3. Four Thousand Shalls

March 28th, 2012

Gordon MacKenzie has written a delightful and compelling book on organizations titled Orbiting the Giant Hairball. For companies (and churches!), the Hairball is MacKenzie’s term for the accumulated procedures and policies that accrue in an organization. These are the rules, standards, guidelines, and accepted models that become established and set in stone. The “hairs” of the Hairball begin as intricate patterns of effective behavior that initially solve a problem or deal with an issue. But over time they accumulate far beyond their usefulness. Every new policy is another hair for the Hairball, and hairs are never taken away, only added. The Hairball grows enormous, until it has its own heavy mass and gravity that pulls everything into the tangled web of established rules, policies, methodologies, procedures, standards, and systems. The Hairball stifles creativity, makes change nearly impossible, robs people of spirit, limits successful innovation, slows adaptive response, and restrains individual initiative. Organizations develop large, complex hairballs over the course of decades.

Have you experienced the intransigence of a large organization that is stuck in place by its own collection of rules and procedures?

Orbiting is MacKenzie’s phrase for how someone relates to the corporate Hairball without being drawn into it by its powerful pull. Orbiting involves keeping a healthy distance from the deadening influence of the Hairball. Orbiting is responsible creativity, vigorously exploring options. To Orbit a Hairball is to find a place of balance to benefit from the physical, intellectual, and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in its bureaucracy. Orbiting involves a measured assertion of one’s own uniqueness while keeping close enough to the gravitational field of the organization that you don’t fly off into the overwhelming emptiness of space.

Hairball is policy, procedure, imperative, rigidity, and regimented similarity in how we do our work, while Orbiting is originality, experimentation, flexibility, agility, risk, and adaptation.

Sometimes our gatherings at annual and general conferences result in enlarging and tightening the Hairball more than in encouraging greater and more creative ministry for the mission of Christ. Our Book of Discipline grows in size and complexity with each General Conference, incorporating more and more paragraphs that begin, “The annual conference shall. . . . The congregation shall. . . . The pastor shall. . . ” This limits agility and contextual creativity. There are 4,835 “shalls” in the Book of Discipline! Thousands of paragraphs require, direct, and limit the actions of committees, boards, conferences, councils, and teams. Obviously, we need some standard order for the theological and corporate essentials, but do we improve and expand the mission of the church each time we mandate a requirement?

In the Missouri Conference, our most fruitful ministries include the Mozambique Initiative, our Lay Leadership Development groups, Converge for clergy, our conference-wide Serve event, the Healthy Church Initiative, Pastoral Leadership Development groups, WOW for youth, and the Festival of Sharing. These ministries involve tens of thousands of people in serving and learning. None of these developed through conference committees mandated by the Discipline. They work effectively and joyfully while orbiting the Hairball. On the other hand, we are required to have a number of boards that do nothing relevant to our work in Missouri. The structure required by the “shalls and musts” does not align with our context or the work we do.

The 1996 General Conference gave congregations permission to organize according to their missions, providing only a few basic requirements related to trustees, finance, nominations, and staff-parish relations. The Discipline also says annual conferences can align according to their missions, but then continues with dozens of paragraphs that prescribe which committees they shall have. The Council of Bishops urges General Conference to give annual conferences freedom to organize their structures for greater fruitfulness.

Jesus challenged the rule-driven propensities of the Pharisees to model a faith “born of the Spirit” (see John 3:1-11). Wesley’s greatest fear for the movement he fostered was that one day we would have the “form . . . without the Spirit” (see Sermon 17 “Circumcision of the Heart”).

As we prepare for General Conference, I pray we focus on how we can spiritually soar beyond mechanical fixes and organizational structures to foster creative ways to fulfill our mission.


How does MacKenzie’s notion of an organizational Hairball help you understand some of your experiences in church leadership? How have your decisions contributed to the Hairball?

Can you think of a time when you navigated organizational restraints to offer fresh and innovative ministry? How did you do it?

For deeper consideration, read John 3:1-17.

For a delightful look at how to thrive amid organizational intransigence, check out Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball.

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