Vocal Ministry—What To Do?

January 17, 2019 § 3 Comments

Here are some ideas for how we might work more proactively, and yet tenderly, to improve the quality of our vocal ministry, based on the problems I’ve identified in the past couple of posts.

Facing denial and doubt

I would hold a blind survey of the meeting to establish without any doubt that there really is a problem. How many members are unhappy with the ministry and the worship? How many are staying away because of the worship and ministry? I suspect that the results will be surprising and undeniable. I hope this will lead to a clear call to action.

Meeting agreement

I suggest that the clerk make time on the business agenda to consider and clarify the committee’s charge and to formally declare its faith in the committee to act on its behalf to nurture and protect the worship and ministry. This will force a discussion about what that means.

Worship and Ministry Committees

Appointments. This is sticky. I would ask Nominating Committee to be mindful of the committee’s charge to nurture and elder the vocal ministry when it considers names, choosing people who know our tradition, are seasoned ministers themselves, and are confident in their dedication to the committee’s charge. But of course, Nominating Committee may not be able to approach this problem with clarity either, and for the same reasons that hamstring Worship and Ministry committees.

Religious education

Meetings should sponsor RE programs on worship and vocal ministry. My meeting has a great format for this. The committee decides on topics, then identifies a pamphlet or two that speak to that topic, and chooses a facilitator, hopefully someone with some “expertise” or experience with the subject and with the resources on that subject. But if not, she or he simply reads the pamphlet ahead of time and comes up with a brief summary of highlights for presentation and facilitates a discussion. We advertise these ahead of time and make the pamphlets available ahead of time, both from the library and for sale.


I think holding sessions for the meeting in which Friends share their experience of their own vocal ministry helps. Queries might include: How do you know you should share a message? What are your tests? Do you feel a calling to vocal ministry? Where do your messages seem to come from? Whom do you seek to serve with your ministry? What has influenced your approach to vocal ministry—writings, people, experience? Have you ever been eldered and what was that like?

How to elder

Here’s how I would approach one of these delicate conversations with someone about their ministry:

[if they speak fairly frequently] [Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I have noticed that you speak fairly often in meeting for worship and I wondered whether you felt you might have a calling to vocal ministry. Have you ever thought about that?

[if yes] Would you like any kind of support? Books or pamphlets to read, or just a chance to have a longer conversation about how it feels and where you think it comes from and where it might be going?

[if no] Well, what do you think? Does the idea awaken anything in you? Do you think it’s possible to have such a calling? Would you like to have a longer conversation about it? Or anyway, would you like any kind of support? Books or …

[if “I’m not sure what you mean.”] Well, some sense of a source of your messages, or a sense of mission or purpose, or that some themes keep coming up for you, or some other need you might feel to speak. [follow on from there]

The point here is not to bring up the contents of their messages at all, or that anyone is uncomfortable with their ministry, but to focus rather on their potential gift for ministry (for we all have—or at least we claim that we all have—potential gifts in ministry), on their own spiritual life and path, and on an offer to nurture their gifts.

The conversation with someone who does not speak often might be somewhat different. For one thing, if they don’t speak often, then given time, their ministry might mature on its own, so one might just leave it alone for a while. But if their messages, however few, are a real problem, then maybe something like this:

[Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I would like to know more about what vocal ministry means to you. Where it comes from. How it feels. How you decide that you should share a message. [I might add that, “Sometimes I find myself reacting negatively to your message and I don’t want to. I know from personal experience that messages that have bothered other people have had a profound and positive affect on me, that you never know when a message is really going to speak to someone’s condition, all unexpectedly. So I suspect that my problem is just one of understanding.]

Here the point for me is to keep it about my reaction—as a potential problem—and about understanding rather than criticism.

§ 3 Responses to Vocal Ministry—What To Do?

  • Greg Robie says:

    Steven, during our joint service on NYYM’s Ad Hoc Committee on Renewal – over a quarter of a century ago[!] – I did a longitudinal study of the Yearly Meeting’s _Books of Discipline_. The ‘enlightened’ abandonment of the Society’s Meetings for Ministers and Elders – at all levels of the denomination – is not without consequences (& both Spirit liberating and Spirit deadening). But a default slide into the current iteration of Rantorism was all but inevitable within the trusted dominate economic meme. Three decades after Josh Brown’s “We Can’t Get There From Here” prophecy, the CapitalismFail endowed iteration of Quakerism has arrived where it has been faithfully heading itself for via the ‘tyranny’/personal ‘truths’/sacred cows of a privileged majority. It has been half a century since worship sharing and Claremont Dialogue mechanisms were discerned as being a work-around way forward to the loss of a vibrant culture of recorded and overseen Ministers and Elders. Such feelings-R-‘truth’, as a labored for future, is, as you have attempted to bear witness to: a catastrophe. And generationally so …

    Catastrophe is And for the ‘privileged’, LOST: A secured old age

    Doesn’t this concept of catastrophe apply to both religious service and [& within] economic ‘retirement’?

