Why Women Ministers Should Never Consent To The Dunk Tank

Oh my heavens, chickens!! Here’s one I get every rare now and then,

Charlotte writes, “What does the middle-aged, female pastor wear into the fundraising dunk tank?”

And I go,
“SHE DOESN’T GO IN!”

And she goes,

Well, I debated avoiding the dunk. On consideration, I really think I should. I am new to the part of the country, new to the community, new to the church. Every year they have a community festival, including the aforementioned dunk tank. The pastor (always previously male) went in. That doesn’t mean I must because he did, but I think I will earn a consider amount of good will by being a really good sport. They see me as a little formal and this could help. And it is, as they say, for a good cause.

I am obviously not wearing a swim suit (or at least not only a swim suit!), and want to be opaque and not too clingy coming up.

I thought my predicament might have come up before!

Thank you for your blog. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical, but was an instant convert on reading it. I’ve repeated your clever tagline (with credit) to many female pastors and urged some of your advice on others. Because of you, I finally started tinted myy vanishing eyebrows.

Thanks for your good work and for answering. I thought I might have missed you on the way to London.

And I responded,

“It has come up before, here! I would probably do something funny like wear a halo and taunt people as they throw about how they might risk hell if they succeed in getting you in the water. Or dress for baptism in all white and a robe. Something funny that takes control of the situation…”

But I have thought about it more, and I have confronted my discomfort about the dunk tank and discovered why it upsets me so deeply. Let me being by saying simply that there are a lot of appropriate ways to be a good sport that do not require you to appear before your parishioners soaking wet in clinging clothes. This video is just bizarre, but shows how at least one church-goer views the occasion.

Now. Here’s what I think is going on. I think that the “fun” of the dunk tank is equal parts about seeing a person in authority given a good soaking (literally) or it is about testing their willingness to be humiliated in public. I do not think women religious leaders should consent to this practice. It is not fun. It is passive aggressive at best and hostile at worst. Women have spent enough centuries being made public spectacle of for daring to express themselves or gaining more power than men are comfortable with. Anyone who has made a study of medieval or Puritan public shaming practices has good cause to be mighty uncomfortable with the dunking tank, which to me is just a “kinder, gentler” version of the dunking chair.

While I think that male clergy can pretty easily endure this silly ordeal with their dignity intact, there is a much deeper level of traumatic ancestral memory and complicated gender politics at work in the Church for any woman minister to consent to it.

Tell them that you’ll be happy to sit in the dunking booth as long as they’ll all commit to attending a Sunday morning service devoted to the reconciling of the Church to its treatment of women the next day. Tell them that the sermon is going to be about the witch crazes that were sponsored not only by the Catholic Inquisition but the authorities of the Protestant Church in the Reformation Era. If you’re in the Massachusetts area you might add to it the dunking punishment used against Quakers in the Puritan era, and remind your folks about the public execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, as well as the banishment (and later scalping death) of Anne Hutchinson, both women who were reviled for daring to claim religious authority.

This is not as innocuous as it seems. We are people who understand the power of symbols. We must take care not to participate in symbolic acts that cause our ancestresses to weep and to wonder, “Are they yet still dunking a woman for speaking her mind, or for daring to claim the authority of the Holy Spirit?”

13 Replies to “Why Women Ministers Should Never Consent To The Dunk Tank”

  1. Absolutely, what you said. I haven’t seen this so much, but occasionally in England people like to put ministers, head teachers etc. in the stocks and chuck wet sponges at them as a “fun fundraiser”.

    If anyone wanted me to do this- well, point A, if they didn’t notice I was “a little formal” when they hired me, they can’t have been looking too closely. Point B would be that I went through some extreme violence as a child and have no intention whatever of ending up in situations that remind me of that in any way, no matter how “harmless”. Point C would be an offer to do something else to raise funds instead like a swim marathon or a sponsored Bible reading, if I was feeling particularly good about everything else in the church/organisation. [Yes, teachers are other favorite targets in the dunk tank. I tend to think that because teachers have actual power to grade the student, it’s a sly reversal to let students soak the “teach.” I would probably happily do a dunk tank session as a teacher; for me in that role, it would be fun. Your point about abuse is a very important one I hadn’t thought of, so thank you for that. – PB]

  2. A very good point, PB — though some might argue it’s simply an incarnational parable of the Magnificat (the lowering of “the mighty”) a lot of it might depend on how much authority the pastor is perceived to have — in too many congregations the pastor is simply the whipping boy/girl for all that is wrong with the community and it IS passive aggressive.

    Charlotte, can you simply say to them, “I’m sorry, I simply find that to be humiliating, and I don’t think the church is about humilitation. I’d certaily be willing to [insert something playful here.]”? It’s entirely possible to be “a little formal” and playful at the same time.

    ALL THAT BEING SAID if you really think you have to participate in such an event, borrow a baptismal gown from your local friendly baptist church. They’re made to be modest, even when wet.
    And wear the swim suit and/or a white T and shorts underneath just to be safe.

  3. This is funny, as I almost ended up in a dunk tank this weekend (it was cancelled earlier this week).

    I understand your objections, PB, and I definitely see where you’re coming from.

    However, I had agreed to do it for a few reasons:

    1. I was going to go in after an area male minister, so it wasn’t just singling out me or a female clergy person.

    2. I live in a very, very informal small town. I can hardly think of a business leader in town who wouldn’t agree to do this for a good cause (Vacation Bible School fundraising, in this case).

