Team Player

This essay explores the nature of team play, how it relates to Christianity and its modern counterfeit imitation, Relationshipism, and what that does to an outsider like me.

Full disclosure: I am not a sportsman. My father was never into physical sports, and I acquired that value from him. At an age when most little boys were playing catch with their fathers, mine was teaching me chess. He was a pioneering missionary in the Amazon jungle, learning a language no outsider ever spoke, so my only playmates at the time were my two younger sisters. All Robert Fulghum ever needed to know, he learned in kindergarten. Kindergarten is where you learn how to be nice, to share, and to color inside the lines, good team play values, but I was homeschooled that year.

Team sports require the cooperation of all the players for their team to win. One sports commentator famously remarked, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." That value is also taught in the American education factories. Private education can focus on the Biblical values of Justice, Truth, and Mercy (or their secular counterparts), but the factories just stamp out near-identical cookies with group-think socialist values. Individual sports like wrestling and chess cannot be efficiently taught in American education factories, but team sports can be and are. Because I missed out on the early training, nobody wanted me on their team. There's an important insight in that, which I will come back to.

Not being an expert in such matters, I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but team sports can be roughly divided into two categories, which I will call "creamy" and "crunchy" after the corresponding peanut butter varieties. Creamy team sports like basketball are egalitarian, where every player is equal and more or less has the same duties. Soccer and hockey are creamy sports if you discount the goalie. In crunchy sports like baseball and (American) football, the different players have very different roles, which require different kinds of training. This makes a difference in the nature of team play.

The purpose of sports is generally about winning. Some idealists like to think that fair play and "sportsmanship" are important goals, but that is mostly relegated to the early (and not all) high school versions, and in pickup games; college and pro sports are solely concerned with winning. You are allowed on the team if you accept the group goal of winning and you have the skills to help the team win.

Cooperation for a common goal is a virtue presumably taught by team sports in the education factories. "Not a team player" is a criticism applied to players who exhibit some personal goal other than the team winning, typically something self-promoting like trying for the highest personal score. A basketball player can hoard the ball and attempt to be the highest scoring player in the game, but that usually comes at the expense of passing the ball to other players better able to score at that instant in the game. The final score suffers because of this one player's selfishness. This failure is less common (but not completely unseen) in the crunchy sports because of the assigned activities of individual players, where there is less opportunity for individual grandstanding to overcome team play.

The same "not a team player" criticism is metaphorically applied to people in other group environments where individual players are evidently seeking some personal agenda other than the success of the group mission. It is an important value in large companies where middle managers are responsible for establishing departmental goals in support of a larger corporate agenda. Small businesses operate completely under the personal oversight of the owner, who sets all the goals and evaluates every employee privately. This becomes impractical when the number of employees rises significantly above a dozen or so, and the entire group dynamics changes as a result. Middle managers -- and also top executives in a public corporation -- are given a goal to achieve which is not of their own making, and they must assemble and motivate their "team" to achieve that goal. The team sports metaphor becomes the explanatory story that everybody understands. People unwilling or unable to contribute to the established goal are deemed not team players, and are removed from the play.

American churches are organized along the same lines as American businesses, because they are businesses. Besides, that's what people understand. Small churches, like small businesses, are run by the whim of the pastor, who is in absolute authority. Like the small business owner, he is constrained by the marketplace to produce a product that people are willing to pay for, or he cannot remain in business very long, but he runs the show and everybody knows it. Larger churches take a crunchy team approach. The senior pastor, like the quarterback or CEO, sets the agenda and calls the plays, then the other members of his leadership "team" do their jobs to work together and support that agenda. If you are "not a team player" you are disinvited to participate.

Team sports is a concept completely absent from the Bible. Sporting metaphors abound, but they are all individual sports like track and wrestling. There are several places where the aggregate of believers -- the church -- is described as "a body", but the focus is not so much on teamwork as on the different roles of the different body parts, and each member doing its part in the functioning whole. That sounds a little like teamwork, but there is no intimation of "team spirit". It's more like the small business model, where everybody is responsible only to the owner -- and the owner is Jesus Christ, not the local pastor. Cooperation is still essential: for example, the human body cannot walk unless the two legs operate in coordination, but what the teeth are doing while those legs are walking is irrelevant. Some of us "can't walk and chew gum at the same time," but that problem is in the head; in the body of Christ there is no such problem.

