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.

Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement and Worship

May 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

In my first post on Quaker-pocalypse and Advancement, I said that, to advance Quakerism we needed three things: a vital religious life, a message, and vehicles for outreach. The first item under a vital religious life was worship. Here are some queries designed for meetings to assess how they are doing with worship, to plum what is the experience of people who come into your worship—newcomers, attenders, and members.


The gathered meeting

  • The one solid indicator of a vital worship life, of worship that offers “true communion with God”, is an occasional gathered meeting for worship. When was the last time your meeting was gathered in the Spirit? What are the chances that someone who comes to your meeting a few times over a few months would experience a gathered meeting? Do you talk about the gathered meeting, especially with attenders who may not yet have experienced one?

Attitudes toward worship

  • Do you know what the members of your meeting think of your meeting’s worship and its vocal ministry? Would you consider conducting an anonymous survey to determine how your members and attenders feel? Would your meeting act if you found out that a meaningful percentage of Friends were unsatisfied with some aspect of the worship?

Vocal ministry

  • Ministry and the Spirit. Do you think your meeting’s vocal ministry is mostly spirit-led? Does your meeting do anything to explain the conventions around vocal ministry to attenders and new members, or are they left to figure it out for themselves? Does your meeting offer members opportunities to share their experience of vocal ministry, or to learn about vocal ministry?
  • Calling. Does your meeting have people who seem to be called to vocal ministry? Not just Friends who speak quite often, but Friends for whom this seems to be a calling, who take the calling seriously, and whose ministry is pretty consistently spiritually deep and edifying? Is your meeting recognizing their gifts? Is your meeting engaged with these Friends, offering them support for their ministry, if they want it?
  • Christian vocal ministry. Are Christian, biblical, and even gospel ministry welcome in your meeting? Are they common? If not (in either case), why not? Do you agree that we are a Christian religion, even if many or even most of the members are not Christians in their own experience?


  • Authority and mandate. Does someone in your meeting (your ministry committee?) have clear authority and a clear mandate to protect your worship from inappropriate behavior? Are you and they clear about what “inappropriate behavior” deserves attention? Do these Friends feel equipped to act with some confidence when needed?


  • Noise. Do Friends socialize right outside the meeting room door up to and even past the beginning time for meeting? Can you reroute the conversation to some other location?
  • Tardiness. Do Friends consistently enter the meeting room late? How late? Have you considered holding latecomers at the door and then letting them in together? Would that feel even more disruptive?
  • Seating. Did you know that the most effective way to foster a gathered meeting, after loving one another, is to sit close together? * And that the most effective way to obstruct a gathered meeting, after letting conflict go unaddressed, is to sit far apart? Does your meeting room allow Friends to sit far away from each other? Would you consider reconfiguring the meeting room so that Friends are near each other when they worship? (I personally believe that the human aura is the primary medium for the psychic sharing that one experiences in a gathered meeting for worship; pure conjecture, of course.)
  • Afterthoughts. Do you have “afterthoughts” after meeting and, if so, have you reconsidered their usefulness recently? I personally suspect that afterthoughts distort the vocal ministry, but I think it’s basically impossible to know how they distort it. The fact that afterthoughts might have some unknown feedback effect on the ministry is reason enough to discontinue the practice, in my opinion.
  • Announcements. Have you considered moving announcements to the social room and social time after meeting for worship, especially if you are a large meeting with many announcements? My meeting actually has a small PA system for this in the social room, so that it’s easy to interrupt conversation and do the announcements.


* These ideas come from a State of the Meeting Report of New York Yearly Meeting some time in the early 1990s. The Yearly Meeting sends queries to the local meetings for them to use in writing their state of the meeting reports, and the state of the meeting reports are used to write the Yearly Meeting’s State of the Society Report. The queries that year had to do with the gathered meeting:

  1. How do you define a gathered meeting?
  2. How often do you experience a gathered meeting?
  3. How do you know when a meeting is gathered?
  4. What fosters a gathered meeting and what hinders a gathered meeting?

The most often occurring answers to number four were sitting close together and sitting far apart.

Back to text

On vocal ministry

March 7, 2015 § 4 Comments

A f/Friend of mine is preparing for a program she will lead in her meeting on vocal ministry and the email she sent me about it evoked a response that I ended up feeling worthy of sharing more broadly. She asked about Afterthoughts as a practice common in many meetings. And then her questions and thoughts got down to the essential thing about vocal ministry: discernment. Here is a revised version my response.


