by Clyde Cook
The square pegs are missionaries and the round holes are the positions into which they are being forced.
"I feel like a square peg in a round hole." This classic description of a misfit is what I am hearing from missionaries and administrators alike, and I must confess I am personally sharing in some of their frustrations. The square pegs are missionaries and the round holes are the positions into which they are being forced.
It has been my experience that most missionaries apply to a mission agency and are sent overseas because they feel that God has called them to preach the gospel and share Jesus Christ cross-culturally. They are concerned about people who have never heard about our wonderful Savior and want to share the good news of salvation with them. As I talk to many of these, they indicate that they have a gift of preaching or teaching, or exhortation, or the gift of evangelism. They go to the field to exercise these gifts and after learning the language and adjusting culturally, they start to do so and with great effectiveness. They are square pegs in square holes. Then over the years the hole changes.
THE PETER PRINCIPLE
What happens next is what I call the Christian version of "The Peter Principle." The Peter Principle has become an important part of the secular world’s vocabulary in management theory. As Dr. Laurence T. Peter stated, "In the hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."
Dr. Peter, of course, was not writing from a Christian viewpoint, so he did not distinguish between secular and Christian, nor between profit and not-for-profit organizations. However, as we look at our misson agencies, we can quite often see this phenomenon at work. The reasons for the incompetency are quite different from those that Dr. Peter had in mind. However, the results are the same. Instead of continuous upward mobility based on competence (leading to a level of incompetency), there is an outward leading to an area outside of the person’s spiritual gift (also leading to incompetency). Frustration and stress are the results of a square peg in a round hole.
I remember quite clearly, early in my missionary career, a missionary who had the spiritual gift of teaching. He was superb in the way he presented the gospel and did so in such a way that people responded and churches were planted. He did this for many years until, because of his success in exercising his spiritual gift, he was elected to an administrative position as field leader. After all, he was a successful missionary and why shouldn’t he be successful in the position of field leader? However, the new position required the spiritual gift of government or administration, and he accepted the new assignment, even though he did not have the gift the position required.
Why he did this, those of us under him do not know. We do know that he was a spiritual man and was on the mission field because he wanted to serve the Lord. Perhaps it was this genuine desire to serve the Lord and the mission that impelled him to accept the assignment. Or, perhaps there might have been other reasons, such as pressure from his peers (no one else was available), pressure from the home office, the power of authority and financial benefits of such a position. Or it might have been some of all of these reasons.
Regardless of the motivation, he was soon functioning in an area for which he was not equipped. As Miller and Mattson have observed in The Truth About You, it is extremely difficult to train someone in the skill required by a particular position unless that person has the gift that the position requires. They have written: "For example, corporations believe it’s possible to train people to become what is needed-a manager, a sales person, or a planner. We have a mountain of evidence to demonstrate that only certain people are managers (or sales persons or planners) and that no person with whom we have dealt ever "became" a manager or anything else fundamentally different from what he already was" (p. 17).
They go on to add: "People begin with a specific design that remains consistent through life, and that design cannot be changed! This is not to say that there cannot be alterations in a person’s life, since there are areas in people which need development or modification. Character requires molding and shaping so that who we are is worthwhile. Skills need to be taught so we may increase our effectiveness. Discipline may be needed to re-shape sloppy work habits or lifestyle" (p. 17). Miller and Mattson use the word "design" not as a description of talents or abilities, but something more basic. They write, "We seek a description of the essential pattern that resides behind a person’s talents and determines how and when they are used" (p. 19).
Whether one believes that this design is a result of childhood molding or a God-given gift, the result is the same. If someone exercises his gifts, he will succeed. If someone tries to function in an area of responsibility for which he is not gifted, he will fail. Another example I think of is a successful Christian college professor who was promoted to be a department chairman. He was excellent in the classroom but did not have the gift of administration, and he caused frustration for all those reporting to him.
Besides having the Peter Principle duplicated in Christian ministries, we also have Parr’s Paradox. Jim Parr points out that incompetence may also result because of hierarchical change. He classified the changes as external and internal. Internal changes deal with purpose, growth and diversification. In other words, a person can become incompetent because the purpose of the hierarchy has changed and this creates new requirements. Growth of an organization can also necessitate new skills and diversification can bring -new demands to a position. He classes eternal changes by technological changes, regulatory procedures, and competition and market preference ("If the Peter Principle Doesn’t Get You, Parr’s Paradox May," American Way, pp. 119-120, May 19, 1980).
