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.