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Ministry and Faithful Listening
from Faith and Practice, Pacific Yearly Meeting
of the Religious Society of Friends, Published 2001
here for a pdf version]
Just as careful
preparation enhances the quality of worship, so too does attention to
the Light during worship. Friends come to worship to receive and to
give, to speak when led, to be silent when that is what obedience requires.
Vocal ministry is a vital part of the Meeting for Worship. It is a form
of service in which a person stands to share a message from God delivered
through the individual. Friends hope that all spoken messages during
worship are in fact vocal ministry. The responsibility rests on each
member of the group to be ready and willing to offer such ministry when
called to do so.
As one sits in
silence, a message may arise out of the depth of the soul that seems
intended not simply for the worshiper, but for the gathering as a whole.
Some Friends feel burdened with a sense of omission if a message is
not expressed, but once it is faithfully uttered, a sense of inward
peace may follow. Experience in Meeting helps to discriminate between
private words and those that arise as true leadings of the Spirit that
should not be silenced. An inclination to share a message may arise
in advance of Meeting, but the decision to speak should await a clear
leading at the time. With practice, a person may learn to discern a
call clearly, though many are quite unable to describe its quality.
called to speak feel an internal or external quaking, deep emotion,
tears, an increased heart rate, or other agitation. Some have felt grabbed
by the hand of God and held until after delivering the message. One
person feels a profound stillness accompanied by a clear voice that
is not her own. Another may find himself suddenly standing, and then
wait, praying silently for guidance, before beginning to speak. Still
another may test a message by repeatedly pushing it 'out of mind' only
to find that it returns again and again.
As one is weighing
whether to speak, certain questions may be helpful: Is this message
Spirit-led, or merely emotionally compelling? Is this message intended
for this group, or is it only for me? Is it better saved until another
time or place? When the call to speak is clear, the worshiper should
stand if possible. He or she should speak simply, briefly, audibly,
and from personal spiritual experience. Occasionally, ministry may take
the form of singing or of standing silently. Neither debate, nor discussion
with previous speakers, is ever appropriate, and speaking twice during
a single Meeting for Worship is very seldom so.
Those who are
led to speak have different backgrounds, verbal skills and interpretive
power. Friends try to listen more than they speak, keep an open heart,
seek the Spirit behind the words and hold the speaker in love. Listeners
may find it helpful to pray that the messenger is faithful to the call,
and that God's word will emerge through the medium of human speech.
A message that does not speak to one person's needs may be helpful to
another. After a message has been given, it is important to allow time
to ponder its meaning, letting the Spirit move through the assembly
of Friends before another ministers.
Ministry: Two Perspectives
Diane Bonner and Carol Holmes
(Reprinted from the Friends Journal, July 2003)
are offered as two Friends' understanding and experience. They are not
perfect or final nor are they meant to be. As you will read, they don't
even agree. We hope that they speak to your condition and inward yearning.
Part I (by Diane Bonner)
I attended my
first meeting for worship approximately 45 years ago. Ever since then,
I have been living into the question: What exactly does it mean to worship
in the manner of unprogrammed Friends? Here is a distillation of my
experience of vocal ministry, a practice to which I admit I am not often
I enter the meeting
room and sit with a Bible near at hand. I soon begin the process of
worship by stilling my body. After some time of such mindfulness, my
"running mind" settles down, and the remainder of the meeting
is spent trying to stay open and to listen inwardly. When vocal ministry
is offered by others, I listen unless it becomes clear that the ministry
is not meant for me--in which case, I struggle not to listen, for the
spoken words become intrusive to my reach for stillness.
On the few occasions
when I feel the burden of vocal ministry, I engage in the following
First, words come
to me from my midsection. They do not begin because I think them with
my brain; they emerge from my body. They are incarnated. The words are
usually just a few--a phrase--and they are accompanied by a suddenly
The words deepen.
My hands at some
point begin to shake. I test the words: are they for everyone? Are
they simple, nonviolent, honest, and, most important, are these words
worth breaking the Silence? These tests follow my understanding of our
testimonies. I know that some words that are, to me, neutral in emotional
energy can be very violent to others, and if I think the ministry is
for everyone and I want it to be heard, I try to avoid such words. Authentic
substitutes have always made themselves available.
Then I begin to
pray earnestly: God, take this ministry away. Please. I don't want to
stand up. I don't want to speak. I feel very vulnerable and afraid.
