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.