10 ways being a Theatre Major prepared me for ministry

I have, on many occasion, said that my time in the theatre has been instrumental to any success I have had in my life. Whether it was acting, directing, designing sets or lighting, my time spent wrasslin’ the muse of theatre has paid big dividends in my life. I can especially see the fruits in the various work I do in the church, and when a college friend of mine posted this link today, I knew I wasn’t crazy.

Well, not for this reason, at least.

So, inspired by Tom Vander Well‘s post, here are the 10 ways that being a Theatre Major prepared me for a life in church work:

1) Improvisation

Theatre taught me how to focus, think quickly and make do while giving the impression that you’ve got it all under control.

No one, and I mean NO ONE, knows what’s coming next in ministry. You can have your day perfectly planned out and then you get the call that someone has died, or that they just need to talk, or something incredible happened and you are the one they wanted to tell. We plan as best we can in the church, but it often goes awry.

2) Project Management

A stage production is basically a business project. You have teams of people making up one team working to successfully accomplish a task on time, on budget in such a way that you earn the applause and an occasional standing ovation.

One’s mind usually goes to worship as the equivalent, but there are so many more areas to keep track of than that. Coordinating those who give their time to a congregation is often a full-time job. And, often, those folks don’t want you messing with them. As an Elder at my former church said to me, “I manage 800 people on a daily basis, but they all have to do what I say. I wouldn’t take your job for anything.”

3) Working with a Limited Budget

Most plays (especially small college shows) are produced on a shoestring budget. This forces you to be imaginative, do more with less and find creative ways to get the results you want without spending money.

During my college days we used to say “We’ve done so much for so long with so little, that, now, we can do anything with nothing.” I don’t know about your Stewardship Campaign this year, but most churches are increasingly feeling the pinch. It’s time to get creative!

4) Dealing with Very Different Human Beings

The theatrical community is a mash-up of interesting characters. It always has been. From fringe to freakish to frappucino sipping socialites and everything in between, you’re going to encounter the most amazing and stimulating cross-section of humanity when you work in theatre.

Yeah, that pretty much describes most churches I’ve known.

5) Understanding the Human Condition

Most people have the mistaken impression that acting is all about pretending and being “fake” in front of others. What I learned as a theatre major was that good actors learn the human condition intimately through observation and painfully detailed introspection.

“Art imitates life” is a commonly understood reality for theatre folk. The only way preachers can effectively make the Good News be actual good news is by knowing the depths of the human heart and what it needs to keep beating.

6) Doing Whatever Needs to Be Done

When you’re a theatre major at a small liberal arts college there is little room for specializing within your field. You have to learn to do it all. Light design, sound engineering, acting, directing, producing, marketing, PR, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, ushering, make-up, and costuming are all things I had to do as part of my college career. Within our merry band of theatre majors we all had to learn every piece of a production because at some point we would be required to do what needed to be done.

I may not have liked it, but if a light bulb needed changed, I was the one to do it. Sure, Hebrew Exegesis didn’t teach me that, but a pastor’s gotta do what a pastor’s gotta do.

7) Hard work

I remember creating a tree for one of our college shows… Sleepless nights, burnt fingers and a few brushes with tragedy were needed to get that tree done. But, we got it done. It was fabulous. And a few days later we tore it down, threw it out, and got ready for the next production. C’est la vie.

Pastor types like to talk about the “relentless return of Sunday.” It’s always coming and you just want a little break, but you stare that puppy down and you git-r-done.

8) Making Difficult Choices

You’ve got four parts and twenty four schoolmates who auditioned. Some of them are your best friends and fellow theatre majors. Do you choose the unexperienced jock because he’s best for the part or the friend and fellow theatre major who you fear will never talk to you again if you don’t cast him?

Sometimes, you are the only one who can make a decision. Do you have the guts to make some folks mad/sad/angry/frustrated? Theatre majors do.

9) Presentation Skills

From what I’ve experienced, individuals who can stand up confidently in front of a group of people and capably, effectively communicate their message while even being motivating and a little entertaining are among the rarest individuals in the…world.

When it came time to stand up in front of my preaching class and deliver my first sermon, it was a walk in the park. I’ll let other judge the value of my content, but my theatre professors made sure I walked out of college with the skills to talk in front of people.

10) Doing the Best You Have With What You’ve Got

I remember an Acting I class in college in which a pair of students got up to present a scene they’d prepared. They presented the scene on a bare stage with no lighting, make-up, costumes, props or set pieces. It was just two students acting out the script. It was one of those magic moments that happen with live theatre. The rest of the class were transfixed and pulled into the moment, reacting with surprising emotion to what they witnessed.

