Preacher Performance and “The Peter Principle”

By Jeffery Kingry

Have you ever wondered why your new electric razor always breaks down, bridges collapse, cars won’t start, politicians don’t work, and the world’s economies are rapidly disintegrating? Incompetence seems at times to have a stranglehold on the “civilized world.” Order 1,000 sheets of paper and the U.P.S. delivers 1,000 reams. You send a change of address to the magazine and never see another copy of it-even though you do get your name and correct address on ten new mailing lists for trash mail.

Dr. Lawrence Peter, a school psychologist and University professor discovered the cause of incompetence in structured society and wrote a book on it. The Peter Principle has become the classic first work of the study of Hierarchal incompetence, and Dr. Peter is referred to all as “The Father Of Incompetence” (Dr. L. J. Peter, The Peter Principle, William Morrow & Co., Inc, New York, 1969).

The Peter Principle is very simple: “In a Hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his own level of incompetence.” This principle is very easily demonstrated. Mr. A is a very apt mechanic, but he has no ability to work with people. He is promoted at the car dealership where he works from mechanic to shop foreman. Mr. A proved his ability and was promoted until he was given a job that he could not do-and was really no good at. He is not promoted any farther because he cannot do the job he now has. Mr. A has reached Final Placement: his highest level of incompetence. However good a person may be, as he is promoted, assuming there are enough jobs in the hierarchy, he reaches a job he cannot do and is promoted no farther. So, given enough time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties (Peter’s Corollary ). All work is accomplished by those people who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

Cannot Apply To Christ’s Church

Dr. Peter readily admits that his new science of Incompetence only applies to rigid Hierarchies. The Peter Principle does not apply to those few eccentrics who avoid getting involved with Hierarchies. The church that Jesus built, as revealed in the N.T., does not fit in with this new science. There is no organization in the Body except as functional units. There are no titular jobs in Christ’s church-one is not a Preacher, but one preaches. One either shepherds according to God’s prerequisites and qualifications or one does not-no matter whether a church calls him an elder or not. One either serves, prays, sings, gives, etc. or one does not. Hanging a sign on the door doesn’t make one a child of God-obedience and service do. But, -when the Peter Principle does find application in the church we can rest assured that it applies because we have ceased being eccentric and become Hierarchically inclined.


Efficiency, or -Getting The Job Done” is determined in Hierarcheology not by any standard, but by the employee’s superior in the hierarchy. Peter states, “If the ‘superior is still at a level of competence he may evaluate his subordinates in terms of performance of useful work . . . that is to say he evaluates output.”

But if the superior has reached final placement he will rate his subordinates in terms of institutional values: He will see competence as behavior that supports the rules, rituals, and forms of the status quo. Promptness, neatness, courtesy to superiors, internal paperwork, will be highly regarded. In short, an official evaluates input” (Peter, p. 42). Dr. Peter terms this “Peter’s Inversion: whenever internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service.” A professional automaton may be termed a “Peter’s Invert.” He has inverted the means-end relationship.

Among preachers in the church we see this whenever the church becomes “Hierarcheologized” or whenever it leaves the N.T. Pattern and designs itself as a hierarchy. When the preacher’s “superior” is the church instead of the Lord, as in the employer-employee relationship of the world, then his performance and efficiency is determined by his superiors. The preacher is judged “efficient” by the number of brethren he visits during the week, the peace he can maintain within a church by compromise and avoiding “sensitive” subjects in his teaching, the clothes he wears, his ability to consume vast quantities of criticism with a smile, his ability to work with the “young people,” his ability to run things behind the scenes. All of these and more are indices of a preacher working within a hierarchy. Those preachers who determine how “successful” their work is by how well they please their superiors in these areas can aptly be called “Peter’s Inverts.” These no longer see themselves existing to serve the church by serving God, but look upon the church and the word as raw material to manipulate to maintain them, the rituals, the paperwork, and the hierarchy. “Competence,” says Dr. Peter, “like beauty and contact lenses, is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Indices Of Final Placement

It is useful to know when one has reached final placement. Peter lists some areas of behavior which identify those who have reached their highest level of incompetence.

I. Abnormal Tabulology: This is an important area of Hierarcheology. A competent employee normally keeps on his desk just the books, papers, and apparatus that he needs for his work. After final placement, an employee is likely to adopt some unusual and highly significant arrangement of his desk.

Papyromania: This manifestation of final placement causes the employee to clutter his desk with piles of never used papers and books. Consciously or unconsciously, he thus tries to look busy and mask his incompetence by giving the impression that he has too much to domore than any human could accomplish. R is often observed among preachers and editors who have such a cluttered desk and office that they hardly if ever use it, except as a manifestation to visitors of how busy they are.

Fileophilia: Here we see a mania for the precise arrangement and classification of papers, usually combined with a morbid fear of losing any document. By keeping himself busy rearranging and re-examining bygone business the fileophiliac prevents other people-or himself-from realizing that he is accomplishing little or nothing of current importance. This mania is often observed in preachers who keep accurate and up to date files on visitor’s cards, and attendance records, but never get around to visiting and converting the visitors or rebuking the slack attenders.

II. Structurophflia: Structurophilia is an obsessive concern with buildings-their planning, construction, maintenance, and reconstruction, with an increasing indifference with the work that is going on, or is supposed to be going on, inside such buildings. Many believe that the erecting of a new, better, or more elaborate structure will help attendance, attract prospects, and “give the church a goal to work for.” Often, the only result is that the congregation looks even smaller in the larger building. Preachers often state that a congregation is “established” when it has a building. These may really be trying to improve the quality of the work of the church but end up only producing another building.

