Vocal ministry as a calling

July 1, 2016 § 12 Comments

If our meetings and their worship and ministry committees feel that they have no responsibility or role to play in the religious lives of Friends who feel called into vocal ministry, even though these Friends bring their ministry to the meeting regularly, what does that mean? What does it mean if a meeting has so abandoned its traditions as to leave its vocal ministers with no help at all, even when they have a calling that to them is a profound religious responsibility and might be fraught with a sense of great personal spiritual risk?

Recently in meeting for worship, my meeting had quite a bit of vocal ministry, and I myself felt a prompting, but my discernment process took longer than the time for worship allowed.

Two friends spoke who speak fairly often, and I speak fairly often, too, so there might have been three of us frequent speakers if time had allowed. My potential ministry started as a concern about this fact, that I speak fairly often, and so do some others, but also from the fact that I experience my vocal ministry as a calling. Thinking about this situation and my calling, then and since, has prompted this post and some queries.

The essential principle of the Quaker way, which we know from direct experience, is that each one of us can commune directly with the Divine. Flowing organically from this experience is our understanding and practice of Quaker ministry: we know—also experientially—that any one of us may be called into G*d’s service. The quintessential manifestation of Spirit-led service for Friends is our vocal ministry—that any one of us may be prompted by the Spirit to rise and speak in meeting for worship.

For several hundred years, Friends experienced vocal ministry as a calling—not as a series of individual and unrelated events in a person’s worship life, but as a relationship with both Christ and meeting that occupied and transformed one’s whole religious life—and thus one’s relationship with one’s meeting—in profound ways. The ministry that one offered on any given First Day was no isolated event in a random series, but rather a manifestation of these relationships with God and meeting, organically bound to one’s other vocal ministry by the sense of calling, by one’s practice of faithfulness to the call, and by the attention of the meeting.

This is why we had elders—vocal ministers needed ministering to. This is why some older meetinghouses have facing benches—so that the ministers could sit—and stand—where they faced the body so that Christ’s Word could be heard more easily.  Some meetinghouses even have a canopy over the facing benches, often with a plastered curve at the upper corner, to better reflect sound. This is why we have ministry and worship committees.

But most meetings no longer have elders, and leave their vocal ministers to struggle on their own with whatever sense of calling they might have. Most meetings no longer record gifts in ministry, and therefore have lost any direct relationship they might have with emerging ministers and their gifts. Most modern meetinghouses have no facing benches, and the meetings that do usually allow anyone to sit in them, while those who feel led to speak fairly often might be sitting anywhere in the meeting room. Most meetings no longer think of vocal ministry as being prompted by Jesus Christ or even by the Holy Spirit of the Trinity, so vocal ministry is no longer thought of as arising from relationship with either God or even with the meeting, and “faithfulness”, if it figures at all for the minister, is a matter mostly between one’s self and one’s self, not with some “Higher Power”. And most Friends and most meetings no longer think of vocal ministry as a calling.

Meanwhile, some of us find that we are led to speak fairly often. And some of us who are frequent speakers do feel that vocal ministry is for us a calling, and we are left to pursue this calling on our own, without any culture of eldership that could nurture and support our gifts and call.

I feel such a calling, and this raises for me a number of really important questions or concerns, not just for myself, but also for those others in my meeting who feel such a call, for the other frequent speakers who perhaps do not think of their ministry this way, and for the meeting itself as a worshipping body.

