The Spirit-led Life

January 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

I have a close friend who feels that seeking to live a “Spirit-led life” is inviting delusion. That certainly there is no “Spirit” who might lead us, that there are many such “spirits” who might lead one astray, and that what we’re dealing with here—Spirit, or spirits—are only impulses that come from within ourselves. Some of these impulses can be trusted; some cannot.

I’m reading an article in The Atlantic about Vice President Mike Pence in which a former aid wondered to the author whether Pence’s religiosity might be a rationalization for what he wants to do anyway. I wondered the same thing about George W. Bush. I wonder the same thing about myself.

Friends have a fairly robust framework for “discerning spirits”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12, for winnowing the true leading from the delusional. At least we do in theory. In the reality of many of our meetings, we are barely holding on to the mindset and the tools we’ve developed for discernment over the centuries. This mindset and these tools serve both personal discernment and corporate discernment.

Regarding personal discernment, the first of these, I think, is regular spiritual practice. It takes regularly setting aside time for turning inward and listening for that voice. Over time, one maps one’s inner landscape, one learns how the spirit moves through that landscape. Deepening techniques help with this a lot.

Then, the “voice” itself. Rarely does one hear an actual voice. I have only done so twice, and one of those times, it was a kind of “language” I could not decipher; the message was the messaging itself, not its content, the establishment of a relationship between myself and that which was offering to lead.

But from then on, for decades now, the “voice” has been “silent”, utterly subjective, internal, devoid of “content”. It feels more like a magnetized needle swinging inside me toward a certain direction for thought, feeling, or action than like a clear command or prompting. It’s perfectly capable of deluding me.

In the everyday surrender of self to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is, however it works), one has to discern the truth of such inner directing on one’s own, basically moment to moment. In the day to day life, the range for delusion is rather small and the consequences rarely very important. The needle flutters lightly on its pivot and one is hardly conscious of its working.

But often enough the needle gains enough mass to break through everyday consciousness and we find ourselves consciously deciding what to do about something. Here is where a regular devotional life pays off. Here the practice in meeting for worship of discerning whether one has some vocal ministry for the meeting—whether your message is spirit-led—pays off.

My problem is that, in these moments, I almost always forget to employ this discipline. I forget to stop for a moment and go inward before I go forward. I forget to check where I am in my inner landscape, to check my belly (as Bill Taber often recommended) and other physiological signs, and to listen for the voice, to seek the light in my conscience. I let the momentum of my current direction, the forces at work on me from the environment and the people around me, and my fears and desires guide my steps instead.  I follow the surface “spirits” of my conscious and unconscious mind.

Most of the time, that’s okay. I get away with it. I make an okay decision, nothing terrible happens. But I’ve lost the opportunity to go deeper first, to be more fully spirit-led.

That’s everyday life. But sometimes a leading takes on more weight than that. Sometimes one feels led out of the everyday into an uncharted landscape. Sometimes one feels called to new action. Now the possibility of delusion really matters. With these stronger leadings of the Spirit, corporate discernment really matters.

I have had several such leadings and these have evolved into sustained ministries. Very rarely in the evolution or conduct of these ministries have I enjoyed meaningful corporate discernment or support. Well, to be honest, I have allowed my initial disappointments to deter me from seeking further support. Once I was settled in my discernment and after finding that these ministries were not just sustaining themselves but getting deeper and expanding, I felt I was on my way and haven’t sought further support since. But I should have.

One of these ministries is to recover and renew with experimentation the faith and practice of Quaker ministry itself. It’s one of the reasons for this blog and one of this blog’s recurring themes. Many meetings are not well equipped to nurture our members’ leadings and ministries. We have deliberately laid down the traditional culture of eldership that nurtured Quaker ministry for centuries and many meetings have not replaced it with anything else.

Well, we have worship and ministry committees, and we have clearness committees. But in my experience, worship and ministry committees do not necessarily have unity about even the existence of divine leadings, let alone solid knowledge of how to “discern spirits” or how to handle a member’s leading. And many meetings are not clear about how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, either.

We use clearness committees for four different kinds of discernment, and they each are constituted and conducted in different ways. Many Friends are not clear about these differences and many meetings have too little experience with discernment committees to feel confident in their use. (See my post “Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees” for more about the four ways we use clearness committees.)

So some of our meetings need to do a better job of supporting the spirit-led life of their members. Our worship and ministry committees need to gain both clarity and unity about how to support leadings and how to conduct clearness committees for discernment. And I think we need an ongoing conversation in our meetings about what the Spirit-led life is for us and how we might nurture it.

This includes, at the very least, the one thing we all have in common—vocal ministry. What does “Spirit-led vocal ministry” mean? How do we discern whether a message is spirit-led? Or is “Spirit-led” vocal ministry what we’re hoping and aiming for in the first place?