    3. I am a smallish person with a small bust, so the likelihood of something looking inappropriate, even in wet clothing, was very slim.

    4. I recently purchased what I think of as an “industrial” bathing suit (Wal-Mart is great for these) – wide straps, low cut in the legs, no potential for slippage, etc. While I would wear this under some regular, loose-fitting clothing, it helped to know that it wasn’t going to move anywhere.

    5. As a solo pastor I’m the youth pastor, too, and connecting with youth often looks different than connecting with adults. More than just being a “good sport,” being in the dunk tank would have been a way for me to show the jr. high and high school students that I am not just their parents’ pastor.

    6. I was going to have a Super Soaker squirt gun in there with me, so if anyone tried to dunk me, I could return the favor! (It’s only fair!).

    [Sounds like you had a good handle on this, C. Well-played. – PB]

  4. As Peaceband said, there are some activities that just undermine your pastoral authority, and this is one of them.

    No way, no how. No pies in the face, no goofy parts in the play… and I don’t care if you are male or female. You’re clergy.

  5. I did a dunk tank once. I was VERY careful in choosing clothes. Baggy t shirt that was not see through, shorts to the knees…that did not cling when wet. What was interesting is that people were VERY reluctant to throw the the ball. Only did it a few time and ended up letting the kids take turns dunking each other. I think probably I would not do it again.

  6. It is just good old fun, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t find people lining up to dunk the preacher anymore than they do for the young kids who want to get in the tank because it looks like fun. A good swim suit under a pair of shorts and t shirt.
    I also agree that you will gain a lot of goodwill by the offer. Although if it is totally out of your comfort zone you might find another staff member willing to take your place.

  7. I am an older second career pastor in a very small town. My predecessor told me that there would be a dunk tank and I would be a part of it shortly after I arrived. Fortunately, the festival was cancelled so I did not face the dilemma of participating or not. I had since decided that I would not if came up again this year. Just not me.

    My predecessor was very happy to do the dunk tank for a church carnival…all the kids wanted to dunk the pastor. He also took a pie in the face among other things…well you get the idea. So not me.

    I thank you for your response to the query. I had many of the same concerns, but I just had a gut reaction that it would not be appropriate for a female pastor. While others may view it differently I know that it doesn’t work for me.

  8. The last people who should sit in a dunk tank are those who are “a little formal”. People who are big and bold personalities are those who sit in the tank – they make it fun for the throwers. They yell at the pitchers, and laugh if they are dunked and laugh if they stay dry.
    Dunking the “slightly formal” usually ends up with the dunkee not having fun, and makes the whole point seem to be to humiliate, embarrass, and cause distress. No doubt, a few pitchers would want to do that – or would feel obligated to do that (to support the cause or whatever), but mostly this would result in everyone feeling uncomfortable.
    If dunking is for you – just do it. If dunking is not for you, start with other less public means of being less formal. [Another good take. Thanks. – PB]

  9. I wouldn’t do it for the same reason I wouldn’t…

    a. Attempt to catch the bridal bouquet. My 20-something, gorgeous niece could do it, not moi.
    b. Go through the genuinely scary haunted house set up by the youth.
    c. Attend any church pool party I didn’t have to.

    And that reason is – I’d feel too vulnerable and distracted. Whatever church event I’m at, I am always prepared to be emotionally present for people, if needed. Any of the above – and let’s add “sit in the dunk tank” – would blow that up.

  10. If the human element of being clergy is lost to the professional, you waste your time in the pulpit and would do just as well to record your sermon and have the organist press play on the CD player.

    Your objects are, of course, valid, PB, but I disagree. I guess I’m speaking from the place of a young white male, so my perspective is very much different than many here.

    If a clergyperson healthily enjoys being in the dunk tank and knows that it brings healthy enjoyment to others, she or he should get down off of her or his ivory pulpit and have some fun.

    Would Jesus have sat in a dunk tank? I’m pretty sure he would have. Lord knows that John convinced him to do something similar, although with some religious air to it.

  11. I’ve avoided it for several years. Just said no, and no, and no. Most people understood – I would not have had fun, I am not young enough, not going to happen at my age, not in my role. I also have no appetite for personal humiliation, even when it’s cast as fun – I also have refused to wear a fake mustasche as part of a barbershop quarter deal. But I didn’t think I needed to explain why I refused.

    The question here is whose boundaries are being tested? What is really going on in this organization? If someone is following another pastor, and is seen as ‘formal’ is this a good way to be seen as informal – to whom? Unfortunately, being the first year, it’s as yet unclear what exactly is going on. How much of this is about male/female images – about putting the pastor in her place – as about sharing the fun?

    At our festival the dunk tank was off to the side, and was primarily something for the children, and so my reluctance was a wise move. It has disappeared, thank goodness.

  12. I am not a pastor and I have never done this at a church, but when our local fire department was opening a new station and hosting an open house with a dunk tank, I volunteered. In fact, I went out of my way to volunteer. I sent an email to the town and asked them to pass it along to whoever was in charge of the open house until I received a reply from the township trustee I thought the idea of being a “dunkee” sounded like fun and I was absolutely right. It was great fun. Never once did I feel “humiliated”. It was mostly little kids playing and it was a hoot seeing their faces when they succeeded in dropping me in the water. Refusing to do something like this, especially if you’re seen as “formal” is going to come off as stuffy and conceited. It’s just a little water and no one is accusing you of being a witch. It’s time to forgive those misguided people in the past and show that you can be humble. [You’re a man and you’re not a minister. You’ve wasted your time here, and mine. Next! – PB]

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