It was one of those pristine June days in New England, with bright sunshine and a steady breeze to keep the sweat at bay. The meetinghouse was recently painted. The ceiling was a pale blue, so that as I sat in worship it felt as though the sky had come to cover me inside as well. The median dividing wall, meant to separate men from women during meetings for business a hundred years ago, was down, and the sunlight lit the small, plain room in warm, golden splashes.
I sat among eight fellow seekers, in a room built to hold a hundred. As a visitor from a Pennsylvania meeting, I waited in the silence, eager to receive ministry from my New England brethren. No one spoke. Soon, a deep sadness began to well up inside me. This house was so obviously cared for, but who, I wondered, would care for it in 20 years? The others in the room were older than I, and I am 42. And there were so few of them. My heart began to pound. I felt suddenly on edge, nervous. I became aware that I might be called to ministry myself. But I put the thought aside, and sank into the delicious silence again. Then the jitters returned. I felt slightly dizzy. I need to say something, I thought. Still, I put the urge aside and waited. No, a voice inside said, this is not for you alone, it is for them as well. And as if lifted by the scruff of my neck, with no clear idea what I was to say, I stood and spoke.
Weeks later, I returned to my home meeting in Pennsylvania. It is a much larger room, with more members, yet it too feels under-attended, playing only to 25 percent capacity, as it were. There was little silence in the room for the first 15 minutes, as latecomers dribbled in until 10:45 and others rose to leave and return. Then someone spoke. Her ministry was about the location of the soul. I rested in the silence afterward, musing on the images she had shared. Then someone else spoke. I glanced at my watch. It was 11:00 a.m. During the next half hour, eight more people spoke, some as soon as the previous speaker sat. I was in agony, and my wife, who seldom speaks, was distraught afterwards as she had felt urged to ministry but had not had the silence in which to share it.
I love my meeting, and I have been more often nurtured there than frustrated. And yet, a deep concern has risen in me, Friends. This article is partly in response to it, as is a workshop on vocal ministry I have begun to plan.
As I began to prepare this workshop, I tried to present myself as neutral and "agenda-less." But then I saw that this was dishonest, so I wish to share my concern in advance: I believe that we 21st-century members and attenders are losing the ability to discern the Divine impetus to speak at unprogrammed meetings for worship. This loss leads to meetings that tend to extremes: either almost entirely silent every week; or noisy with chatter, people standing to speak without reverence for the silence, which is the Divine Source of our ministry. This disconnect spells doom for our society, for it is only by ensuring that what is spoken in meeting rises to the level of ministry—communication that deeply affects and moves others—that we will attract others to stay in those meetings, and perhaps become Friends. Unless we address this issue we will see our numbers continue their steady decline.
I think this disconnect from the Divine has happened for several reasons:
The Fear of Feeling
It is worth remembering what Quaker worship was like when it began. The early 17th- and 18th-century Friends often recorded their meetings for worship as deeply moving. In these Friends’ diaries, there is frequent mention of emotional vocal ministry, and of visitors being so impressed by what they witnessed at a meeting for worship, that they became "convinced" then and there and became Friends themselves. These early Friends quaked when they spoke: their hands shook, their voices trembled and cracked, they cried, they occasionally wailed and shouted. And so we received our nickname: Quakers.
Divine experience for the early Quakers was felt as opposed to reasoned. Indeed, George Fox railed often against what he called "head knowledge," and he understood how intellectual ideas could be used to oppress and obscure. He experienced his great revelation as the lifting of his anguish; he felt it lift and he knew that Christ had lifted it. So when he and his early followers spoke at meetings, they were prompted by felt experiences: great joy, or sadness, or fear, or awe. It mattered little to them if they lost their composure as they ministered to those gathered with them. It was, in fact, this loss of composure that made their ministry so compelling, so attractive, so different from the Anglican services they were rebelling against.
