Objections to supporting callings to vocal ministry

July 16, 2016 § 1 Comment


A commenter on my most recent post about supporting Friends that feel called into a spoken ministry in their meetings’ worship has shared how he had sought this kind of support and was told he was trying to feed his ego. As I said in my reply, this is exactly the opposite of what the faithful called vocal minister wants from her meeting. We want help in keeping our ego out of our ministry!

However, another commenter expressed some concern that paying this kind of attention to the members’ vocal ministry would drive some Friends away, and I suspect that he is right. It would probably cause conflict in the meeting, even if it didn’t drive people out, because some Friends (many Friends, I suspect) neither understand the religious life in terms of calling and as a path that requires both self-discipline and collective eldership, nor understand the meeting as properly serving in such an eldership role.

This obviously is how I approach the life of the Spirit. I am writing these blog entries because I’m groping for a way to serve both approaches. Or, more accurately, because the hands-off culture of eldership around vocal ministry is virtually the universal default position in our meetings, I want to make some room for those of us who feel called. I want to open the conversation and offer some reasons why meetings should try to minister to their called ministers, to their members who feel led into vocal ministry in particular, but into any ministry—witness, service, pastoral care, administration, whatever.

My own meeting (Central Philadelphia) has in place the kind of infrastructure for eldership that I am talking about, a Gifts and Leadings Committee that “nurtures gifts of the Spirit, supports efforts to discern one’s ministries”. I don’t know my meeting very well yet; I’m too new. Even though my meeting has a committee that is apparently committed to doing just what I’m talking about, nevertheless I sense that there may be the same anxieties about these matter similar to those I’ve encountered in other meetings and that have been expressed by commenters to my blogs on this concern.

So I want to address these objections here. Below is a list of such concerns that I developed initially for an article published in an issue of New York Yearly Meeting’s newsletter Spark whose theme was Recognizing Spiritual Gifts, an article defending the practice of recording gifts in ministry. I have expanded that original list of objections, and I am applying them more broadly to the eldership of vocal ministry, understood in both of its nurture and discipline aspects, not just recording gifts in ministry. Because addressing each of these has made this post extremely long and some readers may not want to deal with the whole thing at once, I made it into a pdf file and offer links to its various sections.
Download Objections-SupportingCallstoVocalMinistry.pdf

Outline of Objections

Here are the objections I’ve heard to proactive and focused attention to those called into vocal ministry:

  • Egotism—You’re just trying to feed your ego.
  • We are all ministers. Some Friends cite the belief that all Friends are ministers (that we “laid down the laity, not the ministry”), so it’s not right to single out individuals for a status that all of us possess.
  • Testimony of equality. Many cite the testimony of equality, fearing that special support for called ministers would confer an exalted status on the person who is called.
  • Fear of hierarchy. In a similar vein, many fear that the practice will lead to a subtle but dangerous form of hierarchy among us.
  • Personal freedom and discipline. Many Friends expect to do more or less whatever they want in their religious lives, as one of the unique gifts of the Quaker way. Often, in fact, they see their meeting as a safe harbor from the kind of wounding they have suffered in their past that took the form of coercion or other outward discipline, and this practice feels the same to them.
  • What good is it? Many Friends, I think, do not see what benefits this kind of support could bring to either the minister or the meeting.
  • Ignorance due to the erosion of tradition. When no one sees a robust culture of eldership around vocal ministry at work, it is easier to fear the unknown than to imagine the blessings.
  • It will drive people away. This kind of practice will feel intrusive to some Friends and they will leave, and some newcomers will go away.
  • What to do. Finally, this post ends with some ideas about what to do in the face of such predictable if not inevitable conflict.



As I said above, the Friends I know who would seek more support from their meeting for their vocal ministry feel that, yes, ego is the problem—exactly. But they want their meeting to help them manage the temptation to egotism, not to feed it.

