Nurturing the call to vocal ministry

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?”

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Recording Gifts in Ministry

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.

Equality.

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.

Hierarchy.

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.

Snippets on vocal ministry

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:

  1. rejecting formal theological education for clergy, and generally distrusting “learning” as a necessary part of a call to ministry or as preparation for preaching;
  2. 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.;
  3. emphasizing the role of the Spirit in audience analysis;
  4. defending women’s right to speak and prophesy;
  5. rejecting the accepted notion of a ministry paid by tithes, or the “hireling” ministry;
  6. expressing utter dependence on a sense of the immediate revelation before preaching or praying aloud;
  7. 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;
  8. insisting that ministers live holy lives;
  9. instructing hearers to be tender with novice impromptu preachers; and
  10. 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.

Vocal ministry—My discernment

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.

What I do in meeting for worship

January 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

I have arrived at a fairly settled practice in meeting for worship involving the following steps or stages.

Deepening. First, I deepen using deepening techniques I’ve picked up as a student and practitioner of yoga and of Silva Mind Control, which is a sinister-sounding name for a pretty effective and benign pseudo-scientific, psychic healing, self-help program that is based on the first three degrees of Rosicrucian practice, which had a brief spin in the early 1970s, but is apparently still around. I used to teach Silva Mind Control, after using its healing techniques to miraculously psychically treat a couple of people, most dramatically, my son Raziel when he was just a baby.

Prayer. So I deepen. Then I pray. I commune with a couple of “angels”, I will call them, spiritual entities that have come through for me in ways dramatic enough to earn my spiritual regard. One of these is Jesus.

Jesus. This started when I was at Pendle Hill in 1991 when I became aware suddenly that someone in a very specific part of the meeting room was going to speak. Just after I had this clear intuition, I had a “vision” of Jesus standing behind this woman right there, as a kind of apparition, very much like the figure of Jesus in the painting The Presence in the Midst. Then the woman rose and spoke, as I knew she would, and Jesus stood there, just behind her and to the side a little, a comforting and strengthening presence, or so it seemed. Some time later, again at Pendle Hill, the same thing happened, though less dramatically.

Ever since then, I have chosen, as an act of faith, basically, to assume that Jesus is with us when we worship (as the scripture has promised, Matthew 18)—Jesus as spirit, as the Christ, essentially. And, feeling that I have been taught something, I now pray for Friends as they give their ministry, imagining Jesus there with them as he appeared in those experiences.

That’s a long time ago now, and no dramatic psychic experiences of Jesus since. But still, a vague sense of something, perhaps—of presence? I’m not sure what it is. But I hold to my faith, because it works for me. So I pray, and part of my prayer is to ask Jesus for his presence. And one time not too long ago, for only the second time ever, I felt compelled to actually get on my knees and ask him to be present out loud. Very out of character, and weird. But there you are.

The angel of the meeting. Three times I have had similar “visionary” experiences of the angel of the meeting I was worshiping with. I had learned from Bill Taber at Pendle Hill about the elder-days belief of some Friends that every meeting had an angel, a belief that stemmed from the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, in which the spirit of Christ addresses letters to the angels of seven churches in Asia Minor.

Like my experience of the present Jesus, these experiences combined a sense of presence with a strong eidetic image of a figure hovering in the meeting, usually in some rather odd mudra, or position relative to the body of the gathered meeting. And the symbology of the position and of other aspects of the figure presented a meaning to me, a sense of something that was going on in the life of the meeting. In the most dramatic case, this sense of the meeting was confirmed for me by several of its members. And this was the way Bill Taber said ministers in the elder days had used the angel of the meeting—to get a sense of a meeting when they had been called in to minister to it in some way, in some crisis they were going through.

So I try to commune with the angel of the meeting, even when it’s my own meeting and the chances of such communion are basically nil—because I think of the angel as a projection of the meeting’s collective consciousness, especially of its unconscious, and that means that my own consciousness is part of the collective consciousness of any meeting I worship regularly with, and it’s hard to see what you are yourself projecting, without some kind of exotic collective Jungian therapy. Like maybe a clearness committee of the whole. Well, on to the next practice.

