Vocal ministry—My discernment

January 9, 2016 § 7 Comments

Early in my Quaker career, I read Howard Brinton’s Guide to Quaker Process and I think its discussion of vocal ministry strongly shaped my expectations and my inner process of discernment regarding vocal ministry. It’s been almost thirty years, and I now only clearly remember the feeling I had of gratitude for some guidance. In other words, I was a bit afraid of doing it wrong, as I think most Friends are.

But I’m a trained and seasoned public speaker. I’ve done it a lot, all of my life since my teenage years, and I’ve done some stage acting. Yes, I feel a little frisson every time a speak in public, but I actually like that thrill. So I think it was probably easier for me to get over the initial barrier than for some Friends. Still, it took a while. And I’m not sure how well I adhered to Brinton’s advice.

For a long time—decades—I relied on a set of internal feelings to guide whether I rose to speak, feelings that I had first experienced while meditating when yoga was my spiritual path. These feelings amounted to a gradually increasing sense of “pressure” in my skull that ultimately leads to quaking, what yogis call kriyas, though usually, only a close observer would notice that my spine was jerking. I put “pressure” in quotes because that’s not quite the right word; it’s not painful for one thing. It’s located in the back of my skull and reaches down into the back of my neck. Sometimes this mounting feeling reaches a kind of threshold, and I experience quaking—in yoga-ese, kriyas.

Kriyas. Imagine your nervous system is a plumbing system in which nerves serve as pipes for conducting prana, the Sanskrit word for life force (and also breath, as in Hebrew and Greek). Karma—stored tension in the system—acts like constriction or the build-up of material on the inside of steam pipes. If you turn on the faucet full blast (by meditating), sometimes the pipes can’t conduct all that extra life force freely—and the pipes shake. That’s quaking, the nervous system firing randomly from overload, releasing the tension, the karma.

So I would usually wait until the pipes started shaking before I felt ready to speak.

This still happens to me, but I no longer rely on it so much. Something more subtle is often going on now that is harder to describe. It feels more like the faint perception of need, as though I can hear a call from somewhere asking for something. Is that something some vocal ministry?

Maybe. It’s hard to tell, most of the time. I wait to see whether the call comes more clearly. Usually, it doesn’t. I’m left to decide some other way.

If I don’t quake and I have no other clear indicator, my default position is no—no ministry. And if I do quake, I still might not speak; it depends on . . . what?

Three other factors. First, the structure of the ministry. If the ministry begins with “I”, I let it go. If I feel tempted to refer to some event, or reading, or encounter with people or some media, I let it go. “I read an article in the New York Times . . . ” “I heard a piece on NPR . . . “ “I’ve been thinking about . . . “ “This week, I . . . “ All of these frames for a message suggest to me that I am about to share some opening from the surface of my spiritual life, rather than from its depths.

Second, I have a calling to vocal ministry. At least I think I do. It has never been submitted to corporate discernment. I feel led to a ministry of teaching. I know Quaker faith and practice and history pretty well. Sometimes an opportunity to share something timely or relevant about Quaker tradition comes up, in the moment, or in the life of the meeting, and sometimes I feel led to take that opportunity in vocal ministry. This is especially common for me in meetings for worship with a concern for the life of the meeting.

When one of these teaching messages rises up, the other confirming indicators might not be so strong. The need is not an internal compulsion, but rather a sense of need or opportunity in the meeting bolstered by my sense of calling, which is often reinforced by Friends’ comments afterwards, and the knowledge that meeting for worship is really the only place where many members and especially attenders actually have an opportunity to learn their Quakerism.

This call to a teaching vocal ministry does lower the bar for me for a bit, I think. Not to the level of, “I saw a documentary this week that . . . “ But it encourages me to serve the meeting rather than the Holy Spirit, though of course, all Spirit-led vocal ministry serves the meeting, as well. This nervousness I feel is about the apparent source of the prompting, not the end result.

Finally, for other vocal ministry not attended by the internal sense of pressure and release I have discussed, or answering to the call to teach, my process is much more subtle. It’s neither physical nor cognitive. It’s intuitive, I guess I would say. It just feels right in a certain hard-to-define way.

It requires a dedication to the silence, a stripping away of the signal noise to better hear the small signal that’s trying to get through. It’s hard to relax that way when you feel like working at it; I feel like digging it out, rather than letting it be. So it takes a while. Meeting often closes before I get there.

