Recording Gifts in Ministry
January 18, 2016 § 3 Comments
Our faith regarding vocal ministry has changed dramatically since the elder days, from believing that we were inspired by the spirit of Christ and were therefore speaking God’s word to being vague and uncertain now about the source of our ministry, seeking only to be “spirit-led” in some mostly undefined way.
This relaxing of the faith—the “theology” if you will—of vocal ministry has opened up the scope of its content. We no longer expect our vocal ministry to be “gospel ministry” in the old sense, that is, aimed at bringing the listeners to Christ or at keeping them in his embrace. Just as we now include as “ministry” a wide range of spirit-led service beyond just vocal ministry, so we also now feel free to speak about just about anything in meeting for worship.
Furthermore, this relaxed faith about vocal ministry has utterly transformed our corporate practice, as well. In most of our meetings, we no longer have elders. Modern meetinghouses don’t have facing benches. We no longer consider vocal ministry to be a calling that needs or requires engagement by the meeting, at least not until some Friend’s ministry becomes very disturbing to the meeting. We have almost unanimously abandoned the practice of recording gifts in ministry, or “recording ministers”, as many Friends perceive it.
In a subsequent post, I want to look more closely at how our relaxed faith regarding vocal ministry affects the content, but here I want to look at the practice of recording gifts in ministry with fresh eyes. What follows was first published in New York Yearly Meeting’s print newsletter Spark in November 2012.
Recording gifts in ministry
Recording ministers is a difficult issue for some Friends. Many Friends do not know very much about the practice, they may not know anyone whose gifts have been recorded (or they may not know that they know), and for some, what they do know makes them uncomfortable. In fact, some Friends feel pretty strongly that having “recorded ministers” is unQuakerly and that we shouldn’t be doing it. I have heard a number of reasons for this opinion:
- Some Friends cite the belief that all Friends are ministers (that we “laid down the laity, not the ministry”), so there is no point in singling out individuals for a status that all of us possess.
- Many cite the testimony of equality, fearing that recording ministers somehow confers an exalted status on the person who is recorded.
- In a similar vein, many fear that the practice will lead to a subtle but dangerous form of hierarchy among us.
- Most, I think, do not see what benefits recording brings to the meeting, or even to the minister.
- And they may associate the practice with the programmed and pastoral tradition, which they may feel has abandoned essential Quaker practices (silent meeting for worship) while taking up practices that early Friends denounced (programmed meeting for worship and, especially, paid professional ministers). They may think that the only recorded ministers we have are pastors of what were originally Orthodox meetings and that therefore the practice is irrelevant to an unprogrammed, formerly Hicksite meeting.
Let me say up front that I believe that recording gifts is a very valuable part of Quaker practice for a number of reasons. So I want to make a case for recording gifts in ministry by looking at each of the worries listed above in turn. Besides offering some reasons for recording gifts, I also want to clarify the terms we use in talking about recording and review aspects of the practice with which its detractors may not be familiar. But I want to start with my own experience.
My own experience
I helped write the original version of the current guidelines for recording gifts in ministry in New York Yearly Meeting and I served on the committee that first used these guidelines to record someone’s gifts. We did not slide down some slippery slope of personal hubris and collective hierarchy when we recorded this Friend’s gifts. On the contrary, the experience deepened the spiritual lives of everyone involved.
The practice of recording
Before we look at the reasons Friends often give for feeling that we should not “record ministers”, let’s clarify what we are talking about. Though we speak of “recording ministers”, we are really using this as shorthand for “recording gifts in ministry”. There is a subtle but important difference.
We “record” gifts in the same spirit that we record our minutes, as a record of what God is doing among us. Unlike ordination in other religious communities, recording does not confer authority. It only recognizes outwardly and formally the gifts that have already been conferred inwardly by the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, in practice it’s hard to separate the gifts from the minister. And in fact, recording does confer something in the same way that a marriage ceremony does. Some of us go into marriage thinking that being married will change our legal status, but otherwise, we expect inwardly to feel the same about ourselves and about our partner. But we never do feel the same. Getting married is sacramental, in the sense that some alchemy takes place in us that transforms us as individuals and transforms us as a couple.
Just so with recording gifts in ministry. But more about this later.
Because recording is a way of recognizing gifts, the process is normally initiated by the minister’s meeting. You cannot ask or lobby to be recorded, unless your circumstances require some form of certification to pursue one’s ministry in the world, as chaplains often must, for instance, or those working in prisons. This is one of the reasons why we do not need to fear establishing some kind of Quaker hierarchy when we record someone’s gifts: the minister is not the one who starts the process. In fact, it seems to be fairly common for the prospective minister to resist the idea of being recorded at first.
