Funny story – the pastor at Davenport’s First Presbyterian Church (FPC) is also a stand-up comic.
On Friday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m., the Performing Arts Series of First Presbyterian Church (1702 Iowa St.) will host its first evening of comedy featuring acclaimed comedian and author Karen Bergreen. Opening for her will be FPC’s new pastor Rev. Dr. Kristopher Schondelmeyer, who studied comedy in New York City with Bergreen.
The show is considered family friendly. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students, and are available at the door. Popcorn and concessions will be available for purchase.
“This world is crazy, it can depress you,” Schondelmeyer said Tuesday morning in his FPC office. “I just discerned we needed laughter in life, in the church. I was only two hours from New York City and I knew it was a breeding ground for comedy.”
When based in Bucks County, Penn., he took a summer 2022 class at the Manhattan Comedy School, once a week for eight weeks. His teacher was Karen Bergreen. and he would wear his clergy collar.
“It was hilarious – the very first class, with all the students there, and here comes this pastor coming in. Everybody thinks I was a priest,” Schondelmeyer said. “It was exhilarating.”
Comedy stems from personal experiences, he said, and he incorporated his children’s exploits, his educational background and being a pastor. Bergreen and the class would give feedback to their funny stories.
“I had new material every week,” Schondelmeyer said. “Some students would work on the same material the whole time.”
Bergreen has made several appearances in both seasons of The Jim Gaffigan Show. She has been on The View, Comedy Central, Nick Moms, the Oxygen Network, The TV Guide Network, House Hunters, The Joy Behar Show, and as an actress on Law & Order.
She has also performed in Stand-Up in Stilettos and LIVE at Gotham, and has been invited twice to perform at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado and The Great American Comedy Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk, Neb.
Bergreen has written two comic novels, Following Polly and Perfect is Overrated, which have earned praise from The New York Times and Oprah Magazine. She has taught comedy for a decade at the Manhattan Comedy School, and has a forthcoming special on Dry Bar Comedy.
Schondelmeyer (who came to Davenport in January 2023) fell in love with performing and made his stand-up debut at Gotham Comedy Club in August 2022.
“It’s exhilarating being on that stage,” he said. “I thought, I’m gonna do this, it’ll be a one-time thing, but I fell in love.”
Schondelmeyer did a comedy set for his last church in Pennsylvania, and will tell jokes for about 15 minutes opening for Bergreen this Friday. His favorite comics are Jim Gaffigan, Nate Bargatze, Mary Mack and Taylor Tomlinson.
He said comedy doesn’t have to rely on profanity to be funny.
“Certainly, I loved listening to George Carlin when I was growing up. Sometimes, there’s good ways to use blue comedy,” he said. “Some comics just cuss and I don’t think that makes something funny.”
What the pastor learned most from Bergreen was to “lean into your own life experience and find humor in the everyday, and it’s OK to make fun of politicians,” he said.
Schondelmeyer’s doctorate focused on the intersection of religion and public policy, “which means I’m an expert at pissing people off. There’s a lot of comedy to be found there.”
He is a 40-year-old native of Sedalia, Mo. (the youngest of six siblings), whose parents divorced when he was in an infant. Schondelmeyer’s father struggled with schizophrenia.
Much of his life, he spent time taking care of his dad, and his grandmother after she had a stroke.
Schondelmeyer went to community college in his hometown, home to the Missouri State Fair. He graduated from University of Central Missouri, with a degree in speech communication. At first, he hated public speaking in high school, but learned to love it in junior college.
Schondelmeyer’s argument was to convince his class he should be voted sexiest man of the year.
He also got religious inspiration as a teenager. “I had discerned from an early age that I was being called to ministry,” he said.
His paternal grandparents were very religious; their families helped found churches in Missouri, and his great uncle was a Presbyterian minister.
“The church just helped raise me,” Kris said, noting his grandfather passed away when he was in 6th grade). “The church just wrapped their arms around me and made sure I was always included.”
At a national Presbyterian youth conference in Maryland during high school, he was the victim of a violent sexual assault by a pastor. “I pushed that out of my mind for a decade,” Schondelmeyer said. “I went off the deep end a little bit. I started thinking, I don’t need the church. I can serve the common good by running for public office.”
He minored in political science, and thought of going into public service. During his time at the university, he had a powerful experience at a Maundy Thursday service in his home church.
“That experience set me back on track and within a year, the associate pastor left and the church offered me a job as director of youth ministries,” Schondelmeyer said, noting he grew the program within a year.
His grandmother died in 2005 and shortly after that, his dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died in 2007. He had a full scholarship to Louisville Seminary, but couldn’t go.
