September 2001 Archives

Nurturing the Gift of Vocal Ministry

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Nurturing the Gifts of Vocal Ministry

The Quaker Movement grew explosively during its first few decades. A key reason was that it included a large number of charismatic public ministers willing and able to communicate powerfully the basic message of the new movement. The men and women who made up the Valiant Sixty crisscrossed England and neighboring countries preaching in inns, marketplaces, religious debates, courtrooms and the meetinghouses or steeplehouses of other Christian groups. On one afternoon in June 1652 on a windswept field in an isolated area of Northern England, George Fox preached for about three hours to over a thousand people. Many were members of the loose religious movement called the Westmorland Seekers. A large number of those present were "convinced" by Fox's message and became key players in the movement that in a sense was born on that day.

Early Quaker journals and other writings are filled with accounts of the way in which people were deeply affected by such messages. Clearly, these Friends were able to be vessels of God's voice in a way we rarely , if ever, see today.

Although exponential growth of the Quaker movement came to an end by the latter part of the 17th century, inspired vocal ministry, including public ministry to non-Friends, did not. Later Quaker writings often give expression to the deep impact of a message in meeting for worship or delivered by a Friend "traveling in the ministry". It was not at all uncommon for Friends to rent large halls and publicize meetings when a powerful minister traveled to their area. Many non-Friends joined Quakers as a result of hearing such Friends speak.

I believe there is a deep longing for the Quaker message in the world today. I also believe there is a tremendous need for inspired ministry within the Society of Friends. What, if anything, are Friends doing today to encourage or nurture such gifts among us?

Spirit-led Vocal Ministry

The disciplines of all of the larger unprogrammed yearly meetings in the United States include some form of a query along the lines of this one:

"Is the vocal ministry in the meeting exercised under the leading of the divine Spirit?"

I have discovered that Friends have very different reactions to this query. Many Friends feel that this query zeroes in on the very essence of Meeting for Worship. There are quite a few Friends, however, who find the query offensive and threatening to their concept of Quaker meeting. "How dare someone question or evaluate whether my ministry is from God?" Such Friends express a fear that some Friends will act as judges or censors stifling the true workings of the Spirit in the Meeting.

More disturbing to me is the fact that the query simply makes no sense to many Friends. I think it is fair to say that many Friends in unprogrammed meetings feel they have no idea what spirit-led vocal ministry means. The fact that Friends cannot tell whether they have ever heard spirit-led ministry is to me a likely indication that they have not. I know that when I first heard deeply inspired ministry, I was simply bowled over. Even though I had grown up as a Friend and had been attending meeting all my life, I felt I was hearing and experiencing something radically different than the messages I had been hearing in meeting all those years or the talks delivered at Quaker gatherings.

I do not claim to have a perfect ability to discern when the Holy Spirit inspires a message and when the message comes only from the mind of the speaker. There are times when I have felt out of sorts or completely unmoved by a Meeting where others appear to have been deeply affected. But there are many, many occasions over the past few decades where I have been blessed to be present when messages have been given that I did not feel came from the ideas or intentions of the person giving them. It's not that the brain of the person speaking was not involved - it was simply that I felt something on a very different level was happening. As a result I will never doubt the meaning or the critical importance of the above query.

Recording the Gift of Vocal Ministry

It is interesting that this query that exists in so many YM disciplines today is of fairly recent origin. It is not present in any of the 19th century disciplines. This may well be because Friends assumed without question that vocal ministry would be given in this way. In many meetings during the past the bar may have been "too high" for vocal utterance so that Friends were intimidated to speak*, rather than "too low" as often seems to be the case today.

Another reason, however, why the question was not included in early disciplines' general queries to meetings was because Friends at the time had a very different way of nurturing inspired ministry in the meeting. This earlier approach had two key dimensions:
1. The formal recognition by the meeting of those having a special gift in this area and
2. The ongoing practice of oversight and nurture of such recognized ministers' use of this gift.

