Exploring Vocal Ministry

Mark Russ discusses Vocal Ministry as Spiritual Food

Exploring Vocal Ministry Woodbrooke Quaker learning and research
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

One of the difficulties in communicating the Quaker way, is that many of the words we use have a specific Quaker meaning that’s different to how they’re used in the non-Quaker world. When we speak of ‘Friends’, ‘meetings’ and ‘clerks’, for example, they could easily be misunderstood by people unfamiliar with Quakerism.

The same could be said of the way we do things. From a non-Quaker perspective, a group of people sitting in a circle in silence, with anyone able to stand and speak, might look very much like a therapy group. We might then interpret the words spoken in this group as being mainly personal and to a large extend private. We might see the person speaking as unburdening themselves, sharing something they’ve perhaps never shared before, and finding healing through this sharing. These words are treated as something precious, belonging to the individual who speaks, and are treated with confidentiality by others in the group.

As important as these kinds of spaces are, I think when we apply this understanding to a Quaker Meeting for Worship, we misunderstand what vocal ministry is. In the experience of Quakers, words spoken in meeting for worship aren’t automatically vocal ministry, but become vocal ministry when they move beyond the individual, and build up the community that has gathered together. Vocal ministry is speech that ‘serves’ the meeting, that ‘ministers’ to the other worshippers. Vocal ministry is for the worshipping community at least as much as it’s for the individual who speaks.

Another difference between Meeting for Worship and a therapeutic group is that a Meeting for Worship is a public event. Anyone can turn up at the Meeting House door, or enter the Meeting Zoom room. This means the ministry we give is also public. When we give spirit-inspired speech in worship, we never quite know who we’re speaking to. We’re not automatically speaking to a group of familiar and trusted friends who have promised confidentiality. When we give ministry, we’re witnessing to the work of the Spirit in us. We are testifying to the presence of the Spirit in our life. Vocal ministry is a place where our communal worship and our public testimony meet.

One way I like to capture the communal and public nature of vocal ministry, is by thinking of meeting for worship as a shared meal, with vocal ministry as the various dishes we prepare and offer for the table.

Firstly, we receive the ingredients for our dish. The ingredients don’t come from us, we get them from elsewhere. In Quaker Faith and Practice, the book of discipline of Quakers in Britain, we read that vocal ministry comes ‘from the place of deep experience’ (2.55). One Friend writes ‘I began to be aware that something inside me was formulating a question which urgently needed to be asked. I say ‘something inside me’ because it seemed at the same time to be both me and not me’ (2.58). Samuel Bownas, writing in the 18th century, speaks of ‘begin under a sense of divine influence’ (2.59). Another way of expressing this is to say that ministry is a matter of the heart not the head, with a Friend writing ‘it is rooted in the eternity, divinity, and selflessness of the Inner Light; not in the worldly, egoistic functions of the conscious mind’ (2.66). We’re called to vocal ministry, rather than choosing to do it (2.61). One Friend writes ‘If you have to decide whether it is right to speak, consider that it isn’t’ (2.60). We receive the ingredients for our vocal ministry from somewhere else, whether that’s a deep inner place, or a transcendent spiritual source.

But with all this talk of having no choice, it does seem like there is a decision to make. Knowing when we’re called to give vocal ministry isn’t always obvious. That which rises to the surface may not always be ministry. One Friend finds it helpful to ask ‘is my message cream or scum?’ (2.64) There’s a sense of being spoken through. John Woolman writes that he learned to wait in silence until he ‘felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock’ (2.57). This means that, when discerning the call to give vocal ministry, we have to put our feelings of inadequacy and weakness, or our desire for attention, to one side. We need to remove those things that get in the way of true vocal ministry. Quaking might be a sign of this difficult work, of ‘wrestling with the angel’. Feelings around vocal ministry aren’t necessarily always pleasant, as in the experience of Jane Fenn (2.56) and Elisabeth Salisbury (2.58). Our time spent inwardly in the kitchen of the Spirit might leave us exhausted without much to show for it, at least in the way of vocal ministry.

In preparing our meal, we inevitably put some of ourselves into the finished dish. Our gifts will have some role in the preparation. Quakers have taken different views on how ministry is shaped by the minister over the centuries. Interestingly, Quaker Faith and Practice differentiates between prophetic ministry where ‘something is given in the utterance which is beyond the intellectual and emotional capacity of the human being speaking,’ and the ministry of teaching which combines ‘the potency of prayer and thought’ (2.67). Although the meal has its ultimate beginnings elsewhere, who we are inevitably shapes the final dish, and that’s a good thing.

