A vocation and a voice

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I went to Larchmont Avenue Presbyterian Church this weekend to preach, and to talk about Tribal Church. What a fun experience. They have a great staff, Bill Crawford and Jed Koball are there, two hard-working and extremely gifted people. Years ago, Bill was a campus minister at GW, and he forged a relationship with Western, really helping Western to see a larger vision for the campus. And now, I get to be a part of that outreach, as I serve Western and the GW campus.

They had one of those fantastic pulpits, one that ascends like an octagon elevator. The only problem was that it wasn’t made for a pastor who’s five feet tall, and I couldn’t actually see the first three rows of the congregation when I stood in it, so Bill constructed an extra step, with cinderblocks and plywood. Then it was perfect.

It’s odd, preaching to a crowd that you don’t know. I never know whether to write something fresh, or to recycle. If you recycle, you can rely on a sermon that’s good, but they do tend to get stale after a while. So, I always write something new, but then there’s a chance that it’s not going to turn out well. What do you do? Do you recycle?

The other thing that I’m always aware of in a different pulpit is my voice. I’m not quite sure what to do about my voice. I don’t have a deep, resonate preacher’s voice. It’s nasally and high-pitched. I’ve heard complaints about my voice in all my churches, except Western (I love Western). A member of a worship committee in one church said that they needed to cut off the microphone when I preached because my voice is “screechy.” It was my second week at the church. I didn’t know how to respond. I stood speechless, flushed with shame and thought, But it’s my voice. It’s not a dress. I can’t just take it off.

It’s a voice that feels like it’s reaching for something that it can’t… quite… get… a… hold… of. It’s a voice that doesn’t modulate emotion, but it stands at the edge of tears or outrage or passion. My preaching professor said I needed to listen to it regularly, to try to improve it. He tried to comfort me by saying, “It’s okay. People will get used to it. People got used to Truman Capote’s voice.” (Wait. Was that supposed to make me feel better?)

At my first internship, they told me I needed to go to a voice coach, but I couldn’t quite figure it out, was it that my voice really needed help, or was it just that my voice didn’t quite fit into certain pulpits? Was it because it was annoying, or was it because it belonged to a woman?

I went to a voice coach recently. I worked on the range, trying to loosen my clenched jaw and my taught vocal chords. I tried add some depth to it, by breathing deeper, and imagining that my voice was echoing over a pond. It didn’t work. I still have the same voice.

Plus, I’m not sure I wanted it to work. The coach worked with actors and actresses who try to become someone else on stage. But, I didn’t want one of those dramatic pulpit voice, the kind that sounds like it’s quoting Shakespeare and lilts too much. I wanted to be more authentic. More of myself in the pulpit. I didn’t want a voice that said, “I’m in the elevator now. I’m going to talk to you differently.”

Larchmont will be looking for an Associate Pastor soon (Jed’s an interim). They want to call the very best person, male or female. The church was begun by a woman, but due to chance, they’ve never had an installed female clergy person.

And you know what? The nicest thing was said to me this weekend: “I’m glad the congregation got a chance to hear your voice. I’m glad they had a chance to hear a woman in the pulpit.” I was certainly not the first woman in that pulpit (they’ve had a female interim), but my voice was appreciated there. 

Maybe things are changing. I know my voice hasn’t.

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11 thoughts on “A vocation and a voice

  1. I actually wish that I could start a voice lessons for pastors business. Voices are so important, I think. Not that they be one-size-fits-all, but that they be yours, only more so. I hear a lot of beginning preachers that try to morph into the voice of the pastor that they loved best. It never works.

    On the height front, my dad built me a great portable stool for preaching. He calls it the RevElator. It’s the bomb. I hate preaching when you can’t see the congregation and they can’t see you! I keep telling my dad that he should sell it on Ebay!

  2. I heard one person say that women should try to speak in the lower end of their register because it’s more “pleasant.” But my voice teacher (I took singing lessons once) said she didn’t agree with. If you are soprano, speaking in a low voice would put too much stress on your voice.

    I think it is important to learn to use our voices properly. The first woman pastor I ever had used to get laryngitis a low, because she was trying to speak with passion (she was a passionate person) but she strained her voice sometimes.

    I can’t believe some people would say you have a “screechy” voice. (sigh)

    Congrats on this weekend.
    And thanks for your prayers.
    I feel so sorry for this pastor and his family.

  3. You may not want to do this but I know how to fix your voice problem.
    Yell everyday until you lose your voice every day for a month. Then for the rest of your life you never have that problem ever again.

    Good luck on the potential offer.

  4. I like lots of things about my current church, but the pulpit is not one of them. It’s too small and narrow. I feel hemmed in. (It may be because I’m 6’5″ but I’ve felt comfortable in other pulpits.)

    Occasionally I’ll take a music stand and put it on the main floor and preach from there… I almost always feel like I preach better from there than from the actual pulpit.

  5. Good tip, Wyldth1ng. I’m afraid I don’t yell often enough…

    Oh! But it wasn’t an offer. I’m not going anywhere! It was just good timing. It gave some of them the chance to think about the possibility of a woman, at that moment. Of course, a church should hire the best person (man or woman), but sometimes when a church is used to seeing men, it helps to broaden the horizons a bit.

    Jim, Hey! So you have the same issues at the tall end? They really should make these things adjustable.

    Diane, Have you spoken to the pastor? Have you been able to? I’m sure he’s swamped, but I hope he has some real support….

  6. Okay…so I’m sitting up there in the chancel yesterday morning with great anticipation…and praying that the cinderblock stand doesn’t collapse…when Carol begins to speak. My first thought as her voice resonates through the sanctuary sound-system?? Authentic. I knew in the first sentence that came out of her mouth that anything and everything she was going to say would be true and from the heart. I knew I was not going to be preached at or patronized, rather walked with, challenged and comforted.

    You have a great voice, Carol. It’s a voice that reflects a new day…change. The rest of the church will catch up soon enough.

    As for the sermon? I was right…it was awesome. Thanks Carol!!!

    Jed

    P.S. If there is anyone out there seeking a new call…this is a good one here in Larchmont, NY!

  7. It might not be about you. How many of the complaints come from people who wear hearing aids? Hearing aids pick up men’s voices way better than women’s voices. With women’s voices they tend either not to get picked up at all, or they come through screechy.

    I’ve found that speaking at the low end of my range can be helpful when speaking to a lot of hearing-aid-wearers, but I have less volume down there, so it’s a trade-off.

    Speaking more slowly than you would in conversation can help too–both for the sake of the hearing aid, the P.A. system, and any reverb that the room might have. All those things make sounds last a lot longer and pile up on one another, especially if the speaker is excited and speaking fast in a high pitch. Again, that’s not about you, it’s about technology.

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