Voice Lessons

Why women claiming their voice behind the pulpit is essential for the future of the church

By Khristi L. Adams | Illustration by K. L. Ricks

woman singing drawing

Not long ago I attended a wonderful event the Princeton Theological Seminary Association for Black Seminarians holds for students to practice preaching outside the classroom. As a woman and as a preaching evaluator for the event, I was particularly interested in the two women preachers, noticing a difference in how they delivered juxtaposed to how the three men delivered. Though all were nervous to some degree, the men had an ease that the women did not. This difference was familiar not only from my seminary experience, but something I continue to see enacted today in other spaces.

As a result, my words to the women preachers and all of the women in the room that day came with a sense of urgency: “This is your pulpit just as much as it is any man’s. Your voice matters in these authoritative spaces just as much as it would for any man. Let that voice resound.”

khristi adams
Rev. Khristi L. Adams (Photo by Chloe F. Adams)

I had a hard time finding my voice in seminary because it didn’t sound like the others. (This isn’t to isolate my experience from anyone else’s. Everyone had something unique to bring to the table, therefore the discovery of those gifts was foremost.) Still, along that journey was a voice that I had yet to discover or affirm. I had an idea of what a preacher’s voice was supposed to sound like and I didn’t have it. Particularly within my denominational tradition, there was a rhythm and cadence that I assumed was expected of a good preacher. I didn’t have that either. I also had to contend with some colleagues who thought “women shouldn’t preach.” With this in mind, I struggled through Preaching 101 and 102, but discovered a passion and joy for preaching. Actually, I loved it.

Finding my voice hasn’t been about a journey toward perfection, but toward authenticity.

I count it a blessing that I grew up in a church environment that affirmed women’s pastoral and leadership voices, shielding me from patriarchal criticism that many other women fight against in their vocational calling. Still, I had to find my voice both in the pulpit and away from it. As a new campus pastor at Azusa Pacific University, my supervisor pulled me to the side after a staff meeting. He noticed that I didn’t say anything the entire meeting. He said, “I hired you to speak.” In my mind, I didn’t have anything important to add to the conversation. In my mind, my opinions didn’t matter.

In that moment, I realized that to be a better preacher and pastor, I needed to come to terms with my voice. I am no longer apologetic, nor do I make excuses for who I am. Finding my voice hasn’t been about a journey toward perfection, but toward authenticity. This is the authentic voice that I preach from. It’s just me up there, translating the gospel the best way I know how, trying to figure out how to make sense of this life just like everyone else.

EmpoweredWomenPreach.com recently asked me how we can better empower young women to preach. I responded, “We have to do a better job affirming young women in their everyday voices before we can begin to empower them to preach. I counsel a lot of young girls who don’t believe what they have to say is important and I show them how to practice using their voice at their homes, in school, and among their peers. Only when they know that what they have to say about everyday life is important can we even begin to have conversations empowering them to preach.”

This is what my journey has led me to: Empowering women and girls to be leaders by helping them come into their voices. In Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach (Fortress Press, 2001), Christie Cozad Neuger writes about the threats to women’s and girl’s voices and pastoral approaches to helping women discover their voices in a patriarchal-dominant culture. “When I use the term voice, I am not just talking about a willingness to speak. I am also talking about the ability to find language and models that validate one’s own experience and communicate a sense of entitlement to that experience as authentic and important,” she writes.

Only by having women represented in all aspects of the church can we witness the fullness of the work of Christ through them, their gifts, and their voices.

I spend a great deal of my energy speaking affirmations into the lives of the girls and women I work with. It is imperative that we counter negative, harmful messages with supporting ones. Repeating statements like, “What you have to say is important” or “You are not a mistake” to girls whose parents tell them they didn’t mean to have them can have a profound impact on someone’s life. I say it from the pulpit, on Twitter, in the counseling office, and on the phone. The more they hear it, the more they will begin to believe it.

Helping women and girls claim their voice to center their experiences and their truth should be a prioritized mission of all church leaders, regardless of gender, for one reason: It is crucial to the future and overall health of the church. Only by having women represented in all aspects of the church can we witness the fullness of the work of Christ through them, their gifts, and their voices. By continuing to center only half of the world’s voices, the church has not actualized the fullness of its potential in truly being the body of Christ.

KHRISTI L. ADAMS, MDiv ’08, is an administrator at the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and an associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey. This fall, she will be the Hill School’s Firestone Endowment Chaplain and instructor of religion and philosophy in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.