Opening to need. After trying to commune with the angel of the meeting, I more or less systematically move mentally through the room, slowly, seeking to open myself to pain or need, hoping that I will “hear” the “prayers” of others, their inward groanings and callings-out. I hope to feel where in the room someone needs something. I rarely get any such indication, but I do it anyway, for it feels wrong not to do it, and you never know.

Continued deepening. After scanning the room in this way, I return to deepening. I use a mantra I learned as a student of Transcendental Meditation—37 years now I’ve been using that mantra. And I use another mantra with the Centering Prayer technique, because Centering Prayer as a technique works exactly like TM, except that you choose your own centering word rather than being given a mantra from the Bhagavad Gita by an initiator. For the Centering Prayer, I use “Amen”. I move back and forth between these two mantras, the TM mantra and Amen, using their shared technique for deepening.

More prayer. Then, when someone rises to speak, I pray for them. Specifically, I imagine Jesus standing a little behind and beside them, giving them strength and awakening and guiding their truth.

This started when I was at Pendle Hill in 1991 when I became aware suddenly that someone in a very specific part of the meeting room was going to speak. Just after I had this clear intuition, I had a “vision” of Jesus standing behind this woman right there, as a kind of apparition, very much like the figure of Jesus in the painting The Presence in the Midst. Then the woman rose and spoke, as I knew she would, and Jesus stood there, just behind her and to the side a little, a comforting and strengthening presence, or so it seemed. Some time later, again at Pendle Hill, the same thing happened, though less dramatically.

Ever since then, I have chosen, as an act of faith, basically, to assume that Jesus is with us when we worship (as the scripture has promised, Matthew 18)—Jesus as spirit, as the Christ, essentially. And, feeling that I have been taught something, I now pray for Friends as they give their ministry, imagining Jesus there with them as he appeared in those experiences.

Waiting and opening. Meanwhile, before the first person speaks and between speakers, I continue deepening with my mantras, but I also bring my mental focus to my center, seeking to open myself to divine prompting. “Amen” means, basically, “let it be”, and one of the reasons I use it in addition to the Sanskrit mantra is that I know its meaning and I like its meaning. I want whatever G*d wants for me then to be. I cannot describe this practice of inward focus any more clearly than this, that I seek to open myself to the Light within me, offering myself for service, as Isaiah did—”Send me, send me!”. 

Discernment. Sometimes, there seems “to be” something, after all, a seed of possible vocal ministry. So I begin to test it. When I started describing my process for discernment, my words started pouring out, so I’m going to leave that for its own page and I link to it here. On that page, I also discuss my practice while speaking my ministry.

Continued cycling. I continue to “rotate” through prayer, deepening, waiting and opening, maybe discernment, until meeting closes. I cringe when someone speaks of breaking meeting for worship.

How vocal ministry works for me

January 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

For me, vocal ministry takes place in the context of relationship with the body of the meeting as it is gathered right then. That context consists of a pattern of inner mental/spiritual actions in which I explore and engage with the body in various ways; and it also consists of the responses I seem to get from the meeting in this engagement—a back-and-forth feedback system of my inward engagement and apparent meeting response leading to further engagement, and then more response. So I can’t talk about vocal ministry without talking about this pattern of behavior and experience.  Here’s the pattern.

(When I started describing what I do internally in meeting for worship, it just kept expanding, so I’m going to offer short descriptors of my practice as just bullet points here. I invite Friends who are interested in reading a fuller description of my practices in worship to visit this web page.)

  • Deepening—using techniques I’ve picked up from my years as a student of yoga and other more “New Age” spiritualities. One of these techniques includes attuning myself to the room and the people in it.
  • Prayer—directed to several . . . well, I think of them as angels, faces of the divine that have names and personalities and who have come through for me over the years, and with whom I have a relationship, including, among others, Jesus and the angel of the meeting. (Some day I want to write about the profound difference between a religion practiced as relationship, as is the case for Christians who have experienced Christ personally, and religion practiced as a spirituality that doesn’t engage with spiritual entities capable of relationship, as is the case I think for many “liberal” Friends.)
  • Opening to need in my fellow worshippers—a systematic spiritual antenna scan of the meeting room. If I pick something up, I try to focus on it, to open to it, to offer myself in prayerful service inwardly and then to wait to see whether this includes vocal ministry.
  • Further deepening—when I’m done “listening” for need, for the prayers of others, unless I hear/feel someone calling, I go back to my deepening techniques. I rarely clearly hear someone calling.
  • Waiting and opening—do you have a message for me, dear G*d?
  • More prayer—when someone rises to speak, I imagine Jesus standing with them to strengthen and guide them. I’ve had this experience twice spontaneously, and so now I do it as a practice that I feel has been taught to me.
  • Discernment—if it seems that there might be some vocal ministry rising up in me, I begin to test it.
  • Continued cycling through prayer, deepening, waiting and opening, maybe discernment, until meeting closes. I cringe when someone speaks of breaking meeting for worship.

