July 16, 2016 § 1 Comment
Prompted by recent experience in my own meeting with vocal ministry, I want to share a concise guide to the practice of vocal ministry among Friends, as I understand it. I have ordered these “conventions” chronologically, that is, as they apply during the progress in time of the meeting for worship. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather practices that Friends have found over the centuries to foster a deeper worship experience.
- Preparation. Ideally, Friends spend the morning before going to meeting for worship in quietude, rather than exposing themselves to the news, mass media, or anything else that might activate the busybrain. Even better if you can spend some time in spiritual preparation, in meditation, prayer, scripture or spiritual reading, fasting, walking in the woods, listening to music, playing an instrument, or whatever.
- The worship starts. We understand the meeting for worship to start when the first person sits in the meeting room and settles in to worship. At this time, conversations or other activities in the meeting room should move out of the meeting room or cease. Very often, these early Friends are spiritually preparing, not only themselves, but also the meeting space, so that others who enter the space immediately feel drawn into the worship.
- Arrive on time. Each person entering the meeting space causes at least a little ripple in the energy of the worship. The coming of Friends into the meeting space before the appointed time for worship adds a spirit of welcoming and warmth to those who are already gathered. This spirit continues for a while after the appointed time, too, but eventually this tardiness becomes a disturbance. Latecomers delay the time when those gathered can begin their deepening without this disturbance. If you do arrive late, be as inobtrusive as possible; do not traipse across the whole meeting room to some distant spot. Do not enter during someone’s vocal ministry.
- Time before the first vocal ministry. The convention is to leave about twenty minutes before the first vocal ministry. This is even more valuable if tardy Friends have been entering the meeting room during this time. Many traditions agree on twenty minutes as the minimum amount of time it takes for the circulatory and other systems of the body to adjust to deep stillness and for the mind to slow the busybrain enough to find the path into the spiritual depths. In the elder days, Friends called this spiritual space “the silence of all flesh”, understanding “flesh” as the Apostle Paul did in his letters to include, not just the body, but all of the world’s distractions.
- Time between messages. Allowing a meaningful time between messages allows those gathered in worship enough time to truly hear a message, to let the Holy Spirit do the inner work that is the Spirit’s intention in the ministry. It also allows anyone who might be feeling some prompting to speak to return their attention from the message to their own discernment, time to settle in with the inspiration, to know it and test it.
- We do not speak twice.
- Content. We rely on the Holy Spirit to inspire and shape the message. We do not come prepared to give a certain message, or to read a specific text, for instance. We do not enter into dialogue with previous messages or refer to specific previous speakers. This does not mean that themes do not develop in the course of the worship; they often do, and this often brings the meeting into a deep feeling of satisfaction. But direct response to a previous message tends to ignite or reinforce what we call a “popcorn” meeting, in which one message leads, often very quickly, to another and to another in a cascade of dialogue that keeps the messages on the surface of the meeting’s spirit.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- If I said yes, then we’re on to # 188.8.131.52.
- If I said no, I don’t want any of your attention, then we’re back to 184.108.40.206.
- 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?
- 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?
- If the committee is not paying this kind of proactive attention to the meeting’s experience of vocal ministry, then why not?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 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?
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?
January 22, 2016 § 7 Comments
So, given that most of our meetings are never going to record the gifts of their vocal ministers, if we are going to abandon the centuries-old infrastructure that our forebears used, how do we nurture and elder those who are called to vocal ministry?
The infrastructure we use nowadays for the care of ministry is the committee for worship and ministry. Some meetings have committees for ministry and counsel or pastoral care, combining the pastoral care of members with the spiritual care of members. In theory, this combination makes a lot of sense, because there is always a spiritual dimension to a Friend’s pastoral concern or condition and a pastoral dimension to a spiritual concern or condition.
In practice, however, in my experience the pastoral concerns almost always shove the concern for the worship to the side. They are usually just too pressing to ignore, and the worship usually is just going along as it always has, at least until some problem arises. In my experience, proactive attention to the quality of the worship and the vocal ministry almost never happens. So I think meetings should have separate committees for pastoral care and for worship and ministry if they are going to give the worship and its vocal ministry any real attention.