The practice of formally recognizing a gift of ministry seems to have begun in England in the early 18th century. Its beginnings lend credence to those today who see the practice as fundamentally antidemocratic. A regular Meeting for Worship known as "Second Day Morning Meeting" was held at the time in London for any outstanding Quaker leaders who happened to be in London at the time. This meeting for worship was seen as a special place for mutual nurture and support among those Friends exercising the gifts of vocal ministry. Some Friends felt that certain Friends speaking in this meeting were not doctrinally sound. As a result a rule was established (after much wrangling at the YM level) whereby only those Friends who had been formally recognized as having a gift for vocal ministry by their local monthly meeting were permitted to speak in Second Day Morning Meeting.

The practice of officially recognizing the gift of ministry continued in most unprogrammed meetings for the next 200 years. It often served a very positive function. It enabled those with a real gift in this area to receive support and nurture to develop and carry out their gift through out their lives.

Ongoing Nurture of Gifts through "Eldering"

Certain Friends were seen as having a special gift of recognizing and supporting those with the gift of vocal ministry. These Friends have often been identified with the Meeting's elders, although obviously there is no guarantee that the individuals appointed to this formal office are individuals who, in fact, have genuine spiritual gifts in this area. Nonetheless, the Meeting elders were given the job of recommending to the meeting the names of Friends for recording as ministers.

After the monthly meeting concurred in recording Friends as ministers, the ministers met regularly with the meeting elders. The "Meetings of Ministers & Elders" were an occasion to pray and reflect on the spiritual life of the meeting and the meeting for worship in particular. It was also an opportunity for the elders and fellow ministers to provide support for the meeting's ministers around the ways in which the ministers were exercising their gifts in the vocal ministry. This could include prayerful discussion of any blocks that had developed in an individual minister's gift, any leadings to carry a message to other meetings, or any perceived sense that a minister was speaking more than the words provided by the divine spirit. These groups thus provided a powerful opportunity for mutual accountability, with Meeting members holding other members to the fire to be living out the gifts that had been given to them to the fullest and in the right spirit as guided by God. This is not unlike what often occurs today in clearness committees intended to help an individual meeting member discern the voice of God in an important personal decision. Meetings of Ministers & Elders also took place regularly on the quarterly meeting and YM level.

This process is well illustrated by this passage from Virginia YM's 1814 discipline: [Ministers and elders should exhort the meeting's ministers to] "earnestly seek the mind of the spirit of truth to open the mysteries thereof, that abiding in a simple and patient submission to the divine will, and keeping down to its opening of love and life in themselves, they may witness a gradual growth in their gifts, and be preserved from extending their declarations further than the power of truth shall be experienced to accompany them."

Abuse and Change

The practice of recording ministers and providing support through eldering was by no means an unmitigated positive force in the history of Friends practice. In many areas elders and ministers evolved into a kind of second category of membership, exercising fairly tight control over the life of the Quaker community, particularly on the YM level. In the Hicksite YM's in particular, the ministers & elders came to be seen as a conservative force that resisted change and fresh ideas. Many of the Hicksite YM's, in fact, dwindled and were laid down towards the latter part of the 19th century. Opposition to the practice grew and it largely was abandoned by 1900 in the Hicksite YM's and by the 1930's in the unprogrammed Orthodox YM's in London and Philadelphia. The practice continued in its original form only in the Wilburite ("Conservative") YM's in Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina. (It continues to be utilized in pastoral YM's as well but for a very different purpose - as a kind of Quaker substitute for ordination procedures.)

Renewed Interest in Recording and Eldering

The impetus, of course, for abolishing the practice is the assumption that all Friends are ministers and that God may choose to use any of us as channels for God's divine instruction of the community. The great risk, however, is that in assuming that all have equal gifts for a particular ministry, we may end up having no ministers at all. Our present system does not appear to this writer to be raising up outstanding public ministers among us of the kind that played such a powerful role in shaping our movement in the past.

