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!

6 thoughts on “Orbiting the UMC hairball

  1. Having moved away from Birmingham MI to Savannah Ga, I now belong to the Skidaway Island United Methodist Church. We are deeply involved in discussions about disaffiliation and think our church will leave the Methodist “umbrella” and go independent. Although I understand some of the reasoning, I am saddened that I will lose the Methodist Church that I love. I appreciate your article, but are you advocating leaving the Methodist denomination at this time? I still belong to the Birmingham church as well as the church here. (I support both). I attended the MI. church and remember you fondly. I would appreciate your opinion. Thanks,

    • Dear Kay.
      Thank you so much for your response to my blog. I am not advocating leaving The United Methodist Church. The UMC has been my spiritual home for many years and will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ and transform the world. We have so much to offer the world, and I am grateful that you still belong to the Birmingham church and the church in Savannah. God bless you.

  2. I love this. Even more because it was fist published so many years ago. As I read it I heard echoes from the last several years, statements and references to scripture that would as easily have supported THIS short article, but were instead made to move new policies in our own conference forward. It was thoughtfully written and then polished to become what we have been trying to do in the last several years. With so much left to do, I hope we can sustain this effort.

  3. Thanks, Laurie, for speaking out boldly! I believe that you have articulated well the difficulties we are struggling with, and you have described actions that can be taken to move ahead wisely and with purpose! May God grant us grace and courage for moving ahead together with collective wisdom and right action!

    Peace and Joy,

  4. So many “right on” concepts here. In my past ministry lives I have, at times, felt threatened by those whose leadership bears luscious fruit because the fruit is of a different kind than what I think we want. May God save us from our desire for sameness seen as security.

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