Constructive Competition

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In the Summer of ’93, I moved to St. Louis and began summer Greek at Covenant Seminary. In the process, this boy from Jersey moved in with a lanky and goofy Southern boy from Atlanta. Scott and I were (and are) very different but that summer, we became close friends, bound together by common suffering (memorizing Greek vocabulary and grammar) and competition!

We both worked jobs during the day: Scott was a church custodian, and I was working construction. But at night, we were all about Greek! We were either in class or studying. Memorizing vocabulary, reciting declensions, translating New Testament passages from Koine Greek to English. We sat at our dining room table together, pouring over cases and participles. We would check on each other and occasionally rib each other. I would tease him for his excess use of dental floss. He said that I was solely responsible for global deforestation because of the way I went through legal pads, writing declensions over and over again. Then of course, when the tests came, we were always checking in on how each other did: “I got a 97!” “That’s great! Too bad for you I got a 98.5!” And then we would celebrate our academic victories… not over each other, but over the subject matter… together over a pizza dinner (I referred to them as ‘dates,’ which always bothered Scott… which meant I kept on doing it).

Competition is an interesting dynamic between people. Some people in educational and ministry settings can be terribly uncomfortable with it. Understandably as it can be incredibly destructive if unchecked. My mind goes to the “Super-Chicken” experiment that Purdue conducted a number of years ago. They created a flock of average producing chickens (by egg count) and left them alone for six generations to see how they would flourish. They put together another flock of “super-chickens” (high producing chickens) and left them to their own devices for six generation. At the end, they compared the flocks. The average chickens were plump and healthy with an increased level of production over the first generation. The super-chicken flock? Only three survived because they pecked each other to death! Competition unchecked! Hence, the caution about it.

Destructive competition in ministry is deadly, but common. This kind of competition is not rooted in love or friendship but jealousy and insecurity. We see this with Saul and his jealousy of David in 1 Samuel. We see it on staff teams where one member is experiencing fruitful ministry while another is not having the same success. It comes out in staff meetings or private conversations. Staff undermine each other with words or dominate resources. And the flock begins to peck each other to death.

There is another side of competition though. It can serve as a catalyst among a group to help them achieve great things, not the least of which is becoming the best version of themselves. What made the competition between me and my roommate constructive was that fundamentally, we were for each other. We wanted to see the other person succeed. Sure, we competed on grades, but we helped each other studying to achieve those grades. We didn’t steal each other’s notes. We shared notes. We didn’t play mind games with each other. We cheered each other on. And when the grades came back, we celebrated (or commiserated) together (we were pretty good students, so we didn’t do much of that over Greek). In the process, we each became better Greek students than if we had been alone. Perhaps more importantly, we created the bonds of comradery and friendship that last to this day (almost 30 years later). “Two are better than one.” And friendly competition can be a key ingredient as long as the foundation is love and respect.

In the end the issue is not so much competition but love… being for each other. When we remind each other that we are not simply on the same team, but rooting for the success of each other, things can change. The result might not simply be increased productivity, but the bonds of love and friendship that will last decades and serve as a testimony that we really are followers of Christ and not just seeking personal success.

If you are struggling under destructive competition or your staff team is struggling with it, contact Concord Solutions for coaching or mediation. We can help.

Here is an article on the “super-chicken” experiment:

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