Completion of a comedy improvisation class ought to be a graduation requirement for seminarians. Let me explain.
As the primary prayer-writer and worship planner at my current church (a PCUSA church plant, where I’m serving in a non-clergy capacity), I’ve done some thinking about what derails an entire Sunday, and, aside from trouble with music, nothing crashes a service faster than a speaker or leader who is flat-footed. (I’m leaving aside the overarching truth that God is not limited in his work by any mediocre or downright deplorable effort, and instead focusing here on how to prepare well to lead others in worshipping our Lord).
A few weeks ago I was up in front of the congregation leading the communal confession, and suddenly the congregation went silent. It was one of those think-of-the-audience-in-their-underwear moments that happens in a nightmare. Since I had been reading from my own copy of the prayer that I’d printed off that morning, I hurriedly flipped to the bulletin to find that the edits I’d made hadn’t gotten all the way to the congregation that Sunday. (And who’s in charge of proofing the program? This girl: my bad all the way down the line).
If this Sunday morning moment had been filmed, we could pause the screen here and ask: what might happen next? Maybe the leader shifts uncomfortably, turns red and sputters, offers an awkward laugh, and just gives up on the whole confession business for the day. Maybe the leader turns suddenly indignant, makes a crack about printed programs or too many cooks in the kitchen, and huffily turns to the program. Or maybe the leader, in a moment of radical honesty with her fellow worshippers, says in the same serious tone of confession, “and this is why we read from the program” (which may be delivered as a sort of joking aside, but hits right to the heart of the matter of admission) and then restarts the confession together, afresh.
The rules of improv are simple:
- Always say “Yes” (or, with a companion in the scene, “Yes, and …”).
- Make statements.
- There are no mistakes, only opportunities.
Always saying “Yes, and …” can be instructive for a staff meeting as much as for worship settings — even unsavory suggestions can be given an onerous “and…” if needed, and ones that might be harebrained or lovely but too much work can always be affirmed: “Yes, and you yourself should go ahead and do it!”
If that Sunday morning snafoo was not a mistake, how can it be an opportunity? It’s those unplanned moments in worship that offer the leader (lay or ordained) a moral choice: to stomp off in the huff (figuratively), leaving one protected and safe against the community, or to double down in transparency, laying oneself bare before the people. So it’s not just knowing the rules of improv that prepares a priest well, but the willingness to do exactly what we’re called to do: to emulate Jesus (to which all believers are called, really).
Make yourself a fool for the sake of your people’s salvation. Let yourself be the first one to show your messy hand. Make no bones about your own faults. This way, sin loses its power. Embrace the awkwardness of doing the things that God tells us to do, however naive that sounds.
This past Sunday morning, I woke up anxious for no particular reason (I mean, clinically anxious, for which I take medication). Arriving at church, questions overwhelmed me, and I had to take a breath at the sound booth to keep from bursting into tears. As the worship team gathered to walk out and start the service, a musician asked how I was, and I managed a not-convincing, “Making it.” The sweet man inquired further, and instead of bursting into tears, I was radically honest: “I woke up with the anxiety monkey on my back today, and I can’t get him off. I brush him away, and he just climbs right back on.” I added some charades, and we all laughed.
It seems simple, but it’s amazing what unadorned, unapologetic honesty can do to an awkward situation. Improvisation teaches us how honest we can be and when — a sort of poker game of human drama that skews experience toward comedy. In a world of marketing and spin, unabashed vulnerability is powerful.