PSR alum leads church in holy hilarity

December 1, 2009

Laura GentryIt’s not often that one’s spiritual practice inspires others to call the police, but Laura Gentry’s (MDiv and MA 1997) unique approach to happiness and spirituality isn’t typical, either. She and about a dozen others were sitting outside Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lansing, Iowa, chuckling, emitting belly laughs and chortling in the sunshine when a passerby called the police, thinking they were all drunk. Gentry’s antics were hardly due to inebriation; she is a certified laughter yoga instructor as well as an ordained pastor and leads a church laughter club in joyful exercises every week. Thankfully, Gentry cleared up the misconception, and the reporting police officer even joined the church.

In an age of dwindling worship attendance, Gentry has found a powerful tactic to inspire solidarity in her Midwest church: humor. Although some may balk at reading Scripture with a smile, Gentry maintains that laughter is actually an appropriate—and fulfilling—response.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer: Church is a joyful place, so we should be laughing,” Gentry says. “The Good News is good news, and we should remember to be happy about it.”

Three years ago, the stresses and challenges of ministry threatened to overwhelm Gentry. It was then, when she was considering leaving ministry, that she discovered laughter yoga, a practice that originated in India that has more to do with ha-ha’s and breathing than with twisting one’s body into pretzel poses. The release she found when tapping into a childlike state of hilarity rejuvenated her ministry and inspired her to start a laughing club—the source of her run-in with the law.

The change in pace has garnered the nation’s attention, from articles in Lutheran magazines to an appearance on Oprah. Wanting to spread her ministry even further, she founded the Iowa School of Laughter Ministry, where she certifies other laughter teachers. She has also produced several laughter workshops on CD (including one for commuters) and an album of giggle-inspiring songs.

“Laughter is a great force for democracy, just human beings laughing together, no matter their background or social status or even religion,” Gentry says. “It’s like the gospel, bringing all of us together, where we’re all one in Christ Jesus.”

Much of her laughter practice is without political or religious overtones, but Gentry says that simply laughing has helped her along her spiritual journey.

“The Bible says we have to be like a child to enter into heaven. We’re children of God and don’t need to take ourselves so seriously,” Gentry says. “Developing a childlike playfulness enhanced my spirituality in ways I didn’t expect. To be silly opens up a new way of thinking: I don’t have to do only what is expected. It demonstrates that with God, all things are possible.”

Gentry gives some credit to PSR for encouraging her to try new things in church. She performed some “wild dances,” she says, in chapel, and that freedom helped her carve her own niche within her current church. “PSR was a great place to experiment with ministry,” Gentry remembers. “It helped me think outside box and push the envelope”—a practice she applied to her Iowa preaching, which she believes revitalized her church and her own dedication to ministry.

Although the hard work of ministry can wear on even the most enthusiastic religious leaders, Gentry has advice for avoiding that burnout. “I want to tell current PSR students, respect what you’re trying to do, find your own voice and honor who you are,” she says. “That’s the PSR spirit of independence, to be your own minister.”