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Quaker Ministry

November 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Brian Drayton’s blog Amor Vincat is one of the best Quaker blogs I know of. I find it consistently thoughtful, edifying, and most important, Spirit-led. His latest post offers a wonderful resource and raises important questions about our meetings’ nurture of vocal ministry. The post is Library: Harvey “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording”.

Harvey’s little essay was written in the mid-1940s, some twenty years after London Yearly Meeting had laid down the practice of recording ministers. Harvey had approved of the laying down, even though he himself had been recorded. In this article he looks back to consider what had been lost and gained in the intervening decades.

Harvey’s main concern is my own, as well. Though the yearly meeting’s book of discipline had strongly encouraged meetings to support vocal ministry and especially newly rising ministers, both within the meeting and through minutes of travel and service outside the meeting, very few meetings knew this injunction even existed, let alone taken responsibility for such nurture. That is, just because the practice of recording had been discontinued, the need for nurturing Quaker ministry remained, and most meetings were not meeting that need.

New York Yearly Meeting still does record gifts in ministry, though many Friends and many meetings in the yearly meeting don’t like it. I have written an “apology” for the practice (On Recording Gifts in Ministry) and feel very strongly that, even if a meeting would never record the gifts of someone in their meeting, they should be paying attention to those who speak in meeting often. Worship and ministry committees should offer their ministers support and yes, oversight. They should nurture the meeting’s vocal ministry with programs that discuss the conventions governing our practice of ministry and its history. Meetings should provide opportunities for its regular speakers to consider whether they have a calling to ministry and be prepared to offer support, if only through continued meetings for mutual sharing. And meetings should provide opportunities for all members and attenders to share their own experience and practice regarding vocal ministry.

Vocal ministry is one of the most important aspects of the Quaker way and a key element in our outreach. Newcomers to our meetings have only the quality of our silence, the quality of our vocal ministry, and the quality of our fellowship by which to feel inspired to make us their religious home. Weak vocal ministry, which is all too common in our meetings I fear, not only fails to inspire the deeply yearning souls who come to us, but sets a low bar for expectations of everyone, newcomers and oldtimers alike.

Meeting response to individual concerns

July 26, 2017 § 8 Comments

Last Sunday a Friend visited our meeting from another nearby meeting and, in our “joys and sorrows” time, expressed puzzlement and hurt over the fact that she had come to us some time ago with a deeply held witness concern and a minute from her meeting and nobody showed up for a program she had gone to considerable length to organize with outside speakers. I learned from speaking to her later that the experience had cast a shadow over her ministry and now, in addition to the sense of hurtful rejection of her ministry she struggled with spiritual confusion about the nature and future of her calling.

I have seen this happen before. A Friend who carries a witness concern with deep commitment and passion has trouble getting other Friends to pay attention. Often, it’s the lack of interest in one’s own meeting that hurts the most, especially when your desire, or even your expectation, is that the whole meeting will take up the concern collectively.

Meanwhile non-Quakers seem more receptive. Often such a Friend finds support only among the members of whatever secular movement has organized around the concern, but those folks do not appreciate the spiritual roots of your concern or its religious expression.

We can’t expect our meetings to collectively take up our concerns, witness or otherwise. This takes time, energy, and resources both human and sometimes financial, and our meetings are usually short on all three, or four. Taking up as a collective body the deeply held concerns of all those in the meeting who have them would lead to exhaustion and collapse.

Moreover, we come to meeting with different religious temperaments and for different things. As a survey by Britain Yearly Meeting of who had come to them through convincement has shown, we break down into three basic groups, broadly categorized: activists, mystics, and, in BrYM’s terminology, refugees. I would call this latter group communitarians, people who seek religious community; not all of these Friends are refugees from some other tradition, but they share a hunger for community and find fulfillment in fellowship and service to that community.

My point is that the communitarians and the mystics are not temperamentally inclined to respond to an appeal to activism. Friends in both groups are inclined to acknowledge the importance of a given witness concern, but aren’t likely to embrace it with passion, or maybe, even to go out of their way to attend a program.

I ran into this from the other end just a few weeks ago when I unknowingly set up a Bible study on the Politics of Passion Week at the same time that someone else was leading a session on racism, a concern which our meeting has taken up collectively. Four Friends showed up at my session, instead of the 15 or so who had been coming to past Bible study sessions, and those four felt quite torn. I didn’t blame them. I would never have scheduled my Bible study opposite that session if I had known. We often feel torn by competing goods like this.

However, while we can’t expect our meetings to whole-heartedly embrace our concerns collectively, we should be able to expect them to give us the discernment and support we need to be faithful to our call. This visiting Friend had a minute of service from her meeting but apparently no other support.

Too often writing a minute of service for someone with a leading is as far as a meeting goes. New York Yearly Meeting, for instance, routinely endorses minutes of service at its sessions—and I do mean routinely. The body usually gets some sense of the ministry from the reading of the minute itself, when that occurs. But there almost never is any follow-through—no background, no report from the Friend and/or her or his accompanying elders or support committee, if there are any. It’s all very pro forma, as though the yearly meeting has no other responsibility for the individual ministries it supports.