I think Afterthoughts do affect the vocal ministry in a meeting once it has become a settled practice. But one little “study” I found on this practice a while back suggested that it’s really hard to tell what that effect is.

My own feeling, not well cemented, is that it does feed back into worship and tends to lower the bar for vocal ministry. The reason is that one is hard put to tell the difference between messages in worship from messages in Afterthoughts; I rarely see any very noticeable difference in spiritual depth between the best afterthoughts and the average message in meeting.

I think this is subtly confusing to people. I say subtly because I doubt they consciously feel confused. Rather, I suspect that the inability to clearly identify truly spirit-led ministry in either case reinforces the feeling that simply “heart-felt” is enough in meeting for worship, and that “truly spirit-led” is either some mythical condition rarely achieved, or is as common as an inspiring thought.

In other words, I think Afterthoughts are a bad idea. I would make the meeting for worship the crucible for discernment that it is intended to be. 

For I agree that the real issue is discernment: how do you tell whether your message is truly spirit-led? It’s not easy. 

But I think the negative is, in fact, much easier: I think it’s a lot easier to tell when a message is NOT spirit-led. Here are some indicators that I think raise a flag of caution right away:

  • Messages that begin with an allusion or reference to some medium. For instance, “I was reading in the New York Times …” Or “I recently saw the movie American Sniper, and …” “I heard a piece on NPR …”
  • Messages that begin with a reference to time: “A few days ago, I was in a drug store when …” “Recently, I’ve been …” “Lately, …”
  • Messages that start with “I” and then proceed to recount a personal anecdote: All of the above serve as examples. Or, especially: “I’ve been thinking …”
  • Announcements. NEVER as vocal ministry, no matter how important we think it is for others to know about something.

Such messages are always uplifting. But they feel to me like what I call “nuggets I have found on my spiritual journey”. The sharing is good, the message is good. But I often feel that the speaker did not go deep enough to really uncover the truth revealed in the incident, or discipline her or himself enough to deliver just the truth itself without the introductory story. Buried in the outward casing of the anecdote, the truth is left to glimmer weakly somewhere in the inward center. Of course, you can get to the center by starting from the outward. But the self of the speaker and the body, the content, of the story, I believe, tend to draw the listeners upward and outward into the world, rather than inward and downward toward the spiritual depths we each have within us. We follow that story and drift upwards as we do; even the speaker necessarily gets drawn upward and outward and away into the past and the memory of the event as she speaks. Then we get handed a chocolate–only to have to begin deepening again.

I have two other things on my mind regarding vocal ministry. The first is that I would love to recover the sense of calling to what we Friends used to call gospel ministry, back when we recorded ministers. By this I mean, adapted to our modern times, the emergence of a Quaker culture in which some Friends would recognize that they are called to vocal ministry as a ministry; that is, that they feel, not just that they are led in the moment to rise and speak now and then, but that they have been tapped by G*d to follow an ongoing ministry; that they have a sense of mission about vocal ministry. And correspondingly—and this is the culture part—that the meeting feels the same way. That the meeting as a community recognizes that some people really do have a gift for vocal ministry; that the meeting also realizes that such a calling bears a very heavy responsibility, for which the meeting has a responsibility itself. I feel that meetings should do more to help emerging vocal ministers find their feet and then give them ongoing support and—yes—oversight as they mature in their calling.

I feel such a calling myself, and have always longed for a meeting that would be more conscious and deliberate in working with me around whatever gift I have. To be fair, I have asked for such attention only once, but that was not a good experience, and it shied me off. I need to regain some courage there.

The final thing is a deep theological one: where does vocal ministry come from? Most liberal Friends today just are not comfortable thinking that vocal ministry comes from God. First, they’re not sure what we might mean by “God”, but the traditional theistic, supreme being version is a bit hard to deal with. I don’t “believe in” a supreme being myself; it just doesn’t make sense to me and I have no experience of such a thing. I would argue, in fact, that direct experience of a supreme being is by definition impossible.

So if vocal ministry does not come from God—or from Christ, as Friends have claimed for centuries until fairly recently—where does it come from? I think most of us are likely to grope toward that old cliche, “that of God in everyone” as an answer, if we try at all. This has the subtle but extremely powerful effect of individualizing vocal ministry: my message comes from inside me, and I can’t really articulate what the more-than-just-me inside me is, so—well, I guess my messages just come from me. Thus we call them “messages” or “speaking in meeting” instead of “vocal ministry”, that is, service to God and to the meeting through the divine gift of prophecy.

