What Can Comedians Teach Us About Ministry?

What Comedians Can Teach Us About Ministry There’s a principle in improvisational comedy called “Yes… and.” The gist is that when someone offers an idea or direction during the game or skit, the other actors should respond with “yes… and” instead of “no” or “but.” By immediately accepting the idea and not shooting it down the energy and action of the game is maintained instead of screeching to a stop:

(NB: The idea isn’t to actually say “yes… and”; it speaks more to a mindset than a scripted line.)

Beyond comedy, this is also a good principle for ministry.

When people come to register at a parish or to ask for a sacrament, they come to us in the midst of their lives: dealing with wounds, asking questions, and searching for the meaning and community that will bring them fulfillment. This process is ongoing. More often than not they have not reached the end of their spiritual journey, ready to “cast down their nets” and embrace the life of Christian discipleship. As a result, they may balk when encouraged to take the next few steps to become engaged in religious education, preparation for marriage, or turn away from some abiding sin.

For example, many couples today come to parishes already cohabitating. This is obviously far from the ideal. Church teaching and sociological studies show that marriages are more likely to succeed if couple live apart until their vows are completed. However, many couples in this situation encounter the blunt message that “until you separate we cannot proceed with marriage preparation.” Many no doubt turn away and simply procure a civil marriage in place of the sacrament.

Adapting the “yes… and” mindset, a pastor or marriage preparation coordinator might instead say:

“Welcome! We are so glad you have come to the Church to celebrate this sacred occasion! However, we note that you are both currently living together. In order to best prepare for your wedding and marriage, we would ask you to consider living apart for the next six months until the wedding. Think of this time as a retreat as you prepare to make your vows. And we would like to help you do this. In fact, we have a couple in our parish who have a spare bedroom that they have offered to anyone preparing for marriage, rent free, so that you can make the most of this time of preparation.”

Adopting the “yes… and” mindset helps to open doors to evangelization by acknowledging the reality of people’s lives while also pointing towards further healing, deeper relationships, and growing faith.

How could you adopt the “yes… and” mindset in your ministry?

Monty Python: Christological Scholars?

I recently completed watching Monty Python: Almost the Truth, a fascinating six-hour documentary on the British comedy troupe. The fifth episode of the series focuses on The Life of Brian, a film about a reluctant false messiah at the time of Christ.

When they first set out to write the film the Pythons started with, in their own words, a lot of blasphemous jokes about Christ. But the funny thing is that, as they reviewed what they had written, they realized it wasn’t really that funny. The funny stuff tended to happen around Christ rather than to or  because  of Christ — the humor is in how people misinterpret Christ’s words. And, in the final product, Christ only appears twice (at his birth and at the Sermon on the Mount) and is portrayed just as he appears in Sacred Scripture.

The Pythons spend several minutes in the documentary reflecting on why humor about Jesus doesn’t work, but I think John Cleese makes the most astute — and Christologically  relevant  — point. Working from the Henri Bergon theory of comedy, Cleese explains that character humor arises from the conflict between an inflexible character and the situation around him. Think of the upper-crust aristocrat who refuses to acknowledge the chaos in which he finds himself.  Christ, on the other hand, would not have been inflexible. In Cleese’s words he would have been “infinitely flexible” because he had no ego.

I think this is a profound insight into the nature of Christ and our own attempts to imitate him. Christ didn’t fall into the legalism of the Pharisees; neither did he attempt to water down God’s expectations of Man. He showed us the path of justice and mercy; judgement and love. If we are called to imitate Christ, then we must be equally flexible — not in our beliefs and doctrines, but in how we apply them in the real world. We must be ready with a word of condemnation for sin, but love for our brothers and sisters. We must seek to decrease so that Christ may increase in us. We must rid ourselves of selfishness and self-centeredness so that the Holy Spirit can work in our lives. As Heather King recently wrote:

Here’s how, in my experience, you know you’re becoming a follower of Christ. You begin to want to be seen less, not more. You begin to want to be quieter, not louder.  Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from scoring points among your “friends.” Knowing you’re on the right track doesn’t come from winning  useless arguments. You find yourself making tiny sacrifices. You find yourself experiencing tiny moments of joy. You find yourself mysteriously drawn to the Gospels, to Confession, to Mass.

Unfortunately  Cleese’s remarks are only in the extended version of the documentary available on Netflix; this YouTube video features some reflections from the other members of Monty Python about why Christ is “not pervious to comedy.”  (Warning: video is NSFW due to language and non-sexual nudity.)

September 2014 Addition: The video has since been taken down from YouTube and the documentary is not currently available on Netflix. If you happen to come across it, it really is worth your time!