I think every meeting—and those Friends who have a concern for their own vocal ministry and/or for the vocal ministry in their meeting in general, especially members of our ministry and worship committees—should ask themselves these questions. These are my questions, in a kind of cascading logic tree:

  1. Is the ministry and worship committee of the meeting—or anybody else, for that matter—paying attention proactively to the meeting’s vocal ministry, so that they notice Friends like myself who are speaking fairly often? By proactive attention I mean that someone on the committee might say, Steven Davison seems to be speaking fairly frequently in meeting for worship—I wonder whether he feels a calling to vocal ministry? And then the committee would discuss the matter.
    1. If the committee is paying this kind of attention, would they then approach me with something like the same question: We notice that you speak fairly often in meeting and we wonder whether you feel a calling to vocal ministry?
      1. If my answer is yes, do they then ask: Is there any way we can support your call? Is there any way that we can help you be faithful to it?
        1. If they offer support, I accept it. And then what forms might this support take? I personally would be interested in participating in a small, informal mutual support/discussion group with a concern for our vocal ministry, a group that would find its own direction as we were led. I might also be interested in a vocal ministry/spiritual journey friend—some individual person to be in touch with more intimately, as the two of us feel led. But another minister with a calling might have other needs or ideas.
        2. If I don’t accept their offer of support, well then, that settles that. The only role the committee might play in the future in my vocal ministry might be to act to protect the worship if my vocal ministry became some kind of obstacle to gathered worship.
      2. Suppose I answered no, I never have thought about my speaking as a calling. I imagine that many of our frequent speakers might say this. Would the committee then ask: Do you think it’s possible that you do have a call? Would you want any help with discerning a possible call—say, a clearness committee, or just someone to talk to about it?
        1. If I said yes, then we’re on to #
        2. If I said no, I don’t want any of your attention, then we’re back to
      3. If it appears that none of the frequent speakers in the meeting have a sense of calling, but the committee feels that this is a meaningful way to approach vocal ministry, would the committee then begin a program of religious education that would introduce the practice and help prepare a religious ecosystem in the meeting that would begin to foster and support callings to vocal ministry?
    2. If the committee is not paying this kind of proactive attention to the meeting’s experience of vocal ministry, then why not?
      1. Is it because no one on the committee considers the possibility that one might be called into vocal ministry (or any other ministry for that matter)? Has the committee ever discussed the matter?
      2. If someone on the committee does feel, as I do, that in fact some of us are called into vocal ministry as a calling, would such a committee member feel free to bring such a practice up to the committee? If not, why not?
      3. Do you imagine that there would there be resistance somewhere in the meeting to the ministry and worship committee proactively practicing this kind of attention and/or providing some eldership to those with a sense of calling?
      4. Has the meeting discussed vocal ministry enough as a body to give the committee some sense of what their practice should or at least could be?
      5. If the committee does not feel free on behalf of the meeting to serve the members who do feel a call to vocal ministry, could they still facilitate or support some more informal form of support?

If the answer to all of these questions is no, the committee and the meeting have no responsibility or role to play in the religious lives of Friends called into vocal ministry, even though they bring that ministry to the meeting regularly, what does that mean? What does it mean if a meeting has so abandoned its traditions as to leave its vocal ministers with no help at all, even when they have a calling that to them is a profound responsibility and is fraught, potentially, with great personal spiritual risk?


§ 12 Responses to Vocal ministry as a calling

  • Sara Palmer says:

    Steven, thank you for this thought-provoking commentary. Have you considered sharing this with Worship and Ministry (or have you already done so)? I think it might generate some rich conversation.

    As someone who grew up in the unprogrammed tradition in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting but who has only given vocal ministry a couple of times in my life, I have longed for spiritual nurture that could help me (or others like me) to overcome the strong internal presumption that I will not speak. I don’t want to outrun my Guide, but I do want to become more sensitive to its promptings, whether towards vocal ministry or any other kind of ministry.

  • I agree with Bill that to provide support to a prophetic minister, there would need to be a clear grasp of what he or she is doing. What we must do now in Liberal meetings is more akin to what the first Friends did in ministering in the public spaces, rather than among themselves in meetings. Lewis Benson wrote an essay titled “On Being Moved by the Spirit to Minister in Public Worship” that describes the serious responsibility with which the called minister lives.

