William Taber on Vocal Ministry

February 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

I recently discovered in my papers a lecture on vocal ministry that William Taber delivered on October 28, 1996 as part of Pendle Hill’s Monday Night Lecture series. It spoke so powerfully to my condition that I want to share parts of it here. I do not feel comfortable sharing the whole thing because a note appears at the top saying, “(please do not copy for publication without the author’s permission)”. Bill Taber is no long with us, so I can’t ask his permission. I’m a little nervous about sharing any of it, but have decided to do so because it was, after all, a public lecture, and because it is so good, and because I would like to think that, as the most nurturing elder of my own ministry that I’ve ever had, he would be okay with it.

In this post, I want to focus on the call to vocal ministry. Here’s Bill:

“. . . ministry among Friends has traditionally been understood to be evoked by a “call” from God, so that ministry becomes a “calling” or, to use the Latin form, a “vocation.” . . . Hopefully, this immediate sense of calling takes place each time a person speaks in meeting.

But there is a deeper and more persistent sense of calling to the ministry which has occurred to some Friends throughout Quaker history—and it is still occurring today. . . . Modern unprogrammed Friends who experience this traditional calling and longing to be about the work of God often experience great frustration because there seems to be little or no place for ministry as a vocation in the modern Society of Friends. . . .

Part of their frustration lies in the fact that we modern Friends value expertise and genius in virtually every field except the spiritual, so that we don’t know how to recognize and encourage a person who is spiritually gifted and called to this work. Every generation of Friends, including this one, has had its quota of people who in other cultures might be called budding shamans or seers or medicine men or medicine women. In earlier Quaker eras these budding Quaker shamans were watched over and nurtured and in subtle ways encouraged so that many of them were able to respond to the ever beaconing Call to become a sanctified instrument of the Divine Will.

. . .

Hopefully members of Worship and Ministry committees will be attentive to those who speak in meeting, and be quick to sense such people’s yearning for more fellowship and accountability in relation to spoken ministry. Since most contemporary unprogrammed meetings no longer follow the old Quaker practice of recognizing and “recording” the gift of ministry, those who speak in our meetings are much more on their own, in an individualistic sense, than was true in classic Quakerism. Thus, it could be possible that a contemporary Friend could be a frequent speaker in Friends meetings for many years without ever experiencing any of the continuing education and accountability which was once the case when every recorded minister was expected to meet with the local meeting of ministers at least four times a year, as well as with the quarterly and yearly meeting sessions of ministers and elders. It may be neither appropriate nor wise to go back to the old system, but perhaps way might be found so that our contemporary “public Friends”—that is, those who speak frequently in our meetings—can be given occasional opportunities to meet with their peers, so that they can explore the difficulties of the art or the technology or the craft of following the inward motion while walking the razor’s edge*. It might also be helpful, at such occasional gatherings, to read and ponder together the old advices and queries for ministers and elders (or some modern equivalent).

  •  I think “The Razor’s Edge” may have been the title of this lecture. The document I have does not have a title. By the razor’s edge, Bill is referring to the delicate balance between speaking with authority and yet with humility, between waiting and boldness, between being self-led and Spirit-led.

Silent waiting worship, the Seed, and vocal ministry

January 29, 2018 § 3 Comments

Based on my own vocal ministry last Sunday, January 28.

Friends practice what we call silent waiting worship. Why do we worship in silence and what are we waiting for?

We worship in silence in order to make room for the Spirit, in order that we may hear the Divine Voice, which often is quite faint and easy to drown out. And we are waiting, first, for a sense of the Presence in our midst, and also, for the truth, for Spirit-led vocal ministry.

With the silence, we strip away the outward accoutrements that characterize conventional worship services so that we may hear the “still, small voice.” But we also seek something deeper than this lack of liturgical busy-ness; we seek what early Friends called the silence of all flesh, seeking to let go of the surface thoughts and concerns that we bring with us into the meeting room, so that we may sink down in the Seed that has been planted in each one of us, and there, to water that Seed with worship, with our attention.

