Ministry Lessons from a Comedy Duo

Ministry Lessons from a Comedy Duo

Some valuable ministry lessons highlighted in a recent film about one of the greatest entertainment double acts of all time.

Mrs R and I had a rare excursion to the cinema recently to catch up with Stan & Ollie – the new film about the last UK tour of comedy legends Laurel and Hardy. We’re just old enough to remember the reruns of the duo that were often on TV, whether on clip shows or as time fillers before the news.

The movie itself was superb – well-acted with Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C Reilly (Hardy) capturing the mannerisms and characters in extraordinary detail.

The plot itself was surprisingly moving. It charted the last working days of the duo in the mid-1950s while on a comeback tour across the UK to try to kick start a movie career that had stalled because of personal differences and studio contracts.

The sadness and ennui (ennui: a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement) was exactly captured as the two played to near-empty theatres, before… well, I don’t want to spoil the story!

There’s nothing particularly Christian in the film but, inevitably, observing the world often leads us to draw conclusions about ourselves. No doubt this is in part because of the universality of the created order and that, though total depravity means every area of life is affected by sin, every area of life is not as bad as it could be. There is such a thing as common grace, and there was plenty of it on show here.

You’ve got a friend in me

Two things struck me as we were driving home from the cinema. First, the movie is a tale of deep friendship which is strained and pushed to its limit. It almost breaks. But, at the last moment, it is redeemed. Laurel confesses to his wife: “I really love him.”

The two were from different countries (Laurel was born in Lancashire, and Hardy was American), different backgrounds, and different likes (although the thought of Hardy playing golf is a little hard to grasp!). And yet they had a deep bond which was forged in their performing careers but went beyond it.

For sure, there are many deficiencies in this friendship, but it is a friendship nonetheless. The Bible speaks a lot about such relationships. Leaders of churches would do well to heed its words. I find that many Christian leaders don’t make time for friendships, which, after all, require careful and intentional investment. It’s a risky path.

A few years ago, the leaders of our church bought every person in the church a copy of Vaughan Robert’s book on friendship as a gift. It was a good investment. We realised, however, reading it through, that the application needed to start with us as leaders.

A friendless leader is more likely to fall into sin, will not be open to correction, will tend towards pride and – ultimately – is not following the gracious pattern we have been given.

Who are you?

Second, the film has a deep moral tale about identity. It’s more than likely that this is not the tale the producers intended, but, as a Christian, I couldn’t help noticing that the pair found their identity entirely in what they did, and that this was not a good thing. When the crowds were laughing, they were laughing. When it seemed that the show could not go on, the pair crumbled. Indeed, Hardy went against doctors’ advice and continued to perform despite having suffered a mild heart attack.

Moreover, as the closing credits rolled, we discovered that Laurel continued writing material for the duo after Hardy had died (for another eight years!). His identity was so caught up in the performance, that nothing else mattered.

While this single-minded devotion to the cause is laudable and no doubt what made them – at least in part – such extraordinary performers, it is also a salutary tale for every Christian leader.

The leader who finds his or her identity only in what they do is to be most pitied. It’s a dangerous path. Consider the number of pastors who cannot retire gracefully or others who are threatened by a more able assistant. It’s all too common.

If, as leaders, we cannot instead train ourselves to find our identity in who we are – those who are in Christ – then pity indeed our congregations, our families and our friends. We will end up sharing the ennui and sadness of this once great duo. And that can never be for God’s glory.

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