There is a mystery here. Vocal ministry does come from within one’s self. And even if it is truly spirit-led, that is, if it really does come from some kind of higher power greater than myself, whatever that might be, it still comes into me and then out through me. Naming the transcendental source has, for liberal Friends, become nearly impossible.

And maybe we don’t need to name it. But I do believe that we need to acknowledge it. I believe there is a transcendental mystery to truly spirit-led vocal ministry, and immersion in that prophetic mystery and submission to its authority is our goal as vocal ministers. And collectively, I believe that if our meetings took the transcendental, divinely-inspired character of true vocal ministry more seriously, we would enjoy increasingly deep worship.

For myself, as an operating principle I behave as though vocal ministry comes from the spirit of Christ. I have no direct experience of Christ as my guide in this way, so I don’t call myself a Christian. But I find it helpful to sort of assume that leadings come from that spirit of love and truth, because it keeps me on the up and up. It makes me a lot more serious about what I’m doing. And anyway, Friends have been testifying to the truth of Christ as our guide and gatherer in worship for centuries. I have chosen to not just respect but actually embrace their testimony for myself as a tentative article of faith until my own experience clears things up—while remaining clear that I am holding this idea in a rather artificial way. It’s become experimental, but not yet experiential.

Challenges for Large Quaker Meetings

September 9, 2014 § 5 Comments

I moved to Philadelphia in June and while packing my Quaker library I uncovered a paper I didn’t know I had: The Caring Multitude: Is It Possible? Preliminary Reflections on Experience in a Large Quaker Meeting in an Urban Setting, by Dan Seeger. Dan is a fairly well-known Friend who has held several high-level positions with AFSC and was Executive Director of Pendle Hill for a time, among a number of other significant contributions to Quaker culture. His 1965 case before the US Supreme Court, The United States of America vs Daniel A. Seeger, won the right to conscientious objection to military service for secular people who were not claiming religious grounds for their stand.

The Caring Multitude was written in 1979 and was originally meant “to be shared with a small group of Friends concerned with the life of the Monthly Meeting”. I am not at all sure how I ended up with a copy, which is a photocopy of a typewritten manuscript that has someone else’s notes on it.

In this little talking paper, as he calls it, Dan addresses the challenges that large urban meetings face in three crucial areas: pastoral care, meeting for worship, and corporate social outreach. He makes a lot of really interesting points. More than interesting—they are true, to my mind, and very much worth considering, especially by Friends worshipping in large meetings.

Because I don’t have permission to republish his paper, I don’t feel comfortable even quoting it extensively, which I would like to do, but I do want to raise up some of his ideas and add some of my own, and invite my readers to think about them. They are especially pertinent for Friends in large meetings and for those of us who attend regional and yearly meeting sessions that get large.

What do I mean by “large”? I want to leave this definition to the subjective sense of large, rather than giving a number. I think, when you read further, you will have a sense of what I mean. And anyway, some of these dynamics apply even to smaller meetings.

What it’s like to worship in a “large” meeting?

I agree with Dan’s assessment that our way of silent, waiting worship doesn’t really work in large meetings. That it can’t work, in fact. Here’s why (the core insight here is Dan’s; most of the elaboration is mine):

A certain proportion of Friends are likely to feel a genuine call to speak in meeting. Another proportion are likely to speak with less obvious grounding in the Spirit. The more people in the meeting, the more people are likely to speak. When the population gets to a certain point, you get an awful lot of speaking, and, as Hegel first pointed out, at that point, quantitative change precipitates qualitative change.

First, it tends to induce popcorn speaking, a chain reaction of messages that have been prompted more by each other than by the Holy Spirit. Second, the increased number of messages squeezes the intervals between messages, and this squeezing suppresses the ministry of those Friends who feel it’s important to leave a decent interval between messages and who use that interval to properly attend to each offering. Thus the Friends who are most likely to bring a deeper, more seasoned ministry to the meeting are least likely to finish their seasoning or find an appropriate moment in which to deliver it.

This has several bad effects. First, by denying Friends the time of waiting silence necessary to go deep, we don’t go deep. By denying Friends the vocal ministry of some of its most gifted ministers, we disrespect both the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s servants. And by virtually guaranteeing a certain amount of un-gifted ministry, we degrade the quality of the worship.

