the peter principle
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
The Peter Principle
Ever since Laurence J. Peter put into words that ingenious bit of wisdom that bears his name, I’ve been intrigued to see how many examples of its truth there are. Dr. Peter wrote a tongue-in-cheek study of American society based on his discovery that climbing the ladder of success means achieving a series of promotions which finally qualifies you for a position for which you are totally unqualified. Or, in his words,
“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his/her level of incompetence and remain there.”
The corollary is, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” That’s the Peter Principle.
If this is unfamiliar to you, let me elaborate: If I do my work really well, I’m likely to be promoted to a new and better job and then to another and another, until, finally, I reach a position where I don’t do well. And there I’ll stay. No more promotions. I, who had always done so well, will remain in precisely the position where I'm incompetent.
We all have some experience with the Peter Principle. We’ve seen good sales people become mediocre managers. Skilled mechanics become ham-handed supervisors. Outstanding classroom teachers become less than stellar principals.
Dr. Peter says that this is why, eventually, things always go wrong. Although one redeeming feature in the system is that the real work always gets carried out by those who haven't yet reached their level of incompetence!
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Now, if we do a little modifying, a little reshaping, the Peter Principle could become an axiom for Christian discipleship. It comes out like this:
Within the body of Christ, every disciple is called to rise to his/her level of failure, his/her level of incompetence.
To give credit where credit is due, this principle should be attributed to another Peter, Simon Peter. Because St. Peter seemed to demonstrate that principle time and time again. Certainly, he had no business trying to walk on water!
Let’s take a look at the Matthew passage. In Bible 101, you will learn that Matthew wrote his Gospel to be a kind of manual for the early church. That is why he combines the teachings of Jesus into topic groupings in particular chapters. So, Matthew’s account about the disciples in a boat during a storm with Jesus coming to them, rescuing them from their frantic “woe is me,” is not only a miracle story showing Jesus’ command over the elements. It’s also a parable for the church. Recall that the boat is an ancient symbol of the Christian church. This story is a parable for that little first-century community of the faithful, buffeted by winds and waves in an inhospitable if not hostile environment. And the miracle, for them, resides in the promise that Christ will be present in their storms, coming to save them. This story spoke to the early church, and speaks to us, of hope – hope for anxious people in need of hope.
Then we look at Peter. Peter has a special place in the gospels. He is regularly portrayed as the “representative” disciple. The one in whom we recognize ourselves, the one who reminds us of our own ups and downs, our faithfulness and unfaithfulness as followers of Jesus.
Although, in this story of Peter, he’s not like us at all. We would stay in the boat. I would do the sensible thing: I would hang on for dear life. But not Peter. Impulsive, daring Peter “promotes himself” to the level of his incompetence. He steps out of the boat in an effort to reach his Master. Imagine, a fisherman trying to walk on water! And soon he is over his head, sinking like a dead weight, and crying out for help. A pathetic figure, victim of his own recklessness.
Jesus comes to the rescue, and chides him for his lack of faith. Meanwhile, you and I are back in the boat, chuckling a bit nervously at the whole scene. It isn’t until the next morning, when the panic of the moment is past, that we realize the irony that bold Peter was the one who was chastised for lack of faith, while we hadn’t even considered climbing overboard, when going overboard, I expect, is what real discipleship is all about.
This is a parable. It's about security and insecurity, risk, and faith, and the power of God.
The St. Peter Principle: Every disciple called to our level of incompetence and failure; every disciple summoned to dare more than we alone have adequate resources for, in order to discover the fundamental source of our strength. In the body of Christ, nothing succeeds like failure – the discovery that you’ve gone overboard in some great undertaking, for Christ's sake, and now, up to your ears, you have to trust God’s power to rescue you.
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The trouble is, like everyone else, we resist the discovery of our own incompetence. We hide our inadequacies. We remain carefully within the limits of our proven abilities and skills. “Don’t take on too much.” “Don't venture too much.” “Hold back.” “Conserve your energy.” So that, when the storms come, and they will come, “we can run our ship quite nicely by ourselves, thank you.”
Congregations in the old line American Protestant traditions have learned well how to be prudent: calculating goals, planning agendas, developing cautious budgets. We do what we can to preclude failure. We safeguard ourselves. And so we seldom run the risk of needing any help from God to save us. We would rather not be vulnerable in Christ’s service.
Now, prudence is a virtue. It makes sense to stay in a boat during a storm. It makes sense to count the cost, to protect your resources, to prepare for the future. Prudence is a virtue.
But, for Christians, there is always a higher value. Its Bible name is agape. We translate it, inadequately, as “love.” And its meaning involves something totally different from prudence. Its meaning is suggested in sayings such as, “Whoever would save their life must lose it,” and “If you would be first, you must be the servant of all.” Which returns us to the Peter Principle.
The Christian community has known its finest hours when it has tested the Peter Principle. We’ve been at our best when upholding some great cause, when standing beside those whom everyone else has abandoned, when at the forefront of social or spiritual awakening, making clearer the Reign of God. In my experience, for example, with the civil rights movement, the sanctuary movement, Witness for Peace, Bread for the World, More Light (which is “Presbyterian” for Open and Affirming).
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We as a congregation have some basic work to do. That’s hardly new. In fact, church council minutes record that in 2007 Pastor Susan Chamberlin Smith asked, What is Trinity’s niche in the community? 2007 – that was ten years ago. The question still remains unanswered. Who are we? What are we for? What do we stand for? What difference do we make? I’m reminded of something Gayraud Wilmore wrote. Listen to this. He said, “Today the church is in the world – but much as a parenthesis is in a sentence… [It] could quite easily be deleted without great effect.”
What is our identity as a church in Deerfield? What is our purpose? As The New Beginnings report put it, You will either redefine your mission – and redevelop, on the basis of that new reason for being, that new purpose – or, predictably… you will close. Ouch.
This is daunting, isn’t it? But I am grateful to be in this boat with you. (I am, you know.) Because I see something positive here. Hopeful. This is an invitation to experiment, to try things. Friends, it’s an invitation to adventure. It could be very rewarding. The question is: Can we as a church reinvent ourselves? Your Transition Team will be meeting after worship today. We have some exciting ideas in mind for fall. Stay tuned.
In this pastoral interim period, we find ourselves suspended between our hopes and our fears. Are we up to the challenge? We don’t know. We feel short on ideas, short on vision. Maybe on courage also. But Christ, who always says: “Be nor afraid;” Christ calls us to be bold – to step out of the boat, to venture the storm and the waves, to move ahead, and to discover what, by God’s grace, we can become. And, friends, a hurting and needy world awaits those who dare to be transformed, who dare to expect that we could become a transformative sign that faith and hope and love can make a difference.
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I pray that as we move into a very important new fall season, we will together dare to test the St. Peter Principle. That in the paradox of God’s grace, it may only be when we risk going overboard in faithfulness that we ever know the full resources of God’s presence and God’s power.
I pray that, as we move into the future that the Spirit is preparing for us – and preparing us for – we will trust God’s competence to overcome our weakness and our doubt, to fulfill the promise that we yet may be.
- With thanks to Edwin Friedman and Robert McQuilkin
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.