So for me, vocal ministry sometimes arises out of this back-and-forth inner engagement with the room and, especially, with my fellow worshippers.

But sometimes it arises as openings that emerge from my reading or writing or in prayer or meditation. As I have said before, the face of God that is most powerful for me is God as Muse, God as the Source and Guide of my inner life, which is tantamount in many ways to my writing life.

In Preaching the Inner Light, Graves has returned several times to the fact that Fox and early Friends insisted not on the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit, meaning only right then and there, but on immediate as meaning direct, unmediated. He argues that what he calls the impromptu preaching of Fox and early Friends clearly and often grew out of openings that had come to them before the meeting and had been seasoning until they matured. But still they tested whether this was the time, these were the people, whether Christ was offering this ministry through them NOW.

This has been my experience exactly. I have in some cases mulled a message for years before I felt led to speak it.

Vocal ministry as an emergent phenomenon

So for me, vocal ministry is an emergent phenomenon. I want to return to emergence theory and spirituality in future posts, but here let me just say that some phenomena happen as individual members of an ecosystem respond virtually simultaneously to small signals from each other. Like when a huge flock of starlings suddenly swerves in a radically new direction seemingly simultaneously. Or like identical twins who end up being different in some ways, even though they have exactly the same genetic code, because the genes are expressing in a constant dance with their environment from the molecular level on up.

This is an opening for me: I think spirit-led ministry may be an emergent psychic behavior, Friends responding to subtle ripples in the aether as we all deepen and attune to each other, and send out our prayers, our needs and desires and thoughts and blessings, which we then sense as small signals at some subtle level of consciousness.

Stories of psychic manifestation in and through vocal ministry abound in our tradition, and as I’ve alluded, I have experienced this myself. Something transcendental is going on, at least some of the time in our meetings for worship. And for me, the role of vocal ministry is to prepare the medium for the gathering by calling it deeper into our collective center, to seed the medium with the nutrients that the Seed needs to germinate, and to be a catalyst for the precipitation, to provide the seed around which the crystal of a gathered meeting forms. (Whoah, mixed metaphor mania, with my old chemistry-major past in partial dominion—sorry for that.)

Finally, a word about my discernment process. But no . . . this post is long enough. Later.

Where does our vocal ministry come from?

January 5, 2016 § 29 Comments

We’ve had some very thought-provoking comments. Thank you, readers. The post that follows was in works while these comments unfolded.


For centuries, our answer to my title question—where does vocal ministry come from?—was obvious and unquestioned: Jesus Christ. Or his spirit, the Holy Spirit. The Light within us, understood to be the inward spirit of Christ. All the same thing.

In the famous passage in which Margaret Fell describes her first encounter with George Fox, Fox is addressing precisely this question—where does your preaching come from? He is speaking specifically to the primary rhetorical approach of the Puritan minister, to preach from a passage in the Bible, unpacking it, as it were, for the congregation in his (sic) sermon.

And so he went on, and said, “That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,” &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, “The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord”: and said, “Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

Today, we still ask the question, “What canst thou say?” But we no longer assume that this Light is the Light of Christ and we no longer assume that what we speak in meeting for worship is “inwardly from God”. Of course, this depends on what you mean by “God”.

I suspect that nowadays, any Friend who claimed to be speaking on behalf of God would receive a skeptical and anxious regard. Especially since so many of the people who DO claim to know God’s mind these days are violent sociopaths.

Yet this is exactly the claim that Friends have made until relatively recently.

