Tag Archives: orbiting the giant hairball

what the church needs: loyal radicals

loyal radicalssome time ago, a friend send me a link to this online article, written by bob hopkins, about the sort of people who are able to foment change in the large, change-resistant world of british anglicanism. he calls these people “loyal radicals.”

i thought the insights were absolutely brilliant, and have SO much application for the coaching work i do with youth workers, who are all too often (understandably) frustrated with the change-resistance of their churches.

my slightly edited version of hopkins’ definition of a loyal radical:

Loyal Radicals are grass roots leaders who are passionate about mission and change, but are totally committed to the church [or organization] they belong to and are working for change from within.

here are the traits of loyal radicals he draws out:

  • Love the church (or organization) they are a part of, even though they are passionate for change (and often frustrated by institutional resistance to change).
  • Love of the church (or organization) is fueled by faith that God is able to bring about change, even when it seems impossible or unlikely. It’s a positive, hopeful perspective, built more on a theological perspective than on optimism.
  • An attitude of expectancy.
  • A strategy of pressing forward with confidence that there is a way forward, a way around the obstacles. They “look for the slightest crack in the door, sticking your foot firmly in it and keep pressing it there as long as it takes to ease the door open.” They find and leverage “healthy creative pressure points.”
  • Their strategy is one of “benevolent subversion.”
  • They gather and disseminate stories of pioneering success.
  • They network with other Loyal Radicals for learning and encouragement.
  • They have a ton of patience.

in my coaching program (YMCP), one of the assigned readings is a quirky little book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball. it’s a former Hallmark Cards creative’s thoughts about how to remain creative while involved in an organization with tendencies to draw you into the hairball of its bureaucracies. but, really, it’s about being a loyal radical (though the author never uses that term). there’s great dove-tailing, certainly, between the book and the ideas above.

over and over again i chat with youth worker (or other ministry leaders) who would love to see change in the organization they are a part of; but they’re often not willing or interested in the “loyal” half — they just want to be the radical. problem is: that almost never works. radicals can influence change, to be sure. but radicals influence change from outside the organization, exercising a prophetic voice. if that’s you, go with it (just be ready for a diet of locusts and honey). but if you really want to see change in a church or organization that you love even while it frustrates the heck out of you, then spend some time reflecting on this idea of a loyal radical, and how you can more fully embody the traits listed above.

Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation without Disconnection (part 2 of 3)

(part 1 of this series explored the need for most of us, despite the desire to be innovators, to stay connected to our organizations via the gravitational pull of orbiting.)

corrosionForces that Corrode Innovation
Even in the orbit, I have to be intentional about resisting the hairball’s pull. I’ve noticed a handful of things I have to be particularly cautious about.

The Love of New
I have a short attention span, and am constantly drawn to the next new thing (whether it’s a youth ministry idea or a smart phone). Whatever good or broken thing in me drives this has to be stabled from time to time.

New for the sake of new causes all kinds of problems. When I live this way, and think this way, I hurt people. I get more interested in the new thing than in people. I both reflect and add to our cultural obsession with acquiring new things and discarding (potentially good) old things. I set myself up to miss out on the beauty of stillness and unchanging. I get ruthlessly dismissive about what was good. I have, in the name of new, tossed many an archetypal baby out with bathwater that was hurl-worthy.

My Own Insecurities
I can be a bull in a china shop, to be sure; but sometimes only because I like being perceived as the kind of guy who’s willing to be that bull.

In my desire to be innovative, my insecurities work against me in two ways:

First, my insecurities and desire for approval fuel me to innovate merely so I will be perceived as an innovator. Seriously, how lame is that? Surely, any innovation born out of that motivation will be short-lived at best, or hollow and hurtful at the worst.

On the other side of the equation, my insecurities work against me to curb innovation. The thinking that lurks in my subconscious says, “In this case, it would be easier and safer to retreat to the majority way or the old way where tried and true measures of success are more predictable.

A Desire for Security
The professionalization of youth ministry brought some undeniable changes. But, in many ways, it’s the worst thing that ever happened to youth ministry. When we are—when I am—being paid to do youth ministry, our innovation muscles are unavoidably restrained.

I find this a tension regularly in my work with The Youth Cartel. I deeply desire for us to “instigate a revolution in youth ministry.” But I also need to figure out how to pay my mortgage, and pay my daughter’s upcoming college tuition. There’s great job security in not being a boat rocker.

Fear of Being Marginalized
I’ve been confronted with my fears at a much more visceral level since I lost my job at Youth Specialties more than three and a half years ago. My fears sort of sicken me; but as I’ve identified them, they’ve played a wonderful role in my pursuit of humility.

I know I have an almost insatiable desire to live larger-than-life. The squiggly thing under the rock is my fear of being forgotten, marginalized, lacking influence. It’s a counter-productive fear, and it stunts my creativity.