Furthermore, the situation reinforces the low standards for both corporate behavior and individual ministry that prevail in such a meeting, encouraging more of the behavior that causes the problem. It gives newcomers a false impression of what meeting for worship is for, and it inevitably drives some of them away. I know this from personal experience: one of my sons stopped attending such a meeting because “the same blowhards rise to speak every meeting”. And it drives away seasoned Friends who want a deeper worship experience; but before they go, it leads them into grief and even despair.

And the whole dynamic is a self-reinforcing downward spiral. The more devoid of Spirit the ministry is,

  • the more likely that gifted ministers will either keep quiet (and bring down the spirit of the worship with their despair), or leave;
  • the less likely that avid Spirit-seekers will stay and join;
  • the more bandwidth the blowhards will occupy; and
  • the more likely that gifted ministers will lower their own standards in desperation, and then get even more depressed because of their own perceived unfaithfulness.

Does any of this make sense to you? Is it your experience? Do you serve on a ministry and worship committee, which is charged with nurturing a deep meeting for worship and with protecting the worship from unworshipful influences? Do you have any idea what to do about these problems?

I hope you respond, and, in my next post, I want to try out some ideas for dealing with these problems. Some come from Dan’s paper, and some are my own.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Outreach, Part I

February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

Vigorous Outreach with the Quaker Message—Who We Are

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? : Bringing people to G*d and bringing G*d into the world.

I have been talking in the last number of posts about the first half of the answer to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friend for?, namely, various aspects of “Bringing people to G*d”. Now we turn to the second half of the answer: “Bringing G*d into the world”. I said at the beginning of the discussion of evangelism that evangelism offered a segue from the first part to the second, because evangelism does both.

From evangelism—bringing people to the Christ / awakening people to the Light within them—it is a short step to outreach, to energetically communicating the Quaker message and advertising our presence, in the knowledge that many people would find their spiritual home among us if only they knew who we are and where we are.

Outreach has three components, as I see it:

  1. the message—who we are;
  2. the medium—where we are, how we make our presence known; and
  3. the welcome—what we do in our meetings to present ourselves effectively and attractively, so that visitors want to come back.

This post is about the message.

The message

Before we reach out, we have to know what we’re going to say. And for God’s sake, it has to be more than “there is that of God in everyone” and our testimonies. The basic questions that visitors are likely to bring to us are:

  1. What do Quakers believe?
  2. What’s with this “silent meeting for worship”? and
  3. Are you going to be friendly, are you going to welcome me?

I have written elsewhere that, in a sense, “what do Quakers believe?” is not quite the right question. “What is your spiritual/religious experience?” is the more important question for us—“what canst thou say?” But inquirers still want to know what we believe and it is a legitimate question, an important question. We have to be able to answer it, confidently, succinctly, and with integrity.

Thus every Friend needs an “elevator speech”, a short, clear, ready-to-go presentation of Quakerism that could lead to a more in-depth conversation if there’s time and interest for it. Furthermore, every meeting needs to be prepared in this way, also. And every meeting needs Friends who know the tradition well enough to start answering the next questions that come up, whatever they are, and to inform the content of the meeting’s outreach efforts (and to teach the tradition in religious education programs).

Here’s my elevator speech. Passages in brackets represent additional material that I might add if I have enough time.

The Light. We believe, because we have experienced it ourselves, that there is in everyone a Light, a light in the conscience that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do. There is in everyone a presence that can heal us, that can save us from our demons and relieve us of our inner suffering, that can inspire us to acts of kindness, compassion, and creativity, that can lead us to become the people we were meant to be, and that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community. We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as a Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement today. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. Because we experience the Light inwardly, we have laid down many of the outward forms that other religions rely on for communion with God.

[If I just have a little time, I skip the detail about the Light given above and just say: There is a principle in every person, which Friends call the Light of Christ, the Inner Light, the Seed, ‘that of God in everyone’, that can know God directly. Because we experience the Spirit inwardly, we have laid down many of the outward forms that other religions rely on for communion with God.]

The gathered meeting. Moreover, just as each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also the community may be led by that selfsame Holy Spirit. [Ever since the 1650s, when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have known directly and collectively the love and guidance of that same Light and spirit and consciousness of the Christ that dwells within each individual. Therefore, we have no “leaders” over us—we conduct all of our affairs directly under the leadership of the Spirit.]

Continuing revelation. Direct communion with God means that God is still teaching God’s people. God’s revelation did not end with the Bible; rather God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. [Thus, in answer to God’s call to change, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, and we have struggled against slavery (though, to our shame, this took a while), even though the Bible seems superficially to condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.]

