Take Care of Your Voice
This week’s essay addresses a very practical, important, but often-overlooked issue for pastors: the need to care for your voice. This essay is excerpted from Look After Your Voice: Taking Care of the Preacher’s Greatest Asset by Mike Mellor.
Physical training is of some value… — the apostle Paul
Your voice is like a muscle and needs exercise. –Billy Graham
The strength of George Whitefield’s voice is well documented; it is recorded that he could preach to crowds of up to 40,000 people and be heard distinctly anywhere in such a vast and intense gathering.
However, before we say, ‘Ah, but he was specially built, a one-off!’, we need to remember that John Wesley, who was of short stature and slight build, also addressed such crowds. The argument will not stand that the preachers of past generations were some kind of rare breed of barrelchested, leather-larynxed natural orators. Surely in those preamplification days they had no option but to work on projecting and preserving their voices in order to be heard day after day in such physically demanding times. Doubtless, they were mighty men of God; but they were still just men—frail flesh-and-blood servants of God vulnerable to the very same ailments that threaten to render us lesser people hoarse and helpless.
There is not a more tragic sight in all creation than that of a God-sent preacher who is forced to be silent. But if there are not times of voluntary silence —that all-vital rest that nature demands our voices to have—then trouble is bound to follow.
We can be strangely inconsistent creatures when it comes to this area of rest—quite capable of dispensing pastoral advice on adequate rest and refreshment to others, but somehow failing to apply that same principle to our own lives and practices.
The God who created all things in six days and then rested on the seventh clearly lays down for us a pattern we ignore at our peril. We do not serve a God who is unmindful of our human frailties but who throughout the Scriptures continues to remind us of this pattern of work and rest. Both work and rest are important; God does not see rest as time wasted.
On a number of occasions, it has taken loving rebukes from concerned and respected fellow ministers to bring me to my senses, pointing out the long-term consequences of ignoring not only God’s dealings in providence, but also the pattern for rest he has given in his Word.
This folly has been likened to that of an old farmer who is too busy to stop and sharpen his scythe and so continues ineffectively with a blunt instrument; or that of the fisherman who is too busy to take time to mend his nets, thereby failing to bring in the harvest of the sea he might otherwise have had.
There is a reason why we struggle in this area, of course. We are people with an all-important message and calling, and this ‘fire in the bones’ constrains and drives us throughout the years. We continue to ‘preach the Word’ despite seasons of discouragement and, at times, even fierce opposition. It is no wonder, then, that we refuse to be stopped by ‘a little throat problem’, and it’s so easy to fail to recognize that such a problem is no small matter.
We can pour out much time, energy and prayer planning important schedules and events for the kingdom of God, yet forget that we are but frail mortals. It is so easy for preachers to be driven by a heavy agenda and ignore the early signs that our voices may be in need of care and attention. Proper rest earlier on could save much enforced rest later.
Ten tips for caring for the voice
1. Warm up the voice before speaking
Watch how the athlete warms up his or her muscles before that all-important event to prevent injury, or how the singer warms up his or her voice before taking the stage for the performance. The preacher dare not think they are able to get the best out of their voice without similar preparation before the demanding act of preaching; it can be helpful to think of ourselves as ‘vocal athletes’. Remember also that during a break in your regular speaking ministry—e.g. a holiday or sabbatical—the voice still needs to be exercised. The preacher who preaches wisely on a daily basis is less likely to have trouble than the one who preaches just once a week.
2. Avoid frequent coughing and clearing of the throat
Frequent coughing and clearing of the throat can do much harm, as this causes the sensitive, curtain-like vocal cords in the voice box to bang against each other, and damage can be done to the vocal tissue. Instead of clearing the throat, try a silent ‘he-he-he’ giggle. Swallowing hard a couple of times and sipping water also help.
3. Keep the vocal tract lubricated
We need to be drinking much water. Although water taken during preaching may be of temporary benefit, the body needs to be well hydrated already through a good amount of water taken beforehand (6–8 glasses of water is a recommended minimum). Bear in mind that drinks containing caffeine (e.g. tea and coffee) will dehydrate you.
4. Rest when tired or unwell
There are certain periods in ministry when we are at a low and are not only physically but perhaps also mentally and emotionally drained. These are always dangerous times for us, made all the more perilous because of the often subtle and gradual descent into these conditions. Rest really is a healer and we must have the sense to rest our voices when tell-tale signs are showing, for example, a sore throat or a strained and ragged voice. To continue in such a condition will only cause the situation to deteriorate and could possibly cause long-term damage. Anaesthetic lozenges and sprays only succeed in masking the problem.
5. Seek to avoid tension
Because we are people with a God-given burden, we will have a right nervousness that is to be expected by those who are about to deliver the Word of God. But remember that bodily tension is an enemy to preaching, as it badly affects the posture and breathing. The more relaxed the preacher is, the less risk they faces of straining their voice. It is wise to ensure that there are no church business discussions or decisions needing to be made prior to going into the pulpit! These are normally the real culprits of that unhealthy and unwanted tension.
6. Ensure the room is well ventilated
Hot, airless churches are a curse to the preacher for a number of reasons. A hot, dry atmosphere not only aids in sending our listeners to sleep (although we must take some responsibility for this!), but it also prematurely dries out the preacher’s throat.
7. Sing before the message
This can be helpful or unhelpful. If you are able to sing carefully (from the diaphragm), it can be useful for warming up (not forgetting to worship!), but if the singing is adding to the strain on your voice, it is best to abstain. The danger occurs when the sound engineer has switched off your microphone and you are unable to hear your own voice because of the congregation. This results in you unknowingly singing more loudly than is wise.
8. Avoid certain drinks and food before speaking
Dairy products have the effect of increasing the production of mucus, which can take the edge off your voice. Avoid things like milky drinks, chocolate, cheese and so on directly before speaking. Eating spicy foods the night before can also be harmful, as acid from the stomach can lie on the vocal cords all night, affecting the way you sound in the morning.
9. Be careful after the meeting
Often the greatest strain on our voices can be when attempting to speak to someone in an after-church setting, where you are competing with the background noise of loud chatter and teacups. This is compounded in a room with bare walls and lots of echo. Be very careful not to strain the voice here. The danger is that we feel that we have ‘done the business’ and can now relax. It is now that we can be off guard and lapse into shallower breathing and lazier voice production. The rule is: when it is noisy, don’t speak more loudly, but articulate more clearly.
10. Take care in an open-air situation
Here you have no walls or ceiling to enable the sound to bounce back to you, so you have no means of judging how the sound is carrying. If at all possible, find a spot where there is a building on at least one side of you; this will be of help. If not, there is a great danger of speaking more loudly at a sustained level than is comfortable, thereby straining the voice. Also, the greater the background noise, the greater the risk of doing harm to the voice.
This reflection is drawn from Look After Your Voice: Taking Care of the Preacher’s Greatest Asset by Mike Mellor, published by Day One Ministries as part of their Ministering the Master’s Way series. If you found this reflection useful, you can read much more on this topic in the book.
Enna A. Bachelor