Finally, the process for recording someone’s spiritual gifts is quite rigorous. I invite you to go to New York Yearly Meeting’s website and look at the yearly meeting’s guidelines. I don’t want to go into any more detail here, but you can see that recording takes time, effort, prayer, and real discernment, and the process is guided by practices that are designed to invite the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the best tradition of Quaker discernment.
So let’s take a look at the reasons Friends give for opposing the practice of recording gifts in ministry.
Objections to recording
We are all ministers, so why single one person out?
It’s not true, really, that we are all ministers, at least not in the way that people usually mean. A Quaker minister is one who has answered the call to ministry. Early Friends believed that no outward education or ceremony of ordination could make you a minister, but only the inward calling from God, that that call was all the authority you needed, and that the call could come to anyone because everyone was possessed of the Seed. But—you still have to answer the call. So yes, we are all potential ministers. But we only properly become ministers when we realize that potential—when we answer the call. Or to put it another way, when we faithfully follow our leading into the service of the Spirit.
Yes, we are all equal in our possession of that of God within us. Yet we each are given a unique set of gifts for ministry. And yes, each of these gifts is necessary for the spiritual health of the community. Thus all ministries also are equal. So a radical equality does guide our attitudes regarding ministry.
At the same time, though, the unique giftedness we each possess—the measure of the Light we each have been given, to use the language of our forebears—calls for personal, “customized” recognition and support by the meeting community.
Here is where the true equality lies: the gifts that you and I possess and the ministries we pursue all equally deserve recognition and nurture by the communities we serve.
So—how is your meeting doing? Does your meeting know what your gifts are? Does your meeting recognize your gifts and help you develop them? Does your meeting support the spirit-work you are led to do in the world?
This is the role of the meeting in nurturing Quaker ministry and the spirituality of its members. And this is where recording comes in. Your meeting does not need to record your gifts in ministry to give you the spiritual nurture you need, but they do need to do something. We will return in a moment to the value that recording brings to both meeting and minister.
So we take the equality for granted, yes. But the unique, person-specific nature of spiritual gifts calls for unique, person-specific action on the part of the meeting.
Since the minister is not, according to our practice, supposed to ask to be recorded (rather, the meeting is supposed to recognize God’s work and initiate the process), our meetings should be very busy looking for and recognizing the gifts of all its members, whether by recording or by some other process more agreeable to the meeting. Ideally, virtually all of our members would be recognized in their ministry in some way, if not by recording.
This is the equality that naturally arises from a robust culture of eldership—not a failure to recognize anyone’s gifts, but an energetic effort to recognize everyone’s gifts. If we are going to reject recording anyone’s gifts out of the testimony of equality—and yet still believe that all are gifted and deserve our support—then we should come up with some alternative for nurturing everyone’s gifts. Faithfulness to the testimony of integrity requires that if we believe the one, then we should do the other.
Unfortunately, many (most?) of our meetings do not think or operate this way. Believing erroneously that we have laid down the practice of recording, or simply ignoring it, or even feeling hostile toward it, many of our meetings have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and do nothing at all to recognize and build up spiritual gifts in our members.
Here we get to the heart of the matter: doesn’t recording ministers raise them up above the rest of us? On the contrary, it has exactly the opposite effect. Or rather, it has a constellation of effects, all of which foster true humility in the minister when exercised properly.
First, recording does in fact strengthen the minister in her call in many ways. That is its purpose. But this confidence is not to be confused with arrogance. We want confident ministers. We want a spirituality that gives us strength. We can afford to suffer a little spiritual pride now and then, if the price of doing the opposite—policing our ministers—is to quench the Spirit instead. This is the unrecognized downside of ignoring or resisting recording gifts, or failing to do something else proactively to recognize and nurture them: you quench both the Spirit that would energize our (potential) ministers and the spiritual vitality of our meetings.
The benefits of recording.
Recording brings a lot of wonderful benefits to both the minister and his meeting. It strengthens a Friend’s spiritual gifts and fosters effective ministry. It brings the minister and her work under the care of the meeting. It strengthens and empowers the meeting. And it brings discipline—gospel order, our forebears would say—to both the meeting and the minister by enriching the culture of eldership.
In positive terms, recording gives the minister access to clearness, discernment, support, oversight—and joy. We inevitably face obstacles in our ministry, confusion or indecision, or times of drought or anguish in the experience of our gifts. In these times, we should be able to turn to our meetings for support. Ideally, they are there already, perhaps even recognizing the difficulty before the minister does. Formally recording ministers helps a great deal to insure that such an infrastructure of spiritual support—the positive side of eldership—is in place.