Let your lives speak. God calls us to live our faith in practice, to live our lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened within us, leading us to alleviate suffering, injustice, and oppression, and to amend their causes. As a movement, we have come to unity on a number of stands of conscience and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, both as individuals and as a society.

Love. Love is the first motion, the first and last commandment.

Each of these elements can be unpacked to get into our Quaker “distinctives”:

  1. from the Light we can go on to explain openings and leadings, the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, our stand on the sacraments;
  2. from the communal experience of the Spirit we can talk about silent worship, meeting for business in worship and corporate discernment in all its other forms, corporate support of individual ministry, gospel order (Quaker process), our stand on “days and seasons” and other outward liturgical forms;
  3. from continuing revelation we can discuss our relationship with Scripture, our rejection of creeds, the laying down of the outward sacraments, and our experience with new leadings and “the testimonies”;
  4. from the testimonial life we can elaborate on the particular testimonies, our stands of conscience, on ministries of social change and service, and our approach to missions and evangelism.

What is your “elevator speech”? Does your meeting have posters, pamphlets, and people ready that can answer the basic questions of inquirers when they arrive? Does your meeting do anything to project the basic Quaker message beyond its walls? Does your meeting have a website? If so, how does it present the basic Quaker message?

I recommend that every Friend prepare her or his own “elevator speech”, so that when someone asks about us, you are ready with an answer. Just being ready will be impressive; conversely, not being ready might make people wonder.

Likewise, I recommend that every meeting look at its entryway and reevaluate materials that may have been there so long nobody even knows what they are anymore. Posters on the walls, especially: what do they say? Are their messages welcoming? off-putting? full of Quakerese? Would someone new to Friends be able to walk into meeting for worship after looking at your walls and not talking to anyone and know what to expect? And do you have pamphlets in racks waiting for your greeters to put into seekers’ hands? Does your meeting use greeters at all?

But now I am getting into the next post on outreach media—the methods we use to let people know we exist and who we are.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Corporate Spiritual Nurture

December 29, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve written quite a bit already about the next items in my outline of What the Religious Society of Friends is for—the role of the community in nurturing the spiritual lives of its members and attenders. I want to revisit some of those themes here and to expand on them to include more of the corporate worship life and fellowship of the meeting itself. Here’s the excerpt from the outline:

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual nurture in covenantal community: Engage in each other’s spiritual growth through a robust and nurturing culture of eldership; protect the communal fellowship and the community’s worship.

Take responsibility for the corporate side of personal spiritual nurture; that is, work together to name each other’s gifts and discern and support each other’s ministry.

By “covenantal community” I mean a meeting in which the members invite the meeting to actively participate in their spiritual lives and offer their own active participation in the life of the meeting. In concrete terms, this means:

  • Sharing your spiritual and religious experience with the meeting. Does anyone in your meeting know what your spiritual practice is? How you came to Quakerism? Why you stay? What you want from the meeting and whether you are getting it? If you were going through a crisis or a dry period in your prayer life, your family life, your work life, your creative life, would your meeting know? If you were facing an important decision and didn’t see clearly what to do, would you ask for a clearness committee?
    • If you asked for a clearness committee, would the meeting know what to do? Would your meeting welcome deeper knowledge of your spiritual life? Would they be prepared to help you with a crisis in your spiritual or prayer life? Does your meeting have elders whose own depth of religious experience would equip them to mentor you or help you with your spiritual life? Are you yourself such an elder, at least potentially? Do you look for opportunities to serve the members of your meeting in these ways?
  • Eldering. Do you feel that there are people whose behavior disturbs your meeting’s worship or fellowship? Do conflicts trouble your meeting? If you were yourself bringing conflict or disturbance to your meeting, would you welcome loving eldering—the meeting’s caring attention to your behavior?
    • Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the worship from inappropriate behavior? Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the fellowship of the meeting? Is your meeting in denial of the conflicts that trouble it? Does your meeting bring accountability up in any way with applicants for membership in its committees for clearness on membership?
  • Inviting the meeting to help you deepen your spiritual gifts, your vocal ministry, and the other ministries to which you feel called. Have you identified your gifts of the spirit? Are you engaged in some activity outside of meeting that is a ministry, that the meeting doesn’t know about? Do you think of it as a ministry yourself? Do you speak fairly often in meeting? Do you want to deepen your vocal ministry? Do you feel some obstacle to speaking in meeting?
    • Would your meeting welcome knowledge of your leadings? Does your meeting do anything concrete to name each other’s gifts of the spirit? Does your meeting know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry well enough to take responsibility for it? Do they know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment of leadings? Does your meeting provide opportunities to discuss ministry, especially vocal ministry, in general? Does your meeting provide its ministers with committees of support or oversight, or engage with them in any other way?

