My focus in this series of posts has been specifically on the gifts that Friends traditionally have included under gospel ministry. But although this would seem to limit the discussion to one kind of gift, not speaking of other kinds of service under concern, in this post I want to point out that “gospel ministry” is itself a term covering quite a diversity of gifts and operations under the guidance of the Spirit.
The reason this is important is that if we are aware of this diversity, we will be more likely to see the gifts emerging (in ourselves or others). I suspect that many gifts are overlooked or rejected because they don’t fit people’s preconceptions of what shape a gift in the ministry might take. Moreover, even Friends who have accepted that the ministry is a concern and task laid on them may usefully be aware of these varieties of service, and thus the possibility of some growth in the ministry. Finally, those who have a care for the ministry in our meetings should sometimes reflect on whether there is a healthy variety of ministry in their meetings, and be open to opportunities to encourage prayerful experimentation.
For the purposes of this discussion, I consider these varieties under two heads:
A. Varieties of voices
B. Varieties of operation
A. Varieties of voices
We are happy to recall that Friends from the beginning welcomed the ministry of women, and were willing to accept the evidence of their discerning hearts that it was authentically led by the Spirit. We know intellectually that Friends of many conditions came forth in the ministry — but how attentive are we to watch for gifts emerging in young people (James Parnell, for example, did important service as a publisher of truth in his mid-teens), or in people of different classes and degrees of education (butchers, sign-painters, farmers, sailors, blacksmiths, maid- and man-servants, as well as the educated, well-born, or genteel). And here I would like also to point out that age is no barrier — one can never be too old to take on the work, either, and there are older Friends who have done so — and there may be older Friends among us who are feeling now the pull of love that is the nub of the matter. Nor are ethnic, national, racial, or religious backgrounds any predictor of where God will find out messengers and servants.
Indeed, this variety has been in the past, and can be now, a great source of strength, and it gives evidence of the breadth and depth of the Christian life, which is alike for all: Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what was weak in the world to shame the strong; he chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are nothing, to bring to nothing the things that count in the world’s eyes….Let the one who boasts, boast only in the Lord. (1Cor.: 26-31)
B. Varieties of operation
It is a mighty thing to be in the work of the ministry of the Lord God, and to go forth in that. It is not as a customary preaching; but it is to bring people to the end of all outward preaching. — Fox
The end of the ministry is not only to gather, but also to preserve and build up what is gathered, even to perfection. — Penington
Just as the ministry should come in many voices, so also it should take many forms, answering to the many moods and conditions in which people may need encouragement, instruction, or companionship. No one Friend may be led or prepared (by the Spirit) for all such varieties — remember the facing bench challenge!
I here beg leave to quote from something I once wrote on this subject:
What kinds of things have Friends done, either when travelling or at home? There has always been a wide range of concerns, and gifts for them, and degrees of skill or effectiveness in each.
Preaching in meeting on First days is one gift that actually has historically included several types, often noted in journals or other accounts. For example, some Friends particularly excel at vocal prayer, others at the use of Scriptural material to illuminate some topic. Some say only a few words at a time, and some speak at more length. Some have had much psychological insight, and been gifted at exposing people’s misconceptions, breaking down their sense of self-sufficiency, and opening people to the Light (a “plowing” or “planting” ministry). Some are especially gifted at reaching to those who are young in their spiritual lives, and need encouragement and help in developing and deepening their practice (a “watering ministry”). Some have focused on ethics and social concerns, some on theological or doctrinal topics. There are well-known cases of Friends who have a particular calling to reach out to non-Friends, and rarely speak in their home meeting at all. I can think of one Friend of great gifts of preaching, counsel, and “presence” whose primary calling seems to be to a Latin American yearly meeting, where her gifts are called on intensively, and welcomed gratefully.
Others find that their concern is worked out best in other settings such as in writing, in teaching forums and workshops, in “opportunities,” or in family visits of a more systematic nature. J.B. Braithwaite’s children wrote of their father:
As a minister of the gospel, he saw openings that had never before presented themselves, and the work needing to be done was more than he could cope with … much of his early ministerial work was done among his own people, either in Westmoreland or in London and Middlesex … This work near home was carried on during the ordinary course of life. Legal work during the week, often with pastoral visits in the evenings; First day spent at some outlying Meeting, with all the spaces between meeting diligently made use of—such is very commonly the arduous life of an earnest Quaker minister.
Understanding the shape of your concern at the present time is part of keeping close to the gift. However, it is also worth asking yourself, is more called for? Have I not seen an opening for service, merely because I did not imagine it to be possible? It seems to me very likely that we do not have all the ministry we need, in all the varied forms that would really cultivate and nourish the life in our meetings, and that many gifts of service and witness remain underused and poorly developed, because there are not enough Friends with the experience, commitment, tact, and imagination to notice, pray for, encourage, and give thanks for their Friends’ gifts and talents. After all, while you or I may have some gift or leading, it is of no effect if it is not received, and as noted above, one of the most important functions of a minister is to be eager to find others getting engaged in their own proper service. Therefore, I recommend to you, reader, that you inquire…. whether there are not other kinds of service that you might render. Remember the old story of the elder who comes to a young Friend and asks him if he might possibly have a calling to the ministry. The younger Friend replies “I have not had that concern.” The older Friend shoots back “But has thee had the concern to have the concern?” “Covet earnestly the best gifts,” and “work while it is day”!
Another quotation from Penn’s Rise and Progress emphasizes alertness for opportunities to serve:
I beseech you that you would not think it sufficient to declare the Word of life in their assemblies, however edifying and comfortable such opportunities may be to you and them; but … to inquire into the state of the several churches you visit; who among them are afflicted or sick, who are tempted, and if any are unfaithful or obstinate; and endeavor to issue those things in the wisdom and power of God … the afflicted will be comforted by you, the tempted strengthened, the sick refreshed, the unfaithful convicted and restored, and such as are obstinate, softened and fitted for reconciliation.