This momentous shift in Quaker thinking about vocal ministry is mostly about our understanding of and attitudes toward “God”, and ultimately, toward Jesus Christ. God used to be a “who”; now God is a “what”, if God is anything meaningful to us at all. (Of course, I am speaking mostly of liberal Friends here.)

Many (liberal) Friends do not consider Jesus to be God. Put another way, they don’t believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “was God and was with God” from the beginning. Thus the Light within us cannot be the inward Light of Christ. It has to be something else. But what?

Without Jesus to hold the Trinity together, “God” recedes into the distance. No longer the Father, God becomes an undefinable, basically unrelatable Supreme Being. You start piling up the absolutist adjectives, like all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present, etc., and each one of these adjectives only makes God more distant, more difficult to relate to. Not in the way that you could relate to Jesus, or even to God as the Father.

So—no divine Jesus, and you’re left with a distant, absolute, abstract God. That leaves the Holy Spirit—no longer the spirit of Christ, however, no longer the ongoing presence of the resurrected Christ, the Comforter/Advocate that Jesus promised from the Father. Cut loose from a disassembled Trinity, the Holy Spirit becomes just “the Spirit”. And here we are.

“The Spirit” is even more undefined than God not-the-Father. More potentially universal. More plastic in the hands of us quasi-believers.

Moreover, many Friends, I suspect, connect this now-generic “Spirit” to “that of God” in everyone, which I think many Friends consider some kind of divine spark, some piece or aspect of “the Divine”—the Spirit—within us. The Light within, that of God within, the Spirit—all one mysteriously continuous and universal spiritual reality that we humans do somehow participate in in some vague and undefined way.

Now we’re getting somewhere. If God is Spirit and if the Light, that of God within us, is also somehow that same spirit, then Spirit-led vocal ministry arises within us from the Light and yet partakes of something spiritually larger than just ourselves.

I think that this might approximate what modern liberal Friends think is going on with vocal ministry, if they think about it at all. And it’s not really so different from the understanding of early Friends—except that it’s no longer tied to Christ and the rest of the tradition, which stands on scripture. Which is a huge difference. It’s post-Christian. It’s even post-traditional, in the sense that it has thrown over most of Quaker tradition, and has not yet developed or adopted any other tradition to replace it.

As a result, it lacks substance. But it’s open, welcoming, malleable. You can embrace it almost whatever your prior experience is. You can be indifferent or even hostile to Christian and biblical tradition. You can bring whatever pieces of other tradition you’ve picked up along the way, as I have done. You can even be Christian, for these ideas are really not too far off from some of the ideas in the gospel of John, especially those surrounding the Word, the logos.

And since this religious ideology has no real substance, Friends often seek substance somewhere else. They become Buddhist Quakers—or are they Quaker Buddhists? Or they are thrilled to find the Gospel of Thomas and become a kind of home-grown gnostic.

Many of us, though, fall back on the credal idea that Friends have no creed. We reject the practice of thinking too much about our religion, and we do without much substance. Who needs it?

However, being a post-traditional, mostly substanceless community means that individualism reigns. We have become a community without clear boundaries or definition, in which anything goes.

And the nebulous, unarticulated character of modern liberal Quaker thinking about God, the Spirit, encourages this individualism. And it quietly and increasingly dominates our attitudes toward vocal ministry. Though it’s probably going too far to talk about Quaker “thinking” in this context, for our ideas and attitudes are mostly tacit assumptions and unstated shared conclusions, maintained by a tacit agreement not to probe it too much.

Without the weight of our tradition holding us down, giving us boundaries and context and actual text—content with which we could talk to each other about what’s going on with a common vocabulary—we tend to float up and away. By contrast, believing that you have been inspired by the actual spirit of Christ necessarily instills a certain gravity, a very powerful sense of responsibility. Which we no longer feel.

Read Samual Bownas’s book The Qualifications Necessary for a Gospel Minister, or the journals of earlier Friends like Elias Hicks or John Woolman, and you get the sense that getting their vocal ministry right was one of the most arduous, terrifying, and important things in their lives. Most Friends, I think, find speaking in meeting a little terrifying, too, at least in the beginning. But this is not because we feel the weight of divine judgment; not because we feel we have assumed an apostolic mantle to speak for the living Christ. Not because we are, for the moment, at least, prophets of God’s word.