But even when a meeting has a separate committee for worship and ministry, proactive eldership of vocal ministry almost never takes place. I think the main reason is that the wider meeting usually has never clarified for itself how it wants the infrastructure for spiritual nurture of vocal ministry to operate, so the committee feels uncertain about its charge. The meeting and the committee share a concern for judgmentalism regarding the vocal ministry, even when many in the meeting are quite dissatisfied with its quality.
But this gets into the eldering of vocal ministry and I want to focus on the care of those who feel called to a ministry of speaking in meeting. I want to focus on the ministers.
It seems to me that Friends feel the call to vocal ministry with varying degrees of self-awareness. Some know they have been called. Some find themselves speaking fairly often, perhaps even along some theme, but don’t really know what to make of it or what to do with it, and end up dealing with it in the moment as they feel led to speak. And finally, some Friends just speak a lot.
These three groups of Friends need different kinds of support. And the meeting or the committee needs to be clear about which kind of support to give.
Those who know or strongly suspect that they are called to vocal ministry need corporate discernment to test the leading, to give the minister confidence and the meeting clarity. And then they need support and oversight, probably in the form of a committee for care or nurture of the ministry—a group to go to when doubts arise or some other problem, and just to proactively maintain faithfulness to the call; and a group that can step in when the minister steps through the traces or runs past his or her guide. For this is a covenantal relationship, in which the minister and the meeting mutually agree that eldership includes both support and nurture and discipline, a corporate agency for discipleship, or faithfulness to the call.
Those who are emerging ministers, who find themselves speaking often enough to notice a pattern but may not be clear about their call, need the same things, but with a different emphasis. Here, a clearness committee for discernment might be in order, for the first charge of the committee for worship and ministry is to help the minister gain clarity about the call and to reassure the Friend that more support is waiting if the discernment clarifies a leading—or even if it doesn’t, for that matter.
Those who just speak quite often need the same things, also, but with a different emphasis again. This is delicate. In fact, all of this is delicate. But if a meeting is going to actively nurture vocal ministry, if you are going to do more than just react when some vocal ministry seems so inappropriate as to require a reaction, then it needs to engage with its vocal ministers at all stages of their development.
How do you start this conversation?
If the meeting has never openly discussed the focused nurture and eldership of vocal ministry and the committee therefore has no clear charge in this area, then approaching such a Friend will seem odd and possibly criticizing. The wider conversation needs to take place first. So ministry and worship committee needs to bring the matter of support and oversight for vocal ministry to the wider meeting for discussion. They need to feel confident that they can act with the meeting’s blessing and be at least a little bit clear about who can do that, when, and how.
In any of these cases—even in the case of inappropriate ministry that you feels needs your attention—if you feel you can approach a Friend about their vocal ministry at all, then I would offer this way to open the conversation: “We have noticed that thee speaks fairly often in meeting and we wonder whether thee feels a call to vocal ministry? If thee is not sure—but especially if thee is sure—then we offer ourselves as a possible source of discernment and support. Would you welcome a deeper conversation?”
January 18, 2016 § 3 Comments
Our faith regarding vocal ministry has changed dramatically since the elder days, from believing that we were inspired by the spirit of Christ and were therefore speaking God’s word to being vague and uncertain now about the source of our ministry, seeking only to be “spirit-led” in some mostly undefined way.
This relaxing of the faith—the “theology” if you will—of vocal ministry has opened up the scope of its content. We no longer expect our vocal ministry to be “gospel ministry” in the old sense, that is, aimed at bringing the listeners to Christ or at keeping them in his embrace. Just as we now include as “ministry” a wide range of spirit-led service beyond just vocal ministry, so we also now feel free to speak about just about anything in meeting for worship.
Furthermore, this relaxed faith about vocal ministry has utterly transformed our corporate practice, as well. In most of our meetings, we no longer have elders. Modern meetinghouses don’t have facing benches. We no longer consider vocal ministry to be a calling that needs or requires engagement by the meeting, at least not until some Friend’s ministry becomes very disturbing to the meeting. We have almost unanimously abandoned the practice of recording gifts in ministry, or “recording ministers”, as many Friends perceive it.
In a subsequent post, I want to look more closely at how our relaxed faith regarding vocal ministry affects the content, but here I want to look at the practice of recording gifts in ministry with fresh eyes. What follows was first published in New York Yearly Meeting’s print newsletter Spark in November 2012.
