by Debbie Humphries & Diane Randall

  • What does it mean to be called to public ministry within the Religious Society of Friends?
  • What does it mean to submit to the discipline of the corporate community?
  • What can monthly meetings do to respond to individual leadings of ministry?

The Call (Debbie)

As New England Yearly Meeting gathered for its 350th annual Sessions in August 1999, in a momentous visit to the historic Newport Meeting House, I found myself shaking and felt the Spirit moving, and this message coming through me: “As Quakers we have a powerful heritage, but today we are a pale shadow of who we are called to be. The world needs what we hold, and we need to come forward and live faithfully to the Spirit and to the Quaker tradition.”

The experience was transformative. The call I felt began an internal struggle to understand the Spirit’s work in my life. Over the last eight years, I have grown into a deeper understanding of Quakerism, ministry, and my own sense of call. The treasures in the Quaker tradition became alive to me: our rich history, space in my life to listen and practice the skills of discernment, to hear how the Spirit calls me. Another treasure in the Quaker tradition is the knowledge that, listening alone, we may misunderstand what the Spirit is asking–we need others from our spiritual community to listen with us so that we can be more confident that we are listening to that inner guide, and not our own egos.

Following yearly meeting Sessions, I continued to feel closer to the Spirit than I ever had, reading Quaker books, studying, and meditating. Books that told the lives and stories of historic Friends such as Daisy Newman’s A Procession of Friends, John Punshon’s Encounter with Silence, George Fox’s Journal, John Woolman’s autobiography, Rebecca Larson’s Daughters of Light, and Samuel Bownas’ Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister made me aware of a sense of power and truth in our faith tradition that I hadn’t felt among contemporary Friends. I was moved by the stirrings of the Spirit in the lives and writings of so many Friends.

In the fall of 2000, I began a year of monthly personal retreats, usually for 24 hours of silence, reflection, journaling, reading, and worship. My purpose was to have time alone to come to know what the movings of the Spirit felt like outside of meeting for worship. That fall, I also sought guidance from three seasoned Friends in our meeting, who met with me on an ad hoc (but regular) basis. My request to them was to help me keep from running ahead or behind my leading. As the ad hoc committee’s understanding of my ministry and the corporate accountability I was seeking for the ministry grew, the committee began to see itself more as a support committee.

Samuel Bownas’ Description of the Qualifications of a Gospel Minister caused me ask my monthly meeting for help in living the ministry to which I felt called. Bownas described clearly the growth and changes I was experiencing. He called this ministry a gift not to the individual, but to the meeting.

I wanted my monthly meeting to accept and provide oversight for my ministry. I had a hunger to share the weight of the leading, and I sought help from the meeting as a whole. I learned about current practice among Friends who recognize the distinction between a support committee, which acknowledges the ministry of the individual, and an oversight committee, where the meeting accepts some responsibility for nurturing the ministry. I struggled with ego, not wanting to suggest my ministry was more important or special than the ministries of others. And yet, because of the leading to travel to other meetings, I needed my meeting to acknowledge and hold my ministry.

In October 2001, I wrote to the Worship and Ministry Committee of the monthly meeting I was attending, Hartford (Conn.) Meeting:

In August of this year while we were traveling . . . I was moved to speak [in meeting for worship], and now I feel the need to prepare for when it will be time to visit other meetings on an intentional basis, rather than just convenience. It’s not yet time, but I am listening and waiting. And as I prepare for this, I am asking for the meeting to accept responsibility of oversight of my call to vocal ministry. I do not consider this a confidential matter, but rather a sacred matter to be discussed and shared in the Light.

I would describe my ministry/leading as follows: I am led to call others to a deepening of their faith. This necessitates a continual deepening of my own faith, as I strive to listen to the Presence I feel, and give myself over to it.

The Meeting’s Response (Diane)

To determine the best way to respond to Debbie’s request, Worship and Ministry contacted other meetings to ask about their support and oversight committees. In January 2002, after several months of consultation, research and discernment, it made the following recommendation to meeting for business:

…that a committee of oversight be appointed to help provide clarity and guidance to the faithful exercise of the gifts of ministry coming through Debbie Humphries. Debbie feels called by an acute awareness of historical strength and power provided by the witness of the Society of Friends, and by a corresponding sense that Friends are called to be more than we currently are in the world today. A clearness committee under Worship and Ministry finds Debbie clear to pursue this ministry.

The concept of a committee of oversight for an individual’s ministry was unfamiliar to our Worship and Ministry Committee, to me as a new clerk, and to many in our unprogrammed meeting. At that business meeting, we did not find unity to support the request for oversight.

Over time, Debbie’s request led Hartford Meeting to examine the idea of ministry as an individual call and to consider what our meeting’s responsibility is to an individual’s leading. We did this in structured gatherings to read and reflect together and in conversations with one another. We grappled with many questions such as: How do we define and understand Debbie’s ministry? If the meeting has oversight, does that mean Debbie will be speaking for our meeting? Aren’t we all ministers? If we recognize Debbie’s gift of ministry as unique or needing special attention, what does that say about the rest of us as ministers? Will providing oversight mean we have financial responsibility for Debbie and her family? Isn’t ministry usually what we call messages in worship from older, seasoned Friends?

Although Debbie had been worshiping with Friends for ten years and held membership in Charleston (W.Va.) Meeting, she had been attending Hartford Meeting for only two years when she asked for our meeting’s oversight. Some people in the meeting simply didn’t feel they knew Debbie well enough, nor did they understand how to define her ministry.

