Sermon: The Peter Principle
Mike Ford (1955-2021)
Given 03-Nov-18; 31 minutes
We have all been in a restaurant or a store, maybe our bank, and the employee serving us just cannot complete the task. Maybe they are new; maybe they are in training, so we asked to see the manager. When the manager comes over, if they are good at their job, they solve the problem quickly and efficiently. If they are not competent in their position, or maybe they are just having a bad day, maybe they swoop in aggressive or surly and the situation gets worse. Could be they are inept and the Peter Principle comes into play.
Any of you with a corporate background may be familiar with the Peter Principle. It is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter that states simply, "People in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence." This theory, and the book of the same name, came out in 1969. I remember it well when I was climbing the corporate ladder a "million" years ago.
The Peter Principle asserts that a person good at their job will be promoted to a higher position, one requiring a new set of skills. If the person promoted does not have the new skills, they will be incompetent at their new position, and they will not be promoted again. But neither will they go back to the former job in which they excelled. They will stay parked at the job for which they are not qualified for the rest of their career. Now, if they are good at the new job, they will be promoted again and again until they eventually reach a level at which they are incompetent.
Mr. Peter's research shows that this outcome is inevitable, given enough time and assuming there are enough positions in a hierarchy to promote competent employees. Some examples from his book are: a competent mechanic may make an incompetent foreman, a competent schoolteacher may make a competent assistant principal, but then go on to be an incompetent principle, therefore not be considered for promotion to assistant superintendent.
In each case, the higher position required skills which were not required at the level immediately below. The mechanic only had to know how to fix cars. But as the foreman, he needs to be able to manage the other mechanics and deal with customers. Seldom will an individual admit that he was better in a lower position and asked to be demoted. Our pride is just too strong.
There are some apparent exceptions to the Peter Principle. According to Mr. Peter, someone who is incompetent and is promoted anyway, we call being kicked upstairs. This is only a pseudo- promotion, a move from one unproductive position to another. And then there is what Mr. Peter calls the lateral arabesque. That is where a person is moved out of the way, but given a longer job title.
The competence of an employee is measured by the employer rather than the customer or the public. Now we have run into someone that really seems to stink at their job. Yet they follow the rules of the company to such an extent they even lack common sense, and they actually hurt the company. But their supervisor thinks they are competent because, quoting Mr. Peter, "Internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service."
It also gives examples in his book of the "super incompetent" and the "super competent." They disrupt the hierarchy and must be expelled. He calls this "hierarchical exfoliation." An example he gives is of a super competent teacher of special needs children. They were so effective in educating these kids that after a year, they exceeded all expectations at reading and arithmetic. But he was still fired because he neglected to devote enough time to bead stringing and finger painting.
Well, the Peter Principle has a lot of truth to it. It is disheartening, but it is certainly not true in every case. And this is the key point for us, and that is God's Holy Spirit. We few members of God's church look at our jobs a little differently. We grow, hopefully. We overcome, hopefully. We know that we are not truly in charge. We leave the house in the morning. We go to our jobs, having prayed, having studied, and we are suited up in our spiritual armor and we are ready for battle.
We are not just going through the motions at work. We are not just treading water. We are not marking time and watching the clock. We have a greater purpose—not necessarily trying to advance, although there is nothing wrong with that—we are to do an honest day's work for our wages. We are responsible for the administration of our gifts. Luke 12:48 says, "To whom much is given, much is required."
For clarity in this message I am going to call the management principle of Lawrence Peter the Physical Peter Principle versus what I am going to call the Spiritual Peter Principle. I have named it after the apostle Peter, a man that was very much like most of us. He was somewhat impetuous. He was impulsive. He was eager to the point of sometimes speaking before thinking things through. He was fallible, as we are. Now, if we had time, and maybe it is a good subject for another sermon, we could clearly see how he grew as a Christian from fishermen to church leader, but that is really not what we are going with this. I want to go to I Peter 4 and I am going to establish this as the Spiritual Peter Principle.
The word minister here is a verb meaning "to serve." It is an action rather than a position. The word translated stewards, however, is a position. It is the Greek oikonomos, and it means manager, overseer, a fiscal agent, a governor, a superintendent of the city's finances. It can mean the treasurer of a city. It is a masculine noun. Metaphorically, it also means the apostles and other Christian teachers. It is used ten times in the New Testament. We are going to read a few others in a moment. In Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible he says this about this word. "Whatever gifts or endowments any man may possess, they are, properly speaking, not his own. They are the Lord's property."
I think it would be helpful to establish this Spiritual Peter principle by reading I Peter 4:10 from a few other translations.
I Peter 4:10 (CEV) Each of you has been blessed with one of God's many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well.