It is as though, with this silence, we have raked away the stones that lie on the surface of our garden soil/soul, so that when the Seed sprouts and reaches for the Light, no obstacles stand in its way.

And when it finds the Light, then it flowers, and our nostrils are filled with the sweet scent of God’s presence, within us and among us.

And sometimes the Seed bears fruit and the Presence raises one of us up with vocal ministry that carries the truth and power of its Source.

Discerning Vocal Ministry—Another Test

January 28, 2018 § 7 Comments

An awful lot of messages in the meetings for worship I attend (I won’t call them vocal ministry, for reasons I’m about to get into) start with the pronoun “I”, often combined with a statement that pegs the time. There then inevitably follows one of two things, either an announcement and/or an anecdote. “I read in the New York Times this morning . . .” A few days ago, I heard . . .” “I’ve been thinking lately . . .”

These introductory announcements and vignettes sometimes are quite charming in themselves, but they almost always lead up to a point, so they are in essence, secondary to the message. Often the route to the point is rather slow, oblique, or peppered with side-trips, but eventually we get to a point. The point is the message the speaker wants to bring to us.

I must confess that every time I hear such an opening, I cringe. Very rarely, I think, does a truly spirit-led message start with “I” and an announcement or vignette.  Or at least, I usually feel that we would have been better off with just hearing the point.

When I find myself thinking along these lines, I stop myself and force myself to go deeper. In my mind, I strip away the introduction and listen to the point on its own. If it stands on its own, then maybe I have some ministry to share. Time, then, to go deeper yet and sit with the point some more to see how it feels. Is the point something valuable I have learned for myself from that moment or experience? Or do I also feel led to go public with it? If so, why? Do I get something out of it, or does it truly feel like service? Does it still point back to me, or am I seeking to answer that of God in others?

The problem with these self-centered introductions is that, first of all, they pull the speaker toward his or her self, toward ego, rather than toward service and one’s center. In the process of telling the story your mind runs through the details and these details tempt you to share them, too. You start making connections with other things, and now you’re tempted to run off on a tangent.

Meanwhile, you’re pulling the listeners up to the surface, also. Now they are imagining the scene along with you. Their minds are activated, pulling them up from the alpha brain wave meditative state that they may have descended to in their deepening process toward the beta wave region of active, conscious, everyday thought. Then the point comes like a fly landing on the surface of the lake, and like a bass surfacing to catch the fly, we break the water line and swallow. Now the point has been made, but everybody has to start deepening all over again. Two or three (or more) such messages, and one is just treading water at the surface catching flies.

Introductory personal pronouns, announcements, and anecdotes disturb the dynamics of meeting for worship and tend to waste the point on an audience lured to the surface, away from the depths—even if the point was one worth sharing in the first place. But the point, delivered as prophetic utterance, might have pulled us all deeper into the cool still water of true worship.

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?

Vocal Ministry — Goals for Nurture Programs

December 18, 2017 § 3 Comments

A small ad hoc group of Friends in my meeting recently met to consider what kinds of programs and efforts we might sponsor that would nurture the meeting’s vocal ministry. We had representatives from three committees: Worship and Ministry, Religious Education, and Attenders. In preparation for the meeting, I tried to identify what the goals might be for these programs. The notes below represent an expanded version of my notes.

Primary goal

To nurture deeper, more Spirit-led ministry.

I deliberately capitalize Spirit. I think we all know intuitively what deeper means, but I wonder whether we know what Spirit means in this context. Are we able to articulate where Spirit-led vocal ministry comes from, to newcomers, to our children, to each other? This should be one of our secondary goals, I think, to be able to do so with confidence as a meeting.

History, faith, and practice

Knowledge of the history of the faith and practice of vocal ministry in our tradition.

Knowledge of the practices that have over time proven effective at fostering deep worship and ministry—giving time after someone’s message before speaking ourselves, not addressing another person’s ministry, etc.

Programs in this area might fall to either Adult Religious Education or Ministry & Worship Committees. Since such programs will never reach a certain considerable percentage of the meeting members and attenders, especially those new to the meeting, I think some short handout should be distributed on the benches periodically that lays out the conventions governing our practice of worship and vocal ministry. My meeting just produced such a handout and I think it’s quite good. You can download it here.


