After researching the experiences of women in ministry, Amy Zimbelman shares how women have used sass as a means to deal with inequality in ministry.
Rev. Amy Zimbelman is the conference minister of Mountain States Mennonite Conference. She holds a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School, and has also served in Zambia through Mennonite Central Committee and in South Dakota with Mennonite Voluntary Service. In South Dakota, she met her husband/best friend, Matt Zimbelman, and they live in Colorado Springs and have two young sons. She loves spending time with her family, cooking/eating food, board gaming with friends, going outside to walk or hike, learning about other cultures, hashing things out in long conversations and trying to follow Jesus.
“A guy came up to a lunch table, where me and a young lady were sitting down. He came up to the table and introduced himself and asked who we were. I said I was a pastor. And he said, ‘That’s impossible. There are not female pastors.’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess you’re looking at a miracle today!’ The man, then, slowly backed away.”
— A women in ministry study participant
“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. …
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.’”
— Luke 1:46-48, 52-53 NRSVUE
The liberation that Jesus’ mother, Mary, describes in the Magnificat began, of course, in her own body. She identifies, as though she might believe it herself, society’s view of her, as humble or lowly — lacking resources, masculinity, age, power and the acceptable marital status. Setting the example for preachers ever since, Mary “names and claims” the society she hopes to see, the society that Jesus’ life will further enable: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53 NRSVUE). Mary’s act of courageously voicing her vision is, in itself, a way of living into that vision of power upended, of wrongs being righted.
Still, over 2,000 years later, women in ministry know that placing their female bodies behind pulpits and voicing the vision they see is, in itself, a way of living into gender equality and upending norms. This can garner praise but also, unfortunately, punishment. While all pastors may experience mistreatment, our study found that women who pastor report three times more sexual harassment than their male counterparts over the course of their careers — almost 16% for women versus 5.3% for men. Women also are overtly criticized for not conforming to gender stereotypes about twice as often as men — 51.6% of women and 24.7% of men — and over 25% of women report unwanted or uncomfortable touch — compared to about 10% of men.
When a woman feels empowered to “name and claim” her vision, sexual harassment, bullying, microaggressions and other forms of mistreatment are ways to put her back in her place; they are attempts at restoring the former structures of power.
But our study on women in ministry found that women find a myriad of creative ways to cope with their mistreatment and live into the vision Mary once cast. One of many techniques that women employ is humor, particularly a subset of humor known as sass.
According to womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland, “sass“ is the use of “wit and verbal dexterity to resist insult or assault. It denotes impudent, uppity speech; … sharp, cutting talk thrown at the back. Sass is a gift from the Ancestors. Enslaved black women took up verbal warfare in order to regain and secure self-esteem, to gain psychological distance, to tell the truth, and, sometimes, to protect against sexual assault … For our enslaved Foremothers, sass was a ready defense that allowed them to ‘return a portion of the poison [to] the master.’”
Clergywomen today, particularly, though not exclusively BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women, use sass for many of the same reasons cited by Copeland: regaining self-esteem, creating psychological distance, telling the truth, and/or defending and protecting themselves. When society attempts to dub women in ministry as “lowly,” sass is a particularly effective way of talking back to oppression and even flipping the power dynamics in the moment.
As an example, one BIPOC woman was tired of hearing congregants criticize her appearance — a common lament among pastors, with over 63% of women and 51% of men in ministry reported experiencing this — so she used public sass as a way of challenging her mistreatment.
She said, “I remember when somebody at the church told me that I need to wear heels to preach, and I said, ‘Why is that?’ They said, ‘Well, because that gives you more authority.’ Well, I really didn’t want to wear heels, so [on a Sunday that I was preaching] I moved the chair to the front, and I put my shoes in front [on the chair] and said, ‘Since it’s so important, let the heels speak to you!’”
The anecdote at the beginning of this article is another example of sass; in declaring that the man has witnessed “a miracle,” the pastor doesn’t defend her vocation but instead upends the man’s perception of the situation. As she regains self-esteem and names the truth, it creates both psychological and physical distance, as he backs away.
Another pastor used a creative response to those who questioned her call to ministry: “I’m dealing with people who don’t think women should be in ministry,” she said, so “when somebody would find out I was a pastor, I’d say, ‘Yes, I became a pastor out of obedience to my husband.’ I’d love seeing their faces on that.”
While sass is full of creativity and spontaneous wit, it would, of course, be closer to Mary’s vision of equality if women in ministry — and other marginalized groups — never had to hone this skill.
What if our churches honored the voices of the “lowly,” those who most closely resemble Jesus, his mama and his earliest followers? What if those who spoke up from the margins were met with openness rather than sexual harassment, microaggressions and/or verbal abuse?
One study participant caught this vision and shared her hope for the future of women in ministry:
“I would hope any congregation, anywhere, would equally consider a woman as well as a man for leadership and embrace them with open arms and affirm them for all the wonderful gifts that they can bring to ministry,” she said. “I think the church has been crippled for many many many years because we haven’t engaged women in ministry more. And so I feel like we are finally flourishing in a new way, because we are starting to use and engage these gifts that women bring, but there’s still so many churches that won’t open their eyes and be willing to use them. So my vision would be that it’s not an issue anymore; gender would not be an issue. Everybody would have equal footing, and it’s not like women would have to work harder to be as qualified or as good as a man. You are as qualified, just because you have been trained in the same way. That would be my goal, my vision, for women in ministry.”
Townes, Emilie, ed. “A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering.” From chapter 7 by Copeland, M. Shawn: “Wading Through Many Sorrows: Toward a Theology of Suffering in Womanist Perspective.” NY: Orbis Books, 1993.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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