Vocal Ministry—What To Do?

January 17, 2019 § 3 Comments

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

Facing denial and doubt

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

Meeting agreement

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

Worship and Ministry Committees

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

Religious education

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


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

How to elder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vocal Ministry and Worship and Ministry Committees

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

In my last post I said that “our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons.” Here’s what I think those reasons are.

First, the committee rarely feels that it has the backing of the meeting as a whole, that it knows what the meeting wants. This is because the meeting never does know what kind of eldership culture it wants. Our meetings do not have a clear agreement about what constitutes Spirit-led ministry or how the committee should protect the worship. For protecting the worship and ministry is one of the charges of our worship and ministry committees. But it’s hard to expect the committee to act when it has no clear mandate from the meting and might fear that some in the meeting will be upset by its actions.

Then, there’s Quaker process. The committee has to come to unity about its approach and it only takes one member of the committee to make that impossible or at least very difficult. If it’s difficult, especially if the committee must labor a lot through meeting after meeting, exhaustion sets in. And meanwhile, there are other things to do, setting up the schedule for clerking worship, etc.

So the third problem is the makeup of the committee. Nominating committees always struggle with filling committee slots anyway, and this one can be especially hard. It’s hard to find Friends who really know the Quaker traditions of worship and ministry, who are gifted or even called vocal ministers themselves, and who are willing to serve. And inevitably, at least one person on the committee seems to think the ministry is more or less just fine, anyway. They may even be part of the problem themselves.

But one attribute may be even more important and it is certainly harder to find—confidence, decisiveness, even boldness, a temperament capable of acting in spite of the fear of over-stepping.

For this is perhaps the biggest problem. We are afraid to elder, and rightfully so. We are afraid to hurt someone. We are afraid to cross some line that, as individuals, we can rarely see with confidence, let alone share with confidence with a bunch of other Friends. Many of us have been hurt by some eldering experience ourselves. We know how it feels.

And we’re not sure how it’s to be done. How do you approach someone whose ministry is perfectly acceptable to some unknown but perhaps fairly large percentage of the meeting to tell them to get with the Spirit?

This brings us to the final problem. We are not a covenant community. We don’t see membership in the meeting as an agreement about our mutual accountability in the life of the Spirit. Put in concrete terms, we don’t say to applicants in our clearness committees for membership that we look forward to their gifts in ministry unfolding over time, that we plan to help that unfolding however we can, and that we hope (expect?) that it’s okay that we can have a direct conversation about their ministry as it unfolds, including even some questions when it seems they’ve “stepped through the traces”, as Friends used to say in the elder days—gotten tangled up in one’s relationship with the Guide.

If we have not broached this matter of mutual support and accountability regarding ministry in the clearness committee, it’s doubly hard to bring it up later, with no foundation on which to stand. We seem to be just coming in with the warship and dropping a bomb.

We need agreements: That, as individuals, we want nurture and support for our unfolding gifts in ministry and that we want correction when our ministry needs work. That, as a committee, protecting the worship and engaging with our ministers is our proper role. That, as a meeting, we need—we insist on—ministry that comes from the Spirit, and that we trust the committee to foster and protect it.

So this exercise in the last couple of posts has brought up some ideas about what to do. On to those in the next post.

Vocal Ministry—Some Questions Toward a Profile

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

I know I keep coming back to our problems with vocal ministry, but it really weighs heavily on my soul.

I can’t tell how widespread the problem is, but I fear that many of our meetings are in a crisis regarding their vocal ministry. I know mine is. Friends have stopped attending meeting for worship because the vocal ministry drives them nuts. I’ve done this twice myself in the past few months.

I don’t yet have any answers to this problem, but I do have some questions, and I’m hoping that airing these questions out loud, as it were, here in this blog, might unlock something, in myself and/or in my readers. I am praying for a breakthrough.

With the questions that follow, I hope to profile the problem.

What? What is happening?

