Once upon a time, the animal kingdom decided it must do something to help humanity face the challenges of the world. So the animals organized a school. They adopted a systematic curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. All animals were required to take all the subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming, made above average grades in flying, but was extremely poor at running. Since he was slow in running, he had to drop swimming and stay after school for additional practice. This gave the duck’s poor webbed feet callouses, so much so, that he became only average at swimming.
Meanwhile, the rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but had a complete mental breakdown because of so much make-up work in swimming. The squirrel was excellent in climbing, but when her flying teacher made her start from the ground rather than from the treetops, her grades in all subjects plummeted.
The maverick in the school was the eagle. He was stubborn, independent, hardly a team player, and gloated in climbing class that he could beat everyone else to the top of the tree, but he always used his own way to get there. The prairie dogs stayed out of the school altogether because the administration would not add digging to the curriculum. They later joined with the badger and gophers to start a successful charter school.
At the end of the year, none of the animals did very well. An unusual eel that was an exceedingly good swimmer, but that could also run, climb and fly just a little, had the highest cumulative score. He was selected as the valedictorian though his grades were barely above average.
I love that story. Always have. It teaches a lesson so easily forgotten or ignored: Nobody can be great at everything. But everybody can do something exceptionally well. Every person has his or her gift, his or her calling, his or her God-given ability. When it is properly employed, it works like magic. When it is not, or when we all try to do everything, it’s a disaster.
In the business world this is known as the Peter Principle, named after Lawrence J. Peter. People will tend to be promoted until they reach their level of incompetence, said Dr. Peter. That is, you can keep giving someone work to do – more and more and more – and finally the work will exceed his or her abilities. Then, none of the work will pass grade, not even the work once performed with excellence. The Apostle Paul calls this dynamic the Body Principle.
He wrote in Romans 12, via Eugene Peterson’s folksy translation from the Message, “Since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”
My experience in the church is that we violate this very principle, and attempt to force individuals “to be something they aren’t,” demanding that everyone do everything. We create fine “animal schools” that foster frustration, shame, and false competition. Everyone ends up tepidly average, and we fail to allow individuals to develop their unique gifts and callings.
Not everyone can go on a mission trip, nor should this demand be placed upon them. Not everyone can preach a sermon or sing in the choir, nor should this be required. Not everyone can order life around the appointed worship and service times on the church sign, nor should this be a non-negotiable mandate. Not everyone will fit into the church’s well-ordered, highly structured, cookie-cutter curriculum, nor should there be the expectation otherwise.
We are all gifted differently – radically so – and people must be allowed to explore, expand, and enhance their distinct talents. People must be given space and place to “to their part,” whatever part that is. It’s a principle that works, not only in the animal kingdom, but also in the kingdom of God.