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Releasing Friends

"Freedom" by Zenos Frudakis (photo by Alla Podolsky)

“Freedom” by Zenos Frudakis (photo by Alla Podolsky)

 

There’s a problem with ministry among Friends, and it involves two things that Friends generally hate to talk about: marketing and money.

It’s not that we don’t have plenty of faithful people willing to engage ministry—we do! It’s not that we aren’t blessed with plenty of people who are led to live a life of faithful service to our leadings—we are! It’s that we live in a time and place that makes balancing economic livelihood with Spirit-led ministry very difficult. Individuals with leadings to travel in ministry are expected to provide for their own economic survival, unless they are supported by other resources, such as those from their family. As a result, many Friends who are called walk a tightrope, trying to find a balance between living precariously without essentials (such as adequate health insurance) and spending the time required to be physically and spiritually available to their leadings.

Vital ministry is essential to the spiritual faithfulness of our meetings and to Friends individually. Friends traveling in ministry enliven worship, bring prophetic messages, or spread a particular witness. Inspired ministry helps all of us to live into our faith more boldly. Can we even imagine what our Society would be like today if John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Rufus Jones, or Bayard Rustin had not followed his or her leadings? The economic and cultural realities of today are very different from those faced by Friends from earlier generations, and the kinds of support needed have changed. The avenues of support, however, have not widened and in some cases have even disappeared.

Some Friends who are called to travel in the ministry become self-employed or underemployed in order to be available to accept invitations. As a result, the ministry may  become unsustainable and cease due to lack of support and long-term financial stress. Another way that Friends deal with the financial challenges of ministry is by requiring a stipend from the meetings they visit. Unfortunately, not all meetings have the resources to pay a stipend, especially a small or struggling meeting that might benefit the most. Friends who accept a stipend often feel this transaction changes the dynamic of ministry: they feel pressure to give the meeting its money’s worth rather than to concentrate on simply being faithful.

Another challenge facing ministering Friends is informing meetings and other groups that the ministry is available. Some ministry consists of offering a workshop or program to a gathering that is outside the usual meeting for worship, such as a weekend retreat or an afternoon session. After investing significant time in researching and learning about a topic, developing exercises, honing our skill in presenting the material, and praying for guidance, we are faced with a very practical dilemma: How do we let Friends know about this ministry so it may be offered more broadly? Presenting workshops or interest groups at venues such as the Friends General Conference Gathering or a yearly meeting’s annual sessions is one solution, but we are missing many other opportunities.

As a result, the Religious Society of Friends and the wider world often fail to receive the invaluable and enduring gifts of these ministries. If we allow this ministry to die on the vine for want of financial support, we leave only those with a sustainable level of financial security free to engage in traveling ministry.

As a Society, we need to ask ourselves: Are we easy with asking Friends who are led to spend substantial time in service to Spirit-led ministry to live in poverty and without the economic safety net that most Friends take for granted? Are we easy with restricting service to those who can afford to finance their own ministry—thereby limiting the prophetic voices that carry our faith to the wider world—and with asking those who can’t afford to finance their ministry to not be faithful to their leadings? Alternatively, are we as a Society ready collectively to embrace Spirit-led ministry as a gift to the whole body of Friends and encourage faithfulness by providing resources to those who are led?

Whether they travel under a specific concern, in the gospel ministry, or as a companion to another minister, Friends require support for travel and to more fully release the ministry into the world. Some of these supports may include:

  • clearness to follow ministry
  • prayer and eldering during and between times of ministry
  • spreading the word about the availability of particular ministry
  • invitations to offer ministry
  • funds to allow Friends to spend time and energy attending to the ministry

At present, these supports might come through the Friend’s monthly meeting, but not necessarily on a consistent basis. Monthly meetings’ abilities to offer these services vary widely. Friends from large meetings with a commitment to supporting ministry may have considerably more resources available to them than those from smaller meetings or meetings with no history of supporting ministries. We don’t believe that there is a lack of resources or willingness to support ministry but a way to channel support and visibility to where it is needed.

Having faced these hardships and potentialities first-hand in our own ministries (read our stories on the previous page) and hearing of them from peers, we propose a web-based project called Releasing Ministry (releasingministry.org) that will highlight Friends’ ministries and give others a way to support those ministries materially and spiritually. Releasing Ministry addresses those two topics Friends don’t like to discuss—marketing and money—in a way that excites many with whom we’ve shared the concept.

Increasingly, artists, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations, people with overwhelming healthcare bills, and others are turning to a model of online community support called crowdsourcing or crowdfunding. Crowdfunding creates a way for people with a project or funding need to communicate directly with grassroots supporters and invite them to contribute to the success of the project. Readers may be familiar with some websites that follow this model, such as Kickstarter.com, Indiegogo.com, and Gofundme.com.