    Prophetic ministry cannot be imitated. It can only come through those who seek to open their lives to Christ and who are willing to let him be the Lord of their ministry. The work of the prophetic minister is real work. It involves enriching his mind with the language of prophecy and the imagery of prophecy. It means finding time for the maturing of insights and the quiet prayer and meditation that leads to wisdom. It means meditating on the great themes of the Christian faith. These meditations will later enrich his ministry but they are not rehearsals of sermons to be given at any particular time and place. The New Testament speaks of “spiritual sacrifices” and the minister soon learns that in his work he is, indeed, bringing gifts to the altar and it becomes his increasing labour and concern to make his gift acceptable to God. What is it that makes the gift pleasing to God? Is he not most pleased when ministry strengthens the sense of fellowship and makes the witness and mission of the church more effective? The minister is not a mere functionary — he is a part of the means by which God is seeking to redeem his world. The measure of ministry is in its power to lead people to Christ and in its power to change things. The prophetic ministry can go into almost total eclipse, as it seems to have done, but its potential power remains undiminished. So there is reason for Christ’s ministers to take courage. It is a wonderful thing to be called to the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    —from Lewis Benson’s “On Being Moved by the Spirit to Minister in Public Worship”

    • seekerquaker says:

      One of the more humbling experiences I have had was being “recorded in the ministry” along with Lewis Benson. With his hearing issues, I remember going into the cemetery at Manasquan Meeting where we both attended and “shouting” at each other about some point or other, often about George Fox’s writing or some other aspect of Friends. His “Catholic Quakerism” was very meaningful to me as I “transitioned” from FUM pastoral experience to non-pastoral Friends.

      • Thank you for writing of your time with Lewis Benson. What a cheering image of shouting about George Fox in the graveyard! (Now that I think of it, It’s an apt metaphor for ministering among Friends today.) In a few minutes, I am out the door and on my way to Wyoming where New Foundation Fellowship will be holding a gathering. In my back pack is “Catholic Quakerism,” which I shall read on the way.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    In a meeting which stands for nothing and is suspicious of anyone who stands for Jesus Christ, it would not be helpful to have M&C really try to oversee ministry. My own advice would be to pray about whether such a meeting is really where you belong if you are seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ. Our allegiance needs to be to Jesus Christ not the Society of Friends.

  • Mackenzie says:

    I’m a member of a meeting within a joint FUM/FGC YM. Last weekend I visited the gathering of the Wider Fellowship of Conservative Friends, at Stillwater Monthly Meeting in Ohio Yearly Meeting.

    There were about 8 recorded ministers present (sometimes fewer sat in ministers’ gallery each time). It was wonderful to worship in that environment. The messages were so clearly Spirit-led and drew on a very deep well. I came away feeling the liberal branch has really lost something by not nurturing vocal ministry. It was abundantly clear why these men and women had been recorded.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I think Friends in the liberal tradition are very reluctant in 2016 to judge another’s motives and abilities. Especially if a meeting is “formal” in its nature and in Friends’ interactions with one another, such comments or “critiques” of another’s actions would be met with suspicion; i.e., “who’s the person with the ego problem here – me or the one critiquing me”.

    Personally, I have seen the transition you describe in my own meeting. The ministry committee at one time acted as a committee of elders (kind of), But over the decades, that has ceased gradually to the point where our last Spiritual State of the Meeting report read “Inside our meeting we don’t need elders as we feel our loving community is a place where we pay attention to each other. Being able to elder to each other is an ideal that we have reached.”

    Our Ministry committee is now simply overseeing worship to ensure that it is carried out in a spirit of openness, love, and Light. In fact the name of that committee is simply “Spiritual Nurture Committee”. And the meeting has changed over the decades to not have, nor value a committee of “elders” to formally (on behalf of the meeting) advise, “elder”, or oversee the gifts of Friends. Instead, over the decades a much more intimate environment has evolved in the meeting where everyone provides loving guidance to each other informally as situations arise where it might be helpful to an individual Friend or the entire meeting.