It also depends on how clear the message itself is. Everything I’ve ever read on vocal ministry stresses how being articulate doesn’t matter, only the immediacy, the integrity of genuine leading, being faithful. But that’s not how I work most of the time. The faithful part, yes. But attending to the wording, the process of “crafting”, is also part of my discernment. I very often realize the ministry is not for sharing when I become clear what it is I think I am given to say.

Once I am clear, I sit with it. I release even the clarity and wait. In that final release or commitment to “the silence of all flesh”, as early Friends used to say, then the yea or nay may rise up. Often it is just then that the kriyas come on.

When I rise to speak, I always have to stand there for a few seconds. I have to get past the anxiety and try to get back to the peace. I make a point of speaking loudly. I’m a little hard of hearing myself so I’m sensitive to the needs of people like me across the room.

No matter how clear I am about the content of the ministry, it almost always takes off on its own. Usually, it hews fairly closely to the general outline, but new openings often come in the act of speaking.

Sometimes the messages are pretty long, though usually not much longer than those of some other Friends who might have spoken that day. Many of us go on a bit.

All the guides for vocal ministry stress succinctness. I don’t really understand that. It’s a contradiction to emphasize faithfulness and at the same time emphasize succinctness. What matters is that the ministry is spirit-led and that you do not run past your guide. What matters is that the body has been drawn deeper and closer to our collective Guide when we are done.


§ 7 Responses to Vocal ministry—My discernment

  • […] If yoga makes up even a part of your spiritual practice, this month’s Speaking of Ministry resource may speak to you! Interested in what someone trained in Eastern spirituality has to say about the phenomenon of vocal ministry? Check it out: https://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/vocal-ministry-discernment/ […]

  • Steve — I’m just picking this up after a month or so. Thank you.

    I find that I seldom speak in meeting — meetings are pretty foreshortened for extensive discourse — whether led by the Spirit of the Living God or not. My experience is similar to Roger’s. I often find that messages develop better during extended worship than they do at other times. In my own meeting, there are a couple of gifted ministers. The result is that I do not often feel a leading to speak, and can prayerfully support their ministry.

    We have other opportunities within our meeting to discuss the surrounding cultural milieu. (Morning prayer group, before and after mid-week worship) and so on.

  • Zeke says:

    Carl Jung leads to Joseph Campbell, and then to people like Robert Bly and C.S. Lewis. Whether these people are officially Christians or not, much of what they have to say addresses our human need for belief in something, and is applicable to our belief systems, Christian or not. The common thread is that they, as do most Quakers, believe that there is more to the universe than we can understand, or are equipped to understand. Increasingly, mainstream Evangelical Christianity opts to limit its consideration of God and the universe to the static words in an ancient book. Increasingly, for them the universe is limited to the tangible with the sole exception that someday God/Christ will make himself known to us once again. My experience is that most Quakers are open to consideration of most of what these people have to say because it resonates with them.

  • Morningbear says:

    I too experienced the quakes but more often than not it fired up my awareness. I have a couple of degrees in speech and/or drama. The dynamic of speakers butterflies is different from a deep spiritual awareness coming from a quaking sensation. Due to a chronic pain problem I take small doses of morphine. Since that time any quaking prior to a leading has been rare indeed. My awareness now comes from an abyss of quietness. A palpable quietness that sucks all noise away as a black hole captures light. Then like a quasar, a spike of light arises from the darkness and begins to unfold like a butterfly into a simple message that links to tremendous complexity. Where do I start? Then my speech curriculum kicks in — a connection to the speakers and hopefully the audience`s world. Then a query. Then the main course.

  • Roger Dreisbach-Williams says:

    There is little vocal ministry in my meeting so I’m intentional in my preparation for meeting and more likely to speak than not. Sometimes a message comes with such force that I must rise and speak. More often comes as something that won’t go away and I may ponder it until I have a sense of what the message will be – though what gets spoken may be very different.

    A good message deepens the Stillness and may result in a palpable sense of Presence. There are times when I realize that the meeting has reached a place beyond words and I must sit down.

    Thanks for describing your experience.

  • Betty Steckman says:

    Over the past little while, I have been sitting in the (virtual) presence of nontheist Quakers, trying to discern how that belief or non-belief works, and whether it fits me. No clarity on that yet, but I’m interested in your comments and how they can be equally valid for those who are not Christ-centered or even theists in any sense. There’s still a greater…what?…that anyone can tap into,in the stillness and focus of Quaker worship. And that ocean of wisdom sometimes wells up in vocal ministry that is as deep and profound–and perhaps helpful–as ministry which is understood to come from an Inner Spirit, or God, or Jesus. I’m feeling pulled toward knowing more about Carl Jung!

  • […] When to speak in meeting?. […]

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