Teams have a special group dynamic that is negated by the owner-employee small-business model. The official team agenda is set outside the group. In team sports, the goal is to win, and the rules of the game have been established elsewhere. In the large corporation or large church where the team is the model of operation, the goal for each middle manager is set by the CEO or senior pastor; the team is responsible for working together to achieve that goal. I was once a member of a such corporate team. The team was floundering because the assigned leader (the quarterback picked by the CEO) lacked the administrative skills to lead the team to achieve their established agenda. Everybody was frustrated. I discovered that the rules we were to operate by had a provison for electing a different leader to replace him, and when I explained it to the group, they did that. The CEO was livid and would have fired me on the spot if he could. Why? It turned out that the official goal for this team was substantially different from the CEO's private agenda. Perhaps his protoge was implementing the private agenda, perhaps he was only incompetent (I don't know), but the team model failed because of the disconnect. The CEO was the closest I've ever seen to a Relationshipist in the corporate world, and the whole company eventually went down under his bungling leadership.

When I was in (education-factory) high school and required to participate in the obligatory team sports of the physical education classes, the most skillful sportsmen of the class would be designated by the teacher as team captains, and they would take turns choosing up members from the rest of us. I was always the last person chosen ("Do we have to take Pittman?"), probably because I was the best player on the other team. I couldn't run, and being near-sighted, I couldn't see well enough to hit or catch the ball. Most kids learn those skills in grade school, but I'd missed out on that important part of my education. As a consequence, I had nothing to contribute to the team, and they (rightly) didn't want me. I hated it. Only once I made the mistake of saying so in the hearing of the coach, who failed me for that quarter. But I always I tried my best and (with that one exception) was consistently awarded an "A" for my effort.

Was I a team player? I had nothing to contribute. Relationshipists value "relationship" (affirmation) over mission success, and when I did not disclose my true feelings, I was positively affirmed for my worthless efforts. In the corporate world I had (and I still have) a valuable skill to bring to the table; when I work directly for the top man in the company, we work well together -- not because of any teamwork dynamic, but because I have and contribute value to a shared agenda. Farther down the food chain, the team spirit kicks in, and their choice is to throw me off. It isn't for my refusal to work with them toward a shared agenda, but rather because I hold that agenda in higher regard than unconditional affirmation. So they affirm each other and their team spirit by the ultimate disaffirmation directed toward me.

The American church is not different from the pagan corporate world they live in. Two of those disaffirming expulsions happened in a church context. The continuing failure of my magnum opus, the largest single software project I ever worked on, is in my opinion entirely due to the disconnect between the "team spirit" in the evangelical churches in America, and the God-given agenda of making disciples from every nation and language group of the world. The leadership has an agenda, and I'm not on it. "Do we have to take Pittman?" They cannot hear any Coach telling them yes.

So what do I do? Abandon the work God seems to have given me to do, and just play on the team and submit to the team agenda, nevermind that it differs significantly from what I read in the Bible? The public team agenda explicitly teaches that we should be getting our orders from God through the Bible, so this winds up being a self-contradiction. Or do I stand off to the side, listening to the Coach on the sidelines pointing to the other goal line, and waiting for the team -- or at least access to the ball -- so I can pick it up and run in the direction the Coach is pointing? This is not a hard question, unless you are a Relationshipist.

Am I a "team player"? That depends on what you mean by the question. In a group environment where there is no private agenda different from the public posture, and where the public agenda is something I conscientiously endorse, I have no trouble cooperating with the other group members in support of the shared goals. I do that, for example, in the sound booth at church. But the idea of "team player" seems to include putting personal loyalty to the other team members above the established group goal, perhaps even above personal integrity. I have a problem with that. I cannot find support for that value in my Bible.

Tom Pittman
2010 May 26


The arguments (For and) Against Relationshipism
Relationships, concluding that people mean "affirmation" by that word
Relationshipism, defining the term (2008 October 31 blog post)
God of Truth, a draft of what might eventually become a book
Men Are from Mars, a list of specific Thinker/Feeler differences
The bottom of my home page, a challenge to do something about it
Thinker/Feeler Distinction (October 27 blog post)