Les Carpenter: Improv saved my priesthood

Improv group practicing

Photo courtesy of Les Carpenter

Being onstage with other actors freed an Episcopal priest to see ministry as a practice of grace.

I still remember the first time I had to speak in front of an audience. It was in seventh grade. I was just giving a simple introduction for my school’s choir, yet my hands were shaking so much that the words on the notecard blurred to create something akin to an original Jackson Pollock.

Fast-forward to high school, and the fear was still with me. I remember the terror and frustration in my poor partner’s eyes when I forgot all the lyrics to our duet, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” On the upside, our performance finally solved that debate: anything I could do, she clearly could do better!

And yet, of all things, improv comedy -- a practice that requires presence on a stage -- came to me like manna in my ministry desert.

In 2009, a month after my ordination to the priesthood, on the heels of some major staffing cutbacks, my boss and would-be mentor was removed for sexual misconduct. Shortly after that, the senior associate priest took a leave of absence to care for her husband, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

I believe the technical ecclesial term for my circumstance at that time would be “messed up.”

Since then, I have come to enjoy watching for the next “top 10 list” of risk factors for clergy burnout, because I have faced almost all of them. Despite the care and support I received at the time from my diocese and my congregation, I privately felt overwhelmed. I didn’t want to give up my ministry, but I began to believe that it was inevitable, that burnout was both a logical and a foregone conclusion.

Pastors don’t talk about it much, but my guess is that most of us have secret moments when we feel like giving up. The pressures of isolation, expectation and failure wear on even the most pious of souls. Whoever said that it’s lonely at the top should try standing behind an altar.

In that season of my ministry, facing crushing responsibility and self-doubt, I wanted to quit. And then an idea struck me, as if the heavens opened and a great voice spoke:

“Dude, you need a hobby.”

Vocations are great; they can be life-giving. But on some level, I knew that if I couldn’t get my head out of the church drama, the drama would consume me. I needed something that I did just for the love of it. I needed people in my life who knew me as a priest but didn’t see me as their priest.

Finding a hobby was a challenge in itself. I was in the ordination process for 10 years as I grew into adulthood; it had become the center of my identity. I was so desperate, I had to think all the way back to an improv class I had taken in middle school to get an idea of something to try.

Improv was a highly unlikely choice for me, not just because of my fear of being the center of attention. I am an Episcopalian: spontaneity is our natural enemy. We pride ourselves on burying our noses in the Book of Common Prayer -- not for saying, off the cuff, “I just want to praise God for this” or “I just want to pray for that.”

What surprised me, when I began taking classes in improv, was that I had found not just a hobby but a powerful practice for my ministry and leadership.

There is only one universal doctrine in the improv community. It is often referred to as a rule, but it is more like a vow than a law. I would call it a rule of life, but more accurately it is a rule of play. The rule can be summed up as “yes, and.” I have never seen so much packed into two simple words.

The improv “yes” says that everything that happens is a gift to be received. You don’t fight to undo, redefine or control what your scene partners are doing. You accept it. Period.

And then you have to do something with it. It is on you to say not just “yes” but “yes, and.”

Your partner says, “Let’s go to the zoo.” You can say, “The penguins are my favorite! Let’s take my DeLorean. ” You cannot say, “There are no zoos here on the moon,” because that would be heretical; that would be a denial of the basic reality your scene partner has lovingly given you.

Following this rule of play onstage creates a place where all voices are heard, loved and respected, and it leads to a level of justice and creativity that I’ve yet to find in church or in any other corner of the world. At its most basic, “yes, and” is just about lovingly working together, which is apparently so rare in our world that when you put it onstage it is funny.

This concept now informs everything about how I practice ministry. It has healed resentments, blessed us with laughter and led my communities to do some beautifully creative things, like an original children’s book stewardship campaign and an annual holy-water squirt gun fight. But before it could change what I do, it had to change how I see.

With time and practice, I came to realize that what improvisers call “yes, and” is actually something definitive about our Christian tradition that I am embarrassed to say I really didn’t understand before. It is grace.

The God of the Bible is an improviser. That is the only explanation for the way God hangs in with us through our ups and our downs. When Adam and Eve discover shame and try to cover their nakedness, God accepts that they no longer fit in the garden. God says “yes, and” by clothing them for their journey.

When the people cry that a woman should be stoned, rather than screaming “no,” Jesus says, “Yes, and whoever is without sin, go ahead.” The cross itself represents how we try to kill love, compassion, healing and God himself, and God says, “Yes, you can do that, and I will bring resurrection.”

I try not to be too hard on myself that I really didn’t understand grace while I was in seminary, because I simply didn’t. I hadn’t practiced it. This is what we do in improv. We practice grace.

Here is the trick with grace, though: you have to keep practicing. I practice with my improvisers at least once a week and perform once a month. I don’t claim to be good at it, but I know it is good for me.

The practice of “yes, and” helps me see differently. It gives life and humor to our vestry meetings. It helps me see signs of healing in the middle of an alcoholic’s relapse. I thought that church drama would be the end of my priesthood, and in some ways, it was. Through improv, the priesthood I thought I had ended, but the one God was playing me into began. A more humble, less controlling, more grateful priesthood. A priesthood that says “yes, and” to the challenges and is marked with the courage it takes to allow my shaky, nervous self to be seen.

This priesthood, centered in a rule of play, is focused not on prescriptions or successful planning but on acting in the moment with grace.

God’s grace is so radical that we can’t understand it without practicing it. Even now, I struggle to explain grace, because it is a mystery. What I have found, though, is that while grace cannot be explained, it can be played.

I long to see our churches as places where we don’t just learn about sin and forgiveness and make friends but where we embrace our God-given rule of play -- where we come to know grace because we practice it.