We don't often discuss joking unless it's in the context of a comedian facing backlash for something said during a performance. Humor in leadership can be of benefit. For some of us, especially those with certain personality traits or upbringing, telling jokes and teasing is second nature. Many of us were even considered class clowns during our school years.

The habit of joking and teasing has been a persistent issue (and problem) throughout my life. Among my most significant regrets now are when I attempted inappropriate or hurtful humor. Early in my Christian ministry and college years, I recall finding and telling jokes or “Top Ten” lists I copied where a few items were off-color, and I was completely oblivious. Coming from a sheltered background and often rushing, I would naively read these jokes in ministry settings, not catching a double entendre or a particular word—embarrassing then and even more so now. If I told you the examples (which I have never shared with others), you'd shake your head and ask, “How did you not know about that?”

When we joke, the intent is often to be lighthearted or endearing. We tease and joke, but they can quickly become awkward or even painful. I've experienced both outcomes from both sides of joking. I still frequently find myself trying to inject humor into nearly every situation, seeing it as an opportunity for light-heartedness or a laugh… but it ends up being distressing or awkward.

Joking can lead to several problems:
  1. Improper content: Humor often tests boundaries, and much “professional” comedy delves into locker room topics or subjects unsuitable for general discourse.
  2. Inappropriate context: Humor and joking are often out of place in many settings. They can potentially make us appear foolish or immature and undermine our leadership or perceived wisdom.
  3. Imbalanced clout: A rarely discussed issue with humor, particularly teasing, is that it creates an imbalanced power dynamic. The recipient of the tease often feels powerless at the moment, potentially harboring hurt feelings privately that can endure for years.
  4. Insensitive connection: Joking and teasing can inadvertently wound those we care about most, including friends and family. These are the treasured friends with whom we should be most considerate, yet we carelessly joke at their expense. We erode trust (a foundational element) and warmth; it takes time to build those up again.

Scripture addresses the issue of joking a few times. In Proverbs, the phrase “I was only joking” is likened to shooting flaming arrows at the joke's target (Proverbs 26:18-19). Paul admonishes the Ephesians (5:4) against coarse joking and foolish talk, which can be challenging even in seemingly innocent conversations, such as discussing a favorite comedy on TV (see Seinfeld).

As Christian leaders, we must uphold a standard of conduct. Paul instructed Timothy to “set an example” in speech (I Timothy 4:12), a directive that challenges me to rise above my inclination to be the “funny friend.” Humor requires careful handling to avoid crossing lines that lead to discomfort or distress. As leaders and individuals, our words carry weight, and the playful banter that aims to lighten a moment can sometimes shadow deeper implications or be used to elevate one and diminish another. We must be mindful of our audience and the potential impact of our words. We must unite instead of divide, uplift, and encourage instead of tease.

Join me in this moment and make this an encouragement to refine our approach to humor. Let us work to be sources of joy that respect and support those around us, utilizing our words to foster environments of sensitivity. We will observe a higher ethical standard and enhance our relationships and leadership effectiveness.