Just as the Peter Principle has its analogy in Christian organizations, so also can some of the dangers of Parr’s Paradox confront missions and Christian schools. Parr concludes: "Allowing and even encouraging employees to reach their level of incompetence through improper selection is a wasteful and destructive mistake. Every bit as wasteful and destructive is employee incompetence that stems from hierarchical change. And because it is an evolutionary, continuous process, hierarchical change provides, perhaps, an ever larger management challenge. It is a competent manager indeed who can anticipate, identify, and provide for remedial action to prevent the potential negative impacts of this inescapable process" (p. 120).
CHANGES CAN BE MADE
What, then, are the solutions in missionary organizations for incompetence that comes as a result of the Peter Principle and Parr’s Paradox? There are some changes that could be made fairly easily. These would include the following:
First, there must be a recognition of end proper exercise of a person’s spiritual gift. Before anyone is shifted to a position that requires new skills and responsibilities, his spiritual gifts must be evaluated in terms of the requirements of the job. It is not the purpose of this article to identify all the spiritual gifts, describe them, or to indicate how they can be recognized. There is much excellent material available on this. Rather, the purpose has been to identify this phenomenon and to suggest ways to circumvent it.
A second suggestion is to teach by word and example that the exercise of all the gifts is essential and all the gifts are important. As Paul has written: "But now there are many members, but one body. Anal the eye cannot say to the hand, `I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, `I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on those we bestow more abundant honor, and our unseemly members come to have more abundant seemliness, whereas our seemly members have no need of it." (I Corinthians 12:20-24, NASB). As Paul has admonished, recognition must be given to those exercising the lesser public gifts.
A third suggestion is to provide adequate financial consideration for all those who are exercising their spiritual lifts regardless of what they are. By rewarding those with essential, though less visible, gifts, their importance is emphasized. We should not financially reward. Only those who are moving up the Christian corporate ladder. There should be a practical demonstration of the importance of all the gifts. Of course, in those organizations where all, from the president to the newest staff member, get the same basic salary, the above would not apply.
A fourth suggestion, one that is related to Parr’s Paradox, is to have the courage to make the necessary personnel changes. If the new responsibilities of a position call for different spiritual gifts, it is only fair to the individual as well as the organization to make a change.
However, there is a long-range solution that is worthy of some consideration and that is creating a symbiotic relationship between missionaries who are communicating the gospel cross-culturally and administrators who would help provide the structure necessary for them to accomplish their goals. We have examples of this relationship in the world of medicine. We have hospital administrators who are concerned with the proper functioning and administration of the hospital. They provide the structure which allows the doctors to perform their vital ministry. Another example would be some o£ our large churches where business administrators are hired to handle the administration of the church, thus freeing the pastor to exercise his gift of pastor/ teacher.
I see three possible sources for these mission administrators whom I feel axe desperately needed. First, identify those in the organization who truly have the gift of administration and place them in positions of administration. A second source would be committed Christians who are already in areas of administration. These could include career military service people, school administrators, those in business and government. Challenge them to get involved in helping the Great Commission be accomplished.
A third source would be for some of our Christian schools to prepare people for this particular task. Just as secular colleges and universities might have a major in hospital administration, so could some of our Christian schools have a major in missions administrations. Biola College, with its excellent business administration program and its major in intercultural studies, could produce a capable administrator who was well versed in missions.
The challenge of the ’80s is before us in reaching the three billion who have yet to hear of Christ. We need to be effective and efficient; certainly, square pegs in round holes are neither. Of course, it is easier to write about these solutions than to practice them. It takes a great deal of courage lovingly to confront someone who is not operating within his or her spiritual gift. It takes a great deal of submission on the part of that person to accept what he or she might consider a lesser role. It will take gentle teaching, loving concern and support, along with encouragement and recognition when such a change needs to be made.
However, this is the servant role to which we are called. The Bible clearly warns, "…not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think," then, too "…let each of you regard one another as more important than himself" (Rom. 12:3 and Phil 2:3). By having these attitudes, there will not be jealousy over the exercise of particular gifts. As Paul has said, "But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (I Cor. 12:7). As Christians, we have the biblical solution both to the Peter Principle and to Parr’s Paradox. As we truly have the common good in mind, we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can gladly serve in the capacity that God has chosen for us through the sovereign gifts of his Spirit.
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