I regularly run along a bike trail that has a number of small bridges stretched across creeks and small streams. These former railway structures were built with thick steel girders that rise high above the creek beds. I often pause in the middle of a bridge to look down for fish, snakes, or turtles, and to listen to the soothing gurgles of the streams through the rocks.
After a few days of hard rain upstream, the soothing picture changes. The small streams become raging currents that rise to the bottom of the bridge. During flood conditions, the steel girders form a grate that catches tons of sticks, branches, and logs until the combined effect is a dangerously large and impenetrable dam of densely-pressed debris. I can feel the bridge shudder under the pressure of the flow against the blockage. As I look at the tons and tons of accumulated matter, I wonder, “Where did all this come from? All these branches and trunks and logs?” And, “What happens if these logs totally dam up the streaming flow?”
I’ve just described a logjam. Any one branch or stick or log does no damage and has no effect on the flow. But if the stream picks up enough of them, and they seize together at a narrow spot, then the results can lead to disaster—the stream is stopped, the floodwaters overflow the banks, or the bridge is put at risk.
Logjams are risks to organizations as well. Now remember, my friends, I am one of us, and I’ve poured my life into the task of serving the church I love. I do not offer critical observations in order to feed cynicism or anti-denominational feeling. But as I’ve watched the effect of successive General Conferences and Annual Conferences and Church Conferences, I’ve often felt like many of the changes we make to policy and practice result in tossing more logs and sticks and branches into the stream, a practice that inevitably contributes to the formation of logjams for our mission.
Each individual change may grow from positive motive, but the cumulative effect can be dangerous to our mission. I recently reviewed a list of Disciplinary changes resulting from our most recent General Conference. There are requirements that each conference have a Communications Director, and that all committees of the conference name a “witness” coordinator. There are changes that mandate in more detail the composition of the Board of Ordained Ministry. I’m not arguing for or against any particular new requirement; it is the combined effect that limits the flow of creativity and adaptability and responsiveness. If you wish to see what I mean, look at the Disciplinary paragraphs related to the Conference Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry (Paragraph 634) and you will see nearly 60 duties and responsibilities. Look at the list of more than thirty Specific Responsibilities of District Superintendents (Paragraphs 419 and following) or check out the fifteen other places in the Discipline that also speak of DS responsibilities. Or look at the requirements for Charge Conferences, or for Annual Conference organization. If new board or committee members or superintendents sit down to study their tasks, the list of individual and accumulated disciplinary requirements would more than occupy the whole calendar year with required activities, before they even look at their own context, their own opportunities and mission fields, their own gifts and callings and creativity in missional response. All the individual sub-paragraphs were adopted because well-meaning individuals, committees, constituencies, and boards offered ideas to address concerns, redress problems, and increase ministry by prescribing connection-wide remedies. But the effect is as if each of us picked up a branch and set it afloat in the stream. We’ve unknowingly contributed to the logjam, the experience of intransigence and stuck-ness that I see at nearly every level of the church, of people focused and absorbed by unending and unclear policies, procedures, and requirements to the neglect of the mission field around them.
Methodism began as a movement. Life and faith are fluid and flowing. Growth involves adaption, change, creativity, motion. The principal identifying elements of our tradition began as tools to maximize adaptability and movement–itineracy, connectionalism, conference, and episcopacy. These were strategies to enhance maximum flexibility and responsiveness to changing circumstances and opportunities.
I’ve recently finished reading a rather unconventional book about organizations, written by Gordon McKenzie, called Orbiting the Giant Hairball. McKenzie worked for years with Hallmark, and he uses “hairball” instead of “logjam” to describe the inevitable intertwining and accumulation of policies, procedures, models, standards, systems, techniques, patterns, requirements, and structures that result from years of recorded decisions in a mature organization. The dense, impenetrable mass creates a powerful gravitational force that pulls people and ideas into the tangle, thereby restraining creativity, inventiveness, risk, adaptation, change, and mission.
The challenge, according to McKenzie, is how to find the personal courage to be genuine, creative, unique, and purpose-driven without getting pulled into the mass. We benefit from the relational, physical, intellectual, and philosophical resources of the organization, and so we must stay connected, and avoid spinning off on our own, entirely lost into nothingness. But we must also fight the gravitational pull of the giant hairball, so we don’t get sucked into intransigence, into a perfunctory and meaningless focus on the internal mechanisms of the organization. “Orbiting” is his word for maintaining enough connection to align purpose and to work cooperatively and meaningfully with the organization while also maintaining enough distance not to get absorbed into the hairball of stagnant normality. His book is a celebration of uniqueness, calling, and creativity in large organizations.
Logjam. Hairball. Call it what you like. The challenge is the same. How do we avoid innocently contributing to organizational intransigence and stuck-ness? And how do we maintain a sense of calling and ministry that allows us to keep our focus on using our gifts to the highest for the purposes of Christ in the world? How do we sustain the life of the spirit and of community in Christ as something alive, fluid, and flowing?
Yours in Christ,