Some years ago, I wrote: I am particularly concerned for Friends in unprogrammed meetings who are willing to consider the possibility that the Gospel ministry is for them a central, long-term “concern,” or might become one. Of course, anyone in a meeting for worship is likely at some time or other to be pulled to their feet with a message for the meeting, and this openness is a precious aspect of our practice…However, it has been part of our experience from the beginnings of our movement that for some people, the vocal ministry becomes a concern, which is carried for some length of time, possibly for life, and that the presence of such Friends …is a vital element nourishing the faithfulness of the whole body.

This  understanding was succinctly stated by Robert Barclay, in the Apology:

we do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to the work of the ministry and therefore are fitted of the Lord for that purpose, whose work is more constantly and particularly to instruct, admonish, oversee, and watch over their brethren.

But awareness that someone has received a calling is not the end of the matter, it’s the beginning.

As I have been part of gatherings of Friends who feel themselves “called to ministry” over the past few years, I have been interested, and a little alarmed, to see how few Friends are coming forward with this concern, and gathering to examine how they are “occupying” and growing in the gift and the work. It has occurred to me more recently that perhaps those of us who do carry that concern have not been faithful enough in the work, with the result that (in a time when it is so needed and useful, never more so!)  Friends do not recognize the concern, welcome it, value or encourage it.

It seems to me that Friends who have the concern for Gospel  ministry perhaps have not yet developed the practices of mutual watchfulness and collaboration to cultivate the gift and service, which of old were a core purpose of ministers’ meetings. A  concrete and practical approach to that shared cultivation is an urgent requirement (and one that has been recognized at other times in our history).

As in so many areas of modern Quaker practice, it would be natural to reach for methods from outside our tradition, e.g. techniques of leadership development, or (as some yearly meetings have) the establishment of some specific requirements for study and qualification.   Such tools can be of use, of course, but not until we can get clear about how their use will truly be consonant with our understanding of ministry as a service in which the minister is prepared for that work under the guidance of the Spirit, and exercises it only as led by that same Spirit.   Ever since George Fox saw that being nurtured at divinity school was not what “made” a minister, Friends have been tempted to go back to schools and structures, because the alternative path is hard, and feels like uncharted territory. Indeed, we have to chart it afresh in every era, as the condition of the world changes, and with it the condition of our little Society embedded and witnessing within that world.

Lewis Benson wrote:

The work of the prophetic minister is real work. It involves enriching his mind with the language of prophecy and the imagery of prophecy. It means finding time for the maturing of insights and the quiet prayer and meditation that leads to wisdom. It means meditating on the great themes of the Christian faith. These meditations will later enrich his ministry, but they are not rehearsals of sermons to be given at any particular time or place.

This is concrete and helpful as far as it goes,  but casts the work as an individual labor.   But such an understanding is incomplete.  Learning is a social process, and most kinds of learning involve an interaction between the individual and other learners, all of whom are actively engaged — each at their own level of understanding — with some shared focus on content — a phenomenon to understand, a skill to perfect, a project to carry out.  The diversity of people in the group is an essential resource, as more experienced or skilled members help “newcomers” find their place and grow beyond their entry level — and newer members bring questions and viewpoints that push more experienced ones out of their ruts, keeping the subject matter fresh.  It is a kind of apprenticeship model, rather than a “traditional classroom.”  Such an apprenticeship has been a hallmark of a living Quaker ministry, in the times and places where it has been most healthy and most serviceable to the health and growth of the whole Body of Christ.

In this series of posts, I am going to try to work out some ideas about how ministers could meet for real mutual apprenticeship under the guidance of the Spirit, cultivating heart, soul, strength, and mind, better to understand and faithfully carry the gift that has been given to each.

 It is a living ministry that begets a living people; and by a living ministry at first we were reached and turned to the Truth. It is a living ministry that will still be acceptable to the Church and serviceable to its members.

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8 thoughts on “Cultivating Gospel ministry, part 1

    1. Bill, you ask an important question. It is something that often challenges me. I am many times reminded of a time when Martha Routh describes herself called to preach in a meeting, whose condition was so unreceptive that she says for once she felt that she was really”laboring” in the Gospel.
      I think that the decline of the ministry and the cooling or scattering of the life of Quaker worship are reciprocal developments. Where there is diligent and diverse gospel ministry–teaching as well as messages in meeting, visiting in homes, and experimenting with bringing worship in other settings — it helps the meeting understand that there is more to the gospel, depths and expanses in which they can grow. A living and diverse ministry supports people in developing and living into a coherentunderstanding of the gospel, of the ordering of the Spirit, and of the implications for personal, community, and Church life. So it can stimulate a sense of hunger and longing, and, in a way, demand more of the ministry. On the other hand, as you suggest, a lukewarm or scattered people can make hard going for the minister, not providing the kind of nourishment, challenge, and support that encourage the servants to get better at their service.
      I sympathize with those who have come to the conclusion that they cannot live out their faithfulness in a body that is so mixed in its allegiance. I have not yet come to that point, myself. I see opportunities for renewal in most meetings that I visis, and gifts in ministry emerging. My response is to encourage Friends under such a concern to take active measures to support and encourage each other in the work, which is behind this series of posts in my blog, as well as a lot of the writing and traveling that I have done over the years. It surely is the case that there is a famine in the land for the word of the Lord, if ever there was one, and we are in a time when people may be more open to recognizing their own hunger.