What if your answers to some of these questions are no? If our “no”s involve the personal queries about our own relation to the meeting, we can start thinking about how to reengage with the meeting. But often, our reticence stems from our sense that our meeting will not be there for us. So what then? What do we do when our meeting does not meet our spiritual needs, either because it does not have the resources, especially the human resources, or it doesn’t have the interest or the will?

Meetings often lack the will to be a true covenantal community in the way I am describing (that is, to work with their members and attenders in a meaningful way to enrich their spiritual lives) because it isn’t in unity about it whether to do it, let alone about how to do it. Some Friends just wouldn’t want to go there, and through tacit understanding, it just never even comes up. And we are so cautious about possibly hurting people or driving them away. In my experience, very often a solid majority of people in the meeting would be uncomfortable with this kind of meeting life, for a variety of reasons.

People come to a meeting and to religious life wanting different things. Most want comfort, support, spiritual companionship, renewal, recharging—peace. Far fewer want transformation, let alone the fire of the spiritual crucible. And yet a meeting should try to meet all these needs, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

So a meeting should try to accommodate those of us who want more engagement around our spiritual lives, but hopefully in ways that don’t threaten others, or force them to change in ways they don’t want to, or that pulls the community rug out from under them. This is a delicate balance and hard-to-achieve. Any experiments along the path toward greater engagement and accountability between members and the meeting would inevitably meet obstacles and inevitably, we would make some mistakes.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Naturally, we can’t force our meeting to change just for us, especially if we really are in the minority about this sort of thing. Some meetings might be led in this direction over time—a long time, probably—given some deft leadership.

But it’s awkward—and not often successful—to try to be the leader yourself, the person who teaches the meeting to how meet your needs; to teach the meeting how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, for instance, when you are the one who needs help with discernment; or to teach the meeting how to write a minute for travel when you are the minister who feels the leading to travel.

And it’s even more complicated when eldering is called for, when conflict or inappropriate behavior or weak clerking trouble the meeting. In these cases, bold and wise leadership is called for, and it’s not easy to take the initiative, especially if you’re not serving on a committee that would normally deal with such things.

Very often, in fact, the nominating process is one of the sources of the problem—people appointed to positions for which they lack the depth or knowledge of the Quaker way, or who in areas in which they have a strong opinion or an axe to grind that would obstruct the committee’s effective action. I have seen more than one committee on worship and ministry with a member or two who either know very little about Quaker ministry and/or are uncomfortable with its faith and practice, especially with the role of eldering, and would resist action in these areas. I am not sure what to do in these situations, except perhaps speak with nominating committee about one’s concerns, and see what the next cycle of nominations brings about.

In the easier case of personal ministry and spiritual nurture, the only thing I can think to do is to try the meeting first, to see how far you can go. And then, if it looks like the meeting isn’t going to be able to respond to your needs in a timely fashion, to try to create for one’s self, with others of like mind, a non-formal structure for spiritual exploration, support, nurture, and accountability independent of the meeting’s formal structures. For many Friends in smaller meetings or meetings less amenable to these ideas, this will mean some kind of regional group. In New York Yearly Meeting, the networking for this kind of engagement is quite lively at the Yearly Meeting level, but it hasn’t moved down into the regional meetings very much, as far as I know.

What I’m getting at is that, in many yearly Meetings, there might be opportunities for grassroots networking at the local meeting level around this kind of spiritual nurture that could converge with similar efforts taking place at the yearly meeting level, which could then be relocated at the regional meeting level without too much difficulty. New York Yearly Meeting is too big geographically and meets too seldom as a yearly meeting body to host groups that serve these kinds of spiritual needs very well. But a New York City spiritual nurture group, or an outer Long Island group, or a central or northern New Jersey or Finger Lakes group might be able to meet more regularly.

The model here might be the Experiment with Light groups, which are usually organized, if I am not mistaken, at the local meeting level, but often with participants from nearby meetings; and the spiritual nurture groups formed by the School of the Spirit and by the spiritual nurture programs sponsored by Baltimore and other yearly meetings.