Recording gifts in ministry
Recording ministers is a difficult issue for some Friends. Many Friends do not know very much about the practice, they may not know anyone whose gifts have been recorded (or they may not know that they know), and for some, what they do know makes them uncomfortable. In fact, some Friends feel pretty strongly that having “recorded ministers” is unQuakerly and that we shouldn’t be doing it. I have heard a number of reasons for this opinion:
- Some Friends cite the belief that all Friends are ministers (that we “laid down the laity, not the ministry”), so there is no point in singling out individuals for a status that all of us possess.
- Many cite the testimony of equality, fearing that recording ministers somehow confers an exalted status on the person who is recorded.
- In a similar vein, many fear that the practice will lead to a subtle but dangerous form of hierarchy among us.
- Most, I think, do not see what benefits recording brings to the meeting, or even to the minister.
- And they may associate the practice with the programmed and pastoral tradition, which they may feel has abandoned essential Quaker practices (silent meeting for worship) while taking up practices that early Friends denounced (programmed meeting for worship and, especially, paid professional ministers). They may think that the only recorded ministers we have are pastors of what were originally Orthodox meetings and that therefore the practice is irrelevant to an unprogrammed, formerly Hicksite meeting.
Let me say up front that I believe that recording gifts is a very valuable part of Quaker practice for a number of reasons. So I want to make a case for recording gifts in ministry by looking at each of the worries listed above in turn. Besides offering some reasons for recording gifts, I also want to clarify the terms we use in talking about recording and review aspects of the practice with which its detractors may not be familiar. But I want to start with my own experience.
My own experience
I helped write the original version of the current guidelines for recording gifts in ministry in New York Yearly Meeting and I served on the committee that first used these guidelines to record someone’s gifts. We did not slide down some slippery slope of personal hubris and collective hierarchy when we recorded this Friend’s gifts. On the contrary, the experience deepened the spiritual lives of everyone involved.
The practice of recording
Before we look at the reasons Friends often give for feeling that we should not “record ministers”, let’s clarify what we are talking about. Though we speak of “recording ministers”, we are really using this as shorthand for “recording gifts in ministry”. There is a subtle but important difference.
We “record” gifts in the same spirit that we record our minutes, as a record of what God is doing among us. Unlike ordination in other religious communities, recording does not confer authority. It only recognizes outwardly and formally the gifts that have already been conferred inwardly by the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, in practice it’s hard to separate the gifts from the minister. And in fact, recording does confer something in the same way that a marriage ceremony does. Some of us go into marriage thinking that being married will change our legal status, but otherwise, we expect inwardly to feel the same about ourselves and about our partner. But we never do feel the same. Getting married is sacramental, in the sense that some alchemy takes place in us that transforms us as individuals and transforms us as a couple.
Just so with recording gifts in ministry. But more about this later.
Because recording is a way of recognizing gifts, the process is normally initiated by the minister’s meeting. You cannot ask or lobby to be recorded, unless your circumstances require some form of certification to pursue one’s ministry in the world, as chaplains often must, for instance, or those working in prisons. This is one of the reasons why we do not need to fear establishing some kind of Quaker hierarchy when we record someone’s gifts: the minister is not the one who starts the process. In fact, it seems to be fairly common for the prospective minister to resist the idea of being recorded at first.
Finally, the process for recording someone’s spiritual gifts is quite rigorous. I invite you to go to New York Yearly Meeting’s website and look at the yearly meeting’s guidelines. I don’t want to go into any more detail here, but you can see that recording takes time, effort, prayer, and real discernment, and the process is guided by practices that are designed to invite the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the best tradition of Quaker discernment.
So let’s take a look at the reasons Friends give for opposing the practice of recording gifts in ministry.
Objections to recording
We are all ministers, so why single one person out?
It’s not true, really, that we are all ministers, at least not in the way that people usually mean. A Quaker minister is one who has answered the call to ministry. Early Friends believed that no outward education or ceremony of ordination could make you a minister, but only the inward calling from God, that that call was all the authority you needed, and that the call could come to anyone because everyone was possessed of the Seed. But—you still have to answer the call. So yes, we are all potential ministers. But we only properly become ministers when we realize that potential—when we answer the call. Or to put it another way, when we faithfully follow our leading into the service of the Spirit.
