Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Curiosity Doesn't Always Kill
Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, published in 1937, is a fictional account of the private reflections of a young priest about life in his small rural parish in France. While exploring options for next fall’s “Practice of Christian Ministry” class reading list, I pulled this classic off the shelf. The opening paragraphs are sobering for those who have watched far too many mainline churches struggle to recover their passion and rediscover their vocation in a radically changing context. “My parish,” says the priest,
is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it. Some day perhaps we shall catch it ourselves, become aware of the cancerous growth within us. You can keep going a long time with that in you.
To be sure, this gloomy portrait omits a vast number of congregations where excitement, not boredom, is the order of the day, where passion, not ennui, prevails. But my travels over the last few years suggest that boredom does afflict far too many of our parishes, places where participation is motivated more by duty than delight, where generosity is inspired more by guilt than gratitude, and where habit, not joy, marks the rhythm of worship and community.
This reality poses a serious challenge for religious leaders and for theological education. The tempting response is to live in denial. Bernanos’ priest offers a biting critique of his superiors: They are “no longer official optimists. Those who still profess the rule of hope,” he says, “teach optimism only by force of habit, without believing in what they say.” This quote caught my attention with an almost physical jolt. During ten years as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ (not exactly a religious “superior,” but close enough) people often looked to me for a positive, hopeful, optimistic word amid the disarray and uncertainty of post-establishment mainline church life. Was I merely the “official optimist, spouting hope only by force of habit? I hope not. But if the church does not need “official optimists” among its leaders, what does it need?
One approach is to try to make our leaders and our programs more entertaining. Bored? Try this! Watch this! Experience this! Entertainment is not a bad thing, but as the antidote to boredom it is perilous. What is entertaining today will quickly become boring tomorrow, requiring an endless pursuit of market share in a fickle demographic. Black and white must be replaced by color, which must be replaced by ever larger flat screens, and then high definition, and then surround sound, and on it goes. If entertainment is all we can offer, boredom will snap at our heels constantly, burning out leaders who finally run out of new tricks.
But at its deepest level, boredom, whether individual or corporate, reflects not so much an absence of entertainment as an absence of curiosity. In my experience, lively, engaged, faithful congregations are congregations led by pastors and leaders who are intellectually, morally, and spiritually curious and who cultivate that curiosity in their congregations. “God is Still Speaking” renewed many congregations in the United Church of Christ in part because it was fun and playful. In other words, it had entertainment value! But more importantly it reconnected many to a deep impulse in our tradition that honors and cultivates curiosity – “The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Holy Word.” Faithful, vital congregations unburdened of boredom may not necessarily have the latest entertainment systems, but they consistently cultivate curiosity about God, about the world around them, and about the moral meaning of our lives.
The church ought to be able to expect that graduates of CTS, or of any of our theological schools, have developed certain core competencies – preaching, pastoral care, church administration, etc. But what the church also needs are curious leaders who can in turn inspire a deep communal curiosity reflected in people who expect and desire to be surprised by the world and by God. Here is a rich task for centers of theological education like CTS. Curiosity may kill cats. But curiosity also gives life to communities of faith. So out with “official optimists,” and in with colleagues whose contagious curiosity can give boredom a run for its money. We don’t often list curiosity among the list of attributes desired of a new pastor. Perhaps we should, unless we’re merely content to be bored.