Knowledge of and experience with various centering methods to nurture the vocal ministry’s roots in the Spirit.

Programs in this area might fall to an ad hoc group of Friends with experience in meditation, centering prayer, breath work, Experiment with Light, etc. This gets to the “deeper” part of the over-arching goal. There are lots of Quaker-friendly techniques for centering, by which I mean they are inward, simple, and effective. I believe that a deeper state of consciousness does foster religious experience. Simply turning inwardly and consciously “toward the Light” within, however one does that, seems to me a uniquely Quaker form of centering.

Calling to ministry

Support for those who feel called to the ministry.

Discernment and support for those who speak often in meeting, to the degree that they welcome such attention: Do they think of their speaking as a calling? Do they feel a need for support?

Programs in this area might fall to Worship & Ministry Committee or, if the meeting has one, as mine does, to a Gifts and Leadings Committee, or some such. Ever since we laid down the centuries-old culture of eldership with which we used to nurture vocal ministry, we have left ourselves without any way to support those who feel called to what used to be called gospel ministry. I suspect that many meetings no longer even think that such a calling exists among us anymore, or that it should. But here and there, it does. Such Friends should not be left bereft of our meetings’ support in what is for them a divine calling.

And some of our frequent speakers may have such a calling but not think of it that way. Thinking of it that way could deepen their ministry. And just bringing the possibility up could deepen both the meeting’s worship and the Friend’s own life in the Spirit.

At the very least, meetings should be more attentive and proactive regarding vocal ministry, starting with those Friends who speak often.


To know each other better with regard to our ministry—opportunities to share our feelings about our own vocal ministry, the tests and processes we use for discerning whether to speak, our feelings and concerns about the quality of the meeting’s ministry in general.

Programs in this area might fall to Ministry & Worship Committee.

Sharing of this kind deepens the bonds between us and gives us deeper respect for one another’s messages.

Unity on the issues

Knowledge about what the members and attenders feel about the current state of our vocal ministry. A sense of the meeting regarding vocal ministry as a calling, whether we consider such callings real and legitimate and deserving of corporate support and oversight. Knowledge of who considers themselves so called and whether they want support and/or oversight. I have created a blind survey that tries to elicit this kind of information. If we find that many Friends are unhappy with some aspect of our worship, then we are more likely to do something about it. Here is a link to a Word document version of such a survey.

Meeting-wide agreement about our goals vis a vis vocal ministry, and specifically about whether the meeting wants to address whatever comes up in the discovery process mentioned above.

Trust on the part of the meeting in Worship & Ministry Committee’s authority and judgment regarding vocal ministry, especially in terms of its eldering role. Unity within the committee itself about its authority and roles—are the Committee’s members clear and in unity about how proactive they should be in nurturing vocal ministry, about when, how, and why the Committee should speak to someone about their ministry, either in support or with gentle eldering, and about who should do it?

The committee that has the care of the meeting’s worship and ministry should be confident in its charge and have the support of the meeting, it should be unified in its approach, and proactive, not just reactive.

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.

Worship and peace

October 23, 2017 § 6 Comments

I have spent the whole of this past summer furiously writing to meet a deadline early this month for two long essays, and so have had no time or focus for this blog. One of these essays was a short history of Right Sharing of World Resources, the other a very condensed version of the book in Quakers and Capitalism I’m writing, parts of which I offered here a few years ago. For the past couple of weeks I have been resting my brain and waiting for the Holy Spirit to guide my next efforts.

The Quakers and Capitalism piece got me started again on the research I need to do on the twentieth century in order to finish the book. Doing so, I stumbled upon the Official Report of the All Friends Conference of 1920, held in London, the first worldwide conference of Friends.

