Spirit Led Vocal Ministry
Once Meeting begins, take time to enter fully into the spirit of worship. Gently offer up distractions as you center down and open yourself to the workings of the Spirit. Come to Meeting with neither a resolve to speak, nor a determination not to speak, but rather with an attitude of expectant waiting and openness.
If you feel moved to speak, take a moment to test your leading. Is your message from the Spirit, or somewhere else? If it is from God, is it meant only for yourself, or for the entire Meeting? Genuine ministry is often preceded by a physical uneasiness, a “heart pounding weakness,” from which our name Quaker is derived. Remember that silence is not just the space between messages, but a deep and living communion with the “Spirit which gives life.” Your silent prayer and openness to God are themselves a form of ministry that enriches the Meeting community. Allow adequate time between spoken messages, so that all may listen to God and truly hear the previous message.
Brevity is an under-appreciated virtue. If you speak, do not feel compelled to explore all the implications of your insight. Rather, leave room for the Spirit to work through the next person, potentially building on your words and possibly extending them in an unexpected direction.
Inevitably, not all vocal ministry will be equally meaningful to all present. Remember, ministry that does not speak to you may nevertheless be valuable to others. If you find yourself struggling with another’s words, learn to listen for the Spirit behind the words.
In regard to any impulse to speak a second time during worship, Friends have traditionally counseled restraint. Partly this is a matter of equity (since most present will not speak at all, none should speak more than once), and partly a recognition that to offer genuine vocal ministry is a weighty matter, requiring a degree of spiritual discernment and obedience beyond what most of us can muster twice in a single hour.
Remember that our manner of worship is ultimately a mystery under the direction of the Spirit. Each Meeting for Worship is a spiritual adventure, unique and unpredictable. Let us remember in humility, as Isaac Penington wrote, that “the end of words is to bring us to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter.” Know that you are a channel for the Light. If you have a deep sense of the urging of the Spirit, consider your obligation to pass the message on.
I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence, and my mind became calm and quiet, being truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. And after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting in which I found peace. This I believe was about six weeks from the first time, and as I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock.
John Woolman, 1741
Some think, through a mistaken judgment, that they must be doing something every meeting, (like the preachers of the letter, who must either be singing, preaching or praying all the time) and by such a conduct they lose their interest and place in the hearts of friends by too long and too frequent appearing in both preaching and prayer: For the avoiding of which, keep close to thy gift, intently waiting to know thy place, both when to speak and when to be silent; and when thou speakest, begin under a sense of divine influence, whether it be in preaching or praying; and without it, do not either preach or pray. Samuel Bownas, 1750
In Friends’ meetings also, from the fact that everyone is free to speak, one hears harmonies and correspondences between very various utterances such as are scarcely to be met elsewhere. It is sometimes as part-singing compared with unison. The free admission of the ministry of women, of course, greatly enriches this harmony. I have often wondered whether some of the motherly counsels I have listened to in our meeting would not reach some hearts that might be closed to the masculine preacher. Caroline E. Stephen, 1890
Near evening I was at [a meeting with Indians], where the pure Gospel love was felt, to the tendering some of our hearts; and the interpreters endeavoring to acquaint the people with what I said, in short sentences, found some difficulty, as none of them were quite perfect in the English and Delaware tongues, so they helped one another and we laboured along, Divine love attending. Afterward, feeling my mind covered with the spirit of prayer, I told the interpreters that I found it in my heart to pray to God, and believed if I prayed aright, he would hear me, and expressed my willingness for them to omit interpreting; so our meeting ended with a degree of divine love. Before the people went out I observed Papunechang…spoke to one of the interpreters; and I was afterward told that he said in substance; “I love to feel where words come from.” John Woolman, c. 1760
As the worshiper sits in silence some message may arise out of the depth of the soul that by its nature is intended not simply for the worshiper but for the gathering as a whole. If it is left unexpressed, the worshiper feels burdened with a sense of omission, but if it is faithfully uttered, the worshiper feels a sense of clearness and relief. This peculiar sense of urgency is usually the sign of divine requirement. There is no sure or single test of guidance.... Though a message may seem intellectually fitting it should not be given unless it glows with life. Howard H. Brinton, 1942
Ministry is what is on one’s soul, and it can be in direct contradiction to what is on one’s mind. It’s what the Inner Light gently pushes you toward or suddenly dumps in your lap. It is rooted in the eternity, divinity, and selflessness of the Inner Light; not in the worldly, egoistic functions of the conscious mind. Marrianne McMullen, 1987
