Did you hear the one about the people who are trying to find humor in ministry?
Can you say the word “breast” in a sermon? If so, how often?
When trying to keep a congregation’s attention during a long homily, how much disrobing in the pulpit is too much?
And what is the deal with communion tablecloths? Can they be used for anything besides communion — say, as props or costume accessories?
These were some of the questions of professional concern that emerged on Friday during an unusual workshop for divinity students and clergy at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. The 30 students in the class dutifully wrote them down, between bursts of laughter, then took notes on the answers, all of which were funny, too. (Try, the teacher explained, to keep the word breast “in context.”)
The four-hour session, “Humor in Ministry,” was a kind of seminar in how to do stand-up for God.
The workshop’s leader, the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church on East 31st Street, moonlights as a nightclub comedian. Her adjunct for the day was another stand-up comic with whom she sometimes works, Rabbi Bob A. Alper, who bills himself as “the only practicing rabbi in the world doing stand-up comedy intentionally.”
Ms. Sparks and Rabbi Alper, invited as part of the seminary’s “field-based” program to teach some of the intangibles of ministry not covered in the divinity curriculum, surveyed the arc of potentially humorous situations — including weddings, funerals and long, hot summer days when even the sermonizer can lose the thread of a sermon.
They discussed the often-overlooked humor in some passages of the Bible, including Jesus’ use of irony and exaggeration, and the ribaldry in the Book of Esther. They reviewed the basic etiquette of being funny at a funeral. (“It has to be very carefully done,” Rabbi Alper said.) They talked technique — how it helps to edit sermons, to stay topical and to use small words.
But both Ms. Sparks and Rabbi Alper took pains to assert — as almost all comedians who talk about comedy do — that being funny is a serious business.