Developing curious communities
Regaining our sense of curiosity is essential for individual and organizational success. As children, we are naturally curious. We tend to lose this inquisitive trait, however, by the time we enter school. At Vibrant Faith, we’ve noticed that the same thing happens with churches where new missions starts are laser focused on the people they serve, are keenly aware of societal trends, and are tracking the changes in their local communities. As these faith communities mature, they often fail to sustain the same level of curiosity related to their ministry context and lose touch with what’s most important. Vibrant Faith strives to instill a culture of ongoing curiosity as we equip leaders charged with re-creating faith formation and revitalizing congregations. We’ve developed a toolbox of resources to support appreciative inquiry, discovery, and dialogue.
We also help leaders embed these five practices to foster creative and curious communities:
- Ask lots of questions. Curious leaders ask questions that start with “how,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “why.” Some of my favorite questions begin with “What would happen if” and “Is there another approach we haven’t considered?” Many congregations we serve embed open-ended, provocative questions into leadership meeting discussions or when they’re planning or evaluating programs and ministries. Churches we work with often engage their staff and elected leaders with gathering feedback from 4-6 people, at and/or beyond the church, every month related to a particular ministry question. Leaders are trained to listen deeply with no hidden agendas. Time is set aside at meetings for leaders to share their learnings and explore ways to apply their insights.
- Pay attention to results. Leaders learn from their successes as well as their failures. They learn to conduct autopsies without blame where they question assumptions, approaches, practices, promotions, and process. They make note of what worked, what didn’t, and what they’d do differently if they did it again. We teach leaders how to evaluate and help them decider where to archive their insights so that they’re readily available when needed.
- Test your assumptions through pilot projects and experiments. Leaders must learn to risk failure in pursuit of potential ministry innovations. Just as we may welcome surprise into our lives by trying new foods, testing our skills and exploring new sites when traveling, we must foster ways to invite surprise into ministry settings through ongoing experimentation by testing new ministry approaches. A church recently repurposed their weekly onsite Bible study, adding an online version of the same Bible study materials using a Facebook group. They now have more people engaged in the online study than they do with the onsite version. Another church piloted a weekend intergenerational mission trip that was a resounding success. They’re planning another intergenerational mission trip but this time it will include three other local congregations.
- Dial back your programs. It’s hard to find time to ask good questions and pilot new projects without reducing the level of programming that takes place at most churches. Churches we serve begin with evaluating their programs and ministries through the lens of their impact and reach. The evaluation process helps leaders discern what to stop or start doing. Programs with limited impact and reach are ended, creating space for rethinking ministry, gathering feedback, and testing new ideas. We recognize that people’s capacity for envisioning new possibilities will be severely constrained if they feel that they have no margins for acting on their ideas. Curiosity grows when we create intentional pauses in people’s routines and free up the church’s calendar of events. Many churches we work with create “sabbath months” when only minimal activities are offered during this time to allow people to catch their breath and to explore new ministry possibilities. Two churches I work with have installed “sabbath weeks” for all program staff where this time spent praying, reflecting on ministries, and discerning next steps.
- Quit playing the role of the expert. In this time of disruptive change, it’s often more important to “unlearn” and take time to challenge our approaches and practices. Our past successes often sabotage our future intentions, preventing us from seeing that the things we’re currently doing no longer work or serve the mission. Help your leaders be comfortable with saying I don’t know and help them seek the collective wisdom of your faith community. Some churches we work with have interns who are charged with asking questions that challenge current perspectives and practices.
Which of these five practice ring true for your setting? Are there practices you’d add to this list to foster a culture of curiosity?