No longer afraid to give offense to God, we fear instead giving offense to the community, and we fear, perhaps, failing to be true to our higher selves.

This individualism in our practice of vocal ministry has led the community to a new set of agreements about the practice, but we do not discuss these agreements openly very often. We learn these agreements—we teach them—by osmosis. We see other Friends speaking in a range of ways about a range of things, and nothing happens to them. Most Friends seem happy with the ministry. The community seems to accept these messages, even embrace them, and so that’s what we do, too.

Even our language is shifting. Why do I say “even”—of course it shifts. “Vocal ministry” is giving way to “speaking in meeting” and “offering messages”. “Vocal ministry” makes us vocal ministers, which implies a sense of calling. But a sense of calling would mean speaking rather regularly, with a sense of mission. Mission could easily slide into sermonizing. “Speaking in meeting”, on the other hand, is rather generic. It is safer. It implies, perhaps, that the individual is responsible for the action and the message. But at least it doesn’t imply you’re channeling God.

Well, this has been a lot of speculation and generalization. In my next post, I want get down and personal. I want to talk about what vocal ministry is for me.

Vocal Ministry

January 2, 2016 § 13 Comments

I have been reading Michael P. Graves’s Preaching the Inward Light: Early Quaker Rhetoric, in which he plumbs the writings and analyzes the few recorded sermons of early Friends for insights into what they thought was going on in their vocal ministry, how they explained it and talked about it, what they thought the rules and conventions should be to govern its practice. I am filling up pages with notes, and filling my mind with a host of questions about our own vocal ministry today,

Where does our vocal ministry come from? What do we think is happening when someone—when we ourselves—stand up to speak in meeting for worship? What distinguishes truly Spirit-led vocal ministry from the conscientious sharing of a heart-felt personal message . . . or is there no difference? How can we tell, for ourselves when we feel led to speak, and when others are speaking in meeting, whether the message comes from the Spirit? Should we even be weighing this question when others speak at all? Or even when we speak?

Do we even care about these questions and their answers—that is, about the faith behind our practice? Should we care? Does it matter?—do our answers to these questions affect our vocal ministry as individuals and our experience of vocal ministry as communities? If so, how?

I think the answers to these questions do matter. I suspect that they affect the quality of the messages we hear in meeting for worship. I’m certain they provide an important context that shapes the content of our messages. And I believe that our beliefs and attitudes towards vocal ministry shape how our meeting approaches the eldership of vocal ministry—what kinds of religious education we provide about it, how we nurture it, how we elder it, and what we tell newcomers, our children, and our visitors about it.

I’m going to try to answer these questions about the origins and nature of vocal ministry and the significance that our faith regarding our vocal ministry has for its actual practice.

I usually get into trouble when I try to do this, and so it makes me nervous. But I really do believe that these questions and their answers matter, so I keep trying. Because we don’t very often ask them. One of the reasons we don’t give vocal ministry the kind of attention we give our testimonies, for instance, is that we are more comfortable leaving the agreements we have about vocal ministry unspoken. Why open a can of worms? Theology always causes trouble. And God forbid we should have rules, make judgments.

And I agree. Theology does cause trouble. Rules make me nervous, too. Judge not, lest ye be judged. But let’s not kid ourselves. We do have a theology around vocal ministry, both a theological legacy from our tradition, and an unspoken set of beliefs and attitudes about vocal ministry, even if we don’t want to call that theology. And we do have rules. And we do make judgments. It’s just that all this makes us very uncomfortable. So we don’t talk about it much in our meetings. Even though we have written about it quite a bit.

Furthermore, what does it mean when a religious community does not speak about the faith behind what it considers to be one of its quintessential community practices? If vocal ministry really is one of our essential practices, why don’t we talk about it all the time? What is this culture of silence hiding?

So I’m going to put on my spelunking gear, turn on my helmet light, and head down into the darkness and the silence around modern liberal Quaker vocal ministry; that is, into my own questions and doubts and fears and confusion about my own vocal ministry, and into what I perceive to be the tacit and sometimes not so tacit assumptions and agreements in the communities with which I’ve worshiped in the liberal branch of Quakerism. And even though I’ve rarely worshiped with Friends in programmed meetings, I’m even going to venture there now and then.

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