Lots of worship sharing. Some harangues. Personal opinions, basically stand-up blog posts. Appeals for help. Demands for attention. Musings and anecdotes from the speaker’s past week. Hand-wringing about the state of our society and especially of our politics. A dearth of the Spirit and of the spirit of service.


A lot. Cascades of shallow, jarring, or merely personal messages filling the hour, especially the twenty or so minutes before the children come in ten minutes before rise of meeting. But also, unnervingly often, in the first twenty minutes, before we’ve had a good chance to settle and while the latecomers are still trickling in.


In loud, commanding voices. In voices so soft that even the only moderately hearing-impaired like me can’t hear it. Mostly quite confident; not much humility.


Lots of relative newcomers. Some more seasoned Friends. Rarely from our most seasoned elders.


I suspect that some of the relative newcomers simply have not yet been fully baptized in the Spirit. Also, they have learned what’s appropriate ministry by osmosis and that means that the current predominance of weak vocal ministry in the meeting makes it look like that’s what’s appropriate. It’s an unvirtuous circle, a feedback loop.

The disquiet that this culture creates in the more seasoned members and the sheer frequency of messages work together to suppress the ministry we might get from more seasoned Friends, so we hear fewer models of more Spirit-led ministry. It’s a feedback loop.

Some people seem desperate for a platform, for the sense of having been heard, for being known in a deeper way than is available in the rest of their lives.

And finally, our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons. I want to get deeper into this last problem in my next post.

Sin as missing the mark—NOT

December 21, 2018 § 6 Comments

I have often heard liberal Friends downplay the importance of sin by pointing out that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means to miss the mark, a miscalculation, as in an archer missing the target. That always seemed off to me.

Then recently, while reading D. J. Conacher’s Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary, I ran across this in a footnote (p. 43, note 19):

“Bremer Hamartia p 47 points out that there is also (ie, in addition to the uses emphasizing miscalculation of some kind) ‘widespread use of hamart-words to decry serious offenses. From Homer onwards (… Od. 13.214) they are found denoting evil deeds for which divine revenge is expected or accomplished …'”


Holding in the Light

December 13, 2018 § 2 Comments

Liberal Friends have replaced prayer with the practice of “holding people in the light”. Maybe in their minds, the Light has a capital “L”, a kind of stand-in for the deity that is the object of prayer as conventionally practice.

I believe in the power of “holding people in the light”. But I also believe, based on my own experience, that just an inward lip service to the idea of holding in the light is not likely to be enough to effect the desired result. I believe that holding people in the light has become (maybe always was) an outward form without much real power.

Yes, it’s actually an “inward” form in that we do it in our heads. But I call it outward because it’s virtually empty. It’s a verbal and inward ritual. We do not give it the kind of attention it needs or deserves. We say it. We do some kind of inward wish-thing for just a moment. And then we move on.

I’m describing the practice in the context of meeting for worship or some other collective gatherings. I realize that individuals may bring this practice into their personal devotional life with more substantive attention.

My own experience with prayer—and especially with holding in the light—is deeply influenced by my experience with Silva Mind Control, and that experience involved holding someone in the light. Mind Control is a pop-psych, pseudo-scientific self help program that was somewhat popular in the 1970s. It has an unfortunately sinister-sounding name but it is actually quite effective. Half of the program is dedicated to various self-help techniques, many of which are focused on personal health, and half is dedicated to techniques for spiritual healing. I taught Silva Mind Control for several years in the early 1970s, mainly because I witnessed, and I myself performed, spiritual healing so extraordinary as to seem miraculous using its techniques.

As a teacher, I used to lead meetings of Mind Control graduates in which healing circles were a regular feature. They sometimes worked. Not all the time, not even very often. But sometimes.

So I know from personal experience that spiritual healing at a distance, both by individuals and by groups, is real.

Focused and healing prayer

Mind Control’s healing exercises—both the individual techniques and the group work— have three components that I believe really make a difference in actually healing people:

  1. intention and emotion to supply healing energy,
  2. centering to deepen consciousness and tap the energy, and
  3. visualization to focus the energy.