Yes, we are all equal in our possession of that of God within us. Yet we each are given a unique set of gifts for ministry. And yes, each of these gifts is necessary for the spiritual health of the community. Thus all ministries also are equal. So a radical equality does guide our attitudes regarding ministry.
At the same time, though, the unique giftedness we each possess—the measure of the Light we each have been given, to use the language of our forebears—calls for personal, “customized” recognition and support by the meeting community.
Here is where the true equality lies: the gifts that you and I possess and the ministries we pursue all equally deserve recognition and nurture by the communities we serve.
So—how is your meeting doing? Does your meeting know what your gifts are? Does your meeting recognize your gifts and help you develop them? Does your meeting support the spirit-work you are led to do in the world?
This is the role of the meeting in nurturing Quaker ministry and the spirituality of its members. And this is where recording comes in. Your meeting does not need to record your gifts in ministry to give you the spiritual nurture you need, but they do need to do something. We will return in a moment to the value that recording brings to both meeting and minister.
So we take the equality for granted, yes. But the unique, person-specific nature of spiritual gifts calls for unique, person-specific action on the part of the meeting.
Since the minister is not, according to our practice, supposed to ask to be recorded (rather, the meeting is supposed to recognize God’s work and initiate the process), our meetings should be very busy looking for and recognizing the gifts of all its members, whether by recording or by some other process more agreeable to the meeting. Ideally, virtually all of our members would be recognized in their ministry in some way, if not by recording.
This is the equality that naturally arises from a robust culture of eldership—not a failure to recognize anyone’s gifts, but an energetic effort to recognize everyone’s gifts. If we are going to reject recording anyone’s gifts out of the testimony of equality—and yet still believe that all are gifted and deserve our support—then we should come up with some alternative for nurturing everyone’s gifts. Faithfulness to the testimony of integrity requires that if we believe the one, then we should do the other.
Unfortunately, many (most?) of our meetings do not think or operate this way. Believing erroneously that we have laid down the practice of recording, or simply ignoring it, or even feeling hostile toward it, many of our meetings have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and do nothing at all to recognize and build up spiritual gifts in our members.
Here we get to the heart of the matter: doesn’t recording ministers raise them up above the rest of us? On the contrary, it has exactly the opposite effect. Or rather, it has a constellation of effects, all of which foster true humility in the minister when exercised properly.
First, recording does in fact strengthen the minister in her call in many ways. That is its purpose. But this confidence is not to be confused with arrogance. We want confident ministers. We want a spirituality that gives us strength. We can afford to suffer a little spiritual pride now and then, if the price of doing the opposite—policing our ministers—is to quench the Spirit instead. This is the unrecognized downside of ignoring or resisting recording gifts, or failing to do something else proactively to recognize and nurture them: you quench both the Spirit that would energize our (potential) ministers and the spiritual vitality of our meetings.
The benefits of recording.
Recording brings a lot of wonderful benefits to both the minister and his meeting. It strengthens a Friend’s spiritual gifts and fosters effective ministry. It brings the minister and her work under the care of the meeting. It strengthens and empowers the meeting. And it brings discipline—gospel order, our forebears would say—to both the meeting and the minister by enriching the culture of eldership.
In positive terms, recording gives the minister access to clearness, discernment, support, oversight—and joy. We inevitably face obstacles in our ministry, confusion or indecision, or times of drought or anguish in the experience of our gifts. In these times, we should be able to turn to our meetings for support. Ideally, they are there already, perhaps even recognizing the difficulty before the minister does. Formally recording ministers helps a great deal to insure that such an infrastructure of spiritual support—the positive side of eldership—is in place.
And having one’s gifts recorded can bring tremendous joy. For those of us for whom our ministry is at the heart of our spirituality, nothing brings greater joy than to exercise one’s gifts on behalf of the community and the God that we love—except maybe the loving and joyful embrace of our work by our community. Everybody feels good when others recognize and support the good things we are trying to do. When your meeting recognizes and supports your ministry, it feels terrific.
Recording also gives the minister oversight. If the meeting knows and practices the traditions of Quaker ministry, it will prevent the hierarchy that the critics of recording fear. And this is not just discipline in the usual, negative sense. Such discipline is positive spiritual nurture.
