What If You Can’t Speak?

In the life of any person whose vocation is speaking in public, it will eventually happen. Through illness, overuse or other medical condition, you will lose your voice. As a pastor, your physical voice is an instrument God uses to declare His Word to His people and to the lost. What should you know about your voice, and how should you allow for the inevitable circumstance of losing it temporarily at some point during your career?

Know your voice. Your voice is created by the vibration of your vocal cords. The tone of your voice is created by the size and makeup of your vocal cords, throat and mouth cavity, and influenced by the size of your torso and lungs. Many of us develop bad habits with our voice over the years that affect not only our clarity of delivery, but the long-term health of our voice.

The most common bad habits are a strident, high-pitched voice, which indicates nervousness, a monotonous tone or deliberately speaking too slow, rapid delivery, or speaking too softly. All of these habits can be remedied with practice and good feedback from listeners. A good speaking voice is loud (but not yelling), clear, at a medium tempo and with emphasis and inflection to bring interest to the speaking topic. To improve your vocal skill, practice by reading a variety of magazines, books and other materials “out loud.”

Care for your voice. The three most common causes of a change in your voice are an upper respiratory infection, acid reflux in the throat, and smoking. Hoarseness or a raw, raspy or achy or feeling in your throat are signs of strained or irritated vocal cords. A change in your voice is also actually one of the first and most important signs of throat cancer. Changes in your voice should always be taken seriously.

Laryngitis is an inflammation of the vocal cords most commonly caused by a cold, the flu, acid reflux, overuse of your voice (cheering at a sports event), or irritation from allergies or smoking. Laryngitis usually lasts no more than two weeks.

The most effective treatments for vocal strain or laryngitis include vocal rest—just stop talking. Additionally, drinking fluids, adding moisture to the air with a home humidifier and not smoking are helpful. Throat drops or lozenges remove the soreness or pain of throat or vocal cord irritation by numbing the affected areas, but don’t actually speed healing and should not be relied on as a cure.

In short, if you lose your voice, you should stop talking and smoking until it returns. Vocal problems lasting more than two weeks could be signs of a more serious condition, such as vocal cord damage, sores or polyps. For a pastor who depends on his voice to preach, don’t take any chances. Always see a doctor immediately upon losing your voice.

Enhance your voice. A pastor’s use of the sound system in the church is crucial to avoiding vocal cord damage. A preacher should be able to speak in a normal tone and volume and allow the sound system to enhance their coverage so that everyone in the worship center or sanctuary can hear their words clearly and distinctly. Often a pastor will yell or strain their voice because what they hear from the pulpit leads them to believe it is necessary to push their voice so the congregation can hear. This is the sure sign of a mistuned or poorly set sound system.

Save your voice. Pastors who have consistent voice problems must learn to care for their voice by practicing regular vocal rest. Speech classes can teach you how to speak loudly and clearly without straining your vocal cords.

It is possible through consistent vocal strain or other more serious factors to lose your voice permanently. More likely, though, vocal strain will cause your voice to diminish over time, or become permanently horse or raspy. When you make your living speaking in public, then, your voice becomes a tool you must manage. 

Look to the great singers for best practices here. Celine Dion, for instance, has a high humidity environment in her theater where she performs. She also does not talk for hours at a time on her performance days. Concert singers also practice a number of vocal exercises to “warm up” their voices prior to a performance.

Have a backup voice. Every pastor will have a Sunday where they wake up (or come home from that late-night football game that went into overtime) and find they can’t talk. You must always have a backup plan with respect to your voice.

The easiest backup plan is to have another minister in your church who can deliver a message. Ask your best preaching pastor or lay leader to have a message “at the ready” for emergencies. If your church has a video system where you are recorded weekly, consider taking one of your “best of” messages, and having it on-hand just in case you can’t talk. Another option is to have a list of itinerate ministers in your city or area who are available to fill the pulpit on short-notice. With any of these solutions, the key is to come up with a plan now so that you need not worry when your voice goes.

And your voice will go. At some point every pastor faces the situation that they’re unable to speak on Sunday morning. Don’t let the inevitable catch you off-guard.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.