Rivalries Gone Wrong by Peter Greer


From the earliest years of school and continuing through college, spring marked the beginning of a new sports season. For many of us, this is the time of the year we grab the lacrosse stick, glove and bat, or Frisbee to begin training with the team.

Many of my greatest memories happened on the field. I can vividly remember specific plays, come-from-behind victories, and celebrations and heartbreak that were shared with my closest friends.

Regardless of the specific sport, there was always clarity about our team and our opposition. The jerseys reminded us of our identity and loyalty. In high school, we were Concord-Carlisle, and our opposition was Lincoln-Sudbury. In college, it was Messiah College against Elizabethtown College. As a New Englander, I cheer for the Red Sox and I cheer for whoever is playing against the Yankees. And even though my son asked for an Eagles logo to be shaved on his head, I still cheer for the Patriots.

Regardless of the specific team or activity, the basic setup is the same. Teams are clearly differentiated; it’s us versus them. And there is only one victor. At the end of the game, you will undoubtedly be asked, “Did you win?” It’s a zero-sum game, and ties are deeply dissatisfying. Sudden-death overtimes are a far better way to end a match than a disappointing tie. Isn’t it interesting that we call this sudden death, not sudden victory? Harking to days long past of gory gladiators and packed stadium seats, we seem to care as much about our opponent’s demise as our own victory.

We root for our team and we root against our rivals.

As much as we love the energy of competition, there’s a shadow side to this way of looking at the world beyond the athletic fields: the idea that every time we win, someone else must lose. That success is a limited good, and our achievements must come at the expense of the other.

Even when it comes to churches or ministries, we too easily slip into separating the world into two categories: us and them. We hunker down with our people and shun those on the other side. And when success is a limited good, we incentivize behaviors propelling our own gain, regardless of the cost to the other. We think no further than our organizational boundaries.

It’s the attitude of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc who famously shared, “If any of my competitors were drowning, I’d stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water.” Cutthroat competition at its basest form.

There’s no doubt about it—many individuals, companies, and whole industries embody this “go for the throat” approach. It’s easy to think that the only way to succeed is through our competitor’s demise.

But it doesn’t always work this way. In fact, rivalries often do go wrong for not just one but both embattled parties.

In the 1990’s, U.S. automakers competed with one another for dominance in the auto industry. Like Pepsi and Coke and so many other corporate rivalries, their hatred for one another was all-consuming. In 2011, Ford marketing chief Jim Farley was quoted in a reference to GM saying “I hate them and what they stand for.”

But as happens so often, their rivalry didn’t end well. Their focus on each other caused them to miss out on seeing the broader landscape of manufacturing, and it wasn’t long before GM and Ford were both losing.

The ‘Ray Kroc approach’ simply isn’t in any individual or industry’s best interest. In fact, there is growing evidence that collaboration is good for us all, accelerating the pace of progress through collective impact, open-source movements, and creative collaboration.

Especially for nonprofits, it’s time to realize that cutthroat competition just isn’t the best way to make an impact on the significant challenges we face. For followers of Jesus, the rivalries that fester between our denominations, churches, and nonprofits ultimately serve as a hindrance to the cultivation of Kingdom-mindedness and global impact.

We’ve been given a mission and mandate that requires nothing less than the best of our efforts working together in unity for the sake of the Kingdom. It’s time that we model a far more gracious and collaborative spirit among us. Rather than competitors, it’s time that we see each other as co-laborers and perhaps even friends. It’s time that we focus on the Church’s unified mission above our organizational agendas. And in some small ways, to begin rooting for our rivals.