It’s all about energy. The group visualization usually used light as the primary image vehicle, and many practitioners, myself included, use light in our personal work, as well.

Thus I believe in the power of “holding people in the light”, as I said But I also believe in the power of these other components. To move beyond the outward form of holding in the light, to increase one’s chances of an actual positive outcome from the practice, I suggest the following, based on my experience:

  1. Supplying the energy. One needs to settle into the emotions involved, to connect meaningfully with one’s caring for the person or situation. This generates energy.
  2. Tapping the energy. To tap the energy, one needs to center down. One needs to take some time and, preferably, use an effective centering technique. I believe that an altered state of consciousness improves your chances for “successful” prayer by an order of magnitude. Sometimes grace happens, a gift born out of simple intention and attention. But not very often. “Success” is rare enough even when you’re doing all the things I’m suggesting here. That’s my experience, anyway.
  3. Focusing the energy. Finally, developing and using a set of psychic prayer tools seems to really help with focused prayer, and especially with healing prayer. In Mind Control, this includes having “imaginary” allies to turn to for help, specific ways to visualize focusing your energy—tools, as it were—and practice, especially at visualization in general and visualizing the body in particular. Mind Control spends two whole sessions just teaching anatomy and visualizing organs and systems of the body; this works.

So a “prayer” session works like this: You center down using whatever technique works for you. You greet your allies, if you have them. You gather your tools. You visualize the person you’re working on, and then follow your instincts. Openness rather than forcefulness is the key. The “force” comes from the love, the caring. But the healing comes through rather than from.

Wait in silent expectation until the problem you’re addressing presents itself somehow in your imagination. This can take many forms: pulsing somewhere, discoloration, enlargement—some irregularity in the way the person’s body or organs appear or feel to your imagination.

Then do whatever comes to mind. Maybe you’ll use one of your “tools”. Maybe you’ll ask for your ally’s help. Maybe something else will occur to you. Again, openness rather than forcefulness is the key.

Does this not sound rather Quakerly in spirit, if not in form, that is, in the form of techniques and “tools”?

Healing Circles

Mind Control healing circles work like this: You sit close together in a circle and join hands, left hand up and right hand down. You visualize energy—light—cycling through the circle from left to right, pouring out of yourself into the person on your right and pouring into you from the person on your left. When the facilitator feels the energy is up and running, she asks everyone to visualize it rising in a kind of cone, slowly, until it peaks at a point of convergence above the group in the center. Once this feels solid, then you send it to the person for whom you’re “praying”, whether they are at a distance, or someone sitting in the center of the circle.

Granted, this isn’t something that a group of Friends gathered for meeting for worship would do, unless maybe it’s a rather small meeting. But some meetings do have gatherings or meetings for healing, where this approach might be something to experiment with.

For some Friends, such an approach might feel too technical—too “technique-al”. It might seem like another outward form. It might feel ritualized. Can’t really argue with that. I stopped teaching Mind Control because I eventually felt like my life was too full of tools and I wanted to touch my experience with my bare hands again. But I was teaching it, and using it all the time. Now, it’s as natural feeling as meeting for worship itself, and it’s confined primarily to my daily practice. Like everything else, it becomes easy and natural with practice.

I hope some readers find this useful.

Vocal Prayer

December 13, 2018 § 1 Comment

Of all the changes in the character of silent, waiting worship among liberal Friends, one of the most significant, I think, is the loss of vocal prayer, and it’s among the most invisible or unregarded.

In thirty years of worship among Friends, I may have heard vocal prayer maybe a dozen times in meeting for worship, not counting the somewhat more regular prayers of a Friend in New York Yearly Meeting with whom I’ve worshipped a lot and who has the gift of prayer. I have only prayed out loud in meeting for worship twice myself.

Most liberal Friends, I suspect, don’t miss it. Most of us don’t hold dear a God who is “theistic”, whom one could address as an external sentient being who’s capable of hearing, let alone answering, one’s prayers. For many of us “God”, if the word works for us at all, is a much more amorphous—what? Not being; idea, maybe. Nor do most of us believe in a divine Jesus Christ to whom we might pray.

