Practicing curiosity: How to connect better with congregants

In his wonderfully insightful article, Faith and Work – The Challenge to Embrace the Church, Roger Anderson lists 11 barriers that prevent pastors from fully embracing vocation theology and championing a faith and work movement in their churches. Among the barriers posed is feeling ill-equipped. Pastors often sense a lack in this area, yet there is a remedy. One unexpected practice to help pastors feel prepared for conversations about vocation and work is curiosity. What if pastors added to their standard list of pastoral practices — prayer, ministry of the word, visiting the sick — the discipline of humble curiosity?

Shepherds who are curious

Although rarely identified as a pastoral characteristic, curiosity is an essential quality of any person called to shepherd and equip God’s people. One of the most frequent metaphors for leadership in Scripture is shepherding. David identified the Lord as his shepherd in the Old Testament, and Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd in the New Testament. That is why throughout the Bible the leaders of God’s people are also identified as “shepherds” (Jer 23; 1 Pet 5). They are called to represent the character of God to his people. Even the word pastor means “shepherd.”

What makes this metaphor compelling is the trust and intimacy that must exist between a shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd leads, feeds, and protects the flock, and, as Jesus said, “The sheep follow him, because they know his voice … I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me” (John 10:4, 15). This provides us a vivid, relational image of pastoral leadership.

To shepherd well, a pastor must know his sheep. To know implies curiosity about the people God has entrusted to your care. Curious pastors will study their congregations, they will seek to understand their lives and contexts, and they will give particular attention to the vocations of their people. Curious pastors will want to know what their sheep do Monday through Saturday and how they do it.

Shepherds as learners

When pastor Jon Tyson first arrived in New York City to plant a church, he recognized he could not effectively pastor his growing congregation without investigating their vocations. “I started subscribing to a bunch of emails about current events in various industries that particularly affected the people in my congregation,” Tyson said. He dedicates time every week to reading books about these industries. His goal is not to become an expert, but to be familiar enough to have meaningful conversations with people about their work.[1]

Tyson says his commitment to studying the vocations of his church members and neighbors is often met with surprise. “I’ll meet someone in a coffee shop or one of my neighbors and ask them what they do. When I share something I know about their work they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a pastor? I can’t believe you know about that.’ It happens all the time.” Tyson is clear, however: “[My] goal is not to impress them but to connect with them.” His curiosity then continues to drive the conversation. “I tell the person that I actually don’t know that much about their work.” “And I ask them, ‘Please tell me more.’ That puts me in the posture of being the learner and the other person in the position of the expert.”

Asking good questions

Don’t assume that practicing curiosity means immediately reallocating hours of your time to reading about agriculture or financial derivatives. It can be as simple as asking good questions. Pastor Kent Duncan, for example, says that when he meets with members of his church, he is more intentional about asking about their vocation. It isn’t a perfunctory question like, “How’s work?” Instead, Duncan inquires more meaningfully. “Can you tell me about your work?” is a better question. He wants to understand the significance of what they do throughout the week.

Curiosity befits the pastoral calling

This essential quality of pastoral curiosity grows when pastors begin to put the life and context of their sheep ahead of an agenda as shepherds. When we recognize that genuinely seeking to understand their callings is also part of our calling, we grow together as a congregation.


Topics: Work and Discipleship

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).