Having prepared our dish in the kitchen of the heart, perhaps with ease or with great struggle, we then need to share it in a way that will nourish everyone present. George Fox wrote that ‘the intent of all speaking is to bring into the life, and to walk in, and to possess the same, and to live in and enjoy it, and to feel God’s presence ‘(2.73). Quaker Faith and Practice suggests that our speech best does this when it’s brief. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words that he would rather speak five comprehensible, helpful words, than ten thousand incomprehensible ones. We’re asked to choose our words carefully, speaking from our own experience (2.63). When our dish is clearly a heart-felt contribution, prepared with love, it’s much easier for others to receive it. And because vocal ministry is a precious gift, we don’t debate or respond (2.68, 2.69). Meeting for Worship is not a place for restaurant critics.

Quaker Faith and Practice speaks of ‘cluster ministry’, the cumulative effect of connected ministry, where different pieces of vocal ministry complement and build upon each other (2.70). The various dishes on the table work together to create a full and nourishing meal. In paragraph 2.62 we read: ‘In Friends’ meetings also, from the fact that everyone is free to speak, one hears harmonies and correspondences between very various utterances such as are scarcely to be met elsewhere. It is sometimes as part-singing compared with unison.’ When the same people minister every week, or when ministry is restricted to a particular group of people, the food becomes boring and bland and loses its flavour. The greater the diversity of worshippers, the richer the ministry. The greater the variety of dishes, the richer the feast.

A limit of this food metaphor is that silent worship can be nourishing too, and the quality of the silence requires some work on our part. Perhaps one way to think of it is that the atmosphere in which a meal is eaten is as important as the food itself. Our faithful holding of the silence can create an atmosphere of love within which faithful vocal ministry can be offered and received.

Vocal Ministry as a Skill

This description of vocal ministry is in many ways the ideal. This ideal may occasionally be achieved, but as human beings we inevitably don’t get it right all the time. It might be reassuring to know that Quakers have always struggled with the giving of vocal ministry, and how to foster deeply rooted, authentic vocal ministry in our Quaker communities. At times Quakers have been so afraid of wrongly discerning the call to minister, that meetings have become totally silent for weeks, months on end. At other times, Quakers have felt so free to speak, that meetings have become a continuous babble of almost incomprehensible speech. In her book ‘Victorian Quakers’ (1970), Elizabeth Isichei writes ‘the Victorian Quaker meeting was rich in possibilities of disorder. Eccentric or incongruous ministry was always a problem… The state of the ministry at Bull Street Meeting [in] Birmingham, was so unsatisfactory in 1867 that outside intervention was needed.’

A way to avoid frightened silence on one side, and uninspired words on the other, is to talk about vocal ministry. What does it feel like to give ministry? How does the vocal ministry of others speak to you? In my experience, vocal ministry is a skill that can be learned and improved. Skills are best improved when we’re given permission to practice, and to reflect on that practice.

I know of one Meeting in the States that decided to ‘lower the bar’ for vocal ministry. They found that the bar was set too high, and only a tiny minority of worshippers ever gave vocal ministry, so they encouraged worshippers to experiment with giving vocal ministry to see what it felt like. The impression we get in Quaker Faith and Practice is, if you’re not sure whether to speak, don’t. This Meeting turned that advice around, saying ‘if you’re not sure, give it a try and see what happens.’ They saw their Meeting as a laboratory for vocal ministry, a place to know things experimentally, discovering the nuances of what it feels like to be called to minister.

To continue with our metaphor of a shared meal, we might say that if the vast majority of people don’t feel confident enough to bring a dish, or if the dishes that are brought are always inedible, then we need to start offering cookery classes. We need to find ways to encourage and educate each other. Quaker Faith and Practice suggests that ‘A friendly word of thankfulness from one who has been helped is often a great source of encouragement to the minister’ (2.71). I think we need to go further than that. We need to feel comfortable discussing vocal ministry with each other, what it feels like to minister, and how the ministry of others affects us. Our meetings are not private silent retreats. They are spaces for the spirit to move and do surprising things. Our worship can be a place of adventure and experiment and learning, where people aren’t afraid of making mistakes, where any mistakes we do make can be seen as opportunities to learn more about how the spirit works.

View Mark Russ’ page to see his latest blogs and courses


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