Instead, we liberal Friends “hold each other in the light”. More about this in a subsequent post.

But, for a sense of what we might be missing, listen to what William Penn has to say about George Fox in his introduction to Fox’s Journal:

“But above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say was in his prayer. And truly it was a testimony that he knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men; for they that know him most will see most reason to approach him with reverence and fear.

The lack of vocal prayer in meeting for worship reflects, I suspect, a lack of prayer (understood in the conventional sense) in our personal devotional practices. My dictionary defines prayer as an approach to deity in word or thought and, as I’ve said, I suspect most of us don’t resonate with the “deity” part. We may do something else and call it prayer.

In my own practice, I “pray” and I “meditate”. I’ve been trained in several kinds of meditation and I use several of them quite regularly. And I also pray fairly regularly in the conventional sense of addressing—well, not God, as conventionally understood, as a supreme being, or as the Father of Jesus Christ in the Trinity. I pray to the spirit of Christ, and I communicate with several spiritual allies or companions in a more shamanistic sense.

I am careful to say “spirit of Christ” here because I have no experience of Jesus Christ understood in the conventional sense; that is, as the divine, immortal, resurrected spirit of the biblical Jesus who is still with us today, albeit in heaven, or whatever you call the spirit realm in which the saints and Christ are said to dwell—which definitely isn’t here on the material plane.

That is to say, I’ve experienced something, and I call it the spirit of Christ. I have experienced something transcendental, which has come to me as a sense of presence and as eidetic imagery in the form of some generic devotional wall-painting form of Jesus. The metaphysics of these experiences is a delightful, intriguing mystery to me and I don’t fuss about it too much; I think about it, I have ideas about it, but I don’t take these ideas very seriously—unlike the experiences themselves, which I take very seriously.

So I pray to a “spirit of Christ”, a transcendental sense of presence that has clothed itself in familiar form in my spiritual apperception, and addressing it works for me. It focuses me. It satisfies something in me.

And this is the power of conventional prayer. It feels good, it feels right, somehow, to speak to someone, to communicate in a spiritual relationship that feels like communicating in our other relationships. It comes naturally—if you believe in or sense a “someone” at the other end.

This “spirit of Christ” whom I address is not the only “spirit” I’ve encountered in my journey. There are three others. Let’s call them angels, for want of a better word. They all have in common that they present themselves as beings with whom I can have—and do have—a relationship; they have a kind of personhood, they have moods and personalities. I could say that they are just in my imagination, except that they each have demonstrated their power on my behalf. They have done things that have improved my life, both inwardly and outwardly. Or more accurately, addressing them, bringing them into my devotional life, seems to be associated—causally—with little miracles; or big ones. Changes in my life that I am so grateful for, blessings that I sought and that were delivered, however that actually worked out in the spirit realm.

So I pray.

But these relationships are private, intimate, personal, and it’s complicated to share them with others. So vocal prayer doesn’t come naturally to me. Both times that I’ve prayed aloud in meeting for worship, I had the very rare experience for me of feeling ripped up from my seat, of being under some influence or power, of having hardly any choice in speaking or in what I said.

Did my prayer bring others into the Presence with me? I wonder. I doubt it. But maybe.

In my next post, I want to explore “holding in the light” as our go-to alternative for conventional prayer.

Praying for the Sacredness of Personhood

November 6, 2018 § 2 Comments

I have been traveling in Spain with my wife Christine for the past week, pretty far away from the drama of the American midterm elections. (We voted by mail.) When you travel, especially in a foreign country, you realize that there are millions—billions—of people who have lives, lovers, homes, jobs, just like you. They have dreams and ambitions, however grand or truncated by their circumstances, just like you. And your relative largeness in your own little world dissolves into a minuscule atomic reality in the midst of the galaxy of humanity.