Waiting upon the Holy Spirit in silent expectation and prayer is the basis of our meeting for worship. Vocal ministry should arise out of a sense of being inwardly moved to share a message aloud. Sometimes a message is not ripe yet, or comes clearly but is meant only for the person receiving it, not for the group. Some Friends are led to speak frequently, and others only rarely; yet the timid or brief message of one who seldom speaks may be as moving and helpful as that of a more practiced speaker. The most satisfactory vocal ministry arises out of a leading that is felt in the silence so strongly that it cannot be ignored. It should be delivered with as few words as possible, yet as many as necessary. Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 1988
Our worship is our gift to God, Ministry through words is God’s gift to us. As we seek the Presence, Let us honor these gifts by testing our leadings to speak, Discerning that they are truly guided by the Holy Spirit That they are messages for the assembled body And not ourselves alone, And by allowing each message to settle Into the heart of those who need it By keeping silence between each ministry. Let us allow ourselves to be gathered By the power and grace of the light. Friends General Conference, 1995
Offer whatever you have to God, and be prepared to let it go. …Nowadays if words come to my mind I try to remember to pray, “O Lord, if this is not for this time and place, please take it from me,” and very often he does. Beatrice Saxon Snell, 1965
When we gather together in worship let us remember that there is committed to each of us, as disciples of Christ, a share in the priesthood. We should help one another, whether in silence or through spoken prayer or words of ministry. Let none of us assume that vocal ministry is never to be our part. If the call comes, there should be no quenching of the spirit; the sense of our own unworthiness must not exempt us from this service, nor the fear of being unable to find the right words. Faithfulness in speaking, even very briefly, may open the way for fuller ministry from others. The tender and humble-minded utterance, given faithfully, can carry its message to the hearts of its hearers. London Yearly Meeting, 1973
Gradually I realized that the most powerful ministry is a wordless radiation of the Love of God. As I began to experience this secret, undramatic, invisible ministry flowing out from me, I realized that my sometimes dramatic gifts in the ministry had depended all along on the secret, silent ministry of a woman here or a man there who never spoke in meeting. With humility I came to understand how their ministry of being deeply present to God and then radiating the Love of Jesus Christ is the most important ministry of all, for it helps everyone in the meeting to come into a state of living communion and transformation. Words are important of course - they can be a matter of life and death – but they are only words. What really counts is the powerful transformation of human character which can occur in a meeting deeply gathered into the body of Christ. Bill Taber, 1998
My piece was pat and all ready to say, She rose first. I threw my piece away. My well-turned stuff Was not so rough As hers, but easy elegant and smooth. Beginning middle end It had, and point And aptly quoted prophet priest and poet. Hers was uncouth Wanting in art Laboured scarce-audible and out of joint. Three times she lost the thread And sitting left her message half unsaid. ‘Why then did thee throw it Into the discard?’ Friend, It had head (Like this). Hers, oh hers had heart. Robert Hewison, 1965
How do I discern when to speak and when not to speak, both in Meeting and elsewhere?
How do we encourage Friends to allow ample time to absorb the previous message before speaking?
How do I practice listening to the Truth which may be revealed by others?
BYM Faith and Practice
The conviction that we can communicate directly with God’s Eternal Spirit through silent waiting is the basis of our worship. Deeper than words is the presence of the Spirit. Spoken messages should deepen the sense of this presence. It is hard for us to attain this since we are so used to speaking for many other purposes. The following suggestions may help us to increase the times when we are genuinely moved in the Spirit:
Messages should speak close to our condition. It is helpful to be aware of the needs of the Meeting and individuals in it.
Messages should speak from the heart to the heart. Prepared discourses and readings are seldom in keeping with the spirit of seeking.
Messages that are briefly spoken are more likely to deepen the quality of the worship.
Silence after each message allows for that deepening.
Preparation throughout the week by reading, meditation, and right living helps us to come to Meeting with the sense of calm which allows full participation.
Those who come late to Meeting disturb those who are gathered. We need a full hour to worship together.
Those of us who find that we speak easily should exercise restraint. Those of us who find great difficulty in speaking should feel encouraged to respond more easily to the inner urge.
Other occasions are provided for introductions, for matters of business, and for economic and political discussions. Our words should indicate not a spirit of controversy, but an openness to the presence of God.
Adopted from a statement prepared by the Committee of Ministry and Counsel, Orange Grove Friends Meeting, Pasadena, California