Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation without Disconnection (part 1 of 3)

Here’s a tension I live with: I’m passionate about innovation in youth ministry, but—if I’m really honest—I’m not a true entrepreneur.

I want to stir up change. I love hearing about bold and risky youth workers who are experimenting. I often scramble up on my little soapbox and rant about this or that perspective or approach that needs to be dismantled. Heck, I even started a fledgling organization called The Youth Cartel (not a safe name, to be sure), with the tagline: Instigating a Revolution in Youth Ministry.

But I also have all these internal and external forces—fear, complacency, expediency—that pull me back to the way it’s always been done. I’ll speak to a group of youth workers on a weekend about the need for change, write a ranty blog post on Monday, encourage a youth worker in my Youth Ministry Coaching Program to take a huge risk on Tuesday, then fall back into what’s easiest with my middle school small group on Wednesday night.

At times, I think I’m just a wannabe innovator.

orbitingMaybe that’s why I find such great encouragement in one of the strangest and most wonderful little books I’ve ever read, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by the late Gordon MacKenzie. MacKenzie tells weird stories and gleans principles from his decades-long working life at Hallmark, the bastion of greeting cards. The author constantly struggled with the bureaucracy, red tape, naysayers, and compliance-demanding systems of his workplace. But, through a bit of luck and a big dose of creativity, he shaped himself into a sort of corporate shaman with the absurdist job title: Creative Paradox (really, that was his job title).

There are dozens of gems in the book; but my primary, ongoing takeaway (I’ve read it about five times) is in the metaphor of the title. While the world needs eccentric and whatever-the-cost entrepreneurs (the world of youth ministry surely needs these people), most of us live our vocational lives in organizations, with hairballs that exert significant gravitational pull. If we want to have an impact on the organization (in our case, our churches), we have to avoid two extremes: we have to find ways to protect ourselves from getting sucked into the hairball while not shooting off into our own trajectory. We have to orbit, staying in the gravitational pull of the hairball without succumbing to it.

A true youth ministry entrepreneur would say, “I’m going to do this a new way, no matter what happens: whether I keep my job or lose it; whether I impact the church or have to do this outside the church.” We need those people; but I’m realizing that’s not me. I’m called to the orbit. And I think most church-based youth workers–shoot, really, anyone who isn’t self-employed!–is called to the orbit.

coming up in the next two posts…
in part 2: Forces that Corrode Innovation
in part 3: Two Essential Thrusters for Sustaining Orbit

2 thoughts on “Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation without Disconnection (part 1 of 3)”

Leave a Reply