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  1. Perhaps Bill S should read the Bible more closely
    to find Jonah speaking to Ninevah, (not a Jew in sight)
    or Jesus speaking to any number of groups
    of non-Jews, bad Jews, suspicious Jews…
    none of whom “accepted the Gospel”?
    “Groups” do not nurture the ministry…
    but God does…
    A meeting Might nurture, in some way, ministers they recognize….
    Those following the Inward Christ
    have more help, consolation, and nurture
    than a meeting could ever imagine providing…

    Or I misunderstand him.

    As to the post
    I would like to put more primary pressure on meetings
    and their corporate understanding of what they are doing
    with worship.
    I am probably stepping on your coming words…

    The call to “ministry” is a call INTO a meeting,
    to be closer to a meeting and to speak well as a Servant of the Divine…
    (if I have it right).
    The meeting is expected to be trembling for this sort of witness,
    that the Divine does indeed speak into our gatherings,
    and members might then recognize and delight (or repent)
    in such speech,
    acknowledge it and evaluate it, discern it, especially the person who
    has been given apparently more than a “normal” share…
    A meeting should be terrified that it might miss an authentic word
    and equally fearful of giving a falsely filled person their approval…
    Neither person nor meeting can live at that razor’s edge
    unless they have some experience with God, no matter how humble…
    As Simone Weil pointed out somewhere,
    the slightest Light of God is God entire…
    or to say it my own way, a crumb from that Divine table
    is a lasting meal…nourishment indeed…

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    1. I love this line: “A meeting should be terrified that it might miss an authentic word…” Most of the rest of your comments speak for me, too. One thing I am thinking about though, is this one: “The call to “ministry” is a call INTO a meeting…” It is true that callings to any service that come to someone in a meeting are intimately linked to that meeting. So many times, though, I run into Friends who are drawn to ministry in meetings that do not see it, and see nothing precious in the possibility. Christ’s life rises, and one is drawn to “make mention” with joy — but the question then must be addressed: “To whom am I sent? Where will I find companions who know something of what I am finding out?”
      I remember this from Woolman:

      “While I silently ponder on that change wrought in me, I find no language equal to it, nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it. I looked upon the works of God in this visible creation and an awfulness covered me; my heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me. This will be understood by such who have trodden in the same path. Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance, and some appearance of right order in their temper and conduct whose passions are fully regulated. Yet all these do not fully show forth that inward life to such who have not felt it….. From an inward purifying and steadfast abiding under it, springs a lively operative desire for the good of others. All faithful people are not called to the public ministry, but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually. The outward modes of worship are various, but wherever men are true ministers of Jesus Christ, it is from the operation of his spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them, and thus giving them a feeling sense of the conditions of others.”

      It is so wonderful when one can have fellowship in this vein, and so much inspires one to reach further and watch more whole-heartedly…

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      1. I am thinking…

        I guess I have never spoken in a meeting
        where I felt the words should be said elsewhere,
        since I can only speak where I am…
        silence is Always good…
        I have never worried long about the reception
        if I felt that I fulfilled the impulse rightly…
        I have learned patience that definitely isn’t generated
        by any aspect of my own personality…
        Woolman’s universal love applies to the most recalcitrant meeting,
        and having a “feeling sense of the condition of others”
        might engender a stubborn patience with them…

        Of course the only worldly problem that solves
        is for myself, where should I be? and, do I speak?

        As I said, I am thinking….
        part of the internal discernment might be,
        have I examined myself well enough to feel/know
        that I should be elsewhere before I speak something?
        But I consider this all week anyway,
        not the speaking part but the body part….

        My sense of meeting is that it is a small portion of the week,
        but I am a Quaker all week (for better or worse)
        so where I am is always consider-able…
        I mostly have no idea what effect my vocal ministry
        has either in the meeting or the world…
        (sometimes I am giving vocal ministry in conversation)
        I rely largely upon the Spirit of Christ as I understand
        my experience of that to be….

        Woolman considered his present to be a degraded period for Quakerism…
        What is the difference?
        Maybe ministers always feel that way…
        I certainly do…
        We are all over the place and not terribly interested in
        an Inward Life…
        Ministers apparently just can’t help but live an Inward Life,
        so maybe that is one reason we find each other so consoling…

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  2. Brian, I share your concern for a more robust and attentive culture of eldership around the calling to vocal ministry, and also Eric’s, that the meeting has an important role to play. I have raised this concern in my own meeting a little and quietly, and find that not everyone knows what I’m talking about and some are nervous before the idea.