Please. Take this ministry away.
But the weight
of the words, along with the feeling that if I don't stand my heart
will burst from my chest, force me to my feet.
As I speak, my
eyes are usually closed; my heart settles to its more normal rate. I
listen inwardly for what I am to say next, as if I were a stranger to
the speaker. Before I stand, I may have a beginning (the phrase that
first emerged from my midsection), a middle, and an end. However, there
have been times when the ministry has taken a shift in a very different
direction from where I thought it was going.
When I finish,
when the words come to an end, I stand still for a very short time before
I sit. At this point, I feel surrounded by a deep, soft, protective
stillness, and I feel released and oddly faithful, even if I think that
the words I've offered have missed the mark. Also, I feel very vulnerable,
and if someone speaks too soon afterward, their words can cut through
the stillness and hurt. After a while, this deep stillness lifts,
and I open my eyes.
I understand ministry
to be that which brings me closer to the Spirit, to the felt sense of
Presence (see Genesis 17:1 and Exodus 33:14). I have never experienced
commentary on the Sunday New York Times to be ministry. For me, vocal
ministry is not group therapy (a wonderful practice in itself, but usually
secular). Vocal ministry is not a word from our sponsor, the ego; nor
is it clever reflection on the season, the room, or our silence, as
poetic as these can be. Vocal ministry is especially not political exhortation
to action or admonition / correction of a previous speaker's message.
I ask: Have the
words spoken by me or another Friend brought us closer to the Spirit?
Will they help us remember that we are not alone, perhaps even that
we're not in charge?
It takes practice,
discipline, and study to learn how to sit and wait upon the Spirit--practice,
discipline, and study to discern which words we are called to speak
and which words we are to allow to dissolve unspoken.
And now, two messages
from beloved George Fox:
wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait...
dwell in the Light.
The stillness of
our unprogrammed worship is not about the absence of sound; it is about
a stillness that contains the potential for the Presence to emerge;
and it will emerge--in it's own time. Our practice, discipline, and
study increase the opportunity both for the Presence to become felt
and for us to hear and obey. Conversely, the absence of practice, discipline,
and study decreases this opportunity.
Part II (by Carol Holmes)
The Disciplines of Vocal Ministry
We gather together
in silent meeting for worship to listen to a God who speaks. Over the
years, disciplines have evolved that help us hear "the still, small
voice." When observed, these disciplines will open us and bring
us more deeply into the silence, into a place and condition where we
can hear God.
- If you feel
the urge to rise and speak in meeting, ask where the urge is coming
from. Is it a personal need? an emotional need? The silent meeting
for worship is not a place for this kind of sharing.
- Is the urge
to speak accompanied by unfamiliar physical sensations? Are the palms
of your hands warm? Not sweating, but warm. Is your heart beating
in a very slow, insistent way? Not pounding or racing with anxiety,
but distinctly slowed down and steady. It is possible to be called
to minister without such physical changes in the body, but it is unusual.
If some kind of physical sign is not present, see if you can resist
the urge to speak.
- Test yourself
by asking, "Is this a message I am meant to contemplate myself
or is this for the assembled meeting to hear?" If the answer
is that it is for the assembled meeting, do not stand up. Wait a period
of time, at least five minutes, and ask the same question. If the
answer comes back that it is for the assembled meeting, do not stand
up. If after another five minutes the urge to speak is still with
you, pause again and then rise to offer the message.
- If vocal ministry
has been offered, the meeting will need rime to absorb the message
back into the silence and the message will need time to deepen the
silence. Do not rise to speak immediately after someone else. Haste
and urgency to speak often indicate an ego need or an intellectual
idea--"a notion," as early Friends called it. Step aside
and let the Holy Spirit breathe through the meeting.
- If you hear
a message, or some situation arises, that you think will be upsetting
to others, and you want to comfort them, rest from that anxiety. You
don't need to rescue, help, or fix the meeting for worship. Put that
burden down. Trust.
- Finally, as
Friends have advised each other over the centuries, speak only if
you can improve on the silence.
is a chaplain at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. Carol Holmes travels
under appointment of New York Yearly Meeting to nurture small meetings
and worship groups, and she serves on the general board of Friends United
Meeting. Both are members of Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York City
and serve on its Committee on Worship and Ministry.
are offered with the support and approval of the Committee on Ministry
and Worship, Fifteenth Street Meeting, February 2002. 0