What if a similar website could provide an online space for highlighting ministries and a tax-deductible channel for accepting donations in support of the ministers? It could include additional kinds of support that are unique to ministry and not currently served by existing crowdfunding platforms:

  • descriptions of the leadings, ministries, or concerns
  • the current status of the ministries and the needs of the ministers (such as minutes of travel or religious service, descriptions of the spiritual accountability structure serving the ministries, calendars, status reports, and endorsements from those receiving the ministries)
  • invitations and opportunities to provide support for the ministries by contributing money or services such as prayer, eldering, home hospitality, assistance with transportation, etc.
  • ways to invite these ministries in service to visit one’s self or one’s faith community

A service like this would ideally provide material assistance and complement the spiritual support necessary to cherish a leading and fully embrace a ministry. It would help strengthen the faithfulness of the ministries as well as the ability of our worship groups; churches; and monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings to support ministry. It would also allow faith communities with fewer financial resources to avail themselves of ministry funded by others with greater financial wealth. We see such a service fostering faithfulness in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond. We see such a service creating greater potential for the beloved Kingdom to bear fruit. What do you see?

The authors seek others who are interested in this project. Are you or do you know of someone who is

  • carrying a ministry;
  • seeking the services of a ministry;
  • with expertise in fundraising and governance;
  • able and willing to financially contribute to launch this project;
  • willing to provide support to ministries through funding, eldering, hospitality, or some other blessing?

If so, please visit releasingministry.org. There, you will find links and resources to support and expand upon the contents of this article, as well as first-person accounts of other Friends who carry a ministry; a link to join our Facebook group to continue this conversation; a look at a prototype of the site we plan to build; a way to sign up to receive updates about our progress; and finally, an opportunity to help fund this project itself. In addition to seeking other sources of funding, we plan to crowdfund the development of the website.

In the same way that meeting for worship deepens when the worshipers draw from the well of the gathered group, a leading flourishes far more powerfully when the carrier is nurtured by a faith community. Releasing that of God, cultivating it in one another, and helping it flow into our thirsty world may be one of the most significant purposes of our Friends meetings and churches. In many meetings, great strides have been made in recent times to offer spiritual stewardship of ministry. Might the next step in fully releasing ministry among us be an intentional, Spirit-led, and planned response to the material needs of each ministry and minister?

Viv’s Story

Since 2005, I have carried a minute of religious service, from Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting and endorsed by its quarterly and yearly meetings, to inspire, encourage, and empower people, individually and corporately, to live into our greatest sacredness in harmony with creation. The support I receive from these meetings and my neighborhood worship group is a true blessing to me and through me to others. The ministry has taken the form of teaching, plenaries, organizing, and eldering. By November 2011, I had been engaged heavily in the ministry for about six years. At that time, I was designing a program to be offered among Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) Friends from January to June 2012.

As an outgrowth of PYM’s Eco-Justice Working Group’s work, I worked with a team of four other facilitators on delivery of Called to Action, a social witness formation program. About 30 participants met one Saturday each month and in small groups between sessions to develop Spirit-led power for social change. Strategy and tactics for nonviolent direct action, activism tools, self-reflection, and practical application were all directed to foster a “Great Turning” (a phrase from ecophilosopher Joanna Macy used to explain the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization) and a Religious Society of Friends that is actively engaged in the development of a peaceful, just, and sustainable society. Many Called to Action graduates continue to be active leaders of community-based groups aimed at social change, such as targeting PNC Bank for its mountaintop removal, campaigning against hydrofracturing (fracking), developing neighborhood gardens and the corresponding community in urban settings, and introducing similar social action training to other populations.

At the same time, I worked with members of the PYM Spiritual Formation Working Group and others to form a Spiritual Formation 2 (SF2) program. More than 20 participants met from 9:00 a.m to 4:30 pm for four Saturdays and monthly in small groups over the six-month period to cultivate our spiritual gifts in service to the world. Where Spiritual Formation 1 concentrates on individual spiritual practices, SF2 places individual gifts in the context of call and a peer spiritual accountability group in which participants mutually nurture and have nurtured each other’s spiritual gifts and leadings. The benefits of the support and challenge involved have resulted in many of the groups continuing to this day.

Those designing and co-facilitating these programs, including myself, offered these services as volunteers or with nominal honoraria. When I left my previous part-time work among Friends, the job did not offer health insurance, sick or vacation time, or other employee benefits. While I received financial assistance and spiritual support for the ministry from my small neighborhood worship group and from a network including a spiritual accountability group appointed by Central Philadelphia Meeting, of which I am a member, I faced some health issues. I had no health insurance. I waited several anxious months to obtain foundation-funded assistance to obtain needed medical tests.

In November 2011, I took full-time employment with the Shalom Center, a Jewish, multireligious social justice organization. While I remain committed to helping release the active ministry of Friends, since completion of the Called to Action program and SF2 course in June 2011, my own service among Friends has diminished due to competing demands of full-time employment. I regret that these vital programs are not being offered to other populations. I view the Releasing Ministry website as a means to help others remain as fully engaged in unprogrammed and programmed Friends ministry as Spirit calls them to be.

