I was a late bloomer when it came to finding my voice. Seminary for me was not a time of discovery. I did not have opportunities to lead or preach. I was not invited to share my story or speak my truth. More often than not during those years I was expected (if not explicitly told) to keep quiet and to not call attention to myself. In the mid-1980s, there weren’t many other women studying for a Master of Divinity degree at my Southern Baptist seminary. While we had the support of many of the professors, our presence was mostly only tolerated by fellow students rather than celebrated. In my last semester, my presence in a preaching class was directly questioned—most every male student in the class came to me privately and individually to ask, “Are you really going to preach? Do you think you should?” I preached my first two sermons in that class in 1987, forgettable sermons in that they conformed to the required style of preaching set forth by the professor (three points, no poem).

That May I graduated from seminary and went straight into a doctoral program. The amount of reading, researching, and writing was intense, and I loved it and flourished. Slowly I found my scholarly voice. But I must admit that the program was so all-consuming for me that I never wondered if there might be other voices I needed to nurture, other gifts I should explore.

As I neared completion of my Ph.D. in 1992, well, if you know anything about Baptist history you know that the 1990s were chaotic years. Controversy had been our companion as Southern Baptists since the 1970s, and by 1990, a new fellowship for Baptists was emerging. The short story is that college and seminary positions were in very limited supply in the early 1990s—especially for Baptist women. I waited seven full years after finishing a Ph.D. in church history to find a teaching opportunity and to discover my teaching voice.

I was also a late bloomer when it came to finding my preaching voice. I preached my first church sermon in 1998. I was thirty-seven years old. Nearly twenty-five years after experiencing a call to ministry I finally stood in a pulpit as a proclaimer. My dad, who was then pastoring First Baptist Church, Beeville, Texas, asked me to co-preach a sermon with him. His topic was adoption, and adoption was my passion. I was mother of two small adopted children. Our son, Michael, came to us in August 1994. He was four months old when we traveled to South Korea to bring him home. Our daughter, Alex, was born in January 1997, and we brought her home in September of that year. A few months later after Alex’s arrival, my dad asked if I would be willing to finish his adoption sermon—to tell my own story and to share how God had worked in the midst of loss and hurt to bring grace.

What I remember of that first church sermon is the pride I felt as I stood in my dad’s pulpit. I remember my mother crying—lots of tears. I also remember having the worst case of dry mouth I had ever experienced. I did not find my preaching voice that day—but I somehow knew that I had a preaching voice somewhere buried deeply within.

In the last twenty years, I have found other voices—my voice as an advocate, my voice as a mentor, my voice as a leader. What I have learned is that finding my voice takes time, time to discover the unique and beautiful voice within. Finding my voice also requires discernment—getting to know myself, evaluating honestly my gifts and talents, and identifying my greatest passions.

Yet, my friends, finding our voice is not the end goal, it is not a stopping place. Using our voice is the ultimate objective. Using our voice and using it effectively and with authenticity requires practice, getting back into that pulpit over and over again until confidence comes, writing and re-writing that article or blog until those sentences are perfect, speaking words of compassion out loud again and again until they words sound right, and advocating for the oppressed, the hurting, the silenced until someone listens.

This year as I continue on this journey, I invite you along. Together may we find our voices and use them!

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.