He who has set himself up no longer adjusts anything

Why stagnation in personal development is a risk

von Johannes Justus

If you want to realise your dreams, you have to be prepared to constantly develop yourself. This principle is especially true for leaders who want to bring about change in their position. But many fall into the trap of stagnation and find that their church or organisation is stagnating or even dwindling.

“Those who have set themselves up in life don’t make a difference.”

I have slightly altered this well-known and common quote and put an “off” instead of an “on”. This way it brings out the previous thoughts a little more clearly. People who have retired and are content with the status quo no longer achieve very much in life.

The pain of the downturn

There are a significant number of fellow pastors who have had this painful experience. Why is this experience painful? Life is in constant flux and circumstances and people around you change. Leaders who think they have “made it” no longer work on themselves, neither on their skills nor on their education. The consequence is that at some point other people no longer allow themselves to be led by them, because they no longer give the impression that they can still lead people “to new shores” or “into the knowledge of Christ”. Their preaching style remains the same, as does their theological content. Their methods and tools seem to be exhausted and more church development is no longer expected by church members. The result is that particularly courageous and proactive personalities withdraw from the congregation, while steady personalities remain behind who also stick to the existing and the known. In some cases, the leaders’ relationships with their fellows are also exhausted. This is nothing tragic and can certainly happen in interpersonal cooperation, which is why in many churches a regular change of position is also prescribed.

Now when a church congregation develops in such a way, its downturn is set in motion. If after a while the leader with his team does not succeed in creating a new upswing, the slow death of the church congregation occurs. This is very painful for all involved, as more and more staff members are missing, the workload is transferred to individuals and the old times can only be mourned. If the leader or pastor has not been dismissed before, he or she is often dismissed at this stage, whether by the church council or a higher authority. Sometimes this succeeds smoothly for the most part, but often he is also literally chased from the yard.

Stagnation, one of the greatest dangers in leadership

Unfortunately, I have already experienced numerous personalities who did not even leave the field here and remained in their position until the dissolution of their congregation. When the congregation is dissolved, the trust in the leader is completely lost and no one really wants to give him leadership responsibility again. At some point, all those involved are left with the question of why. What was the reason? “Perhaps he was not called or he was not gifted enough.” Most people will probably say this out loud. In my experience, however, it is not necessarily because of this, but in very many cases simply because the leaders in question have stopped in their development. In my view, this is one of the greatest dangers for leaders.

After one of my lectures, a leader came up to me and told me that he had not heard anything particularly new in my lecture. Generally, he hears little that is new in lectures. I had to explain to him that often knowledge is one of the biggest obstacles to personal development. Better said, it is the assumption that one knows a lot, but I did not tell him so. He naturally asked what exactly I meant. I explained to him that in lectures one should not compare what one has heard with what one has already heard, but ask oneself whether one is already applying or implementing what one has heard. People who believe they have already heard everything tend to stand still in their development. After all, they believe they already know an incredible amount, but life changes at a breakneck speed. What was considered true yesterday can be outdated tomorrow. It is similar with a person’s personal development. Anyone who believes that it is complete is very much mistaken, because it never is.

The wisdom of lifelong learning

In the context from which I come, age used to be cited as an excuse or reason for any inability to learn new things or take on new challenges. But science teaches that cognitive resources are complex and do not decline in their entirety.

In Raymond Cattell’s theory of intelligence, human intelligence is divided into two components. On the one hand it consists of fluid mechanics (fluid intelligence) and on the other hand of crystallised pragmatics (crystalline intelligence).

Fluid intelligence comprises the brain’s basic abilities, such as logical and analytical thinking and basic processes of information processing. We talk about it when we talk about comprehension ability or comprehension speed. The following figure shows that fluid intelligence declines steadily over the duration of life from middle adulthood onwards. Thus, learning and thinking theoretically takes more and more time with increasing age.

Crystalline intelligence, on the other hand, comprises the knowledge that a person acquires in the course of life. This includes, for example, learned language, general education or learned skills such as professional expertise. Unlike fluid intelligence, crystalline intelligence does not experience a decline in the course of life. It can remain stable until old age. This is why it is often referred to as “old-age wisdom”. It continues to increase with newly acquired knowledge and experience.


The dynamics of intelligence

These two components of intelligence must not be seen separately. They are interwoven and exert a mutual influence on each other. This means that the deficits that form in fluid intelligence in old age can be compensated for by crystalline intelligence. The cognitive abilities can therefore retain a high average value into old age and the person can still have a good “general intelligence” for a long time.

Of course, I must also mention here that, according to the latest research, the brain can be trained like a muscle. So you yourself can influence the state in which your cognitive abilities remain as you grow older. Several studies show this. As early as the 1990s, the brains of identical twins were reconstructed on the basis of measurements. Great similarities were expected. However, it was found that they differed considerably from each other, although the test persons could be described as genetic clones and grew up under pretty much the same conditions. The reasons for the differences must therefore be of a non-genetic nature. More recent research has confirmed this conclusion and there is currently a scientific consensus that the brain is malleable or “plastic”.

This anatomical malleability is therefore referred to as “neuroplasticity”. The brain is simply able to adapt. It can even gain mass like a muscle or lose mass with little activity. Every brain is different and that makes every person unique. But it is much more important to remember that the brain is not something static and unchangeable. Like the rest of the body, it can be trained to perform at a higher level.

It is therefore important to continue to develop throughout one’s life so that one can actively participate in life’s events. Despite ageing processes, one’s own habitus remains in one’s own hands and one can make the best of it.

You can read more about development in my book “Von Sackgassen und Königswegen”:



Jäncke, Lutz: Selbst ist das Hirn, in: Spektrum der Wissenschaft Kompakt
(01.21). Heidelberg. 2021.

Rindermann, Heiner: Intelligenzwachstum in Kindheit und Jugend, in: Psychologie
in Education and Teaching. Munich. 2011.

Ericsson, K. Anders / Pool, Robert: Top. The new science of
learning. Munich. 2016.

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