The framework that I am about to share came to me late last month at a time when I was thinking of other things, and I trust that what I feel an urgency to share is not the creation of my own mind. It is with some trepidation that I enter into this brief series, because I understand that others have more experience and deeper insights than I have. I ask for forbearance from all if I outrun the Guide. Also if anyone posts replies with insights from our Source, please indicate if it would be a burden on thy mind if I incorporated appropriate portions of thy comments.
This series on the landscape of Friends ministry provides a context for an evaluation of one's own ministry / discernment (with the Lord's assistance) as well as some aids for Elders to perform their function of nurturing Friends in the ministry. Of course, these discussions should be pursued with the greatest care, seeking always to find the direction of the Light of Christ Jesus and avoid the unfulfilling shortcuts that our minds and natures sometimes offer.
My postings are not intended to be a critique of any person. They are not to be used to undermine the ministry of another person. They are strictly some insights that have been granted to me that perhaps don't apply to anyone else. The discussion relates to nurturing gifts, not undermining gifts.
Part 1. Discerning the Leading to Speak.
One of the most challenging aspects of speaking in ministry is the discernment granted to a particular message. Discernment is important. It is critical to the growth in the gift of anyone who speaks as the oracle of God. The reason for its spiritual weight is that the speaker is standing during worship, speaking to others on God's behalf. This is a big thing. We all know the danger that a misspoken word may easily push a person further from the Lord rather than drawing us all closer. We all want to avoid this pitfall.
Thee may know that Friends have traditionally distinguished between ministry and testimonies. Ministry is usually considered to mean "speaking a message on God's behalf." A testimony is usually considered to mean "here is something unusual that God did in my life." Both are important and have value, but they are different. I prefer myself to keep them separate, though of course the Lord may direct otherwise.
The normal discernment queries that ministers have always mentioned continue to apply. Is a given message received from the Almighty, or is it something that I have conjured up myself? Am I truly speaking on His behalf, or am I actually speaking on my own behalf? Does God want me to share this particular thing with others, or is it a message meant for me?
In short, why am I interrupting the expectant waiting to share these words?
In the earliest years of Quakerism, this whole discussion was considered to be part of the "qualification" for spiritual labor. The journals of the 1650-1750 era contain a lot of threshing out the issue of qualification. The word was being handed out so often that the famous book written by Samuel Bownas is often abbreviated to simply "Bownas's Qualifications."
The Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting contains an advice for ministers that partially addresses the issue of discernment of a particular leading to speak:
Let all, in their spoken testimonies, be cautious of ... asserting too positively a Divine impulse - the baptizing power of Truth accompanying their words being the true evidence.
This sentence was recently ridiculed by some non-Friends who considered them to be nonsense, but consider what the sentence says. The evidence that a person was speaking on God's behalf is not whether the speaker says "God told me to tell you this" but rather that the words are accompanied by the baptizing power of Truth.
Think on this for a moment. The Divine Scheduler often uses the words granted to thee to help shape the life of another person. Often thee does not even know that He is active at that point in time. Thy words, spoken in season, enter into the conscience of a hearer in the context of the recent experiences of the hearer. A word in season might mean different things to two or three different people, but if the Lord gave thee the words, He can use them to nurture lives of these hearers in differing ways. But in all this, He is doing the real work.
Thy discernment process should not include an analysis of the needs of those gathered. There is One who knows their needs as well as thy needs. Let Him direct thee to the words that are needed in the situation. It is not good for thee to speak on thy own behalf while pretending to speak on His behalf.
During worship, others gathered are not particularly interested in thy opinions, thy desire to be heard, or thy wishes. They are rarely interested in hearing about what thee has been reading lately. They are not there to be entertained; they are there to be nurtured and given guidance on what it means to live the Christian life today.
About ten years ago, during a lively discussion in Ohio, someone asked one of our older ministers (who had been silent up to this point) what he thought about the topic at hand. He said that he was waiting for a word from the Lord. With this statement, the conversation ended. In worship, this is what Friends wait for - a word from the Lord.
People flocked to hear the ministry of Jesus. It changed them. It opened their understanding to the reality of the spiritual realm. Jesus opens the real doors that provide the guidance for right living, right thinking, and right relationships. His words are spirit, and they are life. He directs thee and me to experience the holy life that He makes possible.
The words that Jesus gives are alive. Ministers are not trying to regulate the lives of others. They are trying to share what God wants to be heard. When they are the most faithful they can possibly be, ministers convey hope, encouragement, and direction to people in ways that the minister cannot possibly comprehend. That is because the presence in the midst has become real again.
These are the words that ministers seek.
Next installment: "delivery of the message."