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A few years ago I made a career transition from being a pastor to being a regional church planting director. I moved from direct ministry to members of a church and community to assessing, training, coaching and resourcing pastors who were starting new congregations. Big change. I didn’t know how big a change it was. I was in the realm of unconscious incompetence.

In psychology, there is a name for what I was going through. It’s called the “Four Stages of Competence.” I entered at the first stage: unconscious incompetence. Basically, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This is often the bliss of ignorance. For a seasoned pastor, I could assume that I had the tools and knowledge to do the job and get going. But that was not the case. In fact, the more self-assured a person is, the harder it will be for them in this first stage. It is hard because they think they know what they need, but in reality, they don’t know what they need and they don’t even know that they need something.

This utter ignorance must be overcome by having a teachable and coachable spirit. I could only get past this first stage with some humility and someone else's help. That someone else needed to be competent in the area I’m not. If you have a “life-question” then ask someone who has lived a great life and done well. If it is a career question, then find a successful person in the career in question and ask them. You get it.

So, when you recognize your unconscious incompetence, the first question that you ask yourself is, “Who do I know or who do I know who may know someone who has done well at (fill in the blank)? " Name them and then find them.

Before you meet with that person, you need to answer this question: What am I most afraid of? The question goes to your fear. Fear has a way of hiding behind a lot of other stuff in our lives. It can sabotage just about anything unless it is confronted.

To be receptive and honest with them, you need to honestly answer that question and bring that answer with you to the meeting and let it help to shape your time in learning from them.

The next question is for them. It is a very open ended question and it may need a few follow-up questions, but to get it started, ask, “What is it that you have found out that most people don’t know about (fill in the blank), that they need to know?” This will get you moving past unconscious incompetence.

Second in the stages of competence is conscious incompetence. In this stage you know what you don’t know. It is often a shocking and even paralyzing state to be. But I want you to know something; the only thing you’re doing right now is gathering information. You are forming a perspective, not yet solving a problem. This part is the overwhelming part.

Once you’ve done your information processing; ask yourself this next question: "Where do I need to focus?" Learning begins here. You target a few things that are crucial to moving through your conscience incompetence. The question to ask is this: "What is one thing I could do that would move me further along than anything else?" It is a strategic question. For me, in starting new churches it was finding the right church planter. Period.

There were a lot of other things that needed attention, but I came to realize that without a good church planting candidate it did not matter how great the funding was or training or support. The right candidate was it. So that is where I focused. It was a good choice and it remained the overall focus.

The third stage is conscious competence. This is where you not only have knowledge about what you need to do, but you can do it. It probably won’t be done perfectly but you’re moving forward. It takes a lot of mental and physical focus to do it well, but over time and with practice it is getting more natural. Two questions to ask in this stage are, first: "How can I improve what I am doing?" And the second question is: "What do I need to keep me going?" The first is a training question and the second is a stamina question. They are questions of refinement and sustainability: Am I improving and is this sustainable?

The last stage is unconscious competence. Through practice, trial and error, training and maybe even blood, sweat and tears you come to the place where you can do what others would say is improbable. Professional athletes do every day. They do it because they learned what they didn’t know and now know that they needed to know. They do it because they got help. They do it because they trained, over and over again. Studies have shown that to become an expert at something you need to do it 10,000 times. But don’t do it 10,000 times the same way. It is 10,000 times with growth and improvement and training and stamina to keep going.

At this stage, you have become a master. But it will die with you unless you pass it along. Be on the lookout for someone you can help. Ask: "Who else may benefit from what I’m learning?" Let someone else in on what you’ve gone through. It will help solidify your experience and help them through theirs. Perhaps you will cross paths with someone who just doesn’t know what to do.

To wrap this up. Here are the questions in order to ask and answer when you don’t know what to do.

  1. What am I most afraid of? (What do I not want anyone to ask?)

  2. Who do I know that has done well at (fill in the blank) that I can interview?

  3. What is it that most have failed to know that they need to know? (to ask the interviewee)

  4. How can I improve what I am doing now?

  5. What do I need to keep me going?

  6. Who else may benefit from what I’m learning?

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