What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Vocal Ministry

November 8, 2013 § 6 Comments

Taking people to G*d—the role of vocal ministry

In theory, we only speak in meeting for worship when prompted to by the Holy Spirit. In practice, I think that most of us most of the time are not so sure what—or who—prompts us to speak, and would hesitate to claim we speak for God, even thought that’s exactly what our forebears thought for centuries. Yet we each have certain signs, certain criteria that the experience of prompting must meet before we rise. We take speaking in meeting very seriously.

And yet, if you’re like me, you have the sense some of the time (maybe a lot of the time) that Friends place their bar a little too low, that “vocal ministry” has devolved into “speaking in meeting”, that the Spirit-led prophetic Word need only be “heartfelt” and “uplifting”.

But who’s to say? While I completely trust my general sense that much of our vocal ministry is superficial and not likely to pull the meeting into the depths of divine communion, I agree that we must beware judging any specific message or messenger. How many times have I sighed inwardly at some message, only to find out later how deeply it has affected someone else.

Thus I war with my judgmental self while I wish our vocal ministry was more nurturing and I constantly seek ways to deepen it, in myself and in the meetings I attend, without offending my fellow worshippers or quenching the spirit that might be working within them.

All this inner foment we experience over vocal ministry is one of the reasons why many Friends and attenders are so nervous about speaking that they just don’t speak; they quench their own spirit. And any “program” that would seek to lift up the quality of vocal ministry runs the risk of making this all-important service even more intimidating.

Nevertheless, for many reasons, paying better attention to vocal ministry, as individuals, as committees with oversight for ministry, and as meetings, could not be more important. For the purpose of vocal ministry is to bring people to G*d, to reveal the Light within them and to help kindle the kingdom in our midst. In addition to this essential role, vocal ministry serves G*d and the meeting in several other ways, as well.

Take outreach and the growth of the meeting. Meetings need to do three things to hold onto the people who come to meeting to check us out: a friendly community, a ready ministry for children and young families, and a certain depth to meeting for worship, some sense that the Spirit really is at work here. This latter depends on the quality of the silence, which in turns depends on that critical mass of Friends who know how to find their own center and help the meeting find its center. And it depends on the quality of the vocal ministry. Superficial, conversational vocal ministry not only fails to bring people to G*d, but gives the wrong impression about what the meeting for worship is for.

Or take the place of ministry generally in the life of the members and of the meeting. Vocal ministry is the training ground for ministry of all kinds: for individuals, it’s how we learn to recognize the true promptings of the Holy Spirit and gain the courage to faithfully answer it; for the meeting, it’s how we learn to take responsibility for nurturing, recognizing, and supporting our members’ ministry, and how we gain the courage to take responsibility for our worship—being willing to engage with our members to deepen their ministry and being willing to protect the worship from disorderly messages and messengers.

Or—back to my theme of the gathered meeting—vocal ministry is a key element in bringing the gathered body into the Presence at the center of our worship and fellowship. When each message calls us deeper toward that center within us and amongst us, oh how sweet is the water from that well! When messages pull us outward, into the thinking mind, or toward the surface with some personal story, some media content, or some worldly event . . .

And then there’s the call to vocal ministry, what Friends used to call “gospel ministry”. In the elder days, when meetings recorded ministers and took active responsibility for vocal ministry, Friends assumed that one could be called to the vocal ministry, that God could tap you on the shoulder for more or less regular service. We rarely think of it this way anymore. I think we should.

Many meetings (most meetings?) do have Friends who speak quite regularly. My meeting does. I am one. We each have our style. We each have a reservoir of personal experience that informs and colors our ministry. Some of us have found that there are themes to our ministry. We each have a calling. Don’t we?

Often our members do not recognize this pattern as a calling and neither do our meetings. We do not take responsibility for such callings, for the consequences of a Friend feeling led to speak fairly often. This inattention causes no trouble most of the time; we simply trust each other and most of the time, this works out fine. And there’s something to be said for, “first, do no harm”.

Unless, of course, one of your regular speakers does cause trouble. Then the committee with oversight of worship and ministry needs to act to protect the worship. This eldership role is fraught with difficulties nowadays, and that will have to be a subject for another post.

I am more focused here on those of us who feel a calling and are struggling to be faithful. In my own case, for instance, I feel called to a vocal ministry of teaching (among a handful of other areas in meeting life for which I carry a concern). I often take an opportunity, often suggested by some earlier vocal ministry, to expose the meeting to some aspect of Quaker history, faith, or practice—to do some religious education.

For one thing, it’s just about the only way to reach most of the meeting with the elements of our tradition that the meeting needs to know in order to function effectively and to carry the tradition forward. My meeting does have a pretty robust adult RE program, but it ranges widely across many topics and only occasionally focuses on Quaker essentials.

But doing this sometimes feels like I am lowering my own bar a little. I constantly question myself: am I really led—again—to do this? Usually the answer is yes. But it makes me nervous.

I would love to to have some oversight, a backup, a corporate haven to which I can return to test my discernment and my usefulness. Am I bringing people closer to G*d with my vocal ministry? That’s the question—and the role of vocal ministry.


§ 6 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Vocal Ministry

  • Lu Harper says:

    In addition to Jobn’s suggestion of a care committee, I’d raise up the traditional role of 2nd day morning meeting–for ministers & elders to reflect together on the 1stday’s ministry & the life of the meeting.

  • In my Meeting, we have discussed how to get messages into Meeting for Worship, rather having them come during introductions and announcements. If that occurred, I think our Meetings for Worship would be more fertile ground.

    BTW thank you for this series!

  • treegestalt says:

    I’m on an edge of a disagreement here because the issue is subtle.

