Playfulness Fuel

How joy and connection help reenergize us for the work ahead

Two women laughing while one playfully covers her eyes.

Note: Courtney Ellis was one of the 3 presenters for our September Book Hub “Liberating Laughter.” Recordings of that free event are available via podcast or video

Graphic that says Leading Through Divided Times

Like all congregations, ours has had to reimagine its ministry, time and time again, over these last two years. We’ve invested in everything from video editing software to live streaming services to new air filters. Our choirs went digital, our food pantry assistance moved outdoors, our program staff vaxxed and masked. Yet when I tell people what our best purchase was on this side of the pandemic, they’re often surprised.

Our church’s best pandemic purchase was a ping pong table.

Let me unpack that a bit.

The past nineteen months have been filled with serious and painful realities. Those of us within the church have had our hands full working to keep our people safe from a deadly virus, seeking to speak prophetically—and with love—to the moments of our time, working for truth, redemption, and justice.

To say the work has been exhausting doesn’t even begin to describe it. A friend mentioned to me recently that this season has been “like leadership graduate school.” 

“No,” said my husband, a pastor with a PhD in theology. “I’ve done plenty of graduate school. This is much, much harder.”

As pastors burn out in record numbers, lay leaders resign under crushing loads, and seminarians ponder whether they’re up for being a chaplain to the end of the world, we must ask: are we really up to this task? 

Yet God doesn’t call us to be up to the task (because, if we’re honest, none of us truly is), but to be faithful amidst it. We can’t save the world—that’s God’s job—but we can do what we can, where we are, today. And to do that, we must play.

I know, I know! I can hear you protesting. There isn’t time. We are too tired. There is far too much to do to invest in anything as frivolous as fun.

But here’s the thing: play is fuel. When we engage in whimsy, allowing our souls to recover, to laugh, to lose ourselves in a game or a puzzle or a meal or a hike, often we find new energy for the important tasks at hand. As I wrote in my most recent book, Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit, we engage in playfulness not because life is easy, but because it is difficult.

Those ping-pong tables on our church patio are revitalizing our Sunday worship. We gather together—digitally, indoors, or outdoors—and then many folks stick around for a game or two, the laughter and smack-talk echoing off the buildings. The joy and connection brings people back for another week, to worship and to play. Families hang around to watch their kids compete. More than one parishioner has confided in me that they bring an extra shirt to change into, so their fancier one doesn’t get all sweaty.

The ping pong tables are just one example of how playfulness is a key to a healthy church—and staff. The Scrabble board hanging on the wall in the youth department is a place where we build relationships, the worship director beating me by a hundred points or more (“Don’t you have an English degree?” he asks), the youth director trouncing us all.

The walks I take with our senior pastor not only allow us a few moments to lift our faces to the California sun, they help us tackle the problems of the day through a change of scenery that gets our hearts pumping and our brains thinking creatively.

We are invited into play because God created us for this joy and connection, and playfulness is one of the quickest ways to enjoy a little boost. One of the best things about play is that, when we accept its invitations, giving ourselves permission to throw the Frisbee back, to look at the birds, to savor the meal, play does all the work. 

We’ve all discovered that this difficult season of ministry isn’t a sprint. We are in it for the long haul, and there is difficult, painful, good work to be done. But we can’t do it much longer if we’re fried to a crisp. With Christ as our model—Christ who reclined at the table, feasted with friends, loved to tell a story—we can embrace playfulness as the gift God created it to be.

When folks ask me where to start, I always offer two suggestions:

Seek out an activity you enjoyed as a child

Maybe you rode horses or splatter painted or liked skipping rocks across the surface of a pond. Many of those activities are still available to you in adulthood. 

Often those deep rivers of renewal still run within us; we just haven’t brought them to the surface in a bit. Adulthood often has us believing the myth that we must be good at something to enjoy it, but God’s gift of playfulness allows us to pursue pastimes for the sheer fun of it. So go ahead, get out those colored pencils, pick up that model airplane, bake those pink cupcakes.

Find someone who plays well and ask to join them in their play

If we still aren’t sure where to start, playing with someone else can be a great beginning. When I wrote Happy Now I asked everyone I knew to invite me into one of their play activities. I ended up at an archery range, an extreme cycling studio, and the best boogie boarding beach in southern California. The first two activities were fun but didn’t strike a real chord for me—the third is now a beloved passion.

Even if the activities friends invite you to try don’t light you up and become your new avenues of play, watching someone you love do something they love is bound to bring a spark of joy and connection, and maybe some ideas for new activities you might try.

Why so serious, friends? Yes, the work is heavy and weighty and important and good. Let us do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

But also: let us play. 

  • Courtney Ellis

    Rev. Courtney Ellis is a PCUSA pastor at Presbyterian Church of the Master in Mission Viejo, California, as well as the author of Uncluttered: Free Your Space, Free Your Schedule, Free Your Soul and Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit. Come play with her over on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or on her website.

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