Monday, February 17, 2014

Of Presidents and Pastors: Ronald Reagan and the Importance of a Sense of Humor

Because I am something of a history buff, I’ve enjoyed reading a few presidential biographies across the years.  I enjoy people’s stories, and I’m always looking to learn from presidents things that might help me be a better pastor.  I posted on Harry Truman and leadership a few years ago (  On this Presidents’ Day 2014, I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan and the importance of a sense of humor. 

While presidents and pastors deal with serious matters (and for pastors even eternal matters), a sense of humor can help us build relationships, reduce stress, make points people will hear, and change the tone of awkward moments.  Because preaching on money and marriage speak to areas of life that can create tension for our parishioners, a sense of humor comes in especially handy for topics like these.  A sense of humor can ease tension in an uncomfortable conversation too.  And it can also change the tone of a difficult business meeting.  Some pastors have a knack for this—it’s natural to them.  Others have to be more planned in their use of humor lest it come off contrived and flat.  Trial and error is the only way to figure this out.  But it’s worth the trying.  God doesn't call pastors to do stand up comedy, but a little humor in the right way at the right time can get some things done.

As presidents go, Ronald Reagan was known for his sense of humor.  Here are two stories that highlight how Reagan could use humor to diffuse tense moments and put people at ease—which, of course, usually helps people perform their functions at a higher level.

The first story comes from that March day in 1981 when Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin outside the Washington Hilton.  As Reagan was moved from the stretcher to the operating table, he looked at the team assembled around the table and quipped, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.”  Not only did his comments draw a chuckle in a stress-packed, even life and death situation, that simple comment put the surgical team at a certain level of ease and focus.  Dr. Joseph Giordano, a liberal Democrat in his own politics, was even provoked by Reagan’s quip to answer in reply, “Mr. President, today we are all Republicans.”  We pastors could learn how just a little quip at the right time in the middle of a stressful meeting or conversation can ease tension for everyone in the room.  That’s one story. 

Here’s a second.  It’s a bit longer, and it's told by Peggy Noonan in her Reagan biography, When Character Was King.

Once, in 1981, the president and Mrs. Reagan gave a formal state dinner for the president of Venezuela, Luis Herrera Campins.  They had asked Frank Sinatra to take charge of the entertainment.  Sinatra, of course, was a veteran of such things—he’d put together JFK’s inaugural gala and had helped the Reagans before.  But this time Sinatra thought he’d do something different, jazz things up a little.

He asked Robert Goulet to be the evening’s main entertainment.  Goulet, the former Broadway star who played Vegas and other venues, was honored to be asked but had never sung at the White House and wasn’t quite sure what kind of material he should do.  He asked Sinatra what would be appropriate.

Sinatra told him these people at these formal parties have had enough with strings and cellists, let’s swing, do your act.  So Goulet did his act, singing a certain kind of sexy love song of the get-down variety and swinging his mike toward the Venezuelan president’s wife and crooning to her.  It was … a little cheesy, a little vulgar for a state dinner at the White House, but everyone was good-humored about it and applauded.  Then, in his between-songs patter, Goulet told of touring recently in Lake Tahoe.  The audience there was a bunch of stiffs, he said, but there was one gorgeous girl, a stunner standing in the back.  Tall, statuesque, a real fox.  So he pitched all his songs to her, and flirted.  And it was only later, he now told the dinner guests, that he found out that the beautiful woman was the biggest transvestite in Tahoe.  Then he joked that it all worked out, “He writes me every week!”

      There was mildly embarrassed silence.  Goulet then sang another song and left the stage, and Sinatra finished up.  Soon President Reagan rose to thank everyone for coming.  He thanked Sinatra for all his efforts arranging such a show, and then he said, “And thank you, Bob Goulet, not only for entertaining us with your wonderful voice but for remembering our night in Lake Tahoe.”  (Noonan, 231-232)

      The whole audience let out a gust of pent-up laughter and side-long glances.  It allowed everyone to acknowledge what had been said, and laugh at it, and the dinner went on and was a success.

It’s been my experience across well over three decades of pastoring that few things ease tension, build relationship capital, and open stopped up ears like the proper use of self-deprecating humor.  Too much of it gets old in a hurry and sounds like false humility.  Too little of it and the pastor comes off a bit stuffy and arrogant and one who takes himself/herself too seriously.  But just the right amount makes for a better pastor and preacher.

So on this Presidents’ Day 2014, while I’m thankful for all of our presidents (well, most of them anyway), I’m especially thankful today for Ronald Reagan who helps me learn how to use a sense of humor to be a better pastor.