He stayed closer to home, earning his master’s at Eden Theological Seminary near St. Louis in 2010. Schondelmeyer’s first ordained call was in Toledo, Ohio, where he met his wife, Abby (who was Methodist), doing an internship at a Presbyterian church.
They married in December 2012 and now have four kids – three boys (7, almost 3 and 1), and a 5-year-old daughter. His stepfather passed away in 2020, unrelated to COVID. Schondelmeyer’s mom is still in Sedalia, about a six-and-a-half-hour drive from the QC.
Schondelmeyer made a criminal complaint in Maryland about his assault and a lawyer for the church refused to assist in the investigation. He ended up suing the denomination he loved and served, reaching a settlement in exchange for commitments from the church to investigate, set up task forces and make changes to its constitution.
“That’s one of the things in my ministry I’m most proud of,” he said. “I’ve successfully written and advocated for changes to our constitution, to make our church safer. It’s what we call our Book of Order, how people are held accountable when they mess up.”
He holds a Master of Divinity from Eden Seminary (St. Louis), three Graduate Certificates, and a Doctorate in Contextual Leadership with a concentration in Religion and Public Policy from Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University (Philadelphia).
As a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Schondelmeyer served as a member of the PC(USA)’s Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force.
Stand-up at church and comedy
He stands up every Sunday to preach at First Presbyterian and finds the commonality between humor and God.
“I try to use humor in my sermons; the congregation will tell you if I do that successfully or not,” he said. “It’s a tool that can help draw people into the actual message you’re trying to get across.”
“The difference between a comedy set and a sermon is, the comedy is not about sharing the good news of the Gospel. A comedy set is just about laughter and letting our guard down,” Schondelmeyer said.
When he interviewed for the pastor job, he mentioned his love of comedy and asked music director Matt Bishop to expand the Performing Arts Series to include comedy.
“We’re gonna give it a try and see how it goes,” Schondelmeyer said. “It’s not been done before. There are rare opportunities for stand-up comedy in the Quad Cities.”
He got calls to be hired from three Presbyterian churches in Iowa, including Waterloo and Iowa City, and started at First Pres in Davenport last January.
“It was a hard choice. I almost walked away from all three, and I just couldn’t get this church out of my mind,” he said. “There was something about this church – it’s been through a few years of struggle after the previous pastor left.”
“There’s something in my heart for churches that have struggled like that,” Schondelmeyer said. “Something in my heart said my gifts could be used here.”
He also chose here after being deeply impressed with the music ministry at First Pres, led by Bishop.
“The passion Matt has, particularly for the art of worship. He’s the best music director I’ve ever worked with,” Schondelmeyer said. “You get some music directors who love worship and the church, but they don’t have really any formal background…You get some who are professionally trained musicians who don’t really care about worship; they’re just there for the music moment.
“It’s rare that you get the combination of both, and Matt’s one of those rare combinations,” he said. “This church is on my heart and I can’t get it out of my mind. I would love to work with this staff, so here I am.”
Long history, including performing
The long First Presbyterian history dates from 1838; its current building was dedicated in 1899 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
First Pres has had a Performing Arts Series for over 30 years, including a number of concerts each year. Every other year, they do a Broadway musical, but will do two straight in 2023-24. This year was “The Addams Family” and next summer (the weekend before July 4) will be “1776.”
The Sanctuary Choir went on tour to Germany in 2017, Ireland in 2022, and will travel to Italy in 2025.
“On the years they don’t go internationally, they often tour in the United States,” Schondelmeyer said, noting the choir performed in the Twin Cities this past summer, and in Milwaukee in 2018.
The last church concert was by organist Alex Gilson on Oct. 20, 2023, when he performed his own music to accompany the nearly century-old silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Schondelmeyer also hopes to bring in new members from the Performing Arts Series.
“That’s always the hope – that we believe we have a particular set of gifts,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re the only church…I think, if you find a spiritual home somewhere else, praise God that you have somewhere that’s your spiritual home. That’s my hope for people.
“This world can be hard – I have witnessed that in my life,” he added. “That’s what I pray for people, that they have a community around them to support them. But I do believe we have a certain set of gifts and a community here that is a blessing and we have something special to help people connect with the sacred.”
Schondelmeyer likes bringing his interpersonal skills during the week, in visiting with parishioners and their family members during hard times.
“When I was a young kid, with my dad, he would go off and would get real paranoid thoughts. He’d get real angry and screaming, and as a young kid, I learned to calm him down – sometimes with this use of humor,” Schondelmeyer said. “Those kind of skills I use in the church; it’s that skill of just being able to sit with people, listen to what they’re yelling about.”
He likes to offer the church as a literal sanctuary to people – a safe and sacred space, of comfort and healing, and laughter.
For more information on First Pres, visit its website HERE.