The Friend who visited my meeting obviously needs a support committee and also a clearness committee to help her sort out where she is with her call. She doesn’t have either. Did she ever have a clearness committee for discernment of her leading? If she did, then at least the Friends on her clearness committee would know what her leading means to her and maybe they could provide support. Having a support committee spreads this intimate familiarity with the Friend and her or his concern even farther into the meeting. This helps to ameliorate the feeling of isolation, at the very least.

But many meetings do not really know the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry. All they know how to do is write a minute, and that often with a rather shallow understanding—or maybe they don’t. They often don’t know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment. They may not know about the resources available for guidance in creating support committees for Friends with leadings.

My meeting has a committee dedicated to this work, but mine is the only meeting I have ever heard of that has such a settled and seasoned infrastructure for the nurture of Quaker ministry. Meanwhile, this is the very heart of Quaker spirituality—as individuals, to listen for and to answer God’s call to service, and as meetings, to support the ministries that the Holy Spirit has raised up.

On recording gifts in ministry

October 18, 2013 § 12 Comments

Many Friends in the Liberal tradition oppose the practice of “recording ministers”. I support it.

Or rather, I feel that it is extremely important that meetings do something to proactively recognize, name, and nurture the spiritual gifts of our members and attenders. This is one of the things we are here for, to nurture each other’s lives in the Spirit. This is one of the key responsibilities of a Quaker meeting. We don’t have to record people as ministers, but we should be doing something.

I got to thinking about this because of a post by Ashley W (I think the W is for Wilcox) about being a recorded Quaker minister student in a Methodist seminary. I clicked on the label “Recorded” for that post and found that she has blogged quite a lot about her experience as a recorded minister—really good stuff. I highly recommend reading her posts on recording, especially if you don’t understand or agree with the practice.

I published a piece myself on this topic in the online edition of the November 2012 issue of Spark, the newsletter of New York Yearly Meeting. You can click here to read my “On Recording Gifts in Ministry.” The issue’s theme of Recognizing Gifts in Ministry was part of an effort of the Yearly Meeting to reconsider the practice in light of resistance from some in the Yearly Meeting to its continuance. The Yearly Meeting was not able to come to unity on laying the practice down, and so the practice stands. Thankfully, to my mind, as you will see if you read my article.

New York Yearly Meeting has a pamphlet offering guidelines for recording in the Yearly Meeting, available here: “Recording Gifts in Ministry”.

What do you think? What has been your experience?

Funding Quaker Ministry

January 25, 2013 § 8 Comments

A couple of months ago I learned of an idea that I believe is a breakthrough of continuing revelation on a par with the clearness committee. It’s a proposal by Friends Vonn New of Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting in New York Yearly Meeting and Viv Hawkins of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting for funding Quaker ministry through a crowd-sourcing platform modeled on Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects in which creatives publish what amounts to a grant proposal for their project and visitors to the website then pledge whatever support they want. If the project reaches the funding goal set by its creator, then the donors’ credit cards are charged and the creator is off and running.

Vonn and Viv’s idea (I call it QuakeStarter) is to do the same for Quaker ministers. Someone led by the Spirit into some form of service describes on the website what they want to do, documents the discernment they have received so far, and declares the amount and kind of support they need to be faithful to their leading. Friends (and others) can then go to the website and pledge support for the ministry. If the minister’s request for pledges reaches its goal, then the cards get charged and the service is secured.

When this idea takes off, we will undoubtedly discover unexpected issues and see unintended consequences, as is always the case with Quaker ministry. But won’t that be an adventure!

When I learned about this idea, I was in the process of editing an issue of Spark, New York Yearly Meeting’s newsletter, with the theme of Cultivating Gifts in Ministry. I invited them to write an article for Spark and they did. Click here to read “Ministry & Money: A Proposal” on the NYYM website to get a better idea of their goals and rationale.

They dedicate much of the article to rationale—why such a tool is needed. It boils down to the fact that important ministry is languishing because the ministers can’t afford to pursue it. Most of the ministers they mention are young adults. One hears a lot these days about how important it is to encourage young adult Friends, while many of our institutions are pulling back on the funding that supports this sort of work. Viv and Vonn’s idea is a creative way to do something that we all agree is important independently of the failing resources of our established institutions.

Catch-22: Viv and Vonn need support themselves to get this project off the ground. Vonn is a web developer, so they have what it takes to pull it off. They end their article with this appeal, which I wholeheartedly support:

Vonn New and Viv Hawkins seek others who are interested in this project, whether that be Friends with ministries under the care of a meeting seeking support, individuals or faith communities seeking the services of a ministry, people seeking to provide support to ministries, Friends with expertise in funding and governance, or funders for this particular project. Please contact us at friendviv@gmail.com or vonn.new@gmail.com.

I hope my readers will consider spreading the word about this idea and about offering some support of their own.

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