Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pastoring and Comedy

It's a sustained meme, a thread of thought that keeps popping up in the conversations pastors have about themselves.

You'd think we'd be psyched to be in ministry, filled with joy at the prospect of proclaiming the Good News, about sharing both the Spirit and the ethical teachings of that kwazy Nazarene.  But instead, many of us are struggling.

Why are we so exhausted?   Why are so many of us burned out and miserable and so sick of it all that we're seriously thinking about going into retail?  Or just walking the earth. 

There's been some interesting conversation about this lately, but one sustained theme I've seen reposted I find myself having some trouble processing.   In a post on the need for wholeheartedness in ministry, Todd Bolsinger suggests that part of the reason pastors burn out on ministry is this:
People now demand that their pastors be part shrewd cultural commentator and part comic.  We must entertain, inspire and instruct a little, all the while never really challenging the worldview or tribal instincts that make us Christians seem little different than anyone else.  
This is a significant factor we are burned out, or so the argument is presented.  We're just so tired of entertaining people.  Laugh, pastor, laugh, and we weep.  I'm down with the wholeheartenedness thing he presents.  Bolsinger makes some other excellent points in the article, which is well worth the read.   But I struggle with his take on "comedy."  Being "part comic" is a source of exhaustion?  

Pastors get exhausted, in my experience, by the [bovine excrement] parts of ministry.  Dealing with the awkward political dynamics of institutions?   Making sure you've filed your old-line-mandated 27 B/6 in triplicate?   A church leader who thinks "Here I stand, I can do no other" was Martin Luther referring to the tile selection in the Wittenberg foyer?  These things can be draining, dispiriting, and exhausting.   

Gossip and whispering and powerplays within the local church and in our broader church are also tremendously draining, but again, this is an inescapable reality of human gatherings.

Churches should resist this, but in my experience, they often do not.  We are, after all, flawed beings.  And those flaws exhaust us.   So it goes.  The good fight is tiring.  It's our task to do battle against them...or, rather, to teach those around us about the Way that challenges the power dynamics of every human condition.   Honestly, that's not all that tiring, because I'm not the one doing the challenging.  You got a problem with the Gospel?  I'm just the errand boy.  Take it up with Jesus.  

Where I diverge here is in some of the assumptions about expectations.   Or expectations about assumptions.  Or maybe it's both.

A congregation has a right to expect that their pastor will be a shrewd cultural commentator.  There's not a single thing wrong with that expectation.  If you're going to be prophetic, you'd danged well better be aware of culture.

And being a comic?  If they're a comedian, well, all the better.   

Because comedy isn't treacle.  It's not fluff.  Not the comedy I enjoy, anyway.

Neither is it canned, culled from the pages of some "1001 Ways To Start that Lousy Sermon With A Laugh" book.  

Real comedians use humor to challenge and transform.  They subvert and undercut the garbage, the false assumptions and the self-righteousness and the illusions that tear apart our society.  They speak truth in a way that resonates deeply, and in a way that entertains, disarms, and forces us to think.

Laughter connects us.  It opens us up a little bit.  And then, if it's being used rightly, it teaches.

I'm thinking Jon Stewart, whose "comedy" is some of the best political commentary out there today.  I'm thinking George Carlin challenging the powers that be.  I'm thinking Flip Wilson subversively tearing a generation's hearts out at the injustice of segregation.  I'm thinking Patton Oswalt lately.  

I'm thinking of what it was like to read the Onion on September 12, 2001.

It's just a particularly potent way of talking about what matters.  That it makes us laugh is just a bonus.