C.S. Lewis said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven,” and I think humor is no laughing matter for leaders. In honor of April Fools’ Day, here are three reasons why humor is one of the most underestimated devices in a leader’s toolbox.
1. Humor is Good for Morale
You have probably sat in tense meetings where the only laughter is nervous laughter, and likewise you have probably sat in meetings where the laughter is easy and comfortable. There is a time and place for serious meetings, but humor makes showing up for work more enjoyable. The first time I met many of my current colleagues in my position at Houghton College was attending a staff retreat two months before my official start date. My new colleagues laughed together so much it caught me off-guard, and convinced me that I was going to love my new job. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (NIV), and it is perhaps especially true when working with employees and volunteers. Make your environment a place where people have fun, and they’ll gladly work themselves to exhaustion.
Our college president, Dr. Shirley Mullen (a strong leader and gifted scholar who has earned two Ph.D.’s and was featured on the cover of Christianity Today magazine) took part in an incredible phone prank last spring. The video of the prank was posted and re-posted by folks at Houghton College who said things like, “This is why I love working at Houghton.” Need I say more?
Humor is good for morale, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many comedians have had unhappy childhoods, and 80-85% came from poor families. Humor is a coping mechanism for otherwise unhappy people. Winston Churchill said, “Famous men are usually the result of an unhappy childhood,” so it is my parents’ fault that I’m not famous.
2. Humor is Disarming
Before you are ever going to be able to make some people change you first need to be able to make them laugh. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and an engaging sense of humor isn’t what you do instead of saying something important. A sense of humor helps take the edge off of a hard message. Nothing is quite so disarming for a person who is skeptical about your message than making them laugh.
There are people who can tell jokes and one-liners and keep you in stitches, and there are those rare people who are just plain funny. I think most people do not expect their pastors or anyone else to be incredibly eloquent all the time, but they will extend you a lot of grace if you just help them laugh. A leader who doesn’t have a good sense of humor (whether he or she doesn’t have a sense of humor or has an inappropriate sense of humor) had better be really strong in other areas to compensate for it.
A good sense of humor, like a good question, is always disarming. There was a certain teacher who always answered people’s questions with questions of his own. Finally one day someone asked him, “Sir, why do you always answer questions with a question?” He answered, “Why not?”
3. The One Enthroned in Heaven Laughs
Psalm 2:4 says “The one enthroned in heaven laughs” at the nations who conspire, plot, and band together against the Lord’s anointed. Many of us picture God in heaven scowling, or any other number of ways, but have you ever pictured God in heaven laughing? At the very end of his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton says that Christ, who “fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall” seems to be hiding something from us. He says the stoics concealed their tears, but not Jesus. He says that diplomats pride themselves in constraining their anger, but not Jesus – he turned over tables at the temple. Chesterton writes, “There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” Mirth is an old fashioned word for laughter, humor, hilarity, or fun.
Have you ever thought of a sense of humor as being a godly characteristic? The fact of the matters is that there is so much humor in the Bible, but we are just too serious to even notice half of it. Consider these examples:
- I cannot help but chuckle every time I read about the transfiguration when Peter blurts out an idea to Jesus about putting up tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. My favorite part is when scripture adds the comment, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:5-6, NIV).
- Another favorite example of mine is King Xerxes’ conversation with Haman about “the man the king delights to honor” whom Haman assumes is himself, but is actually Mordecai, the man Haman is plotting to have impaled by the king (Esther 5:9-6:14).
- Lastly, I don’t know if Jesus was trying to be funny in this example or not, but I laugh out loud every time I read Mark 1:37-38 where Jesus had gone out to a solitary place to pray, “and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else…”
Do you think a humorless teacher could have attracted all of those crowds? If you don’t find yourself chuckling once in a while when you notice humor in the Bible I guarantee you’re doing it wrong.
A Word of Caution
Humor is a big deal for leaders in many different settings, but humor is always a risk. Some of the most biting comments people have ever made in my life have been put-downs wrapped in a “joke.” Like any form of communication, people will sometimes hear what they want to hear, not what you are actually saying, so next week I’ll follow this post up with a post entitled, “5 Rules for Joke-Telling Leaders.”
© Steve Dunmire 2014
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.
 C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Orlando:Harcourt, Orlando, 1963, 1964), 93.
 Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 38.
 G.K. Chesterton, Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1908), 310-311.