I Peter 4:10 (AMP) As each of you has received a gift (a particular spiritual talent, a gracious, divine endowment), employ it for one another as [befits] good trustees of God's many-sided grace [faithful stewards of the extremely diverse powers and gifts granted to Christians by unmerited favor].
I Peter 4:10 (ISV) As good managers of God's grace in its various forms, serve one another with the gift each of you has received.
I Peter 4:10 (GNB) Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God.
So we are managers. Each and every one of us is a manager. We manage the gifts God has given to us in the service of others.
Now the Physical Peter Principle says a person rises to their level of incompetence. The Spiritual Peter Principle says, "We've been left with certain gifts, talents, divine endowments which we don't deserve, and we are to manage these gifts." In effect, we are to get better at this way of life, and we really do not reach our potential until we die, unlike those laboring under the Physical Peter Principle, where they may reach a level unsuited to them and there they stay.
Let us say you are very happy as a teacher, but you are miserable as an administrator. If only your pride would let you go back to the lower position. Or you can also make the argument, you work harder to learn the skills necessary to be effective as an administrator. Spiritually, however, we never stop advancing.
Let us continue with the Spiritual Peter Principle by going to Luke 12. My Bible has a subheading for this section: The Faithful Servant and the Evil Servant.
Luke 12:35-41 "Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he shall gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not have allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect." Then Peter said to Him, "Lord do you speak this parable only to us, or to all people?"
Peter, I think, thinks for the group. He is speaking for the group. He asked, "Is this parable directed at the disciples?" Well, as Christ did so often, He answered a question with a question and that takes us through to the end of the chapter. Now, quite often we speak of this parable as for the ministry, and it is. However, God has given gifts to each of us that has been called and we are to manage those gifts. So I think, simply put, the parable is for all people. Now I will prove this. Turn to Mark 13.
Mark 13: 37 [Christ says] "What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!"
Notice the word watch, at least in my Bible, is capitalized. There is emphasis there. Be alert.
Back to the parable itself in Luke 12. So the master comes home, he knocks, and the door is opened right away. The servants are alert. They are attentive. They are doing their jobs. They are not coasting. They are not marking time. They are not watching the clock. Christ emphasizes that the master could come at any time. We do not know. We do not know when that is going to be. No one knows. So we continue to do our jobs as managers, whatever that may be, with whatever gifts we have been given.
Luke 12:42 And the Lord said, "Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season?"
That word "steward" is again the Greek oikonomos. I think that verse might be more clear if I read it from the Good News Bible. The Lord answered, "Who, then, is the faithful and wise servant? He is the one that his master we will put in charge, to run the household and give the other servants their share of the food at the proper time."
There is an obvious reward for the good manager. They are given more responsibilities—a promotion. Now in the world, the person moving up might not be ready for the new job. Under the Spiritual Peter Principle, do you really think He would make that mistake? That Christ would say, "Well done, My good and faithful servant" and then put you in a job you are not suited for it? I do not think so.
The English word steward is not one we use much anymore so to help understand it better, let me read a few things about this word from the Online Etymology Dictionary. I am going to quote now for for several sentences about the word steward.
It comes from the old English "stiward," meaning house guardian, housekeeper, which itself came from the word "stig," which meant hall, pen for cattle, or part of a house. It was the equivalent of the old French "seneschal" meaning overseer of workmen. Steward was the title of a class of high officers of the state in early England and Scotland. Hence the meaning, "one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer." The Scottish form is reflected in Stewart, the name of the royal house descended from Walter the Steward, who married Marjorie de Brus in 1315, daughter of King Robert. Stuart is a French spelling adopted by Mary Queen of Scots.
A steward then is obviously a manager; could be of a household, and I do not mean a three bedroom, two bath split level. I mean more like an estate or of an entire economy, and the English word steward is really quite close to the Greek oikonomos. Just to show a little bit about this word, flip over to Romans 16.
Romans 16:23 Gaius, the host of the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the treasurer of the city, greets you, and Quartus, a brother.
The word translated treasurer (chamberlain in the King James's) is oikonomos, so I looked at a dozen other additional translations. Two translated as "steward," one as "director of public works," and the other nine as "city treasurer." It is pretty high position, would you not say? I point this out so that you can see that Christ is talking about a position of great responsibility. We are stewards. Yes, that means servants as well, but we have management duties. We have been given gifts, on loan you might say, from God Himself, and we are to manage these gifts.
You may be low on the totem pole at your job. Maybe not a manager at all. But if you are happy at your work, doing whatever your hand finds to do with all your might, that is fantastic. But maybe you do have responsibility for others. Maybe you manage other employees. Maybe you schedule time on and off. Maybe sometimes you have to reprimand. Maybe sometimes you have to terminate. These are heavy loads. It is very stressful. Hopefully, the Physical Peter Principle does not come into play for us, but the Spiritual Peter Principle gives us a much higher calling than this. Remember how the Good News Bible put I Peter 4:10? "Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God."
