When Your Voice is Not Your Own

Post Author: Name Withheld

6310272280_67e9d3972b_oSometimes your voice is not your own. I remember a trip to a fine cathedral in England where the woman presiding spoke in a baritone- the sonorous tones of the quintessential Anglican clergyman. It was rather surprising to hear the voice of a Nigel or a John from the mouth of a petite woman, but her speaking voice was even more surprising as she greeted those exiting the service. As she welcomed parishioners in the church’s narthex, her voice was the slightly breathy alto of a woman whose voice was lower, surely, but hardly a low tenor, much less a baritone. She was a gifted cantor, and, it seems, an excellent mimic. Here was a woman who gave the people what they wanted–and what they wanted was the classic churchman.

When you’re preparing for ordination- the interminable tests, interviews, classes, the endless waiting and worrying- no one tells you that sometimes the voice you use will not be your own.  There are a thousand subtle ways we women are encouraged to lower and deepen our voices. Be careful not to over-emote when you are preaching. Wear unobtrusive jewelry when you celebrate the Eucharist. Avoid colors like pink. Take care with your hairstyle; you want to appear professional, not girlish. No one says, “Lower your pitch,” but you get the feeling that this might be next on the list.

I live in a church world that embraces and treasures tradition. It is one of the things I love about being an Episcopalian. But sometimes tradition is a guise for attributing importance to other things: ideas whose time has passed, ideas about what a priest looks like, acts like, and sounds like. Thanks to two millennia of male clergy, expectations for what a priest sounds like favor basses over sopranos.

When I stand up to give a sermon, I am aware that I am doing something that is beyond me, and that is not about me. Yet, it is my voice that delivers the message; my throat carries the words to the congregation. To utter anything in the name of the Triune God demands a leap of faith. We have to believe that God will use our prayers, our life, our study, our words to encourage, instruct, and inspire Christ’s body. We have to believe God will use our voices to share a Good Word with the Church.

Sometimes I feel like the clergywoman at the cathedral. I am self-conscious about things that will emphasize my woman-ness. “Is this lipstick too noticeable?” “Is that sermon illustration too ‘emotional’?”  So I change my lipstick or remove the anecdote.  I am careful with my words. I rarely raise my voice. I never “upspeak.” Perhaps it’s because that’s the sort of preacher I am. Perhaps, though, it’s because deep down I know a voice like mine isn’t the one the people are hoping for.

I remember visiting patients during CPE and having several people ask when the “real chaplain” (the male CPE student) was going to visit. I think of the fuss people make over young clergymen and the promise they hold for the church. So often, after they finish praising that wonderful young man, they begin a litany of great wistfulness for the days gone by. It doesn’t matter that they may not have even been alive then; they can still recite the blessings of the Midcentury Mainline: full Sunday Schools, packed pews, growth every year…and the priests were men. After the recitation, the person is often quiet. In that silence I hear them make the connection, ”Maybe if the priests were men…”

So I walk on eggshells. My preaching is more analytical and less anecdotal.  I strive to be more head than heart in my preaching, lest someone doubt my intellectual ability.  I use manuscripts because the text insures I won’t get “too excited” or “ramble” or “sound young” (which I suspect might be code for “sound like a woman”). When I need an example I often refer to classics in Western Literature and the latest stories in the right periodicals.  “See, I am well read”, my choices say.

Sometimes I catch myself dropping my voice half an octave. At times like those, I am thankful for the women who went before me. I am thankful for the women who stand with me (thanks TYCWP!). I am thankful for the friends and colleagues, both women and men, who challenge and encourage me. I am thankful that I can do the same for them.

In the eyes of the church, I might be a second-class clergy person, not because of what I do but because of who I am (not).  In the eyes of God, though, there is no such thing as second-class, and God’s are the only eyes that really matter. So I pray, I preach, I listen, and I love. I know the God who called me has always been in the business of doing a new, wonderful, and unexpected thing. It’s too bad the church is almost always the last to figure it out. The days I remember this, my voice is my own. I thank God for that.


