John Shearer: Methodist Bishop Richard Looney Pens Humor Book

Friday, October 1, 2021 - by John Shearer
Bishop Richard Looney with his new book
Bishop Richard Looney with his new book
- photo by John Shearer

A United Methodist bishop can sometimes draw solemnity from those around him or her due to the dignified position as a leader of the large Christian denomination and the seriousness of people’s faith.

However, Bishop Richard C. Looney has also been known over the years for drawing a few laughs. Quick witted, he has shown a skill for putting a listener at ease with a funny story, often with a tale from his long ministerial career or childhood as the son of a preacher.

Now, the former area pastor’s stories have gone from the pulpit to paper with the recent publication of his humor-focused book, “The Fun of Being Looney.” The book tells his life story through small anecdotes rippled with humor and features a key theme – that being a Christian is supposed to be a joyous experience.

He even uses Jesus as an example, saying in his description of the book, “People flocked to Jesus to share in the joy He exhibited. In sharing joy and the promise of abundant life, Jesus exhibited a delicious sense of humor.

“Remember the man with a log in his eye trying to remove a speck from the eye of a neighbor?”

Bishop Looney – who began his ministerial career at Rising Fawn, Ga., in the late 1950s and later served at White Oak UMC from 1968-72 and as Chattanooga District superintendent in the late 1970s – said he had the book in mind for several years.

People who were used to hearing him tell jokes said he should do a humor book, but through conversations with others decided to expand it into an autobiographical book and later one around the theme of joy in the Christian faith.

“It grew into the humor of Jesus and how our faith is supposed to be joyous,” he said.

With support from the Rev. Charles Maynard, a fellow United Methodist minister and well-known East Tennessee storyteller, who grew up on Signal Mountain, the book was published by Market Square Publishing and is available online for $14.95.

All proceeds benefit the United Methodist Church’s Foundation for Evangelism at Lake Junaluska, N.C., where Bishop Looney has also served, he said.

For Rev. Looney -- whose 6-foot, 6-inch frame and deep and scratchy voice also emit an image of a 1950s or ‘60s Western TV or movie star – his humorous outlook on life started with his name.

He jokingly wrote that his friends told him that several looneys had been elected bishop previously, but he was the only one with the name to match it.

Bishop Looney said that he is not necessarily a natural storyteller of the long variety, despite still preaching sermons well into his 80s with little-to-no notes due to training learned from his preacher father and being blessed with a semi-photographic memory.

Also, nothing often comes to mind for him when people ask him directly to tell a joke, he added.

But he said that during a conversation, some related anecdote will usually pop into his mind, and he will share it. And that is how he got his reputation as a joke teller.

During his sermons, he is also known for his easy-to-understand-but-thoughtful delivery after opening them with a quick story of humor.

As Rev. Looney talked during the interview, he literally began practicing what he preaches and shared a couple of stories. In one, he said that he and some other young preachers were at a chicken restaurant while attending a Methodist gathering in Western North Carolina years ago.

“We were having a rollicking time,” he quipped. In fact, someone saw them laughing so much that the person, according to Bishop Looney, said, “They are so drunk, they think they are Methodist preachers.”

He also told the story of when he was serving as the bishop of the South Georgia Conference after being elected in 1988, and the people there were known for spoiling a bishop. He found out that was true when one person dumped 50 pounds of pecans into his car trunk.

His reply to the kind gesture was: “I’ve already gone to heaven.”

In the book are countless other stories both humorous and heartfelt, including some related to his time in the Chattanooga area.

His first pastorate after seminary was the three-point circuit of Byrd’s Chapel, Cave Springs and Rising Fawn in Dade County, Ga., which had about 160 members in the three churches combined.

He jokingly said young preachers given multiple churches used to say that the number of churches you were given was representative of the number of talents you had.

Although Bishop Looney remembered being told by one member that he was among a long line of greenhorn preachers right out of seminary those churches kept getting, they warmly embraced him, and he appreciated that.

“I am sure there will be a special place in heaven for small churches that loved and encouraged greenhorn preachers like myself,” he wrote.

Elsewhere in the book, he tells of another young preacher who came back to his home church and delivered with confidence a sermon. Afterward, he asked an older minister what he thought of the sermon, and he surprisingly received an honest appraisal that the young pastor just read it, he did not read it very well and that it was not worth reading.

Of his time as Chattanooga district superintendent from 1976-79, he said the local area then was a great mix of urban and rural, and small and large, churches with varying styles of worship. “I was inspired and challenged by the new understanding of the greatness of the Church,” he wrote.

He also praised the longtime district office administrative assistant Ethel Starnes and her work. He wrote that one time he was to be gone for three weeks on a mission trip, and someone asked him who would look after the district while he was away. Referencing Ms. Starnes, he quipped, “The same person who looks after it while I’m here.”

Bishop Looney’s career has also included serving as the senior pastor at the large downtown churches in both Johnson City and Knoxville: Munsey Memorial UMC and Church Street UMC, respectively.

He currently has the honorary title of bishop in residence at First-Centenary UMC in downtown Chattanooga. He occasionally still preaches there when filling in for one of the ministers or by invitation, and he had followed his lifelong involvement in music by singing in the First-Centenary choir until not long before the COVID-19 outbreak of early 2020.

In summing up the book, Bishop Looney added that he hopes it is worthwhile to any person of the faith, including pastors who often deal with the sadness of their church members regarding family deaths and personal illnesses.

“Laughter is renewing and healing,” he said after telling yet another story of some advice he once received: that preachers should enjoy preaching because people don’t want to go and watch the minister suffer.  

* * * * *


- photo by John Shearer

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