So we have our physical job, putting in the hours, doing the work, and then we have the added weight of the spiritual jobs, and they really do go hand-in-hand. We are a witness to those we work with, to all those we come in contact with. We have this tremendous knowledge inside us, and it is used many times in the way we act and interact with others. And that goes double the way we act and interact act with family and brethren.
Luke 12:43 (GNB) How happy that servant is if his master finds him doing this when he comes home!
Doing. Doing what? His job, which is what? Managing the gifts. This word "doing" in the Greek means "to make," "to produce," "to bear," "to construct," "to lead," "to do rightly." It is all a part of being a good steward, a good manager.
Luke 12:44 (CEV) A servant who is always faithful will surely be put in charge of everything the master owns.
Other translations say "all that he has." That would appear to be a reward somewhat out of proportion to the role of the lowly servant. So while we are a servant, yes, absolutely, no question, and we are always to have that humble attitude of the servant, as did Christ in His time on earth, we are also expected to grow beyond that job. To not lose that humility, but to gain the skills in our Christian walk that will enable us to perform well in our next job. We cannot, in a spiritual sense, rise to the level of our incompetence.
Now out in the world there are literally millions of people in jobs they are ill-suited for, and not just in government, although that line of work seems to attract them. (No offense.) They are really everywhere, and they do not seem to be held accountable for their poor performance. We, however, are held to a much higher standard. While at the Feast this last year in Myrtle Beach, I picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal. I neglected to bring it up here with me. You will have to take my word for it. It was the September 24th, 2018 edition, on page A11. There was a full page advertisement from something called Openthebooks.com. It was headlined "America Needs a War on Waste," subtitled 'One Hundred Examples of Federal Taxpayer Abuse' and then follow the one hundred examples. As I read them I was ultimately angry and amused. There is a lot of it, it is just so stupid.
Now many times in the last week of a budget year there will be money left in the budget. A good manager would return that money back to the general fund. After all, as a nation, we are running a deficit that is way beyond belief. But that is not how it works in Washington. What you do there is, if you do not spend all your budget money, maybe next year's budget would be reduced. Some of your petty little kingdom might shrink. Federal agencies call it, "Use It or Lose It." So in the last weeks of a budget year, they clean out their budgets. This spending spree, in the last few weeks of the last budget year and combining all federal agencies, totaled $50 billion. Now the deficit this year in the United States for this one year is going to be $779 billion. Seems like we could use that $50 billion. I mean, after all, $50 billion here, $50 billion there, pretty soon you are talking real money
Now good managers would have returned that unused budget money and been congratulated, but instead, it was spent on things like the State Department buying booze for the embassies around the world to the tune of $79,000. Or the Department of Defense, those magnificent managers of the taxpayer dollars, spent $6,600 on fidget spinners. Anybody here know what fidget spinners are? Sure, all you kids, you all have them. It is those little spinning toys that sit on your fingertips. Now in the overall scheme of things $6,600 does not seem like much. On the other hand, that was some hard working taxpayer's entire annual contribution to the federal budget, and it was gone in an instant on fidget spinners. A good steward would not allow that.
I could go on and I will. Just a few more. There is some normal spending items to just make you shake your head. Listen to this one. The veteran's facility that serves blind veterans spent $670,000 on two sculptures. Let that sink in a little bit. Rolex Jewelers, we have all heard of them, they got a $21 million Small Business Administration loan. The National Foundation on the Arts spent $55,000 on a feminist porn book and $20,000 for a mime troupe and then $10,000 for something called dancing with 15 foot fish. The EPA, the ones who are going to keep us from burning to a crisp with global warming, spent $92 million on high end luxury furniture. And if you read the list, there is in that list an $800 pencil holder! I remember when I used the can the concentrated orange juice came in for my pencil holder when I was working in the corporate world.
This is just a handful of examples of the poor management that is rampant throughout government, but it is not isolated to government. The same kind of thing goes on in private enterprise. I was reading just this morning how General Electric is in very big trouble. They are not paying any more dividends and they may break the company up and sell off the pieces. Well, when Jack Welch was CEO, General Electric, aside from his humongous salary, his benefits included an $80,000 a month Manhattan apartment paid for by the company and he was hardly ever there, courtside seats to the New York Knicks, the U S. Open, seating at Wimbledon, box seats to the Red Sox and Yankees games, country club fees, and all his restaurant bills were covered. When he retired in 2001, he got a severance payment of $417 million. Was he that good at managing? Doubtful.
