Humor and pastoral ministry
"Christ never laughed."
-- Father Jorge, The Name of the Rose
The other day I received feedback on a Christian conference that some folks I know attended. They didn't like the speaker. When I asked why, the reply was clear. They didn't go to the conference to hear a comedian. These folks appreciate humor as well as faith, which includes a blend of both, but when they came to this conference seeking fresh-baked bread of life and were a served a whoopie cushion or quips and cracks, they were not amused.
Humor is a valued friend and a devious enemy for pastors. The enemy factor comes in various forms. We are tempted to joke or roll around in levity when we are nervous or scared, as do all human beings. The problem is that on many occasions when nerves or fear are part of the equation, it is became those we are called to pastor are in hard places that are not funny. A quip or silly gesture may calm our nerves but at the price of empathy for those in pain.
Humor, like any drug, can become intoxicating. Few United Methodist churches belt out a hearty, "Amen," as feedback on our sermons but all save the most spiritually constipated will chuckle or belly-laugh at a good zinger. Each week's worship can become its own form of 'Top This" where the applause meter and the laugh track replace the fruit of the Spirit as metrics of success.
While I was serving as chaplain on the USS Iwo Jima a new ensign reported aboard, a fresh graduate of a prestigious university. He sang in the university chapel there, where he listened each week to a widely-known pastor with a reputation for having no unpublished thought. I asked about this prince of the pulpit and the ensign shrugged. "The guy is ok but every week was the same thing and it always began with a joke. In the choir we developed our own response to his joke: Here's the wind-up, and the pitch...oh he struck out, or singled, or occasionally homered." Humor misplaced can lead a preacher to fly out in foul territory on a routine basis, even if everyone is laughing.
Humor also can be a great friend. It is a quality that reflects our humanity and, when it flows from the heart, lowers the drawbridge of approach-ability by others. Humor can be preventive maintenance against pride, as in Chesterton's wise comment that "The reason angels can fly is that they take themselves so lightly." In his own day Lincoln often was reviled as a lightweight due to his ongoing humorous comments. Only later did people recognize how cloaking difficult truths in humor can help the medicine go down. So when some growled to Lincoln that General Grant was a drunk and should be fired, Lincoln replied by asking what brand of whiskey Grant used, since he wanted to send a barrel of it to all the other Union generals incapable of winning a battle.
In short, humor belongs in ministry. Humor directed at the self can help keep us sane and our perspective balanced. Humor that is natural and not forced or regurgitated from a book or web site can sprinkle sermons and teachings with the leaven of spiritual promise, not the levity of ego run amok. Humor in conversation that aligns with the personality of the pastor can spice pastoral contact with notes of grace and humanity, provided it is not forced or harsh or sarcastic. Billy Sunday captured the theme when he said to revival crowds he knew that God had a sense of humor, for he saw it "in the aardvark, the duck-billed platypus...and some of you people."
Do you have humor anywhere in your soul? Here's a test. Fill in the blank...
Question: How many bishops does it take to screw in a light bulb?