Monday, May 31, 2010


I have been thinking about a post on this subject off and on for months, but an article I read online last week triggered some more thinking, and over the weekend I had time to sort a bit of this out. Here is a quote: "I was led to believe that a powerful and active Federal government would be good for society at large, but unfortunately the Federal government's ability to be large and active is not as pronounced as its ability to be large, meddlesome when its help is not wanted, and slothful when its help is actually needed." (from "The White House and the Oil Spill" by Pejman Yousefzadeh, in "The New Ledger")

I have said for years that the problem with Big Government, and Big Business as well, is finding people who are competent to run it. And this lack of competent people is becoming more and more a problem.

America was once a "can do" nation. The slogan "The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer" from the Army Corps of Engineers expresses this well. And for generations Americans as a people lived it out. Marvels of engineering and construction, settling a vast continent, the overthrow of enemies on both sides of the world by 1945, and subsequently helping rebuild the economies of our former enemies have all cemented this tradition.

But it would seem that in my lifetime this has changed for the worse. Our educational system has promoted ever-higher levels of education, but it seems to have resulted in a trading of educational credentials for actual competence; and there is a difference! In fact, there are a number of differences!

The higher education system focuses on reading, talking, and thinking. Competence is about DOING. Academics debate and tweak theories, and too often stay in the theoretical realm. Competence is based in Reality. Credentials at best imply that an individual ought to be able to do a particular task or work. But competence is experience and proven ability. Credentials may boost self-esteem, but competence builds self-respect.

Personally, in my college years I trained for two different professions. I am trained as a pastor, and as an accountant (in the late '70s I went to the University of Cincinnati for business classes, and ended up only a few credits short of the requirements at that time to sit for the CPA exam). One thing I heard during that time from a practicing accountant was that the most important things he learned about accounting were the things he picked up the year after he finished school. Over the years I have questioned people in other professions and they confirmed that their experience was similar. So, there is all too often a disconnect between the academic world and the real world. They spend time on things people in the real world don't need, and miss things the real world does need.

When I was in Bible college, some of the faculty members were pastoring churches themselves, almost always small churches in small-town or rural settings. The men who pastored the large churches were busy running those churches, and were not on the faculty. Years later, when I saw George Barna's note that the average church size in the US is 90-100 people, I realized that that is all the church size the seminary professors can handle themselves; and you can't really teach someone else what you don't know yourself. There is an old adage (it gets me in trouble with my schoolteacher friends every time I bring it up, but there is all too much truth behind it): "Them that can do; them that can't, teach it!"

Competence is about knowing what to do, and with it, what not to do. It is knowing how to do it, and when to stop doing it. And it comes by the experience of actually doing it, not just talking about it.