And having one’s gifts recorded can bring tremendous joy. For those of us for whom our ministry is at the heart of our spirituality, nothing brings greater joy than to exercise one’s gifts on behalf of the community and the God that we love—except maybe the loving and joyful embrace of our work by our community. Everybody feels good when others recognize and support the good things we are trying to do. When your meeting recognizes and supports your ministry, it feels terrific.
Recording also gives the minister oversight. If the meeting knows and practices the traditions of Quaker ministry, it will prevent the hierarchy that the critics of recording fear. And this is not just discipline in the usual, negative sense. Such discipline is positive spiritual nurture.
For it is very scary to feel a call to do God’s work. You know that you could “run past your guide”—end up doing things you were not called to do. You know that you could “step through the traces”—get tangled up in the work until you trip, the way a horse can get a leg tangled in the harnesses—the traces—that tie it to the carriage. Usually, the ego is involved. The faithful minister is eager for this discipline, eager for the meeting to help prevent these things from happening. And the faithful community is there to do that service. This covenant between minister and meeting is the main reason to formally record gifts, in my opinion. So I feel the question really is, not why would you record the gifts of a minister—but why would you not?
As a meeting, would you not want to recover, pass on, and experiment with the incredible tradition of Quaker ministry, its faith and its practice, rather than let it languish out of fear and ignorance? Do you not believe that all your members and attenders possess unique spiritual gifts and that these gifts deserve to be recognized and nurtured? Would you not therefore want to proactively seek to recognize your members’ gifts and support the ministries that will certainly arise if you do nurture them?
So how would you do that? Why not accept the gift that Quaker tradition has given us in our tradition—the practice of recording—and adapt it to your meeting’s needs?
Let’s do it
The traditions of Quaker ministry and eldership have been steadily eroding over the century or more since many of our meetings began laying down the practice of recording ministers and elders. But they’re not dead yet. Thanks to our rich written tradition, meetings that no longer retain a working knowledge of how to nurture the spirituality of Quaker ministry can still find accounts of these practices in action and a wealth of resources for recovering these traditions from oblivion.
At the same time, because we laid down some of these practices for good reasons, I hope that we will continue to adapt them and experiment with them in the spirit of continuing revelation. Since we began losing these traditions, the spirit of continuing revelation has already given us the brilliant practice of clearness committees for discernment. And in the past few decades we have opened up our understanding of ministry way beyond its original conception as just vocal ministry in meeting for worship to include a very wide range of service and witness. I have no doubt that we will continue to develop new ways to nurture the spiritual lives of our members in the future.
The main thing, though, is to be much more proactive in recognizing and developing our members’ gifts of the Spirit, those ways in which God has endowed them with talents, skills, and character traits that could serve the meeting and God’s work in the world. We could do this through
- personal mentoring by elders in the meeting (or if you prefer, “weighty” Friends, Friends who know the tradition and have a gift for spiritual nurture),
- programs of spiritual nurture focused on naming and nurturing spiritual gifts, and
- programs of religious education focused on the faith and practice of Quaker ministry.
As for recording, if we really do proactively nurture spiritual gifts in all our members, then it would in fact be redundant, exhausting, and silly to record everyone in the old way. But I suspect that it will still be useful to record Friends who are called to specific ministries, especially those that take them beyond the meeting or even beyond the wider Quaker community. The two common examples already common among us, as I’ve said, are chaplain work and prison ministries.
Your meeting may decide that recording does not fit well with the culture of your meeting, once you have examined it in a faithful way. Please don’t just dismiss it without learning about it, though; our tradition and our ministers deserve better than ignorant and arrogant out-of-hand dismissal of this ancient and valuable practice and its benefits.
Here, again, the most important thing is: do something to actively seek out and nurture the spiritual gifts of your members and to support the ministries that will miraculously arise from those gifts when they are nurtured. It would be a tragedy if you let the Seed within them die for lack of watering. And when your meeting figures out how it wants to support the gifts and spirituality/ministries of its members, please share your journey. For this is one of the essential callings of the Quaker meeting, to recognize and nurture the gifts the Spirit has bestowed upon its members and attenders in order to foster Spirit-led work in the meeting and in the world.
A final word
Recording gifts in ministry once applied only to vocal ministry. The practice worked in the context of a share community understanding that God called people into service as vocal ministers. One of the biggest changes in our faith and practice regarding vocal ministry is that we no longer think of our members as having a call to vocal ministry.
Oh, we know some Friends are likely to speak more often than others. Often, we wish that they wouldn’t. We actually tend to be somewhat critical of the Friend who speaks “too often”, especially if they tend to do so at some length.
All the more reason to have some spiritual infrastructure in place for the nurture and eldering of vocal ministry beyond a cautious and uncertain committee for worship and ministry that has no clear charge from the meeting for their eldering work. In subsequent posts, I want to look at both the need to support those who are called to vocal ministry and how we bring “gospel order” to our worship.