Iron Sharpening Iron

I’m not a competitive person. My reaction is the same whether I win or lose a game, which makes the fact I’m writing about the theme compete ironic. In addition to not being competitive, language learning is not my specialty. When people find out I spent three and a half years in Portugal, they ask me if I speak Portuguese (or Spanish, which is a completely different story). Inwardly I cringe because my Portuguese language ability is pathetic. Basic greetings, food items, numbers and books of the Bible are the extent of my vocabulary. Three and a half years in a country and I can comprehend at least fifty percent of a Portuguese sermon but not carry on a conversation with a person at the grocery store.

So what do language skills and competing have to do with each other? I’d venture to say one of the ways cross-cultural workers subtly compete with each other is in the area of language ability. Who can conjugate the most verbs or recognize the most characters? Whose pronunciation is impeccable, and who can compose the best sentences? I’d also venture to say that if I had a more competitive nature, I might have learned more Portuguese. Needing to be better than teammates at understanding or speaking or writing the language would have motivated me to diligently study the language, instead of surviving with whatever aspects of the language I picked up through osmosis.

Competition between overseas workers includes one side which motivates us to improve, to provide hope to others and to work together, as well as another side which causes us to be discouraged and frustrated. The question we must ask ourselves is what side of competition do we focus on? What side of competition do we demonstrate within our families, our team, our organization? Is competing us versus them, or is it iron sharpening iron?

An attitude filled with pride and the need to be the best at every, single aspect of life overseas destroys relationships. While this attitude might lead to amazing ministry results, incredible cultural adjustment and fantastic language abilities, others may feel discouraged by the conversations about results or begin comparing themselves to an unrealistic standard. However, an attitude filled with humility and the desire to help others do well in life and ministry in a new culture will lead to close relationships and a team which desires to see each member reach their full potential in their unique role.

Striving for excellence is a great quality for cross-cultural ministry; however, excellence looks different for each person. Very few people will excel in every aspect of their life, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Competing with others when it’s your weakness versus their strength is a losing battle. Offering help in our areas of strength and asking for help in our areas of weakness eliminates this type of competition. If finding specific items at the store in your culture is overwhelming and discouraging for you, asking someone who loves scouring the store or market for specific items for help will relieve some of your stress and allow them to impart some of their shopping wisdom to you.

However, constantly comparing your shopping skills with theirs and attempting to find almost-impossible-to-obtain items before they do will lead to continued stress and frustration. The same principle of asking for help and offering help holds true for vocabulary words, event planning and support raising. Sharing tips about substitute ingredients and best cleaning products, passing down flashcards for verb conjugation, pitching in to help with someone else’s ministry activity – all of these are ways we can use our strengths to support each other not compete with each other.

An important aspect to remember as we view competition on the field is that each member of our team or ex-pat community adjusts differently to a new culture. Teams are often made up of people from a variety of countries or cultures within the same country, all with different personalities. So it shouldn’t surprise us that each person creates a new home in a different way or that each person learns a language in a different way or that each person cooks different favorite foods. Because all of us are unique and have differing skills and abilities, competing with each other in the area of adjustment is nonsensical.

My apartment won’t be decorated the same way as yours; my friendships won’t look like yours; my ministry strengths will probably differ from yours. When we release each other from the expectation to adjust and act the same in our adopted culture, we will be able to complement each other, instead of compete with each other, and provide hope to those who are just beginning their cross-cultural journeys. A team environment which focuses on iron sharpening iron will give new team members hope that they will adjust and hope that they will find their ministry niche. They will have the freedom to adjust at their own pace and the help they need as they learn to navigate their new culture.

Instead of striving to have the best ministry or the best family life or the best friendships with those around us, we should strive to encourage and help each other. Our goal shouldn’t be to flaunt our strengths but to use our strengths to help those serving alongside us.

How have you used your strengths to help others, and how have they used their strengths to help you in your cross-cultural journey?


  1. Elizabeth February 4, 2016

    I recently burst into tears on the street over this very same thing: competition, whether self- or other-inflicted. Homeschooling is taking everything from me right now. Everything. It’s a lot of mental work to calculate which child’s 15-minute lesson is going to fit right now, while the others do their individual work, etc. Plus the actual work of teaching — and there are 4 of them! I’m trying to get up early to spend time with God, and also exercise so I don’t lose my mind (not kidding on that). On top of that we just returned from a furlough so I feel I’ve lost almost all my language; it’s so bad that I’m actually sitting in on my kids’ language lessons right now.

    So, one day this week I had taught children all day long, and my brain cells were completely zonked. My husband took the kids to the street to play (we don’t have a yard), and I went with them because I like to watch them play ball, and I like to watch the sunset and the palm trees. I was expecting to sit quietly and not doing any thinking. Then a new neighbor walked up and tried to talk to me. She was using all sorts of slang and talking fast because my husband is completely fluent. I couldn’t even think in English by that time, let alone Khmer! He came over and helped me out, and I burst into tears. I told myself what a failure I was because I couldn’t even talk to my neighbors. I don’t measure up to the other women I know who manage to study and speak better than I do, I don’t measure up to the organization’s standards of women on the field, yada yada yada.