In the face of this existential diminution, the great power of Christianity is its personality—the way it raises up personhood, the way it makes each individual life matter. One of the definitions of the soul in the Christian context is that the soul is one’s identity before God—each believer is a personhood who knows, and sins, and grows, and regrets, and ultimately is, on the one hand, accountable before the divine judgment seat, but also more positively, knowable by a divine Person, and even loved. This is some kind of ultimate validation of one’s personhood—at least as long as you pass the trial before the judgment seat—and can believe this in the first place.

Thus idea and context of Christian personality is a desirable thing, I suppose. But on many levels, of course, it’s completely unverifiable. My own personhood finds no solace in this framework. My own religiosity is essentially empirical. For the most part, I trust that which I have myself experienced. Thus my “soul” consists of something else, some kind of center of consciousness aligned toward spiritual growth.

For me, the soul expresses, personhood is manifest in creative action, God is a muse of that expression, a Source of that creativity and of that which is created (when I’m in the Life). Thus, I write, among other forms of expression. I write this blog, some poetry and fiction and nonfiction. I’m working on several books, several on Quaker topics for a mostly Quaker audience.

But this Quaker audience is a very small audience with almost no leverage with the Powers that rule the world I live in: Western imperial capitalism with its satellite principalities of corrupt or hamstrung political institutions, waning civil institutions, and collaborative religious institutions.

I dream of having some influence on this vast system of power with this blog, with my other writing. I have ambitions for publication. But I am one among billions, no more important than the hand-holding young couple I saw a few minutes ago walking below my window here in a hotel in Valencia.

Meanwhile, Americans will partially rebuke or partially affirm the sickness that is the Trump administration and its acolytes, with its lies, its fake conspiracies, it’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, it’s love of wealth and power for itself, and it’s sometimes violent assault on the sacredness of personhood.

There are very few true and meaningful counterweights to the dialectic of existing power and anti-existing-power power. The gospel of Jesus is such a third way, as Walter Wink has reminded us. But what counterweight, what third way, does liberal Quakerism offer? Can the gospel of that of God in everyone offer a meaningful alternative to the anti-gospel of power for its own sake or power for the sake of rebellion? Can it raise up human personhood beyond the mostly self-serving individualism that predominates in many of our meetings, that allows almost any heartfelt message to pose as vocal ministry, that mutes almost all attempts at radical collective action, that looks askance at radically mystical or prophetic experience, especially if it seeks to move the wider body?

Martin Luther King wrote that the universe bends toward justice. I’m not so sure. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this one. That kind of a priori statement about the moral character of “the universe” is clearly unverifiable. It’s a sweet idea . . .

The battle between organization and entropy, between good and evil, between love and fear, seems much more perpetual to me. With no clear end in sight, how can we talk with integrity about how the universe leans? With such obvious relatively long-term swings of the pendulum toward evil (think of the genocide of the First Nations of North America or the enslavement for centuries of imported Africans), how can one generalize about “the universe’s” moral character, even given the other more positive developments that coincided with those evils? An awful lot of individual persons suffered terribly under the Christian context of those evils. Did the Weight that sits in the judgment seat just go out for a long coffee break?

Personhood is small, fragile, and virtually weightless. Only the collective has real weight. Only the collective addiction to fossil fuels could have permanently altered the entire planet’s energy and atmospheric processes. Only the collective weight of emerging capitalism could have made African slave trade a vertex in the great Atlantic triangle of trade. Only the collective hunger of North Americans could have wiped out the passenger pigeon.

And yet Jesus was just one person radically focused on other persons. Or was he? Certainly he was not alone. But even his closest intimates misunderstood him, in the end. And even his bending of the universe got bent again into the imperial monstrosity that is on display in the guided magnificence of Europe’s great cathedrals.

I don’t know where this blog is going, really. Or where I’ve ended up. Just musing, and praying, as it were, with one of the main tools at my disposal, my pen. Praying for a greater recognition among liberal Friends of the deep power that lies in the foundations of our root Christian-Quaker tradition, and for the activation of the forward-looking potential inherent in liberal universalism and its rejection of the imperial thrust of the Christian tradition. Praying for a prophetic opening that harnesses collective action on behalf of the sacredness of personhood.