The Ministry of Listening

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Are You Ready?

Friends have given a lot of thought to delivering vocal ministry. Every book on Quakerism contains a chapter or section on when, why, and how to deliver ministry. There is a frequently reproduced diagram that graphically guides potential speakers through a series of questions they are to consider when they feel an urge to rise and speak. These examine whether a potential message is divinely inspired; whether it is intended for the speaker alone or for others present; and whether this is the right time and place to deliver it. These resources are all useful, but they only address one half of the act of vocal ministry: one that is, by far, the smaller and perhaps less important portion. The other part is the ministry of listening, and we are all called to be listening ministers. When one person is speaking, there are almost always many more people listening. Even a Quaker pastor usually spends more time listening to others’ messages than speaking.

What should we do when someone begins to offer ministry? It is tempting to try to compose a parallel set of questions that listeners might consider: e.g., is this message divinely inspired?; is it for me or for others?, etc. Giving our attention to such questions would, however, be counterproductive since the time spent ruminating on them would interfere with our primary responsibility as listening ministers: to listen. When the ministry has begun, there is only one essential question: How is this message meant for me?

Waiting until after someone stands to speak to reflect on this query is too late. If we are to hold up our side in listening to vocal ministry, we need to be prepared before it begins. There may be an ancient model for us. Michael Birkel of Earlham School of Religion inspired me to think of this task as a form of hospitality.

Michael reminded me that in the ancient Middle East, you needed to be prepared to offer hospitality to anyone—friend, acquaintance, or stranger—who appeared at your door (or tent flap). More than just a temporary inconvenience, this person was your guest and was under your protection. As a host, you were required to welcome them, serve water and food, and to offer lodging. Even someone who might otherwise be considered an enemy was to be received graciously. Finally, when the time of departure came, a host was obligated to send a guest away in peace. Hospitality back then required you to be prepared at any time to receive a guest. Scrambling around under the weight of an immediate obligation was not being a good host.

In an earlier time among Friends, before telephones or good postal service, this kind of hospitality was also practiced. A traveling minister who visited a meeting for worship could depend on meals and a bed that evening.

Being prepared to practice the ministry of listening carries parallel obligations and requires a comparable state of preparation. Part of preparing to participate in a meeting for worship should be to expect that vocal ministry may be shared and to ready ourselves to hear it. Doing that well takes advance planning and regular practice. At the very least, this preparation ought to be part of our process of centering and settling in when we come into the meetingroom. There are queries that can help:

  • When we take our seats, do we glance around and silently greet those who are already present?
  • As others arrive, do we wordlessly and joyfully welcome them—even the latecomers—into the gathering?
  • Do we recognize each of our fellow worshipers as a child of God?
  • Do we bless them and hold them in the Light?
  • When someone stands to speak, do we inwardly welcome and thank them for doing so—even those we might not have chosen to speak?

When the ministry has begun, there is only one essential question: How is this message meant for me? 

Listening with Humility

It is not uncommon among Friends to encounter others whose spiritual vocabulary differs from our own. Sometimes we are encouraged to treat those words as we would terms from a foreign language: to inwardly translate them into others that we find more comfortable. Certainly, if ministry were offered in another language, such translation would be necessary. More generally, the substitution of beloved words for unloved ones makes it easier to listen to a message and makes the speaker feel more like one of us. But this is not hospitality; it may be its opposite. When the stranger arrives at our door, our obligation is to make the stranger comfortable, not ourselves. Our job as listening ministers is to hear what is said, not what we would have said.

Let Those Who Have Ears Hear

It can be a struggle to hear and understand what the stranger says. For example, I am comfortable speaking of Jesus, but only rarely use the term “the Christ.” These words are not interchangeable for me. Likewise, a Muslim referring to “the Prophet” is not speaking of a person to whom most Christians would give that title. Listening in the ministry requires fearlessly taking the risk to open ourselves and be tenderly attentive to such distinctions in the ministry presented. Sometimes it necessitates gently holding onto a message that we could not or would not give ourselves. Sometimes it means suspending our attempts to comprehend, sitting uncomfortably for a while, and lovingly taking in a way of speaking we would not choose.

This is when our hospitality is again challenged: to welcome strangers and place them under our protection. They may have risked sharing their most deeply held vision of spiritual reality. Our job as listeners is to try and understand that vision.

When we are called to be listening ministers, our sole responsibility is to listen. 

What If I’m Hearing a Rant?

One of the earliest openings among Friends was that ministry was not the exclusive province of those who were educated at Oxford or Cambridge, which was to say, those who had been formally ordained. Friends boldly maintained that anyone could be divinely selected to speak. And if only God had the right to decide who was a minister, who were we to doubt it?

This is not to say that we do not hear speakers who lecture out of their own wills and from their own minds; who deliver political discourses or personal messages: who rant. But the prophets sent to Israel and Judah often carried political messages. Jeremiah acted crazy—he modeled the act of going naked as a sign that some early Friends emulated—and so enraged his audience that he was thrown into a pit. Prophets, angels, and other messengers of the Holy One are not sent to tell us everything is okay.

If we are faithful, we will listen. We will wrap the speaker in love, prayer, and Light. We will ask how this ministry is meant for us. When we are called to be listening ministers, our sole responsibility is to listen.

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley worships with Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind. He has written numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice, and travels in the ministry urging spiritual renewal among Friends. His most recent book is Primitive Quakerism Revived: Living as Friends in the Twenty-First Century. Contact:

3 thoughts on “The Ministry of Listening

  1. Thank you, Paul. Yours is a very salutary message for all of us.

    For some of us the ministry of listening may have a further dimension. Many Friends carry a sense of responsibility for the life of their Meeting, whether through actual appointment or simply because of long participation or the level of their involvement. So the listening might also need to be receptive to the needs of the speak/guest (I love the concept of hospitality), and also to what the message is saying to the group.
    There may be words which speak to the heart of living developments or concerns within the Meeting, or which can offer healing of needs. Perhaps something is offered which could be of particular value to a Friend, whether or not present, who is engaged in some form of personal struggle, or undergoing sorrow. We may recognise that a thought or wording in the ministry is likely to jar with one or more Friends, who may need personal attention afterwards, perhaps a quiet question, “How was it for you?”
    As with our own reception, listening on behalf of the Meeting is, as Paul says, not done by bringing a list of questions with which to examine the ministry. Such listening is likely to be embodied best, not by immediate responsive ministry, but rather by what happens after the close of the Meeting. Can we come with heart and mind open, both for ourselves and for our community, to receive the seed of the ministry, and to be ready for the paths on which it might lead us in the ongoing life of the Meeting?

  2. When I speak, where does it come from? When I speak, where does it go? My ideal at Meeting for Worship is to speak from Spirit, and to listen with Spirit. All the rest happens naturally, including ignoring the speaker when appropriate.

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