The Peter principle

You’ve probably heard of the “Peter Principle” — and even if you don’t know it by name, you may be familiar with the idea. It refers to the observation that in many organizations, people are promoted up through the ranks until they reach the level of their incompetence.

It’s a scary thought. Imagine the implications. If you do well with the responsibilities you’re given, you’re given more status and more responsibility. You move up, in other words, because you’re good at what you’re doing now, not necessarily because you will be good at what you’re being assigned to do next. That’s not necessarily bad — unless you eventually get promoted to a place where you can no longer do what you’re expected to do.

Some of my friends and colleagues, over the years, have wondered why I haven’t sought to be a senior pastor, or pursued some higher administrative post. It’s really quite simple: I already know I’d be terrible at it. Terrible. That would be bad for everyone around me, not to mention bad for me. When I go to sleep, I actually like to sleep. Call me crazy.

In case you’re wondering, the Peter Principle was named after an educator named Laurence J. Peter. It was not named for the apostle Peter. But it could have been.

As we’ve seen in recent posts, even if Peter was something of a leader and spokesperson for Jesus’ band of disciples, he hardly seemed up to the job. Jesus wanted to wash his disciples’ feet; Peter vehemently refused (John 13:8). Jesus tried to teach his disciples the centrality of love; all Peter heard was that Jesus was going away (vss. 34-36). And when Peter insisted that he was ready to give his very life for his master, Jesus gently replied, “Will you give up your life for me? I assure you that you will deny me three times before the rooster crows” (vs. 38, CEB).

It had already been a long evening for Peter. And it was about to get longer.

One wonders how Peter got to be head disciple (unless we presume the others were even less qualified!). But Jesus seemed to see something in him, something upon which he could build his church (Matt 16:18).

That’s not to say that Peter merely had “untapped potential.” But it does mean that when the Holy Spirit is added to the mix, all bets based on previous performance are off.

This, I think, is cause for hope, and one of the reasons Jesus will focus so much on the giving of the Spirit in his final words to his disciples. As Christians, we believe that we already have the gift of the Holy Spirit. But we also see our failures and weaknesses. We have failed Jesus; we have failed each other.

And yet…

The Peter Principle is not the whole story. There is a Pentecost Principle as well. Our hope is not in what we have in ourselves as human beings, but in what God can and will do in and through us, by the transforming power of his Spirit.

Who knows what might be possible?