    We need to be careful about derailing the worship by speaking ‘in our own will;’ but it really isn’t ‘our will’ that’s the trouble.

    We need to keep in touch with the Presence, but keeping in that Presence doesn’t require endless silence or necessarily eschewing “the thinking mind, or… some personal story, some media content, or some worldly event.” I’m guessing that we can bring all sorts of mental content into the Presence of God — and the crucial issue is whether we can remain in that Presence when we do so. If our unconscious belief/feeling is that the worldly matter is more important, somehow ‘real’ on its own, independently of God’s power and purposes, then such matters autormatically divert us.

    It may be — although it is certainly both a difficult thing to practice and a scary practice to recruit people for — that we need a form of worship more akin to ‘worship sharing.’ That is, that the presumption when we begin [whatever we call this] should be that people will speak — but that participants will discipline themselves towards remaining grounded in the Presence, towards not being carried away by conversational habits.

    I suspect that people are intended to practice the exchange of religious insights as an essential spiritual nutrient (and should critically examine, and creatively expand on them as well) but that it’s devilishly difficult to do so in the right spirit.

    Possibly we should look at this in a similar way to what’s recommended in some common meditation instructions: ~Thoughts will come up; indeed it wouldn’t be desirable to eliminate them even if we could. But rather than letting them have their way with us, we should notice that we’ve drifted & return to the object of meditation.


    • I’m all for exchanging religious insights (blogs are great for this) and I think we should be doing much more worship sharing than we do. But worship sharing has the purpose of getting to know each other better, primarily, and opening possibilities for pastoral ministry. Not the same as worship to me, though I have to say that quite a few times I have experienced worship sharing that did in fact settle into true worship.

      But true worship is something else, I think. And in my experience, deeply inspired vocal ministry rarely begins with an anecdote: “This morning on the way in to meeting, I was thinking . . .”; “this week, I read in the New York Times, . . . .” Whenever vocal ministry begins with a reference to a point in time, or to some exposure to a form of media, or with an personal anecdote of almost any kind, I know I am likely to hear something that—well, that would fit better in a worship sharing session, actually. It’s going to be personal and genuine; it’s going to be heartfelt; it’s going to be uplifting or edifying in some way. But I often feel that it could have come from a Reader’s Digest collection of inspirational anecdotes. It rarely grabs me by the soul and shakes me down, or ignites a sense of transcending joy, or pulls me down into the depths of communion.

      But then, why should it? Does my own ministry do any of these things? Almost never, I suspect. Aren’t I asking too much? Am I being too judgmental? Almost certainly.

      Yet I yearn. I read the journals of earlier Friends and they are really getting off on the vocal ministry they deliver and the ministry they hear. They are quaking, with the “power of the Lord over all”. That’s what I want. I know know that it can be had. So I struggle in this conflict within myself between my yearning and my experience, between judgment and acceptance.

      • treegestalt says:

        How about thinking of worship… not as “being alone with God together” but of “being together with God”?

        In the latter, there might well be occasions when sharing insights with each other really serves as a way for God to communicate with us — as well as occasions when “nothing we could say could add a thing.” When God made Adam as a companion for Eve [I know, that isn’t the way Adam told it!] I think one consideration was that we are different beings in interaction with each other, and were meant to receive gifts to share.

  • I think that you’re definitely bringing people closer to God with your _written_ ministry, Steven. Never having visited Yardley Meeting, I can say nothing about your _vocal_ ministry except that I find this reflection on its challenges and dilemmas very well articulated, and I’m intending to take steps to encourage all the members of my local Ministry and Worship Committee, and of quarterly Ministry and Counsel and the yearly meeting’s Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee, to read this blog posting. (As I was writing this, I got an enthusiastic e-mail from a Friend in another quarterly meeting who just read your posting and wants to do the same thing there!)

    Do you have a care and oversight committee appointed by your local meeting? Could you get one? You wrote, “I would love to to have some oversight, a backup, a corporate haven to which I can return to test my discernment and my usefulness.” Encouraged by yearly meeting Friends, I’ve started encouraging my own monthly meeting to start setting up care and oversight committees for individual Friends, including myself.

    We who carry gifts of ministry do not merely need our discernment and our usefulness tested, but we may also need comfort when our ministry’s been attacked and encouragement when it seems to go ignored. I know we all want to be like the Valiant Sixty or the Twelve Disciples, so sure of ourselves and so close to our Heavenly Guide that we do not fear what mortal man can do to us, but _I_ have to struggle with temptations to bitterness and withdrawal (or perseverance, but with a chip on my shoulder that gives my attitude a hard edge) and I assume that others do, too, and if so, we greatly need that support.

    You put it perfectly: “Superficial, conversational vocal ministry not only fails to bring people to G*d, but gives the wrong impression about what the meeting for worship is for.” In fact, if I were the Devil and wanted to destroy the Religious Society of Friends, I think I couldn’t find a better way than to prompt well-meaning Friends to stand up and share the messages that prevailed at my local 11 o’clock meeting last Sunday.

    Providentially, my heart was kept peaceful throughout that hour, and my mouth shut, thanks to my having read, just beforehand, a Friend’s unpublished essay, “Interruptions in Meeting for Worship: An Opportunity to Practice Radical Hospitality.” Also, I’d gotten the spiritual nourishment I’d needed from the programmed meeting next door, which had met at 9:30. I’d just gotten a message in a dream about how important it was for a body of worshippers to pray together, and to encourage one another to pray regularly during the week. And the programmed meeting had proved the fulfillment of that dream!

    But who will talk of prayer to a larger, unprogrammed meeting whose behavior bespeaks resistance to hearing about its need for prayer? One should not do it in one’s own will, but only as bidden. Will the Lord raise some soul to her feet and open her lips to speak of it?

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