When the Spirit Calls: Engaging the Challenges of Ministry

By Jay Marshall. QuakerPress of FGC, 2020. 128 pages. $14.95/paperback; $9.95/eBook.

Friends like to say that we are all ministers, but a universal ministry has to come down to particulars if it is to take shape as action. Leadings, concerns, callings—these are of the essence of our living engagement with the living God. The experience, alas, is not always as straightforward as, say, in Isaiah when the prophet-to-be is confronted with a tremendous vision of the Divine King’s court, a booming voice calling for volunteers, an angel with fiery coal sweeping away misgivings, and the prophet then saying, “Here am I. Send me!”

For most of us, even if we know we’re coming down with a leading (William Taber, a former teacher of mine, teasingly once asked if we “catch” prophecy, like catching the measles), we are not sure what to do about it, where next to go, what help to seek. So it is always valuable to read or hear an experienced Friend reflect on what it’s like to see and respond to a calling to some ministry. Jay Marshall, for many years dean of Earlham School of Religion, has written a warm and conversational exploration of many aspects of this process. Each chapter ends with several queries that engage the reader to consider some of the main points in concrete, personal terms.

There is a good chapter on practicalities to end the book (“Sometimes Money Matters”) and another on the important role that community can play in clarifying one’s calling, discerning the way forward, and preparing for and enacting it (“A Tribe to Travel With”). Chapter 8 (“Have a Heart”) deals directly with the likelihood that a calling to service will bring unforeseen disruptions—for example, to our routines, to our self-image, to our role in our community. For this reason, courage is an important resource to find and cultivate: “Those who proceed not only must summon courage for purposes of bravery in the face of the untried and unknown, but also because it helps them discover how to be true to their heart.” I have to add here that, in my own experience, one should pray and long for that courage to be given, and if the leading is true, the power to undertake it will be supplied.

Chapters 2 and 4 (“Expect to Catch a Glimpse” and “Attuned with the Divine”) speak directly and simply about our experience of, and engagement with, the Divine Power who calls us to ministry. This is at the heart of the experience, and I appreciate the way Marshall takes his time on our relationship with God and attention to our inward condition, where needs, leadings, and new growth are to be found. How do we listen? To whom are we listening? As we are drawn into ministry, or even when we are just longing for work to do, we need to understand who it is we serve and what work we are doing on spiritual formation.

Chapter 3 (“Voices in the Background”) addresses the question of spiritual authority; that is, what authority do you recognize? Marshall explores various aspects of this—Scripture, tradition, the authority of experienced Friends—but the fundamental point is how one is to anchor one’s discernment about a calling, and take seriously the fact that (as Isaac Penington wrote) “the Lord hath appeared to others, as well as to me; yea, there are others, who are in the growth of his Truth, and in the purity and dominion of his Life far beyond me.”

Marshall’s careful attention to the discernment of a call continues in Chapter 6 (“A Line Isn’t All Bad”). He uses the experience of waiting in line—one we all have had—to point out the importance of waiting for clarity, not only about the task we may be called to do but what we may need to do in preparation to undertake it (or to prepare to begin).

This book is genial, sober, and wise. Its tone and pacing make it an excellent text for group study as well as for individual reflection. This book may well help you wake up to the service that you are being called to that is forming quietly under the Spirit’s guidance and needs your attention and welcome to move to maturity. “Therefore He said unto them, ‘The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that He would send forth laborers into His harvest’” (Luke 10:2).


Brian Drayton worships with Souhegan Preparative Meeting in southern New Hampshire. He blogs at amorvincat.wordpress.com.

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