On vocal ministry

March 7, 2015 § 4 Comments

A f/Friend of mine is preparing for a program she will lead in her meeting on vocal ministry and the email she sent me about it evoked a response that I ended up feeling worthy of sharing more broadly. She asked about Afterthoughts as a practice common in many meetings. And then her questions and thoughts got down to the essential thing about vocal ministry: discernment. Here is a revised version my response.


I think Afterthoughts do affect the vocal ministry in a meeting once it has become a settled practice. But one little “study” I found on this practice a while back suggested that it’s really hard to tell what that effect is.

My own feeling, not well cemented, is that it does feed back into worship and tends to lower the bar for vocal ministry. The reason is that one is hard put to tell the difference between messages in worship from messages in Afterthoughts; I rarely see any very noticeable difference in spiritual depth between the best afterthoughts and the average message in meeting.

I think this is subtly confusing to people. I say subtly because I doubt they consciously feel confused. Rather, I suspect that the inability to clearly identify truly spirit-led ministry in either case reinforces the feeling that simply “heart-felt” is enough in meeting for worship, and that “truly spirit-led” is either some mythical condition rarely achieved, or is as common as an inspiring thought.

In other words, I think Afterthoughts are a bad idea. I would make the meeting for worship the crucible for discernment that it is intended to be. 

For I agree that the real issue is discernment: how do you tell whether your message is truly spirit-led? It’s not easy. 

But I think the negative is, in fact, much easier: I think it’s a lot easier to tell when a message is NOT spirit-led. Here are some indicators that I think raise a flag of caution right away:

  • Messages that begin with an allusion or reference to some medium. For instance, “I was reading in the New York Times …” Or “I recently saw the movie American Sniper, and …” “I heard a piece on NPR …”
  • Messages that begin with a reference to time: “A few days ago, I was in a drug store when …” “Recently, I’ve been …” “Lately, …”
  • Messages that start with “I” and then proceed to recount a personal anecdote: All of the above serve as examples. Or, especially: “I’ve been thinking …”
  • Announcements. NEVER as vocal ministry, no matter how important we think it is for others to know about something.

Such messages are always uplifting. But they feel to me like what I call “nuggets I have found on my spiritual journey”. The sharing is good, the message is good. But I often feel that the speaker did not go deep enough to really uncover the truth revealed in the incident, or discipline her or himself enough to deliver just the truth itself without the introductory story. Buried in the outward casing of the anecdote, the truth is left to glimmer weakly somewhere in the inward center. Of course, you can get to the center by starting from the outward. But the self of the speaker and the body, the content, of the story, I believe, tend to draw the listeners upward and outward into the world, rather than inward and downward toward the spiritual depths we each have within us. We follow that story and drift upwards as we do; even the speaker necessarily gets drawn upward and outward and away into the past and the memory of the event as she speaks. Then we get handed a chocolate–only to have to begin deepening again.

I have two other things on my mind regarding vocal ministry. The first is that I would love to recover the sense of calling to what we Friends used to call gospel ministry, back when we recorded ministers. By this I mean, adapted to our modern times, the emergence of a Quaker culture in which some Friends would recognize that they are called to vocal ministry as a ministry; that is, that they feel, not just that they are led in the moment to rise and speak now and then, but that they have been tapped by G*d to follow an ongoing ministry; that they have a sense of mission about vocal ministry. And correspondingly—and this is the culture part—that the meeting feels the same way. That the meeting as a community recognizes that some people really do have a gift for vocal ministry; that the meeting also realizes that such a calling bears a very heavy responsibility, for which the meeting has a responsibility itself. I feel that meetings should do more to help emerging vocal ministers find their feet and then give them ongoing support and—yes—oversight as they mature in their calling.

I feel such a calling myself, and have always longed for a meeting that would be more conscious and deliberate in working with me around whatever gift I have. To be fair, I have asked for such attention only once, but that was not a good experience, and it shied me off. I need to regain some courage there.

The final thing is a deep theological one: where does vocal ministry come from? Most liberal Friends today just are not comfortable thinking that vocal ministry comes from God. First, they’re not sure what we might mean by “God”, but the traditional theistic, supreme being version is a bit hard to deal with. I don’t “believe in” a supreme being myself; it just doesn’t make sense to me and I have no experience of such a thing. I would argue, in fact, that direct experience of a supreme being is by definition impossible.