Self-pity: One excellent indication of final placement is the telling of chronic hard-luck stories. It is always the fault of someone outside and beyond the pitiers,’ control that makes them incompetent. This self-pity is usually combined with a strong tendency to reminisce about “the good old days,” when the complainant was working at a lower rank, a level of competence.

Compulsive Alternation: Once one has reached final placement, he may try to keep others off balance. A confident friend will be put off with a snub, a timid subordinate will be flustered by abnormal familiarity. Subordinates always say, “You don’t know how to take him.” Editors of religious journals often do this by coming down equally hard on both sides of an issue (“We are a fair and open journal.”), snubbing friends while befriending enemies.

Cachinatory Inertia: A sure mark of final placemen is the habit of telling jokes instead of getting on with business. This is often seen in those preachers who get so wrapped up in an anecdote as an illustration, they forget what they were trying to illustrate.

One outstanding way of determining final placement is in the art of Substitution. Once he has reached his level of incompetence, he must engage in one or more substitutions to keep sane and happy. Otherwise he would have to face the Sordid Truth, that he is unfit and incompetent to do the job. As long as the preacher stays busy, whether it is productive work or not, he avoids having to face the fact that he is not doing his job in teaching the gospel.

Some of the techniques employed are certainly applicable to our discussion:

Technique One: Evangelist-Editor Substitution: The word “eOitor” is not found in the scriptures, but because some evangelists cannot do the work God gave them, they become editors. (Those who can neither preach nor edit, we choose as “Staff Writers!”-CW) This man has ceased from all productive work and justifies his support by saying “Writing is just another form of preaching.” He deludes himself into thinking that what might be justified as an incidental part of his work as an evangelist is his primary work-and devotes all of his energies by substituting another set of duties which fie carries out to perfection. An example of this is the Journal editor who raised his total support from churches and brethren that he might devote his time to writing for a new subscription journal. In the six issues of the paper he has managed to produce thirteen jokes and anecdotes, four pithy sayings, zing a few enemies in the back, and to promote the paper and himself around the country. While quite productive in procuring a permanent vacation, this substitution demonstrates that he has reached his highest level of incompetence in serving the Lord.

Technique Two: Perpetuat Preparation: This is the fellow who is always reading (or writing) books on personal work, but never seems to do any. It includes the Professional Student. Most Professional Students have found that they enjoy the continual feedback of a college atmosphere that says, “You got an A. You are smart, you are worthwhile, you are competent.” To leave that environment and attempt to practice what has been learned is often too hard on the Professional Student’s psyche, for then he would learn that most of what he has garnered is useless for living . . . or competent living.

The methods of Perpetual Preparation are applicable to preachers.

(1) First Things First-This method issues forth in a minute, painstaking, time consurning attention to every phase of preparation for action: The building up of abundant reserves of spare forms, spare parts, spare ammunition, spare money, etc., in order to consolidate the present position before advancing on a goal. For some students who have achieved final placement as students they spend several hours each night before studying sharpening pencils, arranging and collating papers, cleaning the desk, adjusting the light. Preachers use this method incessantly in what they call “The Study. ” They compile books, stuff file cabinets, read mail and answer it, read some, and then go home for coffee and a nap.

(2) Obtain Expert Advice-This method looks to bygone experts instead of live ones. It is called “Searching For The Precedent.” Most often it is employed by preachers who “specialize” in “Restoration History.”

(3) Confirm The Need For Action-This method is often employed by elders or brethren in business meetings. Spend sufficient time in confirming the need for action, and the need will disappear, This is especially true in the areas of benevolence and preacher’s support. If sufficient time is spent in deciding if !here is indeed a famine, or that a preacher is without support, the need will quickly take care of itself.

Technique Three: Side Issue Specialization: We see this in the “writing preacher,” the “debate preacher,” the “meeting preacher.” and the “scholar-teacher preacher,” The side issue specialist is incompetent to do the work of evangelism so lie substitutes a zealous concern for something he can do efficiently.

Technique Four: Image Replaces Performance: An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance, In the church this might be called the “Big Preacher Syndrome,” a sure indication of final placement. Image making as a substitute for performance is successfully used by politicians (who talk and lecture on the hoary glory of our democratic traditions, and the sacredness of the public trust, and then do little or nothing toward carrying out the real duties of their position), the artist (who paints little or nothing of value, and finds his calling, lecturing on the value and beauty of true art), and preachers (who talk about the great heritage of Paul the evangelist, and the need to take the Gospel to a lost and dying world, and the need of consecrated work, and yet product none of it.)

Technique Five: Convergent Specialization: Finding himself incompetent to carry out his duties, the convergent specialist will ignore most of them, and Concentrate his attention and efforts on one small task that he can do. If he finds himself incompetent to do the job, he specializes further till he reaches a level of competence. Historians become the foremost authority on the first thirty minutes of the reformation. Academicans who are incompetent to understand the meaning and value of a literary work may write a lengthy treatise on “A Comparative Study Of The Use Of The Comma In The Literary Works Of Otto Scribbler.” Preachers often specialize in writing reactionary articles about what other preachers said, or spend their times publishing books that nobody reads.

Technique Five: Utter Irrelevance: The LJtter Irrelevantist is a daring incompetent. He makes no pretence of doing his job. He ignores it completely and does something else-writes letters to the editor or to “Dear Abby,” goes to meetings and tells people that he is a preacher, repeats canned sermons written by someone else, joins social clubs, or assumes a Boy Scout Troop. He never produces any results in anything that he does.

We could fill a text book with the ways that brethren avoid their work-but the lesson is simple: “But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an crangelisi, make full proof of thy ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).

Truth Magazine XX: 47, pp. 747-749
November 25, 1976