When you have such a calling, faithful service to the Caller could not be more important to you, or more fraught with personal spiritual risk, as I said in my previous post. When your calling and your fears are not important to your meeting—when your meeting fails to understand both its own traditions and its pastoral responsibilities—your meeting has failed you and failed itself—and failed the Holy Spirit. By “Holy Spirit” I mean whatever Mystery Reality calls forth ministers and ministry and gathers the meeting into holy unity, call it whatever you like.


We are all ministers

Friends are fond of saying that we are all ministers, that we laid down the laity, not the clergy. They then move from this principle to a stand against singling individuals out for special attention to their ministry. If we are all ministers, then why would you do that?

But this does not quite get our tradition right. Yes, we laid down the laity, but, in fact, we are NOT all ministers; we are all POTENTIAL ministers. We are ministers in waiting. We become ministers when we faithfully answer a call to service. Ministry is service—but service to what? In the Quaker tradition, you cannot separate ministry from its call without destroying the very meaning of ministry.

We all experience the Caller differently. For some it is Jesus Christ. For most of us, it is something much less identifiable. Some say ministry comes from within, from “that of God” within us. But the experience of the call, the prompting to rise and speak in meeting for worship, for instance, whatever we call it, comes from something deeper within us than our own egos.

But not necessarily. Much vocal ministry, in fact, seems to come from a rather shallow place. But even that doesn’t mean it isn’t Spirit-led. We know true vocal ministry by its fruits: Does it serve the inner life of even one attender at meeting? (Usually, we can’t know.) Does it serve the collective religious life of the meeting? Does it deepen the silence, the meeting’s sense of gathering in the Spirit, or does it pull us back up toward the surface of our thoughts and feelings?

I am not here concerned with how the meeting might judge these things. I am addressing how the meeting relates to those for whom seeking to come from deeper and deeper depths with their spoken ministry is of utmost importance, and who want help with being as faithful in their service as possible.


The testimony of equality

We are each of us endowed with certain spiritual gifts that comprise for each of us a unique constellation of gifts, which then manifest as ministries that also take unique forms for each of us. So we are are all equal in the fact of our endowment, but the idea of “equality” is irrelevant to our individual needs for the nurture of our unique gifts and the support of our individual ministries.

Every member of the meeting deserves careful spiritual attention, but that attention should be more or less unique, appropriate to our individual callings. The testimony of equality does not demand, as some kind of outward rule, that everyone gets lowest-common-denominator, no-size-fits-anybody treatment because we are all the same. Rather, the testimony of equality requires that our support structures give each minister the support that we each deserve—and out of love, as a sacred collective responsibility, not as an outward rule.

Some Friends need support for their vocal ministry; denying them that support is a form of inequality, unless you deny all Friends support—with their witness callings, and pastoral care callings, and hospitality callings, and teaching callings, and property management callings, etc.—as well. Which is exactly what many meetings do—no call to service gets proper support. This is not the testimony of equality in action, nor is it love for our ministers or for the One Who Calls—whatever you call G*d in your own experience.


Fear of hierarchy

The testimony of equality argument against focused support of any ministry is really a fear of hierarchy dressed up in tradition’s clothing. That’s really what people mean, I think, when they use the equality testimony as an obstacle. Friends tend to fear leadership, and this sometimes drives a passive undermining of our leaders. Many Friends just don’t think we have leaders, even though we all recognize the contributions of Friends that we think of as “weighty”.

Quakerism has gone a long way toward eliminating hierarchies in our structures of governance. This is one of our strengths, one of our more valuable contributions to religious culture and history—and, for that matter, to the wider culture. Having servant clerks rather than presidents, making decisions collectively under the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than by majority rule, meeting for worship in circles (and eliminating those facing benches) rather than all of us facing an elevated dais with an elevated person on it, recognizing that each of us is a potential minister—all these profound reforms of religious practice arise organically from essential principles of Quakerism: that each of us can commune directly with the Divine and that the worshiping community also can find unity, peace, and guidance in the leadership of the Spirit.

