By Riley Manning
A pastor, a rabbi, and a priest walk into a bar.
The bartender looks up from the glass he’s scrubbing and asks, “Is this some kind of joke?”
Any churchgoer will agree, scripture is serious business. Take the stories of Job, losing everything in a test of his faithfulness; Noah, seeing all mankind perish in the great flood, not to mention Jesus himself.
According to scripture, what a person does in his or her life will determine their fate for the rest of eternity.
Pretty heavy stuff.
Maybe it is the irony of holy men in sultry places, no longer grandstanding but merely being human, that has made such jokes popular.
But humor can prove a valuable and effective tool for a pastor, if he or she knows how to use it.
The Rev. Bob Whiteside spent 41 years in the pulpits of Methodist churches across the state, serving his final appointment at the First United Methodist Church in Starkville before retiring.
He said the key to humor is knowing what a congregation will let you get away with.
“A congregation has just as much of a personality as a pastor,” he said. “What flies at one church may fall flat at another. Especially with older congregation, for whom the sanctity of the word is so great. But for them, you tend to be able to get away with more if you’re older yourself.”
Whiteside said the biblical stories themselves can bring a chuckle, if told the right way. Some preachers use light-hearted analogies, or outright jokes to get the congregation to relax or focus.
“Even John Wesley, founder of Methodism, did some funny things, like the way he came to be a minister, or how he couldn’t get along with women,” he said. “But whatever it is has to tie together the essence of scripture,” he said. “The message can’t get lost in trifling stories.”
Whiteside has had the most luck with telling stories about his own life experiences to illustrate his point. The congregation can relate to a pastor when he tells stories about himself, he said. Plus, it ensures no one’s feelings get hurt.
“But even that can be overdone,” he said. “People will get tired of hearing about you. And very seldom does it go over well to talk about Saturday’s ball game on Sunday morning.”
The Rev. Jason McAnally, pastor of Origins church in Tupelo, and the Rev. Jason Webb, pastor of Ingram Baptist Church near Baldwyn, aren’t quite as far along in their pastoral journeys as Whiteside.
In his nearly three years at Ingram, Webb said he has found his personal “cheesy” brand of humor puts his congregation at ease.
“It’s gotten easier because my church knows my humor now. You know, it’s kind of like meeting a person for the first time,” he said. “As one of the younger adults at Ingram – I’m 29 – I’ve noticed it seems to cross generations and connect us more. There’s definitely something shared there.”
In his sermons, Webb said, humor can help his congregation understand biblical characters and relate to them better.
“If they can see David or Saul or Ruth as real deal people, the messages from those stories will carry more weight,” he said. “But it’s dangerous because you have to speak the truth. Otherwise you just become an entertainer, and sacrifice the ‘Aha!’ for the ‘haha.’”
McAnally, in his sixth year at Origins, said some may see humor as completely distractiing, but the Bible covers the spectrum of human experience. Laughter included.
“The scripture is full of human emotion – violence, humor, tragedy, and everything in between,” he said. “It’s a preacher’s job to incarnate that. But the humor has to have a direction, has to reveal something about the human condition. It gets a laugh, but hits home, too.”
A second-generation pastor, McAnally said growing up in many locations across North Mississippi, he came to recognize what he calls “the preacher voice,” or what a minister puts on to become a completely different person in the pulpit.
“I think preaching is kind of evolving to where more and more people are just being themselves. If you’re not funny in real life, your jokes probably won’t come off well in the pulpit,” he said. “I’m most comfortable when I’m being honest about my own feelings and thoughts.”
“It’s about being comfortable in your own skin,” he said. “At the end of the day, a congregation appreciates authenticity. Whether that comes out as being super intellectual or academic or funny, you can’t not be you.”