Vonn’s Story

Before I was a Friend, I was an improvising musician. The experience of playing spontaneous, unprogrammed music brought me in touch with some transcendent power. Improvising in an ensemble, there were moments when we became one body, in union with some infinite realm of music and beauty. I lost my atheism and craved more experiences like that and a language to describe the spiritual awakening I was feeling. Seeking a community that practiced listening spirituality, I found Friends and immediately understood that what I had experienced in musical improvisation was the same thing that Friends call the unprogrammed gathered meeting. This realization evolved into a ministry called “Sounding the Divine” as I was led to share the practice and experience of entering worship through the doorway of inspired creative expression.

In 2008, a minute of travel endorsing my ministry was approved by Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting, Nine Partners Quarterly Meeting, and New York Yearly Meeting. I remember the feeling of humility that washed over me when I realized that the ministry was no longer my ministry but was being held by these bodies that I was a part of. I did not know how to let the wider world of Friends know that I had this ministry to offer, but I felt emboldened by the fact that now it was a ministry of my yearly meeting rather than a personal desire. To give Friends a taste of the experience, I offered interest groups and workshops wherever I could and attended many Friends events to learn, worship, connect with people, and spread the word about Sounding the Divine. It takes a lot of time and money to attend so many Friends events.

Along the way, I have been extraordinarily well supported by Friends. An anchor committee appointed by my meeting has met with me every other month for six years. Many of the meetings I have visited have been very generous with stipends, and many people who have attended one of my workshops have stayed in touch in a way that is very gratifying and encouraging.

I work as a self-employed website developer. I’m free to make my own decisions about how I spend my energy, and because my work is all online, I can take it with me when I travel. When called to serve in the ministry, I set aside my for-pay work and forgo income in order to serve our wider faith community. Both my business and my ministry require a great deal of energy in terms of staying visible and finding new people who want my services.

Even with all these advantages and a very frugal lifestyle, I’ve had a very difficult time making a go of it. In 2011, I was traveling widely in the ministry but could not earn enough to support myself. The financial stress became too much to take anymore. I had to commit the bulk of my energy to promoting my business and earning a livelihood. I’m not turning down opportunities to travel in the ministry, but I’ve had to really slow down on being out there and letting people know about Sounding the Divine. As a result, the invitations to travel have stopped, for now. This summer, I’ll be hosting meeting for worship in the manner of Sounding the Divine at the FGC Gathering.

Vonn New is an independent Drupal developer and site builder. She carries a travel minute from Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting endorsed by its quarterly and yearly meetings. She is a percussionist and composer and finds improvised music her deepest form of prayer. Contact her at vonn.new@gmail.com.

Viv Hawkins practices and teaches about faithfulness, and is working with Vonn New on the Releasing Ministry website (releasingministry.org) to crowdfund ministry. She carries a minute of religious service from Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting endorsed by its quarterly and yearly meetings. Viv loves Lola Georg and serves with the Shalom Center. Contact her at friendviv2@gmail.com.

 

Posted in: Features, March 2014

3 Responses to Releasing Friends

  1. Hollister Knowlton March 5, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    City & State
    Philadelphia, PA
    I’ve been waiting eagerly to read your article, Viv and Vonn, and it is as great as I expected. Well crafted, persuasive article proposing an idea whose time has come. Blessings on you both and this new hope you are bringing to the RSOF.

  2. Lisa Marshall March 10, 2014 at 9:00 pm #

    City & State
    Spring MIlls, PA
    I’ve lost touch with her, but Patricia Loring, author of Vol. 1 & 2 of Listening Spirituality, Spiritual Practices Among Friends, is certainly another who could speak vividly to the issue of under/un-funded ministries……. It would take some thinking thru, but at first blush, I love the crowdsourcing idea.

  3. Bill Samuel March 20, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    City & State
    Silver Spring, MD
    Non-pastoral Friends have also been somewhat divided in their practice on this. They pay people who work for FGC, FWCC, yearly meetings, Friends Journal, Pendle Hill, FCNL, AFSC, schools and universities, and in many other settings. But then they often resist providing material support for those who serve outside such institutional settings, often providing very helpful ministry.

    I remember decades ago when some Friends raised questions about the length of time a particular Friends was released for ministry, much of which was leading workshops. The work was very similar to what some paid staff do at Pendle Hill, yet somehow that was acceptable but longtime similar ministry under the oversight of a Meeting committee was not deemed worthy of the same kind of support. In trying to explain this, those objecting to the release had to make a distinction between “ministry” and what folks within institutional frameworks do, which was difficult because in reality there wasn’t always much difference.

    We need to not be rigid, and instead let the Spirit guide us into what is right in a given situation regardless of whether it fits a particular framework in our minds. We need to try to free Friends to exercise their gifts, and how this works out will vary a lot according to circumstances.

    “Free gospel ministry” is really about following God’s call in one’s life no matter the obstacles, not a statement about not paying people engaged in ministry.

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