“What do you know that I need to know right now?”
My mentor, former bishop Rick Foss, shared that question with me a long time ago. It has been a powerful gift throughout my ministry since. It has a way of focusing conversations and inviting people to share what they are most concerned about. In all kinds of ministry contexts curiosity is a fruitful leadership and faith practice. In small town and rural contexts, when you are new to a place, this question can be priceless.
Through the years I have watched many pastors and leaders begin their ministry. Those who were curious or worked at discerning what was going on in the context through deep listening were rewarded with trust because they could admit they did not know everything.
For example, if you don’t know much about soil, and you preach about soils or talk about some article you read, you could dig yourself in a hole because farmers and gardeners discover how shallow your understanding really is about what you’re teaching. Curious pastors, ministers, deacons and leaders identify people they trust to test their language and thoughts about areas they have not spent their lives working in. They remember there are many members in the body of Christ.
I remember pastors who did not grow up on a farm or around other rural businesses who offered to go and ride with farmers in combines or in grain trucks. Their investment of a couple hours entering into the world of a congregation member not only deepened the relationship with the person and household, but it also illustrated a theological point as well. God cares about our everyday life and many callings. God and the new leaders are not just focused on what happens inside the church building or the Church as an institution.
Other new leaders and mature leaders in a community engage in strategic visitation to learn more about a particular generation, other peoples’ work lives or about things like hobbies and interests. If a picture is worth a thousand words, visiting someone where they live out a calling is worth thousands more in what you learn and what you communicate as you seek to love and understand your rural or small town neighbor better.
As ministers, deacons, and pastors, we speak through our actions more loudly than with our words. People notice when they see their spiritual leader out around town, at athletic events or intentionally visiting with people at the local cafe. Sociologists call these efforts at developing relationships and understanding bridging and bonding social capital.
Our parishioners notice when new leaders in a community are posting pictures of the beautiful people or the beautiful moments like a fierce sunset in their social media. I wonder how you could communicate in words and actions that you love people in your context, especially if it is a new place? I wonder how you could communicate that you love where God has placed you to serve?
Curiosity as a faithful leadership practice
We are not so quick to think about curiosity as a faith and leadership practice. In fact we might think of the proverb “Curiosity killed the cat,” which warns us about asking too many questions. In its earliest form that was actually only half of the saying. While that may be true, a lack of curiosity about people, your community and your setting can be even more of a problem.
Another word that we are more likely to use and identify as a faith and leadership practice is the word “discernment.” This word means “to separate” or “separate apart.” Curiosity or discernment reveals we are teasing or separating apart, in order to better understand our new congregation or community.
When we wonder what God is up to in our world or in our new context, we invite others to look for signs of God’s presence and work. We pray “your will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer. The petition invites us to remember God has been here before we arrived and will be here after we leave. A God who loves people enough to send a Son into the world is curious to better understand humanity. When we pray “your will be done,” it opens the question of what God longs for … and how God is at work in our midst.
As leaders it is always good to remember that how you lead can communicate that you trust God has given people gifts and experiences that may enhance the congregation’s and community’s life. When you ask someone, “Could you teach me about that?” you are freed from having to know everything. You also open up a conversation with searching talk instead of stepping into controlling language.
Want to hear more? You are invited to a free webinar “Getting Curious: Entering and Serving in a Small Town or Rural Context.” Join us on March 4, 10:30 a.m. Central Time.
The webinar will look into the coming chapters for ministers entering a new rural context.
- It will feature a panel of experienced leaders talking about improving the odds of a successful transition of leaders
- There will be a section on a broader way to think about the assets and capital of your community and congregation.
- We will share one tool that has helped pastors and ministers get off to a good start built around gathering people for a small group conversation.
- Finally, we will give a brief introduction to the coming live learning community and asynchronous course.
In case you are interested but not able to attend the webinar, the recordings will be available.