You might not share this exact same fear (though I think it’s common to the majority of youth pastors). But, what I’ve so strongly found in the coaching and consulting work I do these days is that every organization and every leader carries with them fears that are more than willing to stifle creativity and innovation, truncate risk, and derail deep transformation. Being honest about your fears, when it comes to change and risk, is a critical component of maintaining orbit around the hairball.

next up, in part 3: Two Essential Thrusters for Sustaining Orbit

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

current reading list for my coaching program (and a question about a virtual cohort)

in my youth ministry coaching program cohorts, there’s a reading assignment for the first five of our six meetings (the last meeting has a TON of prep, so i don’t assign reading). i’ve modified the list a bit from the first year of YMCP to this last year. here’s my current list, and why i have participants read them (if you’re not interested in the list, skip to the bottom of this post and consider my semi-related question):

for the first meeting:
Youth Ministry 3.0, by some dude
my book is a bit dated in some ways (i wrote it about 5 years ago, after all). i keep thinking i should write a Youth Ministry 3.1: What I Wish I’d Said (though, i ended up covering quite a bit of that in A Beautiful Mess, though indirectly). however, i assign this book first because i want to have common language in the cohort for many of the issues we’ll talk about. in fact, i lead a conversation based on the content of the book for about 2 hours at each of the first two meetings (where each of the other books get about a 45 minute discussion). whatever its weaknesses at this point (and they are there), YM3.0 still provides what i believe to be an accurate description of the primary changes in youth culture over the last 60 years, and a bit of backstory to books like Sticky Faith and Almost Christian, as to how we got where we are.

for the second meeting:
Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie
when yaconelli announced that i was going to be the president of ys, old ys insider (and wittenburg door staffer) craig wilson — now known as mcnair — sent me a copy of this book. i think it’s the only book other than the bible that i’ve read four or five times, all the way through. and i wish every book i would ever read would be like this one: full of amazing stories that act as perfect metaphors for concepts and ideas. in this case, the concepts and ideas are about maintaining your creativity when you’re part of an organization with red-tape and bureaucracy and constricting systems. the metaphor of the title is brilliant in-and-of itself: don’t get caught in the hairball, but don’t shoot off on your own trajectory. maintain orbit, staying connected to the hairball, and exerting your own gravitational pull. a freakin’ brilliant and wonderfully weird book, if there ever was one.

for the third meeting:
Teen 2.0, by Robert Epstein
i don’t know that i can think of another book — any other book — that i’ve ever read that has both shaped my thinking about adolescence, parenting, and youth ministry, while regularly pissing me off or driving me nuts. and, as about 70 people in my YMCP program have slogged through this long-winded but gripping diatribe, i could count on one hand those who wished they hadn’t bothered. you’d never know it by looking at him, but epstein is a freakin’ wild man, a voice in the desert, a logician and scientist who’s still very willing to use hyperbole and exaggeration. really, i’m not sure how else to describe this book (at it’s core, btw, it’s a description of how the “false” construct of adolescence came to be present and assumed as an unshakable non-negotiable). annoying? yup. longer than it needs to be? you bet. enlightening and perspective-altering? yeah, absolutely.

for the fourth meeting:
either Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard, or Delivering Happiness (not the comic book version, by the way!), by Tony Hsieh
one of the central themes of my coaching program is the importance of values. i’ve blogged about this a bunch (here’s an example of that), so i won’t harp on it here. but we work on and talk about values quite a bit in YMCP. after the meeting where each partipant spends time crafting a first pass at their own personal vocational values, i have them read one of these two books (they can pick, or read both). both are amazing case studies of leaders who lead their organizations primarily by ruthlessly bringing alignment (and re-alignment) to the organization’s values. they lost revenue because they cared more about the values. the made tough choices. they messed (both admit where they got it wrong, and where they were tempted to compromise on their values). after reading these books, we talk about what it cost them to embrace their values, and what they gained. then we bring that around to our own contexts.

for the fifth meeting:
A Beautiful Mess: What’s Right About Youth Ministry, by the prince of Saturn
i added my new book to my cohorts this past year because it felt like a nice book-end to the opening of Youth Ministry 3.0 (like i said, it clarifies some things, and emphasizes some things that were barely mentioned in YM3.0). but while participants are reading it, i ask them to be ready for these discussion questions:

  • What theology is explored here? How do you resonate or react to it?
  • Where are you most encouraged by what’s happening in your youth ministry? What does that reveal about God?

i also keep almost adding Almost Christian, by Kenda Dean, into the mix (probably replacing one of the current books). i haven’t added it in the past, because i’ve normally assumed most youth workers have already read it. but i keep finding that only about 25% of my participants have read it, and it really is — in my opinion — the single most important youth ministry book in the last 5 years (though it’s a very challenging read). each cohort ends up talking about it in roundabout ways, as i reference it so often; and most of my participants added it to their own self-assigned homework at one point or another.