    But hang in there with that bucket and the effort to bail out the ocean [of darkness]. The systemic irresponsibility integral to CapitalismFail is effecting our Karma running over our trusted Dogma. This isn’t pretty. It will continue to be anything but non-violent. But it is just.


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself


    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


  • Steve, thank you for your faithfulness in prayerfully and painstakingly composing this series of three blog posts. I commit to campaigning for unprogrammed Friends everywhere to read them, particularly Friends who are so disheartened by the chaos and chaff that so often greet them on First-Day mornings that they’re ashamed to invite acquaintances to their meeting, and may secretly yearn for death or disability to put an end to their unhappy marriage to it.

    I would also campaign for unprogrammed Friends to re-gather around our original covenant with Jesus Christ our Prophet, Priest, King, Savior, Teacher, Healer, and Shepherd. Don’t know what that covenant consists of? Ask Him.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I hesitate to share my thoughts about these last few posts out of a fear I have that I will offend Friends who have these valid concerns about vocal ministry. But, here it goes.

    My thought is, what is the root of this problem of shallow vocal ministry in a meeting? And the simple answer is that there must be a culture and environment that is in need of spiritual deepening; a culture that doesn’t encourage Friends in the meeting to live their lives in the Spirit; a culture that doesn’t emphasize that in reality there is just ONE consciousness of Love and Light that we all have access to every minute of every day. Social action is indeed important – but it must start from this spiritually deep place if the meeting community is to play a successful part in social justice activity.

    Unfortunately, no amount of instructional sessions, guidelines, eldering, or discussion about the problem will increase the spirituality of the meeting – if the understood goal is not to change the whole culture of the meeting. Any changes that do not understand that goal will be artificial or forced, and will not come from that spiritual place that is within us all. Worst yet, the result of such forced actions will be the introduction of completely silent meetings for worship week after week, because Friends will be paralyzed with the fear of saying something wrong or inadequate should they dare to offer vocal ministry. Therefore, I suggest not taking this short-term fix.

    The only answer to this problem described in these posts is the creation of a deeply spiritual culture within the meeting. This takes years; it can’t be forced. It can only be increasingly experienced by Friends in the meeting over time – because a deep sense of spirituality can not be implemented or “put on” like a new dress or suit.

    Spirituality can, however, deepen if an environment has developed over a long period of time where it is able to naturally and freely emerge. The Spirit will surely deepen where the fertile soil of UNBRIDLED love and light exists. That is a meeting’s needed solution to improve vocal ministry. Over time, from this improved environment at meeting, the vocal ministry will deepen significantly.

    What are a few ways for a meeting to increase UNBRIDLED love and light – the meeting’s spirituality – within the meeting’s culture?

    – Does the meeting seek to eliminate human controls as much as possible by looking for opportunities to remove these so the Spirit can guide the meeting instead? Is it palpable to Friends that the invisible Spirit is always there directing the meeting, or is it palpable that committees are in charge of things. It takes time to change the culture of the meeting to be Spirit-centric instead of committee-centric. But doing so sends a clear message to every Friend who is part of the meeting that the culture of the meeting is changing; it’s deepening. This is an exciting and meaningful journey for the whole meeting.

    – Does the meeting seek to eliminate pettiness, so the spirits of Friends no longer feel bridled (even unconsciously). Petty traditions and rules need to give way to freedom of conscience without fear of judgement from other Friends. If Friends are bowing to the petty demands of controlling Friends, there is no room in their hearts to invite the Spirit to be their life’s guide. Common examples of a petty environment are rules against having coffee or tea in the worship room, frowning upon reading spiritual material during worship, and lots of other do’s and don’ts that may even be unspoken within the meeting’s culture. Many Quaker committees spend much of their time discussing and regulating this pettiness.

    – Does the meeting provide a free-flowing time BEFORE worship for Friends to share deep spiritual thoughts and ideas in an uncontrolled, free-flowing manner. Just providing this time for 30 to 40 minutes every Sunday BEFORE worship helps to prepare Friends for the spiritual experience that will begin once worship starts. Quaker families of old regularly did this BEFORE leaving their homes for worship; in our modern world this important preparation has gone by the wayside.The session should not be a lecture. It can start with a brief spiritual reading and then proceed with free-flowing sharing by anyone present. The facilitator needs to be careful not to control the sharing – so that the Spirit is able to be in charge and can take the sharing where it wills. The facilitator is only there to ensure everyone has an opportunity to share if they want. Her/his role is not to control the flow of the sharing.

    Meetings that have had concerns over shallow vocal ministry have found that just doing these three simple things (but difficult to do because of our egos), eventually brings the spirituality of the meeting to a place of deepness. This is because deep spirituality is just waiting to be freed from our human nature; but it is human controls (egos) that block that deepening from emerging. Once the spiritual culture within the meetinghouse deepens, Friends will find themselves taking that deep spirituality home with them to experience it fully in their personal lives. Next, a full circle will occur where Friends will bring that same deep spirituality back to the meetinghouse with them. And the deepening will continue to deepen.

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You are currently reading Vocal Ministry—What To Do? at Through the Flaming Sword.