The Conference was called to deal primarily with the peace testimony in the aftermath of the Great War. The book features, among other things, short prepared messages on the following topics:

  • The Character and Basis of our Testimony for Peace
  • The Peace Testimony in Civic and International Life
  • The Testimony in Personal Life and Society
  • The Life of the Society in Relation to the Peace Testimony
  • Problems of Education in Relation to the Testimony
  • The International Service of Friends
  • Methods of Propaganda

Two Friends presented messages under each heading and that was followed by a time of worship with vocal ministry as commentary on the presentations. In the Discussion, as the book calls these offerings, on The Life of the Society appears a relatively long piece of vocal ministry by Rufus Jones. It brought me up short, and I decided to share it here:

“We shall be weak in our work and message for the present hour unless we greatly deepen our manner and power of worship. We are here, a selected group out of more than 150,000 Friends, and we are supposed to be, in some measure at least, leaders and representatives of the larger group. We have been together now for more than half our Conference, and we have had many occasions set apart for worship. I have been impressed myself with our weakness as a gathered body in reaching these marvellous (sic) depths of spiritual corporate life with God, as we meet together. We have hardly experienced in any very large and striking fashion yet, the tremendous power of silent community fellowship with God. We have found it extremely difficult to avoid saying the words that popped into our minds, when we should have reached so much power if we could have gathered into the complete unity of life with God. I do not discount words; I feel that words are often of the very greatest importance in interpreting what one has arrived at; but first of all I must arrive before interpreting. I feel as I have studied in the last ten years* the life of our Society, as contrasted with the life of our Society in earlier times, that we have a decided weakness in what Gladstone once called the work of worship. We do not succeed in anything like the way we should succeed, as a living body of Christ in the world to-day, in coming into union with God in our gatherings. We do not achieve that corporate effort of spirit that would bring us into parallelism with the divine currents that are waiting to unify and dynamise us with the living fire of the presence of God.

I hope we shall go, all of us, in our communities at home with this concern as a personal concern, to make our meetings for worship in the times of silence vastly more real and powerful than they are at present. It is perhaps the greatest thing we have to exhibit to the spiritual life of our age. It is perhaps our most unique contribution, and we must not fail in that.” (p. 132, All Friends Conference London, August, 1020; Official Report; The Friends Bookshop, London1920.)

This message dismayed me, but it didn’t surprise me. And how far have we come in answering his urgent appeal? In my own meeting yesterday I could almost smell the popcorn. Two messages before twelve minutes had passed and on and on from there. Our meeting was hosting quarterly meeting, so we had a lot of visitors from the other meetings in Philadelphia, which swelled our numbers from the usual 45–65 to maybe 75 or even 90. The bigger the meeting the more people who will speak, by statistical determination. But the wide range of spiritual discernment and self-discipline was stunning, from the relatively deep and valuable to the . . . well let me just leave it there. One never knows when some speech that seems weak and useless is actually answering that of God in someone else.

And with the president rattling his megaton saber with his own undisciplined mouth, we need a strong peace testimony now more than we have since the fateful wars following 9/11. How long has this nation gone without a war since 1920? Not counting the incursions and CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvadore, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Balkans, Chile, and Iran, just to name the ones I remember: twenty years to WWII; five years to Korea; ten years to Vietnam; ten years to the first Iraq War. ten years to Afghanistan and the second Iraq War. We’re overdue, according to this timeline, though the second Iraq War has never really ended, only morphed into the nebulous, terrifying, and unwinnable War against Terror.

I pray with Rufus Jones that we will recommit ourselves to true worship and in the Presence find our voice against the sea of darkness that is trying to drown the world. We need to start writing letters and Op-Ed pieces to the editors of our newspapers, letters to our political representatives, open letters to the other churches. We might get together with the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren to see what we might do together. But most of all, we need to recover deep worship and true communion, from which would spring the prophetic spirit that I know we all long for.

*  Jones is referring to his The Later Periods of Quakerism, the third in the historical series that he and John Wilhelm Rowntree and other leaders of the new liberal movement in Quakerism conceived after the Manchester Conference in 1895. The other two are William C. Braithwaite’s The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660 and The Second Period of Quakerism. The Later Periods of Quakerism was published in 1921.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Vocal Ministry category at Through the Flaming Sword.