    So yeah, all that to say, yes, competition is bad! And we all need to support each other in whatever God has called us to do.

    Thanks for these words, Laura: “Striving for excellence is a great quality for cross-cultural ministry; however, excellence looks different for each person. Very few people will excel in every aspect of their life, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Competing with others when it’s your weakness versus their strength is a losing battle.”

    And P.S. Is that a new photo of you? 🙂

    1. Grace L February 4, 2016

      Elizabeth, my heart goes out to you with your struggles with homeschooling. I homeschooled my son from grade 2 through grade 6 long before I headed overseas for cross cultural work. I cannot count how many times I called up my best friend who was also homeschooling her boys and just bawled on the phone to vent my frustrations. Homeschooling is tough, no matter what continent you are on. I think homeschooling moms should be exempt from every other expectation that might be put on them by their organization, co-workers, friends or family.

      I will also say that so often I felt I was not doing a good job at homeschooling, but something worked well for my son in the long run. He just graduated from college and is now pursuing a masters-doctoral program. And this was the kid who gave me so much grief as I tried to get him to do his math…lol.

      I pray you can be encouraged today, Elizabeth, and let go of what other’s think you should be doing. Your kids are learning a lot more than you think.

      1. Elizabeth February 4, 2016

        Thank you for the encouragement Grace! And I quite agree — homeschooling is a full time job — more so than it used to be, actually. And I don’t actually want to quit homeschooling (have been there before but am not at that point now), I just know it’s about all I can manage at this point.

        Thanks again for your sweet words!

        1. Michele Womble February 5, 2016

          omigosh, yes, homeschooling ONE is a fool time job (you’re basically reviewing all the subjects with them, actually learning some of the subjects for the first time) but FOUR. Wow.

          And Grace, your encouraging for Elizabeth also encouraged me – some days I just feel like I’m doing a terrible job …but if you felt that way, too, and your son is doing great now (years later) – there’s hope!


          1. Grace L February 5, 2016

            Elizabeth and Michele and the many homeschooling moms out there, I pray for God’s grace for you and your children and that He will give you the strength to persevere. Kids are all so different and learn in different ways. It should be totally out of bounds for any homeschool parent to compare their teaching or the success or failure with other homeschool moms. I questioned myself as to whether I had done the right thing by homeschooling my son. Maybe he would have been a better student if he had been in a regular classroom. But he was an “alternative” learner then and the homeschooling and life experiences allowed him to become his own very unique person. And we all know that our kids are totally in God’s hands (remind yourselves of that daily, as I am sure you do).

            I pray that the families and communities you are a part of will be supportive of the sacrifice you are making to pour your lives into your kids. Just don’t be hard on yourselves, and keep trusting God for His plan for your kids.

    2. Laura February 4, 2016

      Elizabeth, yes, to supporting each other! Praying for you as you transition back to life on the field. And, yes, that is a new picture of me. 🙂

      1. Elizabeth February 4, 2016

        Thanks Laura! I never know if the pressure is just in my head or actually coming from other people (or both!), but I’m thinking the more we all support each other’s calling, the better life on the field will be. Right? 🙂

      2. Michele Womble February 5, 2016

        Laura, I noticed the new picture, too!  I like it. 🙂

  2. Emily Smith February 4, 2016

    If all we did was stop competing in regards to language, wouldn’t life be easier?

    I just had my own meltdown…in competition with myself. I did well learning Romanian. I can communicate what I need. (What anyone considers fluent is a different can of worms). Japanese didn’t go so well. Laura, I’m right with you. I can track a sermon (understand is way too generous a word)…but ask me to order at a restaurant and I freeze.

    It isn’t even that one language is harder than the other. For me it is a different set of life circumstances that made other things take priority. And yet I look around and start to compare myself with others and the shame and anxiety set in and I become even less productive. And less able to learn or ask for help.

    Thank you for this reminder.

    1. Laura February 4, 2016

      Emily, I love what you said about different life circumstances making other things more of a priority than language learning – yes!

  3. Michele Womble February 5, 2016

    This is why it’s so important to remember we are a TEAM.  A little healthy competition between teammates is normal and good (team practices, after all, often have the team mates compete against each other FOR PRACTICE – for improving – not for the win. To spur each other on in different areas, to realize that we need different players in different places on the field – what sort of football/volleyball/basketball/etc. team would we have if we were all trying to play the same position? But as a team – either we all work together  – appreciating and relying each other’s contribution in/from each different position – and win together, or we all lose.

    1. Laura February 5, 2016

      Michele, I love this! What a great comparison!

  4. Ellie February 12, 2016

    A little late to the game at the moment – I always seem to be reading posts a week or more behind! (Trying not to feel “bad” not a competition, right?! 😉 ) Lovely vision in this post Laura. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Laura February 16, 2016

      You’re welcome, Ellie!

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