Today is the feast day of St. Thomas More, commonly known for his refusal to approve Henry VIII of England’s divorce and remarriage (and establishment of the Church of England).
In Redeeming Administration, Ann Garrido connects his life, witness, and noted humor to the spirituality of administration. Garrido asserts that for an administrative leader, humor is not merely a coincidental (or random!) personality trait, but cultivated in the process of leading and managing. How so? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s because leading places us in an “increased number of absurd situations” (123).
I’ve found this to be quite true in my life. As an Army officer, early on in my career I noticed just how much the extreme scope and scale of seemingly-absurd situations created an environment where humor was a part of daily life.
But how should we as ministerial leaders view humor, is it virtuous? A temptation? Something else?
Garrido offers two guideposts for discerning how humor functions in our spirituality of work and administration.
First Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as a Defense Mechanism
For some ministerial leaders, humor is a defense. A way of avoiding acknowledging other feelings, and/or avoiding addressing situations that should be addressed (125). While we as leaders can be tempted to laugh somethings off as a quick morale-booster, this is a way of avoiding actual leadership. Of failing to “confront the brutal facts“–a necessary step in effectively leading any organization.
Second Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as Scapegoating
Sometimes, laughter or joking indicates an “everyone minus one” mentality. A type of scapegoating process, whereby a group [seemingly ] “bonds” over the exclusion or marginalization of one (or a few) members of the organization or team. This can be an enticing temptation, I mean, who doesn’t think “teamwork” is a good thing? But, the reality is that a team with unity flowing from humorous scapegoating can only go so far. Vision. Mission. Clarity. These are the real elements of teamwork–not joking about “the problem” or scapegoating an individual, rather than working towards real solutions and changes.
Instead, Growing Holy Humor
So, what sense of humor should administrators seek to grow? Jesus used humor, not to attack persons, but to call attention to circumstances or situations that were not being seen or understood correctly (127). Holy humor is “laughing with” rather than “laughing at”–calling attention to, not attacking (127).
This humor that helps us grow in holiness as leaders resists cynicism. As Garrido explains:
Cynicism is the sign of too narrow a worldview, a constriction of vision that only notes the negative absurdities of life, whereas the most mature, holy administrators that I have known are people who have the capacity to also see and draw attention to the infinite positive absurdities of life. (128)
Not only is cynicism too narrow, but it resists hope. Even when cloaked in humor, cynicism prevents us from leading with vision in ministry as administrators.
Ultimately, St. Thomas More faced a choice of “mitigating bad effects or going along”; of “laugh[ing] it off or taking a stand” (133). As we remember him, let our laughter be holy–drawing attention to things that need changing, yet never providing an excuse for inaction or tolerance of what should not be tolerated.