We certainly do not want to undermine this genius by elevating someone to a position of power. But giving a vocal minister the support they need does not elevate them to a position of power. To the contrary; ministering to our ministers helps to ensure that G*d remains the source of guidance for our ministers, and it helps to ensure that the meeting retains enough authority over its own worship and fellowship to faithfully nurture it and protect it from such power plays.

Meanwhile, Friends are notoriously bad at dealing with “soft” power, with passive aggressive behavior, with Friends who hold the meeting hostage, saying, if you do “x”, I’ll do (or won’t do) “y”. Human societies can never get rid of the temptation to power. We can only build a fellowship that knows how to deal with it effectively.

Most liberal Quaker meetings I know have to a large degree abrogated the responsibility to protect the fellowship and the worship from destructive behavior. When it happens, they flounder. And we have dismantled the eldership structures we used to use for this.

So it’s ironic that Friends resist providing just such a system of balances for vocal ministry, believing that providing them would foster power plays. This is a weird kind of denial that affirms what we claim to deny—we won’t protect ourselves from you, the called minister, because we’re afraid you might hurt us. That’s nuts. If you’re afraid of people seizing power, take measures to prevent it.


Personal freedom and discipline

Now we are getting close to the core problem, I think. Liberal Quakerism has evolved to the point where many of our members define the Quaker religious space as one in which they can do whatever they want. Many of us come to Friends as refugees from other religious environments in which we were told what to do by religious authorities and we didn’t like what we were being told, and we didn’t like being bossed around, in the first place. Many of us are not so wounded, but we still came here seeking freedom, and we found it.

One Friend I know once described Quakerism as a do-it-yourself religion, by which he meant, not that we each had to do our part because we have no paid professionals, but that each of us is free to believe whatever we want and to craft the kind of religious life we want, independently of any other authority, including the authority of the meeting. Predictably, that Friend consistently ignored some of our traditional, if tacit, agreements as Friends and did what he liked.

Thus some Friends can’t imagine ceding their autonomy over their own vocal ministry to some committee or even to the meeting. And thus we don’t understand why other people would seek to do that. And these Friends would not want to worship in a community that would try to exercise that kind of control.

But this misunderstands the desire of the minister who feels a call, the nature of the call itself, and the true locus of authority in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. It misunderstands the character of “authority” in the traditional Quaker approach to the life of the Spirit.

In our tradition, the Quaker minister does not cede authority over her or his ministry to some committee or to the meeting, but rather we seek to follow the Holy Spirit! In our tradition of Spirit-led ministry, the minister is but a channel, not a source, of the words spoken in meeting for worship. (By this I do not necessarily mean some kind of spiritualist channeling in which you are taken over by the message—though that does happen sometimes—but rather a kind of inner discipline of surrender in which we seek to get our ego out of the way and let the prompting we are feeling take us where it wants us to go.)

In our tradition of vocal ministry, the meeting and its worship and ministry committee do not seek authority for themselves, either. Rather, they recognize the same authority as the minister—G*d, Christ, the Spirit. . . . The committee sees its role, not as an organ of control, but rather as an organ of listening for G*d’s guidance akin to the listening exercised by the minister, but done at the level of the collective community.

We all know the feeling of fulfillment that comes from faithful service in vocal ministry. And most of us know, I hope, the thrilling sense of communion that comes in a covered meeting for worship, when we feel gathered in the Spirit. This is not ego at work. This is not corporate control. The faces of this authority are joy, and peace, and love.

This kind of practice is much more difficult than just listening to some appointed preacher or kneeling at a rail while a man places wafers in your mouth. Like anything else, to get good at this kind of practice—you have to practice. And it helps to have resources, teachers, mentors, and discipline in that practice. So many Friends recognize that a successful athlete must train and practice, a lot, and yet think the life of the Spirit can be deeply fulfilling and transforming just by sitting quietly in a group for an hour a week.


