The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Transmitting the Tradition

September 22, 2018 § 7 Comments

Other religious communities have institutions in place for transmitting their tradition. Christian denominations have seminaries and some secular academic discourse to train their clergy and a number of vehicles for training the laity: stain glass windows and symbolical architecture, the church calendar, elements of the liturgy, especially Bible readings, hymns, and sermons, and catechism/confirmation classes.

Quakers in the liberal tradition don’t have any of these institutions. We don’t have seminaries because we don’t have religious professionals that need training, though we do have Pendle Hill and some other conference centers, the School of the Spirit, Quakerism 101, and other spiritual formation programs. We have a very rich tradition of written ministry, especially the ongoing Pendle Hill Pamphlet series, and some dedicated Quaker libraries. Locally, we have religious education classes for both adults and children. In theory, at least, we have the traveling ministry. And, in theory, at least, we have vocal ministry.

But all of these options are just that—they’re options. They’re voluntary, not mandatory. My Lutheran pastor when I was a kid had to go to seminary, and I had to take confirmation class. And I had to sing those hymns, follow that calendar, and listen to his prepared sermons.

The only vehicle for transmitting our tradition that will reach even those Friends and attenders who do not take the voluntary options that are available in their meeting and beyond, is vocal ministry. Unfortunately, very few Friends avail themselves of this opportunity as ministers. Not enough Friends actually know the tradition well enough to transmit it. And those that do know it do not necessarily feel a call to a ministry of teaching.

Moreover, those who do have a calling to teach, as I do, still have to wait for the Spirit’s prompting. Even then, at least in my own experience, these teaching messages sometimes feel a bit—something . . . forced, or prepared, or somehow pretty close to the threshold of not quite.

Nevertheless, I feel that more of us need to open ourselves to the possibility of a call to teaching vocal ministry, and particularly, to teaching about worship and vocal ministry itself. Because without it, we leave the matter of transmitting the tradition in the hands of whatever religious education our meeting supports and it reaches only those who come. In many meetings, that means haphazard treatment of the tradition, at best, and total neglect at the worst.

And that means that our tradition does not get transmitted. Our members become more and more ignorant, more and more incapable of “running” the meeting in ways that are faithful to the tradition, more and more prone to vocal ministry and attitudes toward worship that seem ignorant of our tradition and the conventions that we have found foster deep worship and Spirit-led ministry.

This is another reason why vocal ministry really matters—or could matter, anyway.


The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Worship Culture

September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment

As I said at the end of my previous post about the importance of ministry for shaping the experience of newcomers, worship—worth-shape—is how we give shape to that which is of ultimate worth. And we give it that shape primarily through our vocal ministry. Our vocal ministry is the main vehicle by which we build our meeting’s culture of worship. It gives the worshipping spirit of the meeting its definition and character. It is what gives wings to the angel of our meeting.

Shallow ministry or ministry that comes from the self reinforces the sense that that is what worship is for. It encourages newcomers to bring self-defined, sharing-style ministry themselves. And it undermines the prospects for a meeting more gathered in the Spirit.

Without active nurture of Spirit-led ministry, newcomers will learn what we want from osmosis. When its seems that we are not looking for something more, we add to our worship people who are satisfied with something less. And the more people who are satisfied with something less, the more that is what we get.

This cycle of reinforcing feedback can gradually degrade the quality of the worship even further.  Since truly prophetic or deeply Spirit-led vocal ministry requires discipline—or effort, if you will—of several kinds, both personal and collective, the quality of the ministry is unlikely to improve by itself. It is much more likely to get worse.

The discipline of the seasoned minister actually reinforces this cycle. The more people who speak, the less time there is for such a minister to center into her or his own ministry, to discern its source and readiness, and find the peace or inner assurance that one needs to speak. In the meantime, someone else speaks. One stops to listen, to ponder, to absorb the message, and then one returns to one’s discernment anew. More time passes. But in the meantime someone else speaks. . . . And so on.

Similar things happen when some ministry pulls you away from the center or up to the surface of one’s own thoughts, interrupting or interfering with the minister’s centering and discernment.

Weak ministry crowds out seasoned ministry. And this reinforces a worship culture that fosters weak ministry—and tends to hinder efforts to deepen the ministry.

