The Landscape of Ministry, Part 1

This is the first installment in what I anticipate will be a four part posting on the landscape of Quaker ministry today. This posting consists of an introduction to the series as well as the first of the four areas of the lives of ministers.

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."


Micah Bales said...

Thank thee for this post. I am looking forward to the forthcoming installments.

Thine in friendship,


forrest said...

This is utterly true, and yet...

It comes down to truth, and whether God is prompting you to speak one particular truth at a given moment.

It does not come down to whether you are "channeling" God as if you were some sort of spiritualist medium channeling Cleopatra...

God has many ways of showing truth to people, including whatever they've been given to read recently and whatever thoughts have been jelling in their minds lately... An "opinion" can mean "just my opinion" or it can mean a legitimate intuition of where truth can be found on some issue that people have been reluctant to examine. Politics can mean ego-driven monkey-speech or it can mean honest, spiritually-focused indignation against evils perpetuated and connived-at by the 'good' and respectable.

[Jesus as a historically-embodied person has been justly described as "100 percent political and 100 person religious", because there was no distinction between the two in his time-- and the division we make in our time needs close examination. It isn't that the two exist in different worlds--but that there's always been a danger of people reversing their natural order, ie tailoring their religion to fit their politics rather than "living a life so centered in God that all things take their rightful place"-- as Jesus did, to considerable personal inconvenience!]

So whether people are particularly interested in hearing your opinions-- can be no more of a consideration than whether the rulers of Judah wanted to hear what Jeremiah had to say. Speaking Truth to Denial may not be what one is called to do on every occasion, but that can't be ruled out. What one ought to do is to strive to be governed by truth in all one's thought and speech, so that the opinions expressed and the occasion for their expression really is The Word of the Lord to the best of your ability to discern both truth and guidance. It isn't our duty to be appreciated! (Though it's good when we can be.)

It really comes down to: Is God guiding me in my life?-- and am I following (including the mental sense of "getting it")? You can be more-than-usually aware of that guidance in the setting of Meeting, but it's in the same life...

Marty Calliham said...

Thank you, Chronicler. I just recently discovered your blog. I am grateful for your message and look forward to more.

Frederick said...

Chronicler -- Thank you; this seems like a helpful restatement of some traditional advice.
Forrest -- I find your response a bit defensive. I do appreciate your last paragraph -- the essential concern is indeed God's guidance -- but... well... I guess I need to stand up for what you dismiss as "channeling." There really is a difference between messages inspired by God and words that are just creations of me. I've spoken a few times with messages that were very different than my opinions on a (theological) topic, but that I felt clearly moved to speak. I simply spoke as best I could what I was hearing; finding later that it had helped some other Friends in that meeting.

Where is the freedom in the vocal ministry? All of what you say, Forrest, is true in certain unusual circumstances, yet... I think we have to be very careful of self-justification when we decide to speak. If I'm feeling that I'm right and the others haven't seen it yet, that may be a signal that I'm self-centered, not God-centered. If I'm feeling awe-struck, transformed, loving... those are signals that the message I'm contemplating probably is from God.