And what would such groups do? The following ideas assume that the local meetings are not willing or able to serve your needs in these ways:

  • Hold extended periods of open worship, hopefully without a programmed time to end.
  • Provide opportunities to share the joys, challenges, and evolution of each others’ inner lives, personal practice, and the life of the spirit in general.
  • Conduct clearness committees for discernment of leadings.
  • Name each others’ spiritual gifts in some way, and find ways to help each other mature in your gifts.
  • Share your spiritual practices with each other and provide mentoring in them, if you feel qualified and others show interest.
  • Create structures for sharing and learning together the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and Quaker spirituality.
  • Provide support and oversight committees for those following a leading, especially those led to travel in the ministry or to pursue some specific service, and for those who feel called to vocal ministry.
  • They would not, however, intervene in local meeting situations that require eldering. This, I think, remains the prerogative of the meeting, even if it’s dysfunctional in this area.

Hopefully, within some meetings, such non-formal groups would prove to be seeds for a more robust culture of eldership based in the meeting, once members saw how it worked and how valuable it was for its participants. So these groups should not hide their light under a bushel. Nor should they evangelize out of spiritual pride. But they should be open and inviting to any who would want to participate. For this is one of the things that the Religious Society of Friends is for—corporate nurture and support of personal ministry and spiritual life.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Worship

December 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

A reminder that the original post with the outline of my answers to the question “What is the Religious Society of Friends for?” can be found here.

Note on versions of the survey. After I first published this survey, some Friends with more experience in designing surveys suggested changes and I realized from a comment to this post that I would like to include a section surveying Friends’ own spiritual practice. So I have created a new version of the survey with these changes. But I have not changed the original survey because some people have already been taking it as it was originally published. Here’s the new version of the survey.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for: worship . . .

Give members the experience of direct communion with G*d that is our promise, by fostering deep silence, spirit-prompted vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting.

Many people find that their spiritual lives do not require community. But for Friends, the communal life of the spirit provides an indispensable context for their individual spiritual lives. And for us Quakers, the Quaker way of worship is the bridge between our individual spirituality and our communal religious life.

For, just as the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the soul of personal Quaker spiritual life, the meeting for worship is the very soul of communal Quaker religious life. And in the meeting for worship, the two fulfill each other. The worshippers bring their vocal ministry to the community in the meeting for worship and, when the ministry is deep and spirit-led, it leads the community into the depths of collective communion with G*d.

Thus the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to foster worship “in spirit and in truth”, as the gospel of John puts it. And the purpose of the meeting is to do whatever it can to help its members and attenders find that Well, the wellspring within themselves and the Well at the center of the community’s worship together. The goal of the meeting for worship is to align itself with that Christ-consciousness, to sink into its arms, to rejoice in its embrace, and to follow its truth into peace and reconciliation, into new prophetic revelation, and into the world outside the meetinghouse doors.

Virtually all of us agree, I suspect, about how important the meeting for worship is, both for us as individuals and for the meeting as a whole. Yet I know a lot of Friends who are unsatisfied with at least some aspects of their meeting’s worship, who yearn for more spirit-led vocal ministry, in particular, and for the meeting to be gathered in the Spirit more often. It’s pretty common to hear Friends complain about the quality of their meeting’s worship. So what can we do about it? How do we foster “deep silence, spirit-prompted vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting”?

I’ve written elsewhere about the gathered meeting, how important I think it is, how to nurture it, how it is the fulfillment of the promise of Quakerism: that it is possible to commune collectively and directly with G*d when the meeting is gathered. But the gathered meeting, the deepest communion, does not just happen by itself—well, yes, it can come as unexpected grace. But it depends to a large degree on the depth of the silence and on the quality of the vocal ministry. The gathered meeting is much more likely to occur when the meeting commits itself to providing certain essential forms of support:

  • religious education that teaches the faith and practices of Quaker worship, vocal ministry, and eldering, so that everyone knows what they are doing when they gather to worship;
  • spiritual formation efforts that help the members find the spiritual practices that work for them as individuals, so that everyone knows how to seek the depths in their own way and with confidence; and
  • spiritual nurture efforts that help Friends mature in their practice;
  • a meeting space that is comfortable, welcoming, and conducive to centering;
  • a fellowship that is infused with love and emotional maturity, in great enough measure to transform conflict and to absorb or transform the inevitable occasional disturbances to worship; and
  • elders, Friends who have the spiritual depth, wisdom, and authority to take responsibility for nurturing and protecting the worship.

This last is controversial for some Friends, but I consider it very important.

