Orbiting the UMC Hairball

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 Max?  TheUnitedMethodistChurch 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 clergy and lay persons who think outside the box, are entrepreneurial, and are visionary leaders.  We always 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 becomes so discouraging that leaders with vision just give up after a while.

The whispered truth is 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 40 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 ministry is 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 is every bit as pertinent today as it was 14 years ago.  MacKenzie worked at Hallmark Cards for 30 years and was responsible for encouraging Hallmark 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 which leads to stagnation.

The key to visionary leadership is to orbit this giant hairball – to keep our balance, uniqueness, 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 Max?
  • 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 encourage churches 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 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. Visions are formed by those who think about what could be, not what is.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 to accomplish the vision.
  9. The strategic plan must have defined goals and objectives with benchmarks along the way.  This is every bit as important as the vision itself.
  10. Have a specific timetable for accomplishing various parts of the vision.  Break it up into smaller parts.
  11. Create momentum through constant communication, pep talks, and an openness to feedback and new ideas.
  12. Be flexible and willing to tweak the orbit and adapt the vision as circumstances change.  This is critical.
  13. 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.  At the same time, it is relatively rare to find visionary leaders who are also able to persuade others to come alongside, formulate strategic goals, and also stay the course as a vision becomes reality.  Vision-casting is always best done with teams of people who have different gifts to contribute to the process.
  14. Constantly evaluate.
  15. 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. I’d love to hear your ideas about how to creatively orbit the UMC hairball.

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