Think of the messages that have moved you in meeting for worship. Unquakerly though it may be, I would wager that all of them were either communicated emotionally, or engendered a felt, emotional experience in you. This past 4th of July, a man stood and sang "America the Beautiful" at another New England meeting I attended. He sang it slowly and cried periodically. It was not accomplished singing, but it was powerful ministry and I was quite affected by it. Great ministry travels on the wings of feeling, not in the nicely wrapped box of the Neat Idea.
Yet we in the 21st century are compelled to present ourselves neatly. Many of us who attend meeting for worship work in environments in which we are conditioned to make effective presentations: schools and universities, political organizations, law offices, medicine. We study to compose elegant paragraphs. We are evaluated based on "results" and "outcomes." Most harmfully for our society, we are taught not to let our feelings get the better of us, a kind of emotional repression often reinforced by mistakes in child rearing. Expressing our feelings publicly leaves us open to ridicule and gossip, and it may lead others to think that we are "a little off," or "slightly kooky." But in my experience, one of the great gathered moments in a meeting for worship occurs after emotional ministry.
I have felt a meeting close around such ministry, collectively bringing it into the silence where it resonates. I have also witnessed a gathering of Friends around the minister of such a message after the meeting, where a kind of profound and personal "after worship" takes place. These observations lead me to believe that we are hungry for such ministry.
I do not mean to imply that only overt expressions of feeling qualify as effective vocal ministry. There is certainly a broad spectrum of what is felt, and each of us experiences emotions differently and has a different level of tolerance for them. What I am suggesting is simply this: the touchstone for vocal ministry must be something you feel. After that it is between you and God.
The Oprah Effect
We live in a culture in which it has become customary to see each other speak about our own lives and experiences. TV shows like Oprah, not to mention the plague of "reality television," have made voyeurism popular entertainment. It’s just not a big deal to tell a bunch of people what’s going on in your life. There is a much smaller wall of privacy around us, and the evolution of psychotherapeutic techniques and the recovery movement have assisted in making the act of speaking to a group about personal matters less of a hurdle than it was even 50 years ago.
There are many reasons why these developments are a good thing, especially in the realm of mental health and psycho-spiritual recovery. Indeed, the similarities between 12-step meetings and meetings for worship have brought some recovering people into our Religious Society.
But the ease we feel in speaking about ourselves poses a challenge for meetings for worship. We are accustomed to hearing and seeing people speak about themselves publicly in a way that would have been unthinkable to early Friends. But speaking about yourself is not the goal of spoken ministry.
The goal of ministry is to minister. The word is derived from a Latin word that means servant. When I speak at a meeting for worship, I must improve the silence by serving something to the whole group. It need not be uplifting. There has been great ministry borne out of grief. But if I speak, I must bear responsibility for being the agent of God’s healing energy on Earth. My personal problems from the previous week may be of great concern to me, but they only become ministry if: a) the thought of them engenders a new and urgently felt experience, and b) there is a way I can offer them to the group for the betterment of all attending.
My stepmother is a Unitarian minister. Every two weeks or so she is responsible for delivering a sermon. We are instructed to leave her alone if she is preparing a sermon when we visit. She obsesses over them. And so should we in the Religious Society of Friends. Not so that we prepare them; the power of our ministry is that it is so immediate, so present-tense. But we must reawaken an awe for the responsibility of being ministers, each one of us, and raise the bar for what we share in our meetings for worship.
Great ministry is attractive and compelling. People will come back for more. Self-indulgent speaking at meetings for worship is boring at best, agonizing at worst. It drives attenders away and lowers the bar for all. In a conversation I had with an elderly Friend recently, I asked, "What should we do to ensure our Religious Society’s survival?" He pointed to our meeting room and said, "It has to do with what happens, or doesn’t happen, in there."
Have you ever heard this in a meeting for worship? "I want to share with you something I read today in the New York Times . . ." I call this third-party ministry. In this case, the New York Times is the third party. But I can read the Times myself. What hast thou to say of thine own experience, Friend? Our history teaches us that Friends are led to minister to each other out of their own experience. This is a central aspect of Quaker worship, and I fear we are losing track of it.