Every meeting has a committee that is charged with the care and nurture of the meeting for worship and its ministry. Ideally, this committee comprises Friends who know our traditions regarding worship, whose experience of deep silence, spirit-led vocal ministry, and the gathered meeting prepares them to be spiritual nurturers, and who can act to protect and deepen the worship with the full encouragement of the meeting.

But how many meetings have the people they need to fulfill these responsibilities? And how many meetings actually encourage their elders to act on behalf of the worship, to be proactive about deepening it and protecting it?

Virtually every local meeting that I know is rather timid about this, at best. At worst, meetings are actually and actively allergic to any suggestion that something could or should be done proactively to protect or deepen the worship, never mind that someone should act toward these goals. In my experience, very many meetings are more or less paralyzed by a combination of factors and conditions that make action on behalf of deeper worship difficult. These include:

  • diversity of attitudes about proactive attention to worship and vocal ministry, in the meeting at large and also among those serving on the worship committee itself;
  • attachment to the status quo and resistance to change;
  • misplaced fear of leadership;
  • resistance to discipline as somehow unQuakerly;
  • strong personalities, especially when these Friends are either ignorant of or ingore-ant of Quaker tradition, or when they let their past wounds and their current baggage color their behavior;
  • a misplaced fear of hurting Friends’ feelings; and
  • the suppression of ministry, most often directed (in liberal meetings) toward Christians and ministry that is Christ-centered, evangelizing, biblical, or even just theistic; but sometimes also directed toward prophetic witness; ironically, this suppression often manifests as intolerance in the name of tolerance and exclusion on behalf of inclusiveness and diversity, out of a feeling that the ministry being suppressed is itself exclusionary or intolerant.

Also paradoxically and ironically, Friends often resist proactive attempts to protect or deepen the worship and the vocal ministry precisely because they fear that it will suppress the ministry they already have. God forbid that we should suggest that the messages we get are not spirit-led or not spirit-led enough. That would surely shut down those Friends who do speak, if not drive them away, and then where would we be?

It’s a problem. Even if meetings did not have to deal with the paralyzing factors I’ve described above, it would still be hard to know what to do. How do you try to deepen the worship without implying that it’s not deep enough, which seems tantamount to implying that the worshippers are not deep enough? Even though that may be true.

The only people who would want to hear such criticism would be those who desperately yearn for deeper worship, who know that deeper worship depends on them, and who know that they are not, in fact, deep enough, that they do need to dedicate themselves more faithfully to their own devotional practice. Well, that’s my condition, anyway.

The only way forward through these difficulties, it seems to me, is to have some open and frank conversations about our experience of worship, to get a reading on how well the status quo is serving everyone’s spiritual needs, as a prelude to talking about how to improve—or whether we can try to improve it at all.

Because it’s such a sensitive issue, it might work best to conduct an anonymous survey to start with, and commission some group or committee to gather the results and present a report. Ask some pointed questions and find out what the members and attenders actually think about their meeting for worship without putting them at risk.

If a significant portion of Friends are unhappy with the worship, it would be good to know. If they are unhappy, it would be good to know why. It would be good to know how many Friends are willing to tackle the problems, if they exist. And it would be good to know how many Friends are satisfied with the status quo, who don’t think there is a problem to tackle, who would resent any intrusion into a worship that works for them. After learning where we are, maybe we could have a good conversation about what to do next.

To this end, I have devised such a survey. It includes the questions to which I would like to know the answers. Please let me know what you think. Have I missed some questions that you think need to be asked?

I anticipate that even suggesting using such a survey will trigger some of the responses I’ve outlined. It is tantamount to suggesting that there is a problem with the worship, which some Friends are likely to resist. But what if we know that we are not alone in wanting deeper worship, that other people in the meeting feel as we do? Then we know there is, in fact, a problem. So there we are. It’s harder if we think we are virtually alone in our unhappiness. But maybe we aren’t alone? A survey like this is a way to find out.

These are just queries, after all. We use queries all the time to examine the quality of our religious lives. The only difference here is that these are a bit more pointed than the general ones we have in our books of discipline. But they have the same basic purpose.

If you bring this survey to your meeting, would you please let me know how it goes? I also would like to survey my own readers. Would you be willing? You can either download a Word doc of the survey, fill it out, and email it to me at sddavison@icloud.com, or you can click here to go to a web page that has a survey form. Filling out and submitting this form sends your answers directly to my database of answers.

And thanks!

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