When I was a seminary student, a member of my lay supervisory committee wrote in his semester’s-end review that I had, after serving at the altar, preaching, leading Bible studies and facilitating retreats for several months, “good potential for leadership.” Talk about damning with faint praise! Before submitting the review, the rector asked the committee member for more information. From their discussion, she learned that he had a very precise view of leadership: a leader had a loud voice and commanded attention, a leader was a prominent presence that was felt even during coffee-hour socializing. The committee member was looking only for traditional “leader/follower” interactions, not the mutual, collaborative leadership that was more my style. As an elementary-school educator and mother, as scout leader, and community educator, and there as a clergy-member-in-training, my leadership style served to guide, nurture and empower those under my care to develop to their fullest potential. If there had been an emergency situation, I have proven I can use my “playground voice” to calmly and efficiently shepherd a crowd to safety. However, there was no emergency to showcase my response, and my nurturing style of leadership was not, in my reviewer’s opinion, “real” leadership, He allowed that I had “potential” to develop into the kind of leader he envisioned.
At about the same time, an acquaintance with a background in theater recommended voice training, and offered their help. Thinking we’d work on my flat, midwestern vowels, I agreed. His assessment was, however, that my voice was too “breathy” and too “girly.” We met only once more before I chose to decline further assistance.
I took both mens’ assessments under consideration. Perhaps their observations were accurate. The following semester I took every opportunity to call the congregation to attention, even if only to open a meeting or meal in prayer. I focused more on my breathing and inflection when I spoke, and even attempted to speak in a lower register. Throughout that next semester I struggled with the uncomfortable feeling that my voice and leadership style were considered inferior because they were both too “female.”
I am now completing my fifth year of ordained ministry serving as associate rector for a large and busy parish. I serve at the altar celebrating and preaching. I lead Bible studies, facilitate retreats, and participate gladly in all the other duties and privileges that comprise the role of priest. I most often employ a collaborative approach, but use leader/follower style and direct instruction when needed. I do speak in a higher register than some of my male colleagues, (which can be helpful to many people who have some hearing impairment.) I am a priest, and I am female, and I am comfortable with that.
Now, equity in salary and opportunity across the Church… that is another day’s discussion.
~ Maggie Sullivan, Associate Director
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church