    This has been a wonderful change for the meeting because a more natural caring and loving environment has transpired among our Friends. Control and maneuvering of Friends by committees has ceased with nearly everything being done in the open at our monthly Meetings for Business. Committees are entirely following the lead of the whole meeting instead of “steering” the meeting in the manner they think appropriate.

    Such an environment has attracted many new ones from the community we are located in. There is less judging and pettiness among Friends as the meeting’s environment has become healthy, transparent, and entirely helpful to Friends. There is much more acceptance of everyone at the place they are. There is eagerness to embrace Christ-oriented spirituality as well as all spirituality based on Love and Light. There is more recognition that our goal as a meeting is to become One in the divine as Jesus hoped for; to trust the Spirit more in the meeting’s life and our personal lives outside the meeting.

    Most liberal Friends would just stop coming if the environment you are advocating for ever happened. Why does someone have to come to you questioning your gifts of ministry? There should be such an open environment in your meeting that YOU could approach others asking for a committee of clearness about your gift if that would be helpful to you. And Friends (not just ones on the “right” committee) should eagerly respond with their attention towards you.

    I think liberal Friends have moved beyond the need for a group of Friends to be the “controllers” in the meeting. Perhaps things are actually perfect as they now are – with at last room for the Spirit to be in control now that the “elders” have retired (thank God!), and the Spirit is able to use who it wants when it wants to bring all to the loving arms of the divine. After all, there is ‘that of God’ in everyone.

  • […] The loss of sup­port, recog­ni­tion, and checks on vocal min­istry. […]

  • Jill H-W says:

    Thank you for tackling this.

  • barbarakay1 says:


  • seekerquaker says:

    In my case, we fairly recently moved to a new Meeting and I had shared vocal ministry a few times when I met with a member of the committee to very informally talk about how I might share some experience with the Meeting if that was appropriate. The Meeting had been asking in their newsletter and “bulletin” for volunteers to lead some discussions on Friends, since I was relatively new to the Meeting I wanted to explore the possibilities with an individual whom I thought knew me and my previous experiences a little bit. I was met with some skepticism and then asked if it might not “be my ego that I was trying to feed.” That “stunned” me and certainly did not in any way encourage me or even “challenge” me due to the content and context of the discussion.

    The story does have more to say, but I will just conclude by thanking you for sharing your leadings.

    • I’m sorry that things went that way. The situation—at least for me—is exactly the opposite of what these Friends said to you: I am trying to keep from feeding my ego, not trying to feed it. Maybe something similar motivated you.

      Many Friends have a kind of paranoid fear that recognizing and supporting gifts in ministry somehow violates the testimony of equality: “We are all ministers, so it’s not appropriate to single one person out”. When, in fact, we are NOT all ministers; we are all POTENTIAL ministers. We become ministers when we faithfully answer a call to service.

      Furthermore, everyone’s gifts are unique, so each person—every member of the meeting—deserves the kind of careful spiritual attention I have tried to describe. Those who have a calling need the attention appropriate for their calling.

      The other factor at work, I think, is that so many Friends just do not see vocal ministry as religious service. Or at least, by “religious” and “service” they seem to mean something far less important, both for themselves and for the meeting, than I mean. Many Friends seem to consider vocal ministry as merely “speaking in meeting”, no more “weighty” than a heartfelt personal sharing, rather than something that is actually Spirit-led. Oh, they may use the term “Spirit-led”, but in fact whatever spirit they mean doesn’t really deserve a capital “S”.

      Which is fine. I am not arguing that every Friend should think of vocal ministry as a calling the way I do. But this is, in fact, our tradition, even if it’s only hanging on in some meetings by a fingernail, and no one should quench the spirit in the way that these Friends did to you—and as some have done to me, as well.

      Just because it is not their experience doesn’t mean that it should be no Friend’s experience. And just as their religious experience deserves the utmost respect and nurture, so does ours. That’s the testimony of equality at work, not the handicapping of Friends who do not share their experience—or ours.

      We should each of us be giving each of us what we need in this life of the Spirit, not denying it to each other.

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