Finding My Voice (Kelly Edmiston)

Finding My Voice (Kelly Edmiston) November 6, 2019

By Kelly Edmiston

As a young girl, I was in trouble for my “smart mouth” a lot at home. I was disciplined often for talking back or being sassy. While I don’t judge or fault my parents for doing this (I believe that many well-intentioned parents are doing the best they can with what they know), these circumstances, and others, led me to believe that what I had to say was wrong, rebellious and deserving of discipline. Hold your tongue, I learned. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, was the mantra I learned to abide by as I grew up. This “children were meant to be seen and not heard” message that I learned as a child was more than just parental and cultural conditioning. It became paradigmatic for how I viewed all of life, most significantly how I viewed the church and faith. I grew up in a denomination where the highest levels of authority, including preaching and worship leading, were reserved strictly for men. I never heard the voice of a woman proclaiming the gospel or leading the congregation in worship.

As a young woman, my first job in ministry was in the same patriarchal denomination that I was raised in. Holding back my voice and not saying what I wanted to say was a stipulation for keeping my job. Any time I wanted to say anything about any given topic, I would carefully consider and weigh each word. My goal was to take every emotion out of my words and not come across as needy or sensitive or female. In my desire to fit in and be a part of my own community, I was complicit in a system set on silencing me.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to preach in chapel at my Alma Mater. It was an arena full of thousands of college students and I was preaching on a topic that I am the most passionate about, spiritual formation. The sermon was supposed to be autobiographical in nature. I was supposed to tell my story about my life with God, in twenty minutes of course. Once the sermon was over, I sent the recording to a preacher who I greatly admired. I asked him to watch my sermon and give me feedback. I had never done this before in such an official way and I was really nervous about what he would say. I had not received any formal training as a preacher. Even though I had an M.Div and lots of experience preaching, I had never taken a preaching course. I was, in the most practical of ways, self-taught. I read books, I watched sermons and I would ask for help occasionally when it felt safe. This man seemed to be safe.

He accepted my request and asked if we could set up a phone call. He started with “Kelly, you’ve got it. Like, all of it. All that it takes to preach. The gift, the x-factor. You’re the bomb.” It used to be cool to talk like that. I laughed a nervous laugh of relief. But he went on. “As I watch you, however, I am confused. You preach like Ruth Haley Barton. But you sound like (and look like) Beth Moore. So who do you want to be?” The words of my sermon were written to be upbeat and funny and lively. But my presentation of my words was subdued and held back. I was attached to the podium, he noticed. My voice didn’t inflect much. And I robotically engaged the audience. My sermon lacked warmth and energy. Two things that are core parts of my personality. This preacher who I greatly admired was telling me that there was a disconnect between my words and my presentation. He was asking me about my “voice.” The truth was that I didn’t have a voice. Somewhere along the way, I lost it.

Nancy Lammers Gross asks the question of women, “When did you lose your voice?”[1]

By “Voice” she is referring to more than the physical act of speaking, although this is included. By “Voice,” she is referring to a woman’s ability to speak out of her most authentic self, without filtering, without hindrance, without questioning her own validity or call to speak.

Many women identify with this experience of losing their voice, even those in egalitarian contexts. Women have been conditioned to speak quietly, to hold back emotion and to inflect at the end of our statements, subtly asking for permission. We struggle to take up space when in front of a group or in a pulpit. Our posture, tone of voice and presentation consistently lacks authority.

My upbringing and my denomination of origin were two key pieces in the loss of my Voice. Today and in my current ministry context, I am on a search to find it. My boss asked me recently if I would preach in a couple of weeks. We started brainstorming topics and he suggested, “Why don’t you preach on the Kingdom of God and Women?” I laughed out loud. “Really?” I said. “Yea,” he said.

I think that this sermon may be a mile-marker on this journey to find my Voice.

[1] Nancy Lammers Gross, Women’s Voices and the Practice of Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017). She refers to this question throughout her book.

 

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