One thing I’ve found to be true: you don’t need “stuff” to make church work well. You don’t need screens, a sound system, flashy robes, a big choir, etc., etc., etc. Whatever God has gathered is whatever God needs. We can make big waves with the stuff God has already brought our way.


Any other theatre folks out there? What lessons did you learn from your time on the stage?

13 thoughts on “10 ways being a Theatre Major prepared me for ministry

  1. I was a theater major, too and worked as an actress and stage manager before going to seminary. I learned to love and respect people who were different than most others. I felt welcomed into a community – all the things the church is supposed to be. Your words rang very true to me. Thanks for your reflections.

  2. Oh, gads, Tom and you bring back so many memories and so many amens. I was a speech and drama minor in a small liberal arts college. Our theater prof made us make every thing, even a rheostat light board. I can small the carpenter’s glue we use to size the set flats. And yes, it taught me much I use everyday in ministry. Thanks for your reflections on Tom’s top 10.

  3. I only did drama in high school, but what I learned there, along with set building which I loved, was that the small bit character parts were the most fun to do and of value to all. I also learned to get up on a stage in front of a lot of people and speak — a skill I later honed as a high school teacher and later as a university professor. But I am forever grateful to my high school speech teacher for teaching me how to do a basic speech and giving me lots of practice!

  4. Love this. I might add that theatrical experience helps you have some perspective on the things you’re doing in ministry. Most productions have runs of at least three shows, allowing an actor to flub a scene one night and tell herself, “I’ll nail it tomorrow night.”

    It encourages experimentation. Churches need leaders who are comfortable experimenting and who don’t run off the stage when it falls flat.

  5. Thanks for sharing the post – it was very timely. I was a cop for over 20 years and while I gained some experience in dealing with people, I never realized what I was getting myself into when I said ‘yes’ to love God’s church with Him. Tomorrow will be my 10th anniversary as a pastor…there are times I love what I do and other times….. This post reminded me that I’m not alone even though I feel very alone at times. Cheers!

  6. I too was a theatre major and also a regular participant in amateur theatre in Amarillo for eight years before I moved to Louisville.

    1. It was the best place I’ve ever encountered in terms of forming relationships with misfits, outcasts, and folks whose desire for self-expression was suppressed in their non-theatre lives.

    2. It was where I learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the crap I’d been taught in the Baptist church about queer folk was ridiculously, utterly, demonstrably wrong.

    3. It was where I learned that nothing beats an ensemble of diverse crazy people working together to produce magic.

    4. It was where I met and fell in love with an effusive redheaded Presbyterian seminary student, decided to follow her home to Louisville and dive into this odd, frustrating, fascinating Presby thing. It has been impossible to go a day without wrestling with The Church ever since.

    5. It was where I discovered that Story and Narrative, pursued in collaboration with others, are my best means to engage with God and Community.

  7. Hi!
    I didn’t major in music or theatre, but paid for college as a performer in both.

    One of my all time favorite ministry horror stories, is about a woman who ran screaming and crying from rehearsal one night for our upcoming Christmas pageant. (This is the same woman who would verbally pray over her son each night, binding the devil from his room and his dreams). I obviously hit a raw nerve with her because she threw down her score, and as she grabbed her coat, turned back toward the stage and screamed: “You should be on Broadway, and not in a church”. At first, I was kind of hurt, but then another member of the cast told me to take it as a compliment!?! 🙂

  8. We all make mistakes and do downright dumb things. Some people will remember this forever (some in the audience, some in the troupe), and some will forgive and move on. As we, in the theabent out of shapeter crowd had to learn to live with each other’s and our own imperfections, so I am constantly reminded of the “judge not, that ye not be judged” and “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” part of the whole Christian life.

    In theater, there were always those (including myself) who could get bent out of shape by the least snag or conflict. As an intentional interim minister, I have had to learn not only the value but also the practice of being a “non-anxious presence”. Doc Teufel, our theater prof, was a wonderful role model for me as I have struggled with this.

    J. Denise Goodlin Smelley, Grove City College (’73), pastor of St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ, Upton, PA.

  9. I remember reaching a point, several years ago, when I realized that everything in my life so far had had a role in preparing me for what was to come next. The corollary, which took me longer to learn, is that what God has me doing now is in preparation for where I’m going next!

  10. Another theatre major here! And yes to all that is said above and more. I also use in Christian Education activities, Christmas pageants and more.

  11. Crafting Holy Space | First Presbyterian

  12. Make the Other Player Look Good | Eco/logian

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