When I was in college I learned something that has stuck with me ever since. It's called the Peter Principle. It was developed by a fellow named Laurence J. Peter. In simple terms, his theory states that people tend to rise to the level of their incompetence. You could say it another way:
People are often promoted one level higher than they are capable of performing.
This happens in the corporate world all the time. Someone performs well at their current job and management notices. They believe the person will surely be successful at the next level and they promote them. At some point the success exhibited at the previous level of success does not translate to the new position and the person fails. Great salesman don't always make great sales managers.
The church is not immune to this issue. Unfortunately, when leadership fails here, the effects can be devastating. This often happens when servants in the church truly have a heart for serving and have a hard time saying "NO" to anything, but since they are diligent at everything they do, leaders keep asking.
Pretty soon, the unsuspecting servant finds himself chained to a task for which he are not particular gifted, or worse yet, to one for which he no longer has passion. His diligent work ethic and desire to please others prevents him from speaking truthfully that he is drowning and his once joyful time of service has now become an albatross around his neck. Especially since his diligence has grown the ministry and he now needs help from other volunteers. Now, instead of just serving in a particular area, he finds himself managing people, something he may have no experience doing.
Soon problems mount, complaints come in, groups begin to shrink, and a few drop off entirely. A once flourishing ministry is now barely together and its leader is disillusioned and discontented. It doesn't take long for him to either step out of his role, or be asked to stop. Either way, the effects are the same. he is no longer serving the body with his gifts.
The church is full of well-meaning, well-meaning people who no longer serve the body because they were promoted one step ahead of their gifting. In this story, Jim and his wife Sally were extremely gifted with hospitality, and Jim may even have a gift for teaching. What they did not have was a gift for administration. They weren’t managers, but they do make a mean salsa dip and would love for you to come to their home to have some!
Just because you are serving faithfully doesn't mean you are faithfully serving in your gifting. Being willing and available are not synonymous with being gifted. Nor are they the same as having enough capacity for the job.
I see this in my speech class all the time. Some people just aren't geared for standing in front of people and making a speech. Some, on the other hand, could think of nothing else they would rather do. To accommodate this, we do what is called "differentiated instruction and assessment." We give the student choices to either change their content, process, or product. They figure out how to make the assignment match their natural dispositions.
Why can't we do this in the church?
Faithful servants aren't always good leaders, anymore than good business men are necessarily good elders. They might be, but it isn't a given.
For the church to flourish as she is intended, it is high time we take our focus off the worldly attributes we think will make people successful and focus on leading people to the Master, helping them transform their heart to be conformed to His. When that starts taking place, we need only look around and see what people are already doing.
Someone who is gifted for hospitality will by nature be living a life of hospitality. They will open their homes and hearts as an outflow if the Spirit at work in their lives. The worst thing the church can do is "organize" the supernatural gift out of their service. Just let them go. Encourage them in what they are doing and get out of the Holy Spirit’s way.
Likewise, someone gifted for administration doesn’t need a test to figure that out. Look into any place or situation where there is chaos and you will find them speaking order where there is none. This doesn’t mean they make a good secretary, it means they have an eye for order, and likely a passion for it.
People are born with dispositions. They have talents and passions suited to serve the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit will empower and develop those gifts for use in the Kingdom. Let them develop supernaturally and watch His glorious plan unfold. We need to be careful not to push people, even well-meaning people, outside of where God has gifted them and allow them to flourish.
If you have fallen prey to the Peter Principle in your service, we would love to hear your story and how you overcame it in the comments below.