What good is it?

Friends who do not feel a calling to vocal ministry in the way I have been describing can easily imagine the dangers involved, but have a hard time imagining the benefits. Certainly, it won’t benefit them. They are likely to feel that, if they don’t need this kind of attention, then why would someone else? And for the meeting it would just mean more work and potentially, a slippery slope toward authoritarianism.

But I feel that it most certainly would benefit all the meeting’s worshippers, whether they think of their own vocal ministry as a calling or not, because it should deepen the quality of the vocal ministry they receive from their called ministers. That’s why the “called” minister seeks such support—to strengthen their faithfulness, deepen their ministry, and guide them away from such pitfalls as egotism.

Here it’s worth mentioning the very important role that vocal ministry plays in outreach. I think there are three main factors at work in determining whether newcomers come back to a meeting after their first couple of visits: the depth of the silence, an intangible, “transcendental” quality to the worship; the warmth and welcoming atmosphere of the meeting’s fellowship; and the quality of the vocal ministry. Not only is profound vocal ministry more likely to attract newcomers, but it is also more likely to attract a certain kind of newcomer—people who are seeking profound religious experience themselves.

Supporting the people who are speaking in meeting should nurture a virtuous cycle: deeper ministry calls in deeper people who then in turn bring deeper ministry—among other blessings to the meeting.

As for adding work to the handful of Friends who in every meeting are doing more than their share of the work, yes, that’s going to happen if meetings were to take up the practices I’m suggesting. But what are meetings for? Are we not here precisely to support each other in our spiritual lives? And if religious calling—to any form of ministry—is an important part of some Friends’ spiritual lives, as it most certainly is, then how could we deny them, especially when our tradition is especially strong and unique in this very regard? What could be more important than that?


Lack of exposure

I believe that the rather catastrophic erosion of our traditions around leadings and ministry in many of our meetings has created a slippery slope toward weaker meetings, shallower worship, and fear of practices that once made us stronger and deeper.

Friends approach their meetings with their leadings so infrequently now that these Friends now stand out, they attract attention. If it were happening to all of us all the time, we wouldn’t get nervous, we would get to work. If the meeting was practiced in its practice of eldership in both its nurturing of ministry and its protection of the worship, it would feel natural and good to see it happening.

Meanwhile, we don’t really know what to do when someone does have a leading because we have lost the practices that used to be commonplace among us. We don’t know how to form and conduct clearness committees for discerning leadings, we don’t record gifts in ministry, we don’t do much of anything to nurture each other’s gifts and ministries, we often don’t know how to write minutes of travel or service, and when we do, we often don’t know how to treat them. So we fall back into the world’s reactions as shaped by our liberal Quaker culture: Who are they to claim the Spirit’s leading when nobody else is doing it?

Or, more to the point, when I am not having that experience? They are no better a Friend than me!

This, I believe, is a common root of opposition to focused attention on some Friend’s ministry: that many Friends are not having this kind of experience themselves. So it’s easy to wonder whether such experiences might be either bogus self-delusion or a projection of ego; or at least, irrelevant to the wider life of the meeting.

But this lack of experience stands in front of hundreds of years of experience in our movement. I’m not sure when we began to lose this experience of calling to vocal ministry. I would guess that the trend started with the emergence of liberal Quaker culture around the turn of the twentieth century and really gained momentum after World War II.

But a decisive stroke would have fallen when a yearly meeting stopped recording ministers. The only yearly meeting I know well is New York, which still does record ministers—it still has meetings in the programmed, pastoral tradition following the reunion of the Orthodox and Hicksite yearly meetings in 1955. But even in New York Yearly Meeting, only the traditionally Orthodox meetings still record ministers; the liberal meetings do not and many, I think, would never; they just don’t think that way. And many Friends in NYYM bristle quite agitatedly when the practice comes up. So even in a yearly meeting that retains a tradition of recognizing the call to ministry, many Friends feel quite alienated from that experience.


