Nothing like a little irreverent humor in their line of work

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

When six Presbyterian ministers sit down to eat lunch in public, they say grace in silence. But they laugh out loud.

They don't mind sharing their laughter with everyone in the restaurant. And they want to hear what each other has to say. But only God needs to hear their prayers.

"Jesus said not to make a show of your piety," said the Rev. Bob Keefer of Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian.

"Just the ability to laugh is a blessing," added the Rev. Chris Torrey, pastor of Lakeside Presbyterian.

An even greater blessing comes from the ministers sharing that laughter with friends. It recharges their batteries and helps them keep the faith.

"That's precisely what this lunch does for me," said the Rev. Thom Shuman, the monthly lunch group's founder and pastor of Greenhills Community Presbyterian. "It helps keep me faithful to my calling."

This day the group met downtown at Nicholson's Tavern & Pub. The Rev. Shuman invited me to join them for a "Lunch with Cliff," where I listen in on the conversations regular folks have during their midday meal.

"Everyone needs a group like this," the Rev. Shuman said. "These people can laugh with you and sometimes laugh at you." As he spoke, the Rev. Joanne Sizoo of Norwood Presbyterian sat across the table listening with the earnest look of an angel.

When he finished, she stuck out her tongue.

The table erupted in laughter.

The ministers started lunching seven years ago as a support group.

"I'd spend all day talking with people about their troubles," the Rev. Shuman said. "Then, I'd go home and not be able say a word to my wife.

"I was called to the ministry. But not at the expense of my mental health, my family or my marriage. So, I knew I needed to talk with members of the clergy about this."

At informal brown-bag lunches in other ministers' churches, he voiced his concerns and found he was not alone. A year later, the group was meeting regularly in restaurants.

"Taking sack lunches to church can be boring," the Rev. Shuman said. "Even for ministers."

Shortly after the group started meeting, an official in the local Presbytery dubbed it the Liberal Power Bloc, a misnomer according to the ministers.

"We're not particularly liberal," noted the Rev. Keefer. "We have no power," added the Rev. Louisa Baer of Blue Ash Presbyterian. "And we're too small to be a bloc," said the Rev. Tom Brackbill of Venice Presbyterian.

"But we do see ourselves as blockheads," quipped the Rev. Sizoo.

More hearty laughter.

Between outbreaks of silliness, the talk turned serious. The ministers wondered aloud how they could be seen as human beings, just people, when they hold a job that seems to set them apart from the people they serve.

"As we were growing up," the Rev. Torrey said, "ministers were expected to be like the Wizard of Oz when he told Dorothy, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.' People couldn't pay attention to ministers as human beings. They had to be wizards and work wonders."

The Rev. Shuman said ministers today want to be seen as people, too -- people trying to do a particular job. "Our generation," he said, "tries to stand out in front of the curtain."

The Rev. Sizoo mentioned that when she arrived at her Norwood church the congregation's biggest shock was not her sex. It was her irreverent belief that ministers "are idiots with our foibles intact. God has called us to do some work we don't understand. But we are here to do it anyway."

Another manifestation of the Rev. Sizoo's irreverence is her boisterous sense of humor. She pokes fun at everyone, herself included, and acts goofy.

"So, the biggest shock," she said, "was my style."

"That," cracked the Rev. Torrey, "and her tattoos."

The Rev. Keefer watched his lunch partners playfully poke at each other like two grade-school kids.

"You see, we take God seriously," he said.

"But not ourselves."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.