For it is very scary to feel a call to do God’s work. You know that you could “run past your guide”—end up doing things you were not called to do. You know that you could “step through the traces”—get tangled up in the work until you trip, the way a horse can get a leg tangled in the harnesses—the traces—that tie it to the carriage. Usually, the ego is involved. The faithful minister is eager for this discipline, eager for the meeting to help prevent these things from happening. And the faithful community is there to do that service. This covenant between minister and meeting is the main reason to formally record gifts, in my opinion. So I feel the question really is, not why would you record the gifts of a minister—but why would you not?
As a meeting, would you not want to recover, pass on, and experiment with the incredible tradition of Quaker ministry, its faith and its practice, rather than let it languish out of fear and ignorance? Do you not believe that all your members and attenders possess unique spiritual gifts and that these gifts deserve to be recognized and nurtured? Would you not therefore want to proactively seek to recognize your members’ gifts and support the ministries that will certainly arise if you do nurture them?
So how would you do that? Why not accept the gift that Quaker tradition has given us in our tradition—the practice of recording—and adapt it to your meeting’s needs?
Let’s do it
The traditions of Quaker ministry and eldership have been steadily eroding over the century or more since many of our meetings began laying down the practice of recording ministers and elders. But they’re not dead yet. Thanks to our rich written tradition, meetings that no longer retain a working knowledge of how to nurture the spirituality of Quaker ministry can still find accounts of these practices in action and a wealth of resources for recovering these traditions from oblivion.
At the same time, because we laid down some of these practices for good reasons, I hope that we will continue to adapt them and experiment with them in the spirit of continuing revelation. Since we began losing these traditions, the spirit of continuing revelation has already given us the brilliant practice of clearness committees for discernment. And in the past few decades we have opened up our understanding of ministry way beyond its original conception as just vocal ministry in meeting for worship to include a very wide range of service and witness. I have no doubt that we will continue to develop new ways to nurture the spiritual lives of our members in the future.
The main thing, though, is to be much more proactive in recognizing and developing our members’ gifts of the Spirit, those ways in which God has endowed them with talents, skills, and character traits that could serve the meeting and God’s work in the world. We could do this through
- personal mentoring by elders in the meeting (or if you prefer, “weighty” Friends, Friends who know the tradition and have a gift for spiritual nurture),
- programs of spiritual nurture focused on naming and nurturing spiritual gifts, and
- programs of religious education focused on the faith and practice of Quaker ministry.
As for recording, if we really do proactively nurture spiritual gifts in all our members, then it would in fact be redundant, exhausting, and silly to record everyone in the old way. But I suspect that it will still be useful to record Friends who are called to specific ministries, especially those that take them beyond the meeting or even beyond the wider Quaker community. The two common examples already common among us, as I’ve said, are chaplain work and prison ministries.
Your meeting may decide that recording does not fit well with the culture of your meeting, once you have examined it in a faithful way. Please don’t just dismiss it without learning about it, though; our tradition and our ministers deserve better than ignorant and arrogant out-of-hand dismissal of this ancient and valuable practice and its benefits.
Here, again, the most important thing is: do something to actively seek out and nurture the spiritual gifts of your members and to support the ministries that will miraculously arise from those gifts when they are nurtured. It would be a tragedy if you let the Seed within them die for lack of watering. And when your meeting figures out how it wants to support the gifts and spirituality/ministries of its members, please share your journey. For this is one of the essential callings of the Quaker meeting, to recognize and nurture the gifts the Spirit has bestowed upon its members and attenders in order to foster Spirit-led work in the meeting and in the world.
A final word
Recording gifts in ministry once applied only to vocal ministry. The practice worked in the context of a share community understanding that God called people into service as vocal ministers. One of the biggest changes in our faith and practice regarding vocal ministry is that we no longer think of our members as having a call to vocal ministry.
Oh, we know some Friends are likely to speak more often than others. Often, we wish that they wouldn’t. We actually tend to be somewhat critical of the Friend who speaks “too often”, especially if they tend to do so at some length.
All the more reason to have some spiritual infrastructure in place for the nurture and eldering of vocal ministry beyond a cautious and uncertain committee for worship and ministry that has no clear charge from the meeting for their eldering work. In subsequent posts, I want to look at both the need to support those who are called to vocal ministry and how we bring “gospel order” to our worship.