    So I have embarked on a quiet ministry of my own regarding the calling to vocal ministry: talking to some people on the Worship and Ministry Committee, asking whether they are paying attention to those Friends who speak often in meeting, wondering whether they feel a calling, and whether the Committee is prepared to provide them with support if the answer is yes.

    I’ve also decided to speak to those individual Friends who are speaking often in meeting, asking whether they feel the kind of calling we’re talking about, and, of so, whether they would be interested in doing something about it. I’ve only just begun, so I have no clear results yet, beyond one such Friend turning pensive but not clear to reply directly to my queries yet.

    I take this on as one who feels such a call myself, have for quite a while, and have always felt bereft of meaningful support and eldership for my calling.

    I’m in an unprogrammed meeting in which “gospel ministry” as such might not be very welcome; I’m not sure about that. Another thing I hope to explore.

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    1. Thanks for this, Steven. What I see in your story is an attempt to encourage your Friends to wake up to something that might be moving — and you are also naming what you see yourself.
      Sometimes it feels as if one might take a leaf from Paul’s book, in his sermon at Athens — in which he sought to meet the Athenians somewhere on their home ground — though at some point he had to then convey the foolishness of the Gospel to them, trusting that some hearts had been tendered. Some people have a real gift for “translating” from one spiritual language to another — without traducing the core of the message. This is another thing for which conversations and worship with experienced ministers from other meetings can help, sometimes.

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  3. In “The Christian Quaker …” William Rogers writes concerning “Knowledge without Zeal.” It seemed on topic relative to the discussion here. Personally, it has not occurred to me that the unprogrammed Meeting as an institution has any role in encouraging or discouraging a call to ministry. Those, who are called, are beholden to the prerogative of the inward impulse of Christ without regard to or for the brethren. This inward impulse is sufficient and sustainable encouragement itself in itself. Likewise, it is not the prerogative of those who are called to speak or minister to carry the expectation that his or her message will be accepted or rejected or to impose the message over against the conscience of those hearing. To do so is to trample over the prerogative the inward impulse of Christ in the conscience of the brethren.

    Quoted without modernizing spelling or sentence structure.
    “And now, as to those who have Knowledge without Zeal, Charity doth Oblige us to conclude, that such in that state chiefly design to live well, that so they may dye well: for (as Christ said, so may we) Luk, 12. 48. Unto whomsoever Much is given, of him shall be Much required: the want of Zeal in a known Good Cause is (as we take it) the neglect of a Known Incumbent Duty, wherein God hath given Power, else, how could it have been said to the Luke-Warm, Church of Laodicea (after understanding was given unto her, how she might come to see, viz. by anointing her eyes with eye Salve, Lev. 3. 19 (be Zealous & amend? for doubtless Power was given of God into her to amend as well as direction how to see; but of the want of Knowledge, it cannot be so said, as of the want of Zeal; Becuase ‘tis not equally in our Powers to attain unto Knowledge (When we want it) as it is Zealously to Practice what we know to be our duty; we may therefore conclude, that where Knowledge is not accompanyed with Zeal,(though requisite) tis in the best sense a token of a Luke-warm Spirit, and in some, where it hath predominated, we have clearly discerned, that first they have been over-awed by the Frowns of man or Men; and then (Under the Pretence of bearing all things) neglect to give their Testimony for the Truth without respect to any Person whatsoever, more than the Truth might require; and by this means some have (undoubtedly) been the occasion whereby many have been caught in the Snare of the Evil one (not Knowing, through a Neglect of their Inward Teacher, which way to turn) and that Loads and Burthens have been Portions of others, who (whil’st they have kept Stedfast unto the antient Doctrine, Exalting the appearance of Christ by his Light to be our Law, Rule and Guide) have beheld some of their Brethren not only captivated with a kind of slavish Fear, but also in their Practices receded from what their first Principle would have led them to; having used politick Contrivances to retain the Favour and Affections of some (who perhaps in their View have appeared to be like unto the rising Sun) and so have given more way to a Temporizing Spirit, than to acquit themselves as Good Christians in the sight of God; by which the Conscience comes to be kept voyd of offence towards God and Man; and all this (as with respect to some, ‘tis doubted) for fear lest they should be termed Sect-masters, by such as in the Gospel-day, have assumed a Pretended Authority, to establish Outward Orders, to be a Rule for, and Bond upon the Children of Light to walk by, without any exception on thereby to avoid oppressing a tender Conscience.”
    Source: “The Christian Quaker …” by William Rogers. 1680. First Part. Pgs. 73,74.

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