Cultures tend to sustain and defend themselves. That’s what cultures do. While they inevitably evolve over time, they still are conservative by nature and instinct. Of course, a culture is the collective consciousness of a group of individual people. To sustain itself—or improve itself—a culture has only individuals to work with. So, almost inevitably, some Friends take up the task of defending the worship and ministry status quo from whatever they perceive as a threat to their understanding of Quaker worship and ministry. Almost inevitably, someone on a worship and ministry committee or in the meeting resists change, especially if it seems to them intrusive or “eldering” in its negative disciplinarian connotation.

Meanwhile, some Friends might seek to change the worship culture, because, if the ministry seems weak to them, they will want to do something about it. However, the efforts to actively change the quality of the vocal ministry is likely lead to this resistance. The incipient conflict over what to do about the ministry then triggers one of the other dominant forces in Quaker culture—the avoidance of conflict. But even if the committee or the meeting decides to take the issue on, still we must come to unity on both the need to act and, much more difficult, what to do about it.

And so, almost all the time, nothing happens. Often for years. Sometimes until some crisis occurs. Often past the point at which some Friends stop coming to worship. Which is its own kind of quiet crisis.

The only way I see to improve the quality of the ministry in such circumstances is to try to model what we’re looking for. But because of the suppressive dynamics of the meeting for worship that I described above, that often means lowering one’s own bar in order to have a chance to speak at all. Which is exactly NOT what we’re looking for. You can’t model deeply Spirit-led vocal ministry by shortchanging your own processes for listening and discernment.

This is the dilemma of Quaker worship culture when the meeting has no active or effective culture of eldership (in the full and positive sense) for vocal ministry and worship in general.

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Outreach

September 20, 2018 § 4 Comments

When newcomers come to our meetings for worship, two things help them decide whether to come back. The first is the quality of their welcome, the openness of our fellowship. If the community feels warm and welcoming, if people come up to you and talk to you and show a real interest in you, it feels good. You are encouraged to come back.

The other is the quality of the worship, and that mostly means, the quality of the vocal ministry. But because newcomers don’t really know what to expect, don’t necessarily have a benchmark for what constitutes “good” vocal ministry, they are likely to find a pretty wide range of experience at least somewhat appealing. Only really disturbing or obviously inappropriate ministry is likely to turn them away, though they may still find that our form of worship doesn’t meet their religious needs.

The openness and naivety of the newcomer means that much of the ministry I have been complaining about in this series and in other posts will seem okay to most newcomers. Announcements won’t seem out of place. Worship sharing-style messages might be especially appealing, because these seekers may already have some similar experience in other groups, among their friends, and so on. Messages that begin with, “This week, I’ve been reading…” or “The latest mass shooting has me thinking . . .” might feel topical, relevant, and probably uplifting. Popcorn messages might feel exciting, messages given in the first ten or fifteen minutes probably won’t feel jarring to one’s centering.

But if this is all they get, they won’t get what Quakerism is all about—real, direct communion with God, however you want to express the Mystery that we sometimes experience in the gathered meeting. Presumably, that is what a religious seeker is really looking for, something that transcends the usual and expected experience of social interaction, something more or different than they can get elsewhere.

Worship is how we give shape to that which is of ultimate worth. We Quakers give it that shape primarily through our vocal ministry. Do we offer newcomers ultimate worth in a shape that carries spirit and truth? Does our ministry open pathways to the Well in our midst, to the Light within them, to holy communion with the Transcendence they seek?

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Paul’s Gift of Prophecy

September 18, 2018 § 3 Comments

In my last post, I talked about how important vocal ministry is as a vehicle for continuing revelation, and I cited Paul’s discussion of gifts of the spirit in First Corinthians (12–14). But for Paul, the gift of prophecy was one of searching insight into the spiritual condition of the worshippers and of the community, not a message of new direction or of religious innovation, as we usually think of “continuing revelation” today. We have mostly lost this eldering role for vocal ministry.

Perhaps the signature example of this function of vocal ministry is the spiritual awakening of Elizabeth Fry. A sister of the wealthy banker and important evangelical Quaker minister Joseph John Gurney, she was, by her own confession, a silly superficial young woman. Then, in meeting for worship, a visiting minister turned his gaze upon her and spoke pointedly to her spiritual condition. It woke her up to the life of the Spirit. The rest is history.

Now, we probably would not welcome such a message these days. Today we rightly feel that Spirit-led eldering should be done privately, not publicly. But is there a place for the eldering of the community through vocal ministry? For trying to wake the community up to its spiritual condition. Not with harangue (as we sometimes get in my meeting), but with truth plainly spoken—and when led by the Holy Spirit.