January 15, 2016 § 2 Comments
As I said at the beginning of this thread on vocal ministry, I have been much stimulated by reading Michael P. Graves’s Preaching the Inward Light: Early Quaker Rhetoric. Here are some snippets from my notes.
A biblical source for the belief in divine revelation through vocal ministry
1 Peter 4:10–11: Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.
Summary of Fox on vocal ministry by Graves (p 109):
“His characteristic positions regarding preaching included:
- rejecting formal theological education for clergy, and generally distrusting “learning” as a necessary part of a call to ministry or as preparation for preaching;
- questioning church traditions, especially as witnessed in rejection of the common Christian vocabulary of the time, which used terms like “church”, “temple”, and “gospel” in what Fox saw as unbiblical ways, and the rejection of church hierarchy, rituals, etc.;
- emphasizing the role of the Spirit in audience analysis;
- defending women’s right to speak and prophesy;
- rejecting the accepted notion of a ministry paid by tithes, or the “hireling” ministry;
- expressing utter dependence on a sense of the immediate revelation before preaching or praying aloud;
- presenting a cautionary approach to preaching as evidenced by a willingness to wait, sometimes for what on occasion appears to be an excessive period of time, until the Spirit gives utterance;
- insisting that ministers live holy lives;
- instructing hearers to be tender with novice impromptu preachers; and
- relying on a biblical hermeneutic that emphasizes types and figures drawn from scripture applied to the lives of the hearers.”
Barclay on the “supernatural” mechanism of spirit-led ministry working on the hearer:
The human has divinely implanted within us supernatural ideas that we perceive with inward supernatural senses, just as there are implanted within us natural ideas that we perceive with inward natural senses. We see the color “red” inwardly because our outward senses stimulate the inward idea of red within us and we perceive red therefore with our inward natural senses.
So also, “As there are natural ideas concerning the things of the natural world [light, color, voice, sounds, etc.] . . . there are ideas of supernatural things. . . . And as the natural ideas are stirred up in us by outward and natural bodies; so those divine and supernatural ideas are stirred up in us by a certain principle, which is a body in naturals in relation to the spiritual world, and therefore may be called a divine body: not as if it were a part of God [not a divine spark], who is a most pure spirit; but the organ or instrument of God, by which he worketh in us [Fox’s “that of God” in us] and stirreth up in us these ideas of divine things. This is the flesh and blood of Christ.” (Graves, p 118, quoting Barclay, Immediate Revelation)
So “on the receiving end of immediate divine revelation there must be receptors in the “mind” created specifically to respond to the supernatural ideas generated by the Inward Light.”
This is the purpose of vocal ministry, to stir up these divine ideas with the word of God acting upon the Light within us.
January 9, 2016 § 7 Comments
Early in my Quaker career, I read Howard Brinton’s Guide to Quaker Process and I think its discussion of vocal ministry strongly shaped my expectations and my inner process of discernment regarding vocal ministry. It’s been almost thirty years, and I now only clearly remember the feeling I had of gratitude for some guidance. In other words, I was a bit afraid of doing it wrong, as I think most Friends are.
But I’m a trained and seasoned public speaker. I’ve done it a lot, all of my life since my teenage years, and I’ve done some stage acting. Yes, I feel a little frisson every time a speak in public, but I actually like that thrill. So I think it was probably easier for me to get over the initial barrier than for some Friends. Still, it took a while. And I’m not sure how well I adhered to Brinton’s advice.
For a long time—decades—I relied on a set of internal feelings to guide whether I rose to speak, feelings that I had first experienced while meditating when yoga was my spiritual path. These feelings amounted to a gradually increasing sense of “pressure” in my skull that ultimately leads to quaking, what yogis call kriyas, though usually, only a close observer would notice that my spine was jerking. I put “pressure” in quotes because that’s not quite the right word; it’s not painful for one thing. It’s located in the back of my skull and reaches down into the back of my neck. Sometimes this mounting feeling reaches a kind of threshold, and I experience quaking—in yoga-ese, kriyas.
