by Laird Stuart
For a number of years I taught a course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on parish administration and leadership. At one point I was trying to think of a way to encourage the students to be curious. Whenever an emergency happened in their community of faith, I wanted them to be curious before they reacted. So I suggested this distinction: there is a difference between a whale and a scuba diver. A whale is an animal that only surfaces to spout off. We have seen whales or pictures of whales in the ocean surfacing and spouting off. We have known people who acted like whales. Truth be told, all of us have had our whale moments. Scuba divers, on the other hand, go down to investigate. They go down to discover, to explore, to move around and see what they can see. When a crisis happens, the point is to be a scuba diver and not a whale.
Yet, there is another distinction which needs to be considered. There are various types of curiosity. Three are especially valuable to pastors. There is what might be called analytical curiosity. This is the curiosity that seeks to understand what has happened. It tries to gather information. It is somewhat removed and objective. A pastor might use analytical curiosity in a hospital room when trying to listen carefully and learn as much as possible about what has been happening. Analytical curiosity is invaluable when working with a biblical text. Form critical questions abide in their usefulness: what is being said, how is it being said, why is it being said and so forth.
Then there is moral curiosity. This is the curiosity that seeks to understand how an event influences a community. It listens for the new strains and tensions in the community. The focus could be a committee, a mission team, a governing board or the whole community of faith. This is the same curiosity that is useful in considering the social or political dynamics in the society and world around a community of faith.
Another kind of curiosity could be called empathetic curiosity. This is the curiosity that seeks to understand how individuals are experiencing an event, how they will experience an illness or injury, how they will experience a decision making process in the community, or how they will experience a sermon based on a certain text or texts. Empathetic curiosity listens not just to the content of messages but to their tone and mood.
It is easy for busy pastors to settle in one or the other of these curiosities. Yet, so often in ministry all types of curiosity are valuable. Holding all three can be challenging. Knowing how to navigate from one to the other — especially in a living, dynamic conversation or argument — is certainly not easy.
There is an old saying: “Curiosity killed the cat. Generosity brought him back.” Analytic, moral and empathic curiosity has inherent generosity. When they are exercised, curiosity brings up a generous amount of information and insight.
LAIRD STUART is a retired teaching elder who is a conference leader for Presbyterian CREDO and a member of the board of trustees of Princeton Theological Seminary.