Ministry – Is it God or Us?
The ministers we plead for are such as act, move and labour in the work of the ministry, not from their own mere natural strength and ability, but as they are acted, moved, under-propped, assisted and influenced by the Spirit of God, and minister according to the gift received, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God, such were the holy prophets and apostles: 1 Pet. 4:10-11; 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:3-5,13; Acts 2:4; Matt. 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12; 1 Cor. 13:2.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 10, section XXXIII]
This is the aspect of ministry that I wrestle with the most. Ministry is supposed to rise from the direct influence of the Spirit of God. It is not to come from our mere natural strength and ability. But the Spirit of God also seems quite happy to make use of our strengths and abilities, under-propping and assisting as needed, so the discernment is always a little tricky. This is where learning the voice of your inward Guide is important.
Speaking in meeting is not being a trance medium where we give up our consciousness so that some other voice can make use of our lungs and vocal chords to give a message and we have no memory later of the message we gave. Likewise it is not a place for delivering an intellectual message suitable for a classroom lecture – although these messages are common enough, especially in meetings near to institutions of higher education.
In some ways, speaking in meeting is the essential mystery of unprogrammed Quakerism. Vocal ministry is what distinguishes Quaker Meeting for Worship from other forms of group meditation. Vocal ministry is also the place where our discernment is honed, our inward ear opened and our voice trained. Our speaking is inspired by the Spirit but the Spirit makes use of our individual experiences, talents, strengths and weaknesses. There is an expression among Friends, “The water always tastes of the pipes.” This means that the messages always carry the flavor of the person giving it. We may try to get ourselves out of the way as much as possible but we never get out of the way entirely. What comes from the Spirit, what comes from us? We may be prompted by the Spirit to stand and speak but we always maintain some degree of control. We are taught that there are things to consider before standing. Has there been enough time since the last speaker? Is it too close to the end of the meeting? Is this message for me or the meeting? We are always there, choosing the time, choosing the words.
The Spirit is supposed to guide our speaking but our motives are not always pure. Speaking can give us attention or validation. It can increase our stature in the community. Of course regularly speaking inappropriately can also reduce our stature in the community. A number of years ago I came to see that what I had thought was the power of the Lord in my speaking was, to some extent, the power of anger I had not dealt with. As I came to terms with that my ministry has taken a gentler tone. I have been wrestling lately with how much of my ministry has been motivated by a desire for attention and validation. In the worship at the recent TMP retreat I was shown the roots of that desire in myself. I am now holding this part of me in prayer so that this desire can be reduced in me and my ministry become more faithful. These difficulties and issues have faced Friends from the very beginning. Samuel Bownas offered advice and counsel on this matter in his 1750 book A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister.
The Spirit is able to make use of even our impure motives. I can see that without the anger and the desire for attention and validation I would never have embarked on the path that has lead me to the public ministry and this blog. It is only by standing and speaking that one begins to learn what is required. It is only by hearing and following the voice of our Guide and the voices that only sound like our Guide that we, in time, learn to know that voice and listen to only it.
The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." (John 10:2-5 NIV)
Faithfulness in our lives and in our ministry is a learned skill and our failures are as an important part of our learning as our successes. Our ministry is inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it is we fallible humans who are inspired. We bring all of ourselves, both our strengths and our weaknesses to the work to which we are called. By being as faithful as we can to the small promptings we increase our capacity to be faithful in larger things. Our continued faithfulness becomes a tool in our continued growth and sanctification.
Blessings to all,