Home Youth Leaders Youth Leaders Blogs Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation Without Disconnection

Orbiting the Hairball: Innovation Without Disconnection

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.

Maybe 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.

Forces 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.

Two Essential Thrusters for Sustaining Orbit

Spaceships and Large Ocean Vessels share a technology that helps them make minor directional adjustments without firing up their engines: thrusters. On a boat, bow thrusters move the front of the ship left or right. On a spacecraft, they provide short bursts of propulsion to move in any direction.

In order for us to stay in the sweet spot between a useless trajectory of our own and getting mired in the disabling affect of the hairball, we need two thrusters.


Anyone with healthy or unhealthy resistance to change (most of us have this) need a dose of courage from time to time to push us in the direction of innovation. Here’s what I have learned: I cannot make myself have courage anymore than I can make myself have the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual courage comes from the Holy Spirit.

The etymology of the word itself tells us this. The root of courage (“cour”) means “heart”; and courage literally means “to have a full heart.” Excitement and praise and rewards and potential can partially fill my heart. But they’re not sustainable. My heart can only be truly topped off in the face of significant risk by the fuel of the Holy Spirit.


I’m done being an arrogant risk-taker. I want no part of innovation born out of my own hubris. Instead, I long to experience a life of humility. Humility can keep me from believing my innovations are sure-fire. Humility can keep me from steamrolling people. Humility can prevent me from dismissing others, made in the image of God, who do not agree with my inventions.

I long to experience a life of Jesus-y courage tempered by Jesus-y humility.

I long for a tribe of youth workers who will fire up their thrusters of courage and humility, overcome their fears and insecurities, and move into orbit together, not disdaining the hairball, but exerting our own gravitational pull on it while it reciprocates with us.