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The Four Stages of Competence

A few weeks ago I heard someone reference “The Four Stages of Competence” like it was something I was supposed to know all about. I did not know all about it. Maybe was supposed to learn it at some point in my 20+ years of education, but had no idea what it was. So, I did what most of us would do – I pulled out my iPhone for a quick Google search. Here’s what I found.

An American Psychologist. Abraham Maslow (the same man responsible for “Marlow’s Hierarchy of Needs”) came up with the “Four Stages of Competence”- It’s essentially the “learning curve” and I think it’s very helpful for those attempting to start new churches. Here it is:

  1. Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

  1. Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

  1. Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

  1. Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

So I’ve been thinking about this related to my experience in church planting. I think about the confidence I had when I started working in church planting I was 16) I really didn’t know anything, but that didn’t bother me a bit. I had tremendous energy to do the work, partially because I was unaware of the mistakes I was making, the people I would offend and the difficulty of achieving something truly successful. As I worked my way through Maslow’s stages of competence (I think I’m somewhere early in the third stage right now) my energy for the work has slowed.

Now, I still love church planting and spend most of my life advocating for the advance of the church but I take a significantly more cautioned approach than I did in the early days. I’m not often found promoting the work of secular psychologists on this blog but I think these four stages are helpful and I think if you’re a church planter you should understand them and try to find out where you are in them right now.


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