It will drive people away

Friends who feel alienated from the claim to be called into vocal ministry, who are uncomfortable with the prospect of the meeting paying “undue” attention to the meeting’s vocal ministry and to the Friends who claim to be called, these Friends will naturally be concerned about how other Friends will feel. Friends who feel excluded in some way might naturally fear that others will feel that way, also, and they will be right. They also might fear that these practices will make newcomers nervous and drive them away, too—and they probably will be correct in this, also.

Just bringing the subject up causes conflict in a meeting that has Friends who are opposed to the practice, and I would guess that virtually every liberal Quaker meeting does have such Friends, so some level of conflict seems virtually inevitable. Why would you deliberately cause friction in your meeting?

This is a very compelling argument. In my experience, these fears are well grounded. I have seen these conflicts myself. I have seen Friends come to the point of standing in the way over them. It’s easy to imagine some very sensitive or opinionated Friends withdrawing from meeting life if they feel some kind of vocal ministry police state has been established. I suspect also that some newcomers would, in fact, be nervous about such a practice and seek some other religious community, especially since it would be easy to misunderstand what’s going on. Our practice of Spirit-led ministry is subtle, complex, and very different from the practice of most other churches, so it’s hard to explain well and it’s not that easy to understand, in the first place. Many seasoned Friends seem not to understand it.

So why would a meeting try to do such a thing?


The basic question

This gets to our core understanding of the Quaker faith itself. What are we here for?

For me, the essential question is what we mean by G*d or Spirit or the Divine—whatever you want to call it. Is “Spirit-led” just an idea to which we give lip service, or do we actually believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—that Something calls us into service, that Something can lead us, both as individuals through leadings and as a worshiping community in the covered meeting for worship.

If the answer is yes, I have felt the promptings of something that feels like not-myself, that feels bigger or deeper than my self, that somehow transcends my self; and yes, I have experienced a covered meeting in which as a meeting we were gathered into a profound communion of unity and joy in worship—if the answer is yes, then that is what we are trying to be faithful to. That is the Presence we seek. That is the experience that we seek to nurture and protect.

And do we imagine that this will be easy? That it will just come by itself all the time—or any time—without us paying any attention to it at all, either as individuals or as meetings?

The counter-argument is that most Friends who speak in meeting would say they are Spirit-led, and who’s to gainsay them? They might say to me, what you seek is already happening, so why get all complicated and intrusive about it.

Well, I certainly won’t claim that these Friends are not Spirit-led. All I can do is testify to my own experience, that I feel called and I want support, and I don’t want my experience to be gainsaid any more than Friends do who don’t feel called to vocal ministry want me to gainsay their experience.


Where to from here?

This feels like an impasse to me. It’s not very clear how to go forward. I see two things to do.

First, lets start a conversation. Yes, even that will bring conflict. But I refuse to let the fear of conflict quench the spirit of such an important question for our Religious Society. At the very least, we should be able to talk about it in gatherings that do not expect to take any action. Informal gatherings for conversation, gatherings in which we share our personal experience of vocal ministry, religious education programs on our traditions of vocal ministry, all without the expectation of action or change on anybody’s part—these, at least, should be possible. Or have we no courage at all?

Second, those who, like myself, have a concern for their own vocal ministry could meet informally, outside of any established meeting structures, just to think together about what we can do for each other. This would have to be “advertised”, so some Friends might get nervous when they hear that some cabal is forming, but in reality, this would be no different than a group of Friends concerned about fracking or racism or gun violence getting together to see what love could do about those concerns.

Care for vocal ministry is an extremely important part of our shared Quaker tradition, inherently, historically, “theologically”, and experientially. I for one would not deny or abandon such an essential aspect of our faith and practice without at least having some conversations.

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