs spent the morning with me in the emergency room at Sparrow Hospital. 
  • The tech taking the x-ray was as gentle as possible, and when she said, “Well, you really did a number on your elbow,” I had a reality check.
  • Linda Heisler spent the afternoon with me and had the unfortunate task of being present when the doctor contorted my arm at an excruciating angle for what seemed like hours while fashioning a temporary cast.  I hope I didn’t break Linda’s hand by squeezing it so hard.
  • It just so happened that Neal Niswonger, chair of the PPRC at Grand Rapids First UMC, was at Sparrow Hospital on business that day.  When he read Gary’s email on his PDA, Neal stayed until I was discharged, then carefully drove me home.  There are no coincidences.
  • Bishop Keaton demonstrated in a powerful way why he is the chief shepherd of our Michigan United Methodist flock by driving to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids to pray with me before surgery on Friday.
  • My husband, Gary, is an outstanding caregiver and even stayed overnight in the hospital when it became apparent that I was too sick to go home. 
  • My last nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital was so selflessly compassionate that when I told her, “I will never forget your kindness,” she said, “Really?  We nurses don’t hear that very often.”
  • Parish nurse Marj Timmerman helped me through some very tough post-operative difficulties.
  • Angels too numerous to mention have sent cards, emails and food.

Here’s what else I learned.

  • Life can change for any one of us in an instant.  What does not change is the evidence of God’s love all around if we have but eyes to see it.
  • It’s so important for congregations to have intentional systems of care in place so that others can have the same level of support that I’ve had.
  • Millions of people the world over experienced trauma and woundedness the same day I did.  I yearn for the day when every person has access to affordable, excellent health care. 

As we approach Holy Week, my broken body will feel the pain of the broken body of Christ in a new way.  Yet the pain of the body broken is far surpassed by the love of the body knit together in Christ.  Out of brokenness come wholeness, healing and new life.

Oh, the most important thing I’ve learned from this experience is that there is only one reference to the elbow in the Bible, and it’s only found in the New American Standard translation of Job 31:16-22.

If I have kept the poor from their desire, Or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
Or have eaten my morsel alone, And the orphan has not shared it,
But from my youth he grew up with me as with a father, And from infancy I guided her,
If I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, Or that the needy had no covering,
If his loins have not thanked me, And if he has not been warmed with the fleece of my sheep,
If I have lifted up my hand against the orphan, Because I saw I had support in the gate,
Let my shoulder fall from the socket, And my arm be broken off at the elbow.

May that be a lesson to us all.

Blessings, Laurie

Welcome to My World

Dear Friends,

My heart is full. As most of you know, I have been on Medical Leave since April 1, 2022, recovering from a shattered wrist and concussion. I am beginning to participate in meetings and will formally return to active ministry on October 1. At the end of 2022, I plan to retire. In the meantime, I hope to remain as connected as possible to the congregations and ministries of the Iowa Annual Conference. One way in which I can do that is by resuming my weekly blog.

Because of the intensity of our work as a Cabinet and mindful of my health, I have decided not to write any new blogs. Rather, from now until the end of the year, I will share with you some of my favorite blogs from the past seventeen years. Today’s blog is called Welcome to My World and was published on July 25, 2006, a few weeks after I began my ministry as a District Superintendent in Michigan.  


July 25, 2006

Dear Friends,

Last week, for the first time in 25 years of ministry, I went to the health club on Sunday morning! I am now officially out of my normal Sunday routine. For years I got up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. on Sunday and went out for a run before the first worship service at 8:30 a.m.   

I am not responsible for a specific church anymore. Now the Grand Rapids District Michigan) is my parish! I have made a commitment to visit each church on the district for Sunday worship. It’s going to take me a few years, but my first three Sundays have been wonderful. What a privilege it is to experience different forms of worship and be welcomed by United Methodists in cities, suburbs, small towns, villages, large churches, small churches, traditional churches, contemporary churches, Anglo churches, and ethnic churches.

I’ve been very impressed so far by the quality of worship I’ve experienced. The preaching is inspired, parishioners are welcoming, there is a good spirit, and I have felt God’s presence. Worship planning and preaching is the lifeblood of the church, and it was always at the heart of my local church ministry. Yes, I already miss leading worship, but I am open to all of the wonderful things God will show me by visiting other United Methodist churches on Sunday morning.  

Back to the health club. A few Sundays ago, I did not need to be in church till mid-morning, so I decided to check out the club and go for a swim. I admit I felt incredible guilt. I was looking around me all the time, afraid I’d run into someone I knew. I thought to myself, “This is not right! I shouldn’t be here!” I tried to hide in the women’s locker room when I heard a familiar voice, “Hey, Laurie!”

It was Jim, who is Jewish. He broke out into a big smile and said, “I didn’t think I’d ever see you here on Sunday morning. Welcome to my world.” Actually, few people were working out that day. I don’t know if it was because it was Sunday morning or the summer or a combination of both. Of course, I hope everyone is in church, but I know better.  

There are as many unchurched people in Grand Rapids as anywhere else in the country.  You and I are called to reach people for Jesus Christ and not just stay in our sanctuaries and wait for them to come to us. At our church conferences this fall, I look forward to hearing how you are reaching out to your communities and making disciples for the transformation of the world!

Blessings, Laurie