Kriyas. Imagine your nervous system is a plumbing system in which nerves serve as pipes for conducting prana, the Sanskrit word for life force (and also breath, as in Hebrew and Greek). Karma—stored tension in the system—acts like constriction or the build-up of material on the inside of steam pipes. If you turn on the faucet full blast (by meditating), sometimes the pipes can’t conduct all that extra life force freely—and the pipes shake. That’s quaking, the nervous system firing randomly from overload, releasing the tension, the karma.
So I would usually wait until the pipes started shaking before I felt ready to speak.
This still happens to me, but I no longer rely on it so much. Something more subtle is often going on now that is harder to describe. It feels more like the faint perception of need, as though I can hear a call from somewhere asking for something. Is that something some vocal ministry?
Maybe. It’s hard to tell, most of the time. I wait to see whether the call comes more clearly. Usually, it doesn’t. I’m left to decide some other way.
If I don’t quake and I have no other clear indicator, my default position is no—no ministry. And if I do quake, I still might not speak; it depends on . . . what?
Three other factors. First, the structure of the ministry. If the ministry begins with “I”, I let it go. If I feel tempted to refer to some event, or reading, or encounter with people or some media, I let it go. “I read an article in the New York Times . . . ” “I heard a piece on NPR . . . “ “I’ve been thinking about . . . “ “This week, I . . . “ All of these frames for a message suggest to me that I am about to share some opening from the surface of my spiritual life, rather than from its depths.
Second, I have a calling to vocal ministry. At least I think I do. It has never been submitted to corporate discernment. I feel led to a ministry of teaching. I know Quaker faith and practice and history pretty well. Sometimes an opportunity to share something timely or relevant about Quaker tradition comes up, in the moment, or in the life of the meeting, and sometimes I feel led to take that opportunity in vocal ministry. This is especially common for me in meetings for worship with a concern for the life of the meeting.
When one of these teaching messages rises up, the other confirming indicators might not be so strong. The need is not an internal compulsion, but rather a sense of need or opportunity in the meeting bolstered by my sense of calling, which is often reinforced by Friends’ comments afterwards, and the knowledge that meeting for worship is really the only place where many members and especially attenders actually have an opportunity to learn their Quakerism.
This call to a teaching vocal ministry does lower the bar for me for a bit, I think. Not to the level of, “I saw a documentary this week that . . . “ But it encourages me to serve the meeting rather than the Holy Spirit, though of course, all Spirit-led vocal ministry serves the meeting, as well. This nervousness I feel is about the apparent source of the prompting, not the end result.
Finally, for other vocal ministry not attended by the internal sense of pressure and release I have discussed, or answering to the call to teach, my process is much more subtle. It’s neither physical nor cognitive. It’s intuitive, I guess I would say. It just feels right in a certain hard-to-define way.
It requires a dedication to the silence, a stripping away of the signal noise to better hear the small signal that’s trying to get through. It’s hard to relax that way when you feel like working at it; I feel like digging it out, rather than letting it be. So it takes a while. Meeting often closes before I get there.
It also depends on how clear the message itself is. Everything I’ve ever read on vocal ministry stresses how being articulate doesn’t matter, only the immediacy, the integrity of genuine leading, being faithful. But that’s not how I work most of the time. The faithful part, yes. But attending to the wording, the process of “crafting”, is also part of my discernment. I very often realize the ministry is not for sharing when I become clear what it is I think I am given to say.
Once I am clear, I sit with it. I release even the clarity and wait. In that final release or commitment to “the silence of all flesh”, as early Friends used to say, then the yea or nay may rise up. Often it is just then that the kriyas come on.
When I rise to speak, I always have to stand there for a few seconds. I have to get past the anxiety and try to get back to the peace. I make a point of speaking loudly. I’m a little hard of hearing myself so I’m sensitive to the needs of people like me across the room.
No matter how clear I am about the content of the ministry, it almost always takes off on its own. Usually, it hews fairly closely to the general outline, but new openings often come in the act of speaking.
Sometimes the messages are pretty long, though usually not much longer than those of some other Friends who might have spoken that day. Many of us go on a bit.
All the guides for vocal ministry stress succinctness. I don’t really understand that. It’s a contradiction to emphasize faithfulness and at the same time emphasize succinctness. What matters is that the ministry is spirit-led and that you do not run past your guide. What matters is that the body has been drawn deeper and closer to our collective Guide when we are done.