Once, I asked the Rev. Jim Chatham, one of my heroes in ministry, how he had kept learning in a structured way throughout his career. Jim focused for several years on learning to teach the Bible, then on improving his preaching. He also honed other skills, always involving peers, practices and projects.
What was his secret? He surprised me by beginning his story with a word about competition: "After seminary, I asked myself, ‘What could I learn to do better than most of my peers?' I decided that members of congregations need to know the Bible. So I decided to become a really good Bible teacher for lay people."
I was surprised when he expressed a desire to compete as part of his program for lifelong learning. In my ministry, I have certainly felt that I was in competition. I heard other clergy of many flavors talk about their work in comparison with the work of others.
But somehow I got the impression that feelings of competition were not appropriate for a Christian. When I wanted to do something better than others, I certainly felt I should not mention it. I had learned deeply that to compete with someone made that person an object, dehumanized him or her. Competition, albeit a natural inclination, was "a way of the world." Mature Christians should be moving to embody "the ways of Christ." I should eschew competition in favor of collaboration, I thought.
Looking around, I now discover that competitiveness has been represented negatively in much Christian theology and Christian education. It was cited, for example, as one major reason to move away from memorizing Scripture in Sunday School classes. Successful recital of the text might be showing off, winning against other students. I remember hearing the irrefutable axiom: "To have a winner, you have to have a loser."
Careful and profound theologians seem to maintain this negative attitude toward competition as well. Edward Farley in "Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation" contrasts his ideal world with the current one, in which individuals live as if "Others are there in their world, but only as competitors, occasions of use, or targets of anger." This from one of the best theologians in North America. (Oops, there I go, considering theology a competition.)
But what if we reclaimed the word "competition?" May we seek its restoration to an appropriate place in the panoply of pastoral feelings? The word, after all, comes from Latin competere (to seek, or to strive, together). Its first cousin, "competence," still enjoys respect.
On reflection, maybe cooperation is not the opposite of competition. More likely in our church settings, the opposite of competing is, instead, languishing. Maybe we actually need to think more competitively, embracing those feelings constructively rather than repressing them. The reclaimed classical tradition of character ethics would prompt us to think of some good balance between the com (together) in the word and the petere (striving) part of it.
God made our competitive feelings as well as our collaborative ones. Contrary to what I seem to have learned in school, God must have pronounced those feelings "good." After all, the Apostle Paul speaks of the well-lived Christian life as a "running a race," presumably a race among people. "Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one wins the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it." (I Corinthians 9:24).
Jim Chatham shows how competition can be used constructively. Two years ahead of me in seminary, he was smart but pretty wooden in those days. He came from Georgia Tech and had an engineer's brain. His senior sermon was an engineer's sermon: Points 1, 1.a, 1.b. 2, 2.a, 2.b, etc. Not even a poem at the end!
After serving churches in Mississippi, North Carolina and Ohio, Jim went to Louisville, Ky., where my wife and I joined his congregation.
The engineer sermons had disappeared: Now he preached deep in respect for the texts, poetic and clear at once. He and I collaborated to teach Bible for lay people. Soon 100 and more flocked each week to learn from him.
By embracing competition, he discovered how he could best serve God.
Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. He has also served as a pastor and missionary in the Presbyterian Church in Congo (then Zaire).
This article originally appeared on Faith & Leadership. Used with permission.
Publication date: October 27, 2010