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Prophecy and Continuing Revelation

September 18, 2018 § 3 Comments

A third essential wall in the foundations of Quakerism is our experience of continuing revelation, the fact that the Religious Society of Friends continues to serve as a channel through which the Spirit of Love and Truth brings love and truth into the world in new forms. Quakerism is a prophetic faith; that is, not only were we founded by prophets with a revolutionary message, but the messages keep coming.

In the beginning—in the very beginning—the spark that fell on ready tinder among the Seekers gathered in 1652 in Firbank Fell and that burst into the flame that is the Quaker movement was a three-hour-long sermon by George Fox. It was vocal ministry.

Ever since then, the gathering spirit of Christ has used Quaker vocal ministry as the primary vehicle for continuing prophecy, for raising new concerns, for offering new directions for the Society, for our much-vaunted continuing revelation. In fact, vocal ministry IS continuing revelation made manifest among us.

And this is true, this is reaffirmed, this is carried forward with every message we hear in meeting. . . . In theory. Does the vocal ministry in your meeting feel like continuing revelation?

There are other vehicles for revelation, of course. We have an extremely rich tradition of written ministry that refreshes our understanding of truth, expands it, carries it forward—tracts, pamphlets, periodicals, recorded sermons, histories and other works, both scholarly and not, even blogs, and especially, minutes and journals.

And we have prophetic actions. We have the founding of the service committees, of Right Sharing of World Resources and FCNL, and so on. And we have extraordinary innovations in spiritual technology—clearness committees, Quaker Bible study, Quaker dialogue, worship sharing, consultations,,

But vocal ministry remains the most accessible, the most universal (among unprogrammed Friends), the most frequently employed venue for bringing God’s new truth to this peculiar gathering of God’s people, and through us to the rest of the world.

The apostle Paul felt that the gift of prophecy was the most valuable of all the gifts of the spirit (1 Corinthians 13:1–5). I would raise up the gift of healing myself. But he has a point.

It is through prophecy, through continuing revelation, that the Religious Society of Friends moves forward into God’s next work for us. And we very often get our first inkling of that new truth from someone’s vocal ministry, in a meeting for worship, or a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting, or in a consultation or Triennial or world gathering or FGC Gathering . . .

I think of Marshall Massey’s prophetic message to the FGC Gathering in 1987 that jumpstarted Quaker earthcare witness. Now that was a prepared message, but it was still vocal ministry. I am sure that that is how Marshall approached it, prepared though it was. It had been given to him by the Holy Spirit. It was seasoned by his knowledge, experience, and reason. But the impulse, the impact, and the truth was all the work of the Spirit.

Our meetings should nurture the vocal ministry as the prophetic pipeline that it is—or could be. And our ministers should think of themselves as stepping into what William Taber called the prophetic stream to fill the cup of continuing revelation and, with their message, raising it to our lips.

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: The Gathered Meeting

September 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

The signature insight of the Quaker way is that each of us can commune directly with God, for the spirit of Christ (however you experience it) is within us. The practice of listening spirituality, of attuning one’s self to this Inner Guide, is the armature of the individual Quaker’s spiritual life, and from it we derive healing, direction, inspiration, creativity, forgiveness, joy, and love.

The second signature insight of the Quaker way is that the worshipping meeting also can commune directly with God as a worshipping community. The meeting for worship also revolves around a spiritual Center, and we seek to become one with it in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). This Source, this Well, may only become palpable to us occasionally in the gathered meeting, but the experience of the gathered meeting confirms for us that it is there, that this living water for which we yearn is real, however mysterious it may be, or however many ways we may individually name it.

Vocal ministry is perhaps the most important vehicle we have for taking us to that Well and for lowering a bucket into that Well and drawing forth collective grace. Vocal ministry is, in fact, the bucket we use to poor the Holy Spirit into each other’s jars. It also is one of the most potent forces hindering the gathered meeting, when it does not draw consistently from that Well.

As the only outward form in our worship, vocal ministry naturally tends to draw us outward, toward the words and their meanings and ramifications and away from the Well at the center. It also naturally tends to draw us upward, toward the surface thoughts and feelings in our minds and away from the depths within us, where the Seed dwells.

Thus, the role of the Spirit-called minister is to use the outward form to turn us back toward the Seed within us and toward the Center in our midst. The minister is a servant of the Light and the Seed, of the Spirit and the Truth. Vocal ministry is the listening spirituality of the meeting in action.