Question: i’ve been toying with the idea (because multiple people have asked for it) of beta-testing a virtual cohort of the youth ministry coaching program. i’m a bit hesitant, because i think a massive, irreplaceable aspect of the value of the program is that we meet, face-to-face, for two days, every other month. that face time fosters the formation of a safe little tribe. each cohort grows to love one another and depend on each other for growth and support and accountability. and that just can’t be the same with a virtual cohort.

however, i know that there are just people who either cannot or will not find a way to pay the $3000 for participation in the full program. so… i’m wondering: if i beta-tested a virtual cohort (we’d probably meet one day/month, for about 4 hours, in a G+ hang-out), would you be interested? we could still cover some of the same ground; and it would be substantially cheaper, of course (though i don’t yet know what that means). anyhow: comment below, or shoot me an email ([email protected]) if you’re interested in exploring being a part of this beta-test. if i get 6 to 10 peeps, i’ll probably give it a whirl.

mini book reviews, part 2 (of 2)

seriously, where else would these three books be reviewed together?

Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie
5 stars

several years ago, when i became the president of youth specialties, mcnair wilson suggested i needed to read this book. it’s one of very, very few books i’ve ever read three times (the current time was because i assigned it as reading for my youth ministry coaching program cohort, and had to re-read it to be prepared for the book discussion). it is such a brilliantly unique little book. the very form of the book models the point of the book (and how rare is that!?). mackenzie spent most of his adult life working at hallmark cards, where he moved through a variety of creative roles, ending in a strange “listening” role with a title he gave himself: creative paradox (seriously, that was his job title). at its core, the book is about creativity. but it’s central theme is that all organizations (and believe me, you church workers will resonate with this) naturally become ‘hairballs’ of policy, procedure, expectations, rules, assumptions, and org charts. in order to maintain creativity while being part of a human organization, one must move into orbit. the orbit has a gravitational pull that keeps you connected to the organization. getting pulled into the hairball isn’t good; but shooting off on your own trajectory — breaking with gravity — isn’t good either. more inspirational than practical, the book will stir your imagination, and get you longing for those days when you live into the creative being you were made to be.

Bite Me: A Love Story, by Christopher Moore
4 stars

chris moore is, hands down, no competition, absolutely, without question, the funniest novel writer living today. i like funny books. and i’ve read a bunch of ’em, by a bunch of authors. there are many funny authors. but no one comes close to chris moore. the other day, my son asked me what some of my all-time favorite books were, and the first one i mentioned was moore’s lamb: the gospel according to biff, christ’s childhood pal. max asked why it was on my list, and i responded that no other book is both so insightful and so drop-dead hilarious. all that said, even moore — who in his less-than-best books is still hilarious — can’t get 5 stars on every book. he’s written a couple vampire stories in a row, and i sincerely hope it’s not a lazy rut, brought on by our current national obsession with all things fanged. set, again, in san francisco, but narrated by a teenage girl who is a shockingly annoying proto-goth wannabe vampire (and, for a few chapters, a shockingly annoying proto-goth actual vampire), moore invents wonderfully unique characters and re-introduces characters from previous books. he regularly introduces plot turns and turns-of-phrase that leave my head spinning with “how did he ever come up with that!?” so, not moore’s most inventive work, since it follows the same basic formula and setting as his last (without actually being a sequel). but, even a not-as-inventive chris moore book is wildly more inventive and hilarious than most.

Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir, by Susan E. Isaacs
4 stars

isaacs has written one of those rare spiritual memoirs — like anne lamott and others — that are completely jesus-y, but still fall outside the mainstream of what would be published by most evangelical book publishers. it’s a jesus-y book with a massive dose of snarkiness and a smattering of swearing. unlike lamott, isaacs is a cradle christian wrestling with holding onto a faith (and an association with the church) that is simply not working for her — one in which she blames god for the series a deep frustrations she’s experiencing in life. she weaves the tale, primarily, through a series of scripted marital counseling sessions, with three primary voices: her own, that of her therapist, and the voice of god (and occasionally the voice of jesus). she admits, and her therapist regularly reminds her, that the voice of god is not really the voice of god, but the voice of her interpretation of god. as isaacs slowly, in fits and starts, moves toward a new kind of re-engaged and sustainable faith, her voice of god seems to come more and more into alignment with what god would actually say. she’s a very funny writer (with a background in acting, screenwriting, and improv comedy). and she pulls no punches when taking swings at the parts of the church that mislead, abused, or annoyed her. the resolve is somewhat to-be-expected, but still a good reminder of truth. maybe i don’t need to read books that confirm my own snarkiness; but maybe it’s a good mirror.