Photo Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6310272280/”>GregPC</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

11 replies
  1. Regina
    Regina says:

    Thank you so much for your article! I think it is a struggle that all women ministers put up with and yet seem to be shamed because of what we are not. May God’s love and grace continue to embolden us to see and be the divine creation God had in mind.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I have had folks suggest I lower my pitch, especially when we are having issues with the sounds system. Mostly, I take this as problem solving . . . Unfortunately, I’m not a great mimic so I can only do if for about a minute before I”m back to my normal range, which is fairly average for a woman. Also, about a year after I started my call on an almost all female staff, I had someone say, “We are so glad you came to our church. You would be perfect if you were a man!” I chose to take this as a compliment. It seems she thinks I am perfect (except for something that I cannot change, and that if I could might change other already perfect things about me)!

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I JUST had my annual review this morning, where supposedly anonymous persons offered their evaluations of me. And I quote:
    “Sounds like a young girl rather than a grown woman.”
    “Uses flowery expressions in her prayers”
    Apparently, a grown woman would sound more like a man. Or something like that.
    My response to my head of staff was that the issue greater than my voice is the inherent sexism of the comment and the broader message it conveys- the ‘evaluator’ ought to be called to task on THAT.

    • Dawn
      Dawn says:

      Oh Sarah, I’m sorry you are expected to respond to criticism from people who won’t even put their name to it. But good for you for speaking up for yourself to your head of staff! That took courage.

  3. Sarah N.
    Sarah N. says:

    Oh, what a tenuous path we tread. Thank you for your thoughtful words. I’m finishing up my sermon for Sunday, and I’ll reflect on that as I practice my pacing and intonation. Whose voice am I using, indeed.

  4. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    One of my first sermon evaluations (which I made people sign) said, “Dawn needs to invest in a good hair fixative”. Thankfully my supervisor had as much humour as I did and, when it came time for my second sermon, reminded people to stick to the content and presentation of my text!

    I’m so glad I am not the only one who weeps inside when I hear women imitating men’s voices.

  5. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    How interesting… Having a speech defect, I am very accustomed to people commenting on my voice. I’ve worked with a number of therapists and coaches and (here) a professional actor and a local radio personality to work on my voice.

    I never thought to think of it in this way. Because my voice has always been my enemy, I always saw it as something else that I could control and fix. Learning to lower my pitch wasn’t about trying to not sound like a woman, it was me learning to make the best out of my flawed voice.

    It is very interesting to see this thread, since I tend to think that everyone else in the world has a lovely voice because mine is so awful!

  6. Rebecca L
    Rebecca L says:

    When I gave my first sermon in my preaching class in seminary, there was a guy (not from my tradition) who made a complete ass of himself afterwards harping on how I wasn’t speaking with authority. Eventually, it became clear that he was incapable of hearing authority in soprano tones. I’ve heard the thing about older people needing lower tones quite a bit, and try to make allowances for that. But after over a decade of preaching, I can honestly declare that many people love my preaching, they take it seriously, and they are frequently convicted by it. So there, sexist dude in class! Also, one thing I do that the older people love is to make copies of my manuscript so they can follow along. I think many of them hadn’t gotten most of a sermon in years; they are repeatedly grateful.

  7. Diana
    Diana says:

    The first time I chanted Evensong as an assistant, the rector commented afterward that he just wasn’t used to hearing the prayers chanted at a higher pitch, and it had been distracting to him. What kind of pitch did he think I’d choose? Thankfully, just about everyone else who ever commented on my chanting in that church used phrases like “voice of an angel,” so that helped cancel out my resentment about that first comment from him.

  8. Suz Cate
    Suz Cate says:

    I appreciate the fact that many women in ordained ministry are subjected to pressure to be less than fully feminine. I would like to offer the hopeful observation of my own experience. In my six months at this first cure, no one has ever questioned my “voice” nor my authority as a priest. Sexism isn’t universal. I pray to God that it will become less and less prevalent.

  9. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Recently, a colleague remarked that my voice becomes lower when I preach. “The Holy Spirit is at work in your pitch,” he said.

    Where is the Holy Spirit at work? My witness is that it is here…in the sharing of experiences with empathy and affirmation.

    Thank you for this article. Knowing that I am not alone in this is a true blessing.


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