Remembering Sy Sperling — and Your Pastor, Minister, or Priest

The Professionals are the Clients, Too

A timely suggestion from a pastor friend of Mbird.

Pour one out (pluck one out?) for our man Sy Sperling, the greatest theologian of late-night TV ads from the early 90s and late 80s. He died in February at age 78.

Don’t remember Sy Sperling? What are you, Gen Z? He was everywhere on TV for a generation, the founder and president of the Hair Club for men. Learning about the company’s founding via a slew of pre-virus obituaries and remembrances, I discovered that Sy was frustrated with the ways a toupee made his romantic life harder. “If you’re dating and going to be having special moments [editor’s note: sex], how do you explain, ‘I got to take my hair off now?’” A true problem in need of a real solution.

It’s an American story — he founded his first Hair Club with $5,000 in credit card debt and sold the company to Japanese investors for 45 million. The New York Times credits him with kick-starting the trend of male fashion and grooming: if you use beard oil, a delivery service for your razors, or a men’s specific hygiene product, you have Sperling to thank.

But the real reason for my gratitude for Sy Sperling is his famous ad slogan. Let’s take a walk down memory lane together:

Did you catch that? “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.” Brilliant.

How did Sy Sperling make his fortune? He exposed his bald head for the world to see. No gimmicks, no tricks, just a “before” and “after”: a photo of his mug without hair next to his Hair Cub enhanced scalp. He has a product that is so good, he uses it himself.

I’ll let you in on a secret — when it comes to the Christian Gospel, there is little if any distinction between the ordained and the lay. Bishops may wear colorful, embroidered garments. Priests may wear collars and simple vestments. Megachurch pastors may actually pay for a Hair Club membership. Prosperity preachers have their designer sneakers. But at the end of the day, the clergy aren’t just “presidents” of the gospel. They’re also clients.

Or at least they should be! Imagine the scandal if a high-ranking Microsoft executive was caught using an iPhone, or if the factory workers at Chevrolet drove Ford trucks to work. It’s quite the coup to discover that a company’s president or spokesperson doesn’t use their own product. It says something when the software engineers of Silicon Valley are raising their own kids without the technology they’re working to make.

I worked for a season at a large Division I university with a reputable football program. The school, like many schools, had a sponsorship contract with Coke, which meant the Coke logo was prominently displayed across the stadium. But when the TV cameras panned to the University President’s box during a football broadcast, all they saw was the smiling, refreshed face of a happy man enjoying his Diet Dr. Pepper. Serious emails by lawyers were exchanged about the matter.

There’s no need to call out my clergy “industry fellows” in our current quarantine season for “drinking Diet Dr. Pepper while they’re sponsored by Coke.” The fire-and-brimstone types are having trouble communicating their passion and zeal over Zoom (it’s just not as inspirational), and the tunnel-vision social-justice types have been told to help the poor by staying inside and doing nothing. The reality is that this crisis has a lot of people looking in the mirror at their bald spots and wondering what solutions exist. I’m sure David Zahl wasn’t hoping for a pandemic when he suggested that more conversations about death would pull us from our #seculosity treadmills. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong, especially when Google corroborates his thesis; in March 2020, online searches about prayer have skyrocketed.

Maybe the takeaway is to flip this on its head. Instead of castigating pastors who are off-brand, maybe it’s better if we all just go and check in on them. Their job just got exponentially harder, technologically and spiritually. They’ve been on the phone for weeks trying to minister to people they can’t see; they’re teaching older members of the congregation how to use Zoom, and they’re struggling to adjust to the fact that nobody is around for weekly worship, livestream notwithstanding. While some might be enjoying Sunday brunch for the first time in ages, most are flitting through vague viewership metrics to determine whether the hours of preparation for a video devotional are really worth it.

They won’t tell you this either, but your pastors are secretly terrified what the future might bring for your church. They’ve been admonished to plan for this brave new world to last eighteen months. They’re recognizing that giving will precipitously drop over the course of the year as congregants become unemployed. He or she is staying up late at night wondering whether it would be better for the finances of the church to let the organist and building maintenance staff collect unemployment. They’re wondering whether the church can still afford to pay its family and children minister in six months. They’re not just pastors, after all. They’re clients, too. Some of them may be more comfortable showing the “before” photo to you for context, but that doesn’t mean they have their own spiritual boldness.

I mean, they’re not wearing masks and gloves, working triage with breathless virus victims. Many of them wish they could help in that way, but they have families and old folks to console and zero medical training. But they are the ones fielding the calls during dinner time as panicked parents call about their adult children visiting the ER with shortness of breath. It’s a different challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.

Sy Sperling — thank you for the wonderful gift of your catchphrase. Thank you for exposing your baldness to the world. Thank you for modeling what it looks like to be a human being in need of love and breaking down the boundaries between the “professionals” and the rest of us.