Still, that is nothing compared to our potential promotion. Christ says we will be ruler over all that He has! Please go to Luke. 16. I want to pick up two verses. This is the Parable of the Unjust Steward. You are very familiar with it.
Luke 16:1-2 He also said to His disciples, "There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.'
In verse 1, steward is our old friend oikonomos. In verse 2 however, the Greek word translated stewardship is a slightly different one. It is oikonomia, which means "the administration of a household or estate," "the management, the oversight, the administration of another's property." It is a feminine noun. It is used eight times in the New Testament. It is really more the position itself, not the person holding the position. Let me put it like this. It will be kind of stupid, but it would be similar to the manager, John Smith, was a department manager. Man holding a position and then a position itself.
It is also interesting to me that this word oikonomia is where we get our English word economics. You can hear the similarity. Economics is defined as the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And there is a relationship to this word, oikonomia, which is the administration of somebody else's property. In our case, we are administering God's property, which is the gifts He has given us.
Let me read these two verses again from the Good News Bible
Luke 16:1-2 (GNB) Jesus said to his disciples, "There was once a rich man who had a servant who managed his property. The rich man was told that the manager was wasting his master's money, so he called him in and he said, 'What is this I hear about you? Hand in a complete account of your handling of my property, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'"
So the rich man, Christ, entrusted His manager, His steward with His goods. Remember the quote I gave you earlier from Adam Clarke about I Peter 4:10 in reference to oikonomos? He said, "Whatever gifts or endowments any man may possess, they are, properly speaking, not his own. They are the Lord's property." So Christ gave His manager—us—gifts and then later He wants an accounting of those gifts. How are they used? Did we improve using those gifts? Did we grow in service to God and others?
In this parable in Luke 16, the manager is called into account, just as we will be. Now we accepted this position. We have free will. We can walk away at any time. Of course, we forfeit our chance at this tremendous reward that has been offered to us. And, of course, we also face certain death. Nonetheless, God is not forcing us to live this life. He is certainly leading us. He is guiding us. He is taking care of us. He is generally overseeing our lives, but He has not bound us hand and foot. He is not standing over us with a whip in hand. Rather, He has given us certain gifts, and then He has also given us the space and the time to use them.
Back to Luke 12. In verse 45 we are going to contrast the faithful servant with the evil servant.
Luke 12:45-48 "But if that servant says in his heart, 'My master delays his coming,' and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and he will cut him in two and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant which knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For to everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more."
In these last four verses I think there are four short lessons for us.
The first lesson is in verse 45. The manager becomes puffed up, vain, proud. He begins to mistreat those in his charge. He lets himself go, eats too much, drinks too much. I imagine he also let his prayer and Bible study go as well. He begins to think that he has achieved whatever station he is in life, that his efforts have gained him this knowledge and ability.
Lesson number two is in verse 46. The evil servant has begun to coast, to watch the clock rather than handle the business. Now, a good manager gets the job done. It is not a 9-to-5 job. He is always on call. It does not matter if the boss is around or not. His character is such that the work gets done regardless.
The third lesson is in verse 47. When we get called into the office for our job review, our performance assessment, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we get a poor review. You see, we knew the Lord's will, as Adam Clarke put it. We knew what the boss wanted, and we agreed to do it. At baptism we agreed to this life. We accepted it. We knew to pray, to study—every day. We knew to tithe, to fast, to give to help. The list goes on. We knew these things. And if we did not do these things, who is to blame?
The fourth lesson is from verse 48. What about poor John Smith next door? I do not actually know a John Smith. I hope no John Smith is listening, but let us just say, "What about poor John Smith next door?" Why is he not in trouble with his boss? He is a slob. He does not do anything. So why are you holding me to account when I do more than he does? Because old John Smith was not given our gifts. We cannot help it that the government employs poor managers who squander our tax dollars at every turn. We cannot help it that GE gave Jack Welch a boatload of money. We cannot help it that thieving politicians are not held accountable. Will they be someday? I do not know. And it has nothing to do with us, really.
We do not control those things. It might make us mad, and it does! But it is out of our hands. What is within our control, however, is what God has given us to use and to grow. It might be a little, it might be a lot, but whatever the amount is, we are to grow it. As a good manager, we will produce results, and it truly is a "use it or lose it" proposition for us. We have been given so much, and from us much is required.
We started in I Peter, so let us finish there. Back to the Spiritual Peter Principle we found in I Peter 4:10. However, I want to back up and start in verse 7. I will read these last four verses from the Contemporary English Version.
I Peter 4:7-10 (CEV) Everything will soon come to an end. So be serious and be sensible enough to pray. Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins. Welcome people into your home and don't grumble about it. [And once again, the Spiritual Peter Principle.] Each of you has been blessed with one of God's many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well.