So if vocal ministry does not come from God—or from Christ, as Friends have claimed for centuries until fairly recently—where does it come from? I think most of us are likely to grope toward that old cliche, “that of God in everyone” as an answer, if we try at all. This has the subtle but extremely powerful effect of individualizing vocal ministry: my message comes from inside me, and I can’t really articulate what the more-than-just-me inside me is, so—well, I guess my messages just come from me. Thus we call them “messages” or “speaking in meeting” instead of “vocal ministry”, that is, service to God and to the meeting through the divine gift of prophecy.

There is a mystery here. Vocal ministry does come from within one’s self. And even if it is truly spirit-led, that is, if it really does come from some kind of higher power greater than myself, whatever that might be, it still comes into me and then out through me. Naming the transcendental source has, for liberal Friends, become nearly impossible.

And maybe we don’t need to name it. But I do believe that we need to acknowledge it. I believe there is a transcendental mystery to truly spirit-led vocal ministry, and immersion in that prophetic mystery and submission to its authority is our goal as vocal ministers. And collectively, I believe that if our meetings took the transcendental, divinely-inspired character of true vocal ministry more seriously, we would enjoy increasingly deep worship.

For myself, as an operating principle I behave as though vocal ministry comes from the spirit of Christ. I have no direct experience of Christ as my guide in this way, so I don’t call myself a Christian. But I find it helpful to sort of assume that leadings come from that spirit of love and truth, because it keeps me on the up and up. It makes me a lot more serious about what I’m doing. And anyway, Friends have been testifying to the truth of Christ as our guide and gatherer in worship for centuries. I have chosen to not just respect but actually embrace their testimony for myself as a tentative article of faith until my own experience clears things up—while remaining clear that I am holding this idea in a rather artificial way. It’s become experimental, but not yet experiential.


§ 4 Responses to On vocal ministry

  • Joyce Holwerda says:

    Hi Steve,
    We have after thoughts too, as a result of having a very quiet meeting.
    Although I see what you are saying, I think that after thoughts have helped us know each other better.
    I don’t think that the after thoughts option has reduced the speaking in Meeting. It is still very quiet but it was before too.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I fear that emphasizing an acceptable criteria for judging spirit-led vocal ministry can inadvertently stifle the Spirit among us. I have heard beautifully deep spiritual messages during worship that were couched or preambled with the “no-no” criteria you list here. I would have hated to miss those messages just because the speaker was afraid that their phraseology was not going to be acceptable to the worship police; so they chose to keep silent.

    Meetings that are in the habit of judging the quality of individuals’ vocal ministry will soon find that the Spirit, as well as the Friends who might have been used by the Spirit, will soon vacate the meeting for greener and more welcoming pastures.

    We must accept people who come to us as they are, and work together with them for deepness in our meeting communities without a lot of surface ‘do’s and don’ts’. Some of our old peculiar Quaker etiquette must give way to this more lofty goal of just being genuine – if we are to survive into this twenty-first century.

    • Well, of course you are right. Nothing worse than the ministry police. I am projecting onto others principles I’ve adopted for myself.

      So I should re-present these as observations, rather than as prescriptions. For it remains the case in my experience that vocal ministry that begins in these ways does often feel shallow to me. Though I too have had the experience of being deeply touched by a message that in another state of mind I know I would have considered shallow.

      I know that I am very fussy about this, and perhaps overly demanding and judgmental. Which raises a question I did not address: judgmentalism. My failing–I guess it’s a failing—is that I do not seem capable of not judging the quality of vocal ministry in meeting for worship most of the time. Or rather, I find myself repeatedly feeling disappointed and left yearning for greater depth. And I know that I am not alone in this. I am between meetings right now, but in my last meeting, I felt this way all the time and then, for some reason, I didn’t; and I don’t thing the quality of the ministry had changed much. I had. I had replaced my judgments with my deep love for those people, I think.

      To deal with our judgmentalism and to get a sense of a vocal ministry “baseline” in our meetings, I think meetings should conduct anonymous surveys now and then asking members and attenders to report on how they feel about the quality of the ministry and the depth of the worship. If it turns out that the vast majority of Friends are quite happy with their meeting for worship, then no need to fuss. If a sizable number are discontent, then what? A topic for another post.

      • Howard Brod says:

        Thanks Steven for your honesty here, That’s what I love about everything you write! Great idea about surveying Friends in our meetings to determine how satisfying the worship is. From time to time our meeting dedicates an entire Meeting for Business to reflect on our worship. Kind of a Quaker survey of sorts.

        Thanks for all the ministry you do in your writings. It is much appreciated!

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