In recent years there has been a minor renewal of interest among the liberal American YM's in the practice of recording gifts of vocal ministry. This interest has been strongest in NEYM where perhaps as many as a half dozen Friends have been in the last couple of decades.

My own monthly meeting in Philadelphia YM is seriously considering recording one of its members. This particular Friend has extraordinary gifts in this area. He has not only exercised his gift often in our own meeting but has traveled extensively among Friends elsewhere. **{His gift is so obvious to me and many others in the meeting that I did not know whether recording would be meaningful to him. To my surprise, this Friend wept when the idea was raised and he indicated how much it would mean to him. }

When the idea was first raised in monthly meeting, I expected there to be considerable resistance to it. A number of the older members of our Meeting, however, remember vividly the recorded ministers of our meeting who had been active in the meeting when they first attended here and the tremendous impact they had on the spiritual life of the meeting at the time. These members have recognized this particular Friend as being cut from the same mold. I also discovered to my surprise that our current YM discipline still contains a fine passage authorizing recording (although it states that it is "rarely utilized today") with the emphasis being rightly placed on the ways in which the meeting can nurture the minister's gifts after recording takes place.

Chuck Fager among others has expressed deep reservations about the idea of reviving the practice of recording ministers. Chuck is acutely aware of the antidemocratic abuses that developed from the practice, particularly in Hicksite YM's in the 19th century. He has expressed the fear that recording ministers will create a new elite enforcing spiritual orthodoxy on others in our movement. Chuck's aritcle

I have not heard anyone advocating, however, that a multi-layered structure of ministers & elders meetings be re-established in Quakerism today or that any particular prerogatives be given to Friends who might be recorded. If anything, my sense is that recording is seen as one way of recognizing and nurturing a variety of spiritual gifts within the life of the meeting. In our own YM informal gatherings of those interested in ministry and eldering are held every few months. I am told that these meetings for worship have been powerfully touched by the spirit and have continued for several hours!

Whether or not any Meetings in New Zealand are interested in the formal act of recording, I hope Meetings are taking seriously the ways they are nurturing the vocal ministry of the Meeting - including the particular gifts of individual members. These queries may be helpful:

Queries

1. Is the Meeting open to the possibility that God may give specific messages to specific individuals? Has the Meeting experienced spirit-led vocal ministry during its meetings for worship?
2. How does the meeting recognize and nurture the particular spiritual gifts of its members? Is a gift for vocal ministry considered along with other special gifts of members (such as clerking, nurture of young people, counsel & support for those experiencing hard times, intercessory prayer or the ability to discern gifts in others)?
3. If a member does have a special gift in vocal ministry, how would the meeting support and nurture the flowering of that gift? How could it provide support if the gift became blocked in some way?
4. Do you feel the bar for speaking in your meeting for worship is too high (so that Friends with inspired messages may feel inhibited to express them) or too low (so that frequent messages coming from a different place may get in the way of divinely inspired ministry occurring)?
5. Does the ministry and worship committee feel empowered to keep tabs on the extent to which worship is deeply gathered and vocal ministry inspired by God? If the committee discerned the need for change in these areas, what actions might it take?
6. Do we see it as possible that our Quaker movement could be given Elizabeth Hootens or Edward Burroughs or James Parnells in our day?

Resources:

Marty Grundy, Tall Poppies: Supporting Gifts of Ministry & Eldering in the Monthly Meeting, Pendle Hill Pamphlet # 347, 1999.
The Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend is about the practice of recording gifts in the ministry. This can be viewed at the NEYM website.
Samuel Bownas, A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister, 1750. Reprinted by Pendle Hill Publications in 1989 with an introduction by William Taber (who was himself a recorded minister in Ohio YM).

Appeared first in New Zealand Friends Newsletter, 84:8 September 2001.