Thus the ministry’s style should not be jarring or “jangling”, as George Fox was wont to say. And its content should remind us of who we really are in the Spirit and where we are (at the Well) and where we are trying to go—toward spirit, truth, and love.

Each successive message should take us closer. It should be deeper, or at least not more superficial, than previous messages. It should incline us more inward, not more outward. It should carry more love and more service, not more “meaning”, more cleverness, or more of me.

Even heartfelt personal sharing, which we often get as vocal ministry, though it is more at home in worship sharing, and though it does build temporary bonds between us and can strengthen a sense of community, nevertheless relocates the center of attention on one’s self, and thus perforce, away from the fully shared center we experience in the gathered meeting.

It is clear that many Friends need this kind of sharing—some need to share and as a community we need to hear what is on each other’s hearts. But that’s not worship. To meet this apparent need for sharing. meetings should hold gatherings for worship sharing. To sup from the Well of Living Water, we must enter the depths with vocal ministry that is already saturated with the Spirit.

I’m really mixing up my metaphors here, and now I want to offer another one. The image of the well is rich, at least for me, and it evokes the wonderful story of the Jesus and the Woman at the Well in the gospel of John. But a more modern metaphor might be more apt: that of the siphon.

A siphon is a tube that already has water in it, so that when you place one end in the Well, water naturally flows out of the well from the other end, against the pull of gravity, following the principle that water seeks its own level. The force that makes this possible is air pressure, which is invisible, but powerful.

Come to meeting for worship already full of the Spirit, dip your mind and soul into the Well at our collective center, and Living Water pours forth. One of the forms in which it pours forth is our vocal ministry, which is Spirit seeking its own level, seeking to return the listeners to its Source. And the invisible, powerful force behind it all is Divine Love.

When two or three of us (or more) find ourselves sharing from the same cup, we are gathered at the Well.

The Importance of Vocal Ministry: Spiritual Formation

September 17, 2018 § 2 Comments

The first reason, and maybe the most important reason, that meetings should develop a more robust culture of eldership around vocal ministry has to do with how we nurture the members’ personal spirituality in the context of the Quaker tradition.

The discipline of listening and discerning and faithfully answering the call to vocal ministry is the universal door into the very heart of Quaker spirituality. Our members and our meetings should treat vocal ministry as the most important element we all share in our spiritual formation as individuals.

The basic insight of the Quaker way is the belief—nay, the experience, the knowledge—that each of us can commune directly with the Divine and that this is the foundation for a Spirit-led life.

The classroom and laboratory of the school of the Spirit is the meeting for worship. And the signature learning exercise is vocal ministry. Learning to turn to the Light within us, learning to recognize the call of the Spirit into service, learning to discern whether the message is of God and rightly ordered—this is the one opportunity Quakerism offers each of us for developing the unique Quaker approach to the Spirit-led life.

We may not have had previous experience from some other tradition that could have helped to form our spirituality. We may not have a daily devotional life. We may not read the Bible or religious or spiritual books, or seek to learn Quakerism from our vast written tradition. We may not attend our meeting’s religious education programs, if our meeting has any. But we do go to meeting for worship and we do hear the vocal ministry of others, and, theoretically, we ourselves are expectantly waiting for the call to ministry ourselves.

The vocal ministry is the most important vehicle the meeting has for nurturing the spiritual life of our members in the Quaker way. We should use it. We should continually explain and reinforce the conventions of Quaker worship and vocal ministry, so that that much, at least, is shared by all, even—especially—newcomers. We should share how we approach this listening spirituality, this discernment and faithfulness, with each other. We should advertise and make available the classic Quaker resources on vocal ministry and build religious education programs around these resources. We should ask all members of our Worship and Ministry committees to be familiar with these resources and the committees should labor together to come to unity on how to lead the meeting’s culture of worship and ministry. This is the committee’s charge, after all.

If we were Presbyterians, our preachers would have been formally trained at seminary in homilettics, the art of giving sermons, and it would not involve just one course, but an entire program of professional development. We rely instead on the presence and action of the Holy Spirit and the openness and discernment of our members. But that should mean that the community and the individual member both take special responsibility for its exercise, because no professional will step in. A spiritual discipline like vocal ministry benefits from teachers and support “infrastructure”, takes practice, and deserves focused attention, just like playing the cello, driving a car, or counseling the troubled.