“On Vocal Ministry”: Read the new Pendle Hill Pamphlet by Barry Crossno and J. Brent Bill

FGC’s General Secretary Barry Crossno and Quaker author J. Brent Bill have collaborated on a new Pendle Hill pamphlet that examines the spiritual process of vocal ministry. On Vocal Ministry: Nurturing the Community through Listening and Faithfulness includes discussion questions and a detailed diagram for Friends and anyone who feels led to hold the spiritual welfare of their meeting. 

Barry and Brent recently answered questions about their new project in an interview with FGC’s Communications Manager, Marta Rusek.

Why did you write On Vocal Ministry?

Brent: One reason I wanted to write it was that it gave me the chance to work with my dear friend Barry. I always find his thinking about the life and power in Quaker faith and practice engaging and thoughtful, and I thought it would be grand to collaborate on a topic that is at the heart of Quaker life.

A second is that, as a life-long Friend, I’ve experienced really deep vocal ministry and really bad facsimiles of the same. Often, in my opinion, the latter came from someone who really didn’t have a very deep understanding of what vocal ministry was and confused it with an announcement, an opportunity to voice and opinion they held dear, or chance to educate those they felt needed educating. So I feel it is important for Friends to have a clear, succinct understanding of what vocal ministry is…and what it isn’t. The Pendle Hill Pamphlet series, because of their word length restrictions, gave us an opportunity to state concisely our observations and learning about what makes for deep vocal ministry – and tests to see if we are led to speak.

Barry: Over a period of some years, various Friends have shared with me that the quality of vocal ministry in their Monthly Meeting is…ahem…variable. Sometimes it is deeply inspired. At other times Friends share things that are clearly not ministry such as announcements or worse, that are painful and divisive. Given FGC’s anti-racism work coupled with our commitment to help Friends have deep experiences of Spirit, it seemed like the right time to pen something related to vocal ministry. I’m really grateful to Brent for saying yes to co-authoring this work. He’s a great friend and a tremendous writer. This wouldn’t have happened without his commitment, insights and skill. I’m also very grateful to Janaki Spikard-Keeler and the Pendle Hill Pamphlet committee for saying yes to this possibility and helping shepherd it into existence.

On Vocal Ministry authors Barry Crossno and J. Brent Bill

Who did you write this pamphlet for? (To put it another way, who is the audience?)

Brent: I see three audiences. One is Friends who want to make sure that, if they should stand to speak, what they are offering is truly ministry. I know a number of Friends who refrain from offering a spoken message because they are concerned that what they feel led to say may not “qualify” as such. So this little pamphlet can be an encouragement to be faithful to a leading to speak by testing it against some spiritual practices used by Friends over the years.

Another audience is Friends meetings or churches who want to provide instruction and encouragement to their attendees in what vocal ministry is. Many meetings, I think, are looking for such a tool. They need something that helps them help people learn about vocal ministry, other than just be observing it in Meeting for Worship.

A third audience is Ministry and Counsels or those in a meeting who are charged with the spiritual welfare of the meeting. These Friends could often use some guidance about how to work with that person or persons who speak in ways that are not vocal ministry or are, in fact, downright unhelpful or hurtful. Hopefully, this little booklet will be of some help to them in working through such situations.

Barry: To add to Brent’s reflections, I hope many meetings will hold a session during Meeting for Business or adult religious education about what is vocal ministry in their Monthly Meeting. Each Monthly Meeting, to a greater or lesser degree, has its own culture and experience of vocal ministry. It’s important for Friends to sit down together and unpack that culture and share those experiences so that everyone can understand how to participate and enrich the meeting. As part of that, I hope Friends will also talk about how they want to support inspired, spirit-led ministry and how to constructively and lovingly address ministry that’s painful. We included some suggestions about how to address racist, homophobic or sexist statements made during meeting for worship. Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful. Ultimately, we made these suggestions to provide tools, but more importantly to create conversations. My belief is that Friends, through dialogue grounded in Spirit, will create ways of addressing these issues that are more beautiful and healing than what we wrote. What we shared was a starting point.

Your pamphlet and the accompanying query-led poster go into great detail about what vocal ministry is and how to engage Spirit throughout the process. Why is it important to document a sacred process like this?

Brent: I think there are a couple of reasons to offer steps in a spiritual process – and one big danger.

One reason is that many people, myself included, find such detail and guidance helpful. Friends have often offered such information on process for how to conduct clearness committees, how to do spiritual discernment, how to clerk, and so forth. It’s my hope that the book and the poster will enable users visualize or conceptualize the process in a way that is helpful to them.
A second reason is that this detail is meant, as we consider and reflect upon it, to help us slow down and examine our leading to speak. I know for me, I many times have an immediate urge to speak… and that’s not often a good thing. I need to slow down and determine if that urge is coming primarily from my ego or intellect or is truly coming from Spirit. These “tests”…or pausing places…create, I believe, the soulful space I need to examine what I feel lead to say and if it is truly Spirit-led.

The danger, of course, of laying out a process for something as deeply spiritual as being led to speak is that the process, if followed slavishly, can actually hinder our response to Spirit. Our intent is not to lay out a step one, step two, etc. process that must be followed to the letter. Or even followed at all, in rare situations. Our first call is to be faithful to Spirit. Our hope is that the process we offer actually invites more Friends to participate in that process in the hopes that more Friends may actually find themselves participating in vocal ministry that enriches their meetings and worship groups.

Barry: What Brent just shared really speaks to me and for me in so many ways. I’ll just add that I really appreciate the framing of this question. From my standpoint, there are processes that are spiritual as Brent points out and simultaneously there is no process that in and of itself is sacred. My experience is that we can use processes to have sacred shared experiences and to thereby glimpse the sacredness of reality itself. So the question is really whether a process is helpful to you and to those with whom you are in relationship. If it helps you go deeper, use it. If it doesn’t, listen for Spirit inwardly and through Friends for what the way forward might be. My hope is that the “am I called to speak” process we’ve included in the pamphlet, a process that in various forms has been used by many Friends, will be helpful as we seek to experience liberation, insights and inspiration through communal worship.

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