Many of us are drawn to Friends meetings out of deep concerns for peace and social justice. With the horrible world wars of the 20th century, Friends found a new calling: the active effort worldwide to bring relief to those suffering from war, and a renewed effort to see our Peace Testimony realized. Our Religious Society became identified with the peace movement of the 1960s, and many meetings were centers for antiwar activities. A new generation of members and attenders was drawn in. These were people of great conviction, many of whom had been led into lives of social activism in other areas.
With them came their voices, and meetings for worship can sometimes feel more like political rallies than the divinely led explorations of mysticism engaged in by our founders. The ministry I have heard about peace and social concerns that has been most affecting has come from the speaker’s own experience.
For many in our Religious Society, there is an integral connection between the political and the spiritual. This is a connection to be celebrated and supported. Nothing I am saying should be construed as a comment on the content of one’s ministry. And yet I need to stress that protest alone is not vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. It is not enough to announce how angry something makes you. Protest is active ministry in the world, but in meeting for worship, it must somehow be linked to personal experience and offered to the group in supplication.
The Loss of Eldering
Who helps the ministers minister? It used to be a group known as elders. Sometimes it is the Worship and Ministry Committee. Too often, it is no one. Out of fear of censuring each other, or facing a difficult situation squarely, we have slowly lost the internal monitoring system that existed in monthly meetings until the mid-20th century. With it, we have lost the ability of our meetings to monitor the nature of vocal ministry and to assist those in need of guidance or appeal to those who may be speaking poorly.
At present, at the beginning of the 21st century, I fear we have cultivated "hyper-democracy," in which authority equals oppression. We have lost the ability to speak to each other about what we say in meetings, except to say "Thank you for your message today." Some of us feel that is the only acceptable thing to say about someone’s vocal ministry. After a woman came to me in tears about the repetitive speaking of a man whose ministry she found deeply troubling, I went to meet with my Worship and Ministry Committee. I was surprised to hear a seasoned Friend, a woman I admire greatly, tell me flatly that there was nothing to be done. Her position was that there is no way to speak to someone about what they say in meeting for worship that will be anything but an invitation for conflict.
I disagree. Does anything go in meetings for worship? Do we tolerate bigoted language or swearwords in our ministry? Where do we draw the line, and who decides? And do we truly have faith in God’s love to guide us if we meet with each other to talk about our vocal ministry? Are there not among us trusted servants of great experience, who might collectively nurture and guide a meeting’s ministry? Let us have a deeper trust in our compassion for each other, in our own basic human goodness. Let us imagine a way we might assist our Religious Society by helping each other with what is, in my opinion, the most important and challenging aspect of Quakerism: vocal ministry.
We have an obligation to sustain our meetings for worship as dynamic, mystical, and safe places for fellow seekers to look for God within, and in each other. Part of that sustenance must be a willingness to help each other with vocal ministry. This help must be offered with love and gentleness, but it must be offered. Vocal ministry is spiritual pole vaulting. We must raise the bar higher, and support each other to minister from a deeper place of felt experience.
And thus my workshop. It will be a workshop unconcerned with the content of vocal ministry. It will focus instead on helping folks discern the felt experience that is, I believe, the root of all great ministry. It will use some exercises I’ve adapted from my years of teaching acting, so as to help people get out of their heads and into their bodies, where the feelings live. We will read some thoughts from other Quakers on the subject, and discuss with each other what we have learned—and felt.
My ministry in that New England meeting last June had to do with our urgent need to change the Religious Society of Friends, to re-imagine it in the same way Rufus Jones did at the beginning of the 20th century. It had to do with the fear that beautiful meetinghouses, like the one I was speaking in that First Day, would soon be put up for sale, or turned into museums so that others could pay a dollar to see where the Quakers once worshiped. But I was as surprised as any to feel the Inner Teacher lead me to these words at the end: how grateful I am to be a Quaker today, and to have the chance to do something to ensure that the beautiful house I am standing in will someday again be full.