At our May 2002 meeting for business, our worship together resulted in a process minute:

The request for an oversight committee for Debbie Humphries’ ministry, …has offered fertile ground for exploring gifts, leadings, and ministry within Hartford Monthly Meeting. Through structured discussion and worship, we have listened to one another and to God. These opportunities have included a Sunday morning Eleventh Hour and a Saturday morning Books and Bagels discussion; a workshop exploring gifts and leadings led by Charlotte Fardelman; in worship sharing with Charlotte on the topic of how the community supports leadings and with Brian Drayton on the topic of vocal ministry and deepening the life of the Meeting. Hartford Friends earnestly desire and actively work to support one another. This mutual support is borne out in countless ways. And yet, this request for oversight of ministry seems to engage us in a new way that is not yet clear; we have struggled with understanding what Debbie’s ministry is and what “oversight” means. In June, the Committees of Pastoral Care and Worship and Ministry will continue their discussion on the role of the faith community in nurturing leadings and ministries and the role of the individual to the faith community.

In September 2002, at a specially called meeting for business, the meeting affirmed the gift of ministry.

Clerk Diane Randall opened the meeting with a statement of our purpose of Loving one another.

Friends wrestled deeply and prayerfully with questions of authority and the concept of meeting oversight, recognizing our own fears and doubts.

We are clear that at any time any of us may be called to a particular form of ministry. Friends expressed concerns and had questions about what it means for a called minister to “go out” in the name of a particular meeting. We also prayerfully considered the meaning of ministry. How do we define ministry? We recognize that within the Society of Friends has been a long tradition of ministry–how does this relate to our own meeting–to our own calls? We recognize that none of us speaks in vocal ministry on behalf of our Meeting, but as one who has listened closely to that what the Spirit is asking.

We are clear that Debbie is felt [sic] called to her ministry. We want to support this. We recognize her reaching out to our Meeting, as she has stated, is a call for support and to help her “not outrun” her leadings. We wrestled with the issue of whether an oversight committee gives authority to Debbie to speak on behalf of the Meeting.

Such a committee would be a way for Debbie to test her leadings within its loving and safe community and help offer guidance to insure her outward work stays true and accountable to that to which she is called.

Friends entered into a period of silent worship. After deep and heartfelt comments were heard, recognizing the concerns of some around the balance of giving ministerial support to all of our members and our not having clarity on some issues around ministerial oversight, we were clear that we need to continue to support Debbie’s leadings, though we are not clear at this time to support the appointment of an oversight committee. At this time, Debbie’s support will come through her Support Committee, working with Worship and Ministry, which will continue to advise our Meeting and to further nurture her gifts.

Spiritual growth (Debbie)

Following the called meeting for business, people were concerned about my feelings. But in asking for the meeting to listen to the Spirit together, I had to trust the movement of the Spirit. I didn’t feel the decision was personal. The meeting was acting on faith–and was not prepared to accept corporate responsibility for the leadings of individual members. I had been faithful because the ministry I’m called to does not belong to me–it is the work of the Spirit. I am not responsible for removing the roadblocks in my path–I can express my willingness to the Spirit to continue the ministry, and ask to make the way clear.

I continued to have regular meetings with my support committee, which has seen a change in members over the years. They have been critical in challenging me, listening with me, and accompanying me on this journey. They encouraged me to write down the vocal ministry in the early years, and those messages are an important part of what I know. They encouraged me to say yes to New England Yearly Meeting committee service. They gently fed back my own foibles and helped me grow through them. This is, of course, an ongoing task! Writing monthly reports has been an important discipline, as I take the time to reflect on how the ministry is moving.

The Spiritual Formation through the Meeting’s Labor (Diane)

Debbie’s personal leading and engagement of our meeting’s corporate support required us to consider how God calls us, and how we understand these calls as ministry. Through examining questions of ministry concerning Debbie, we began asking ourselves and each other, “Is all of our work ‘ministry’?” Our meeting is filled with individuals who labor on behalf of a better world and exercise their spiritual gifts–in their homes, in their professional lives, and in our meeting. The variety of service we do–working to end homelessness, offering dignity and aid to people with mental illness and HIV/AIDS, teaching students of all ages, protecting the environment, promoting civil rights, organizing against U.S. engagement in torture, fighting racism and homophobia, volunteering in prisons, promoting peace education, creating art, caring for aging parents and older members of meeting, and nurturing children–is this all Spirit-led?

Over time, we began to lose the constraints of the words “minister” and “oversight.” Debbie’s regular interaction with people who served on her support committee led them to know her deeply. She met with anyone who didn’t understand her leading. As Debbie became better known in our monthly and yearly meetings, contributing her time and skills in a way that demonstrated her commitment and leadership, Friends felt easier with the idea of Debbie “traveling in the ministry.”

In October 2004, with the endorsement of her support committee, the meeting considered Debbie’s letter of request for a travel minute. Grounded in historical practice and prayerful consideration of elders in the meeting, the letter explicitly states what our monthly meeting can expect.

The purpose of a travel minute is to indicate that the leading of the Friend who carries it has been recognized by the home meeting, and that she travels among Friends with our corporate support. Travel minutes are discussed in Faith and Practice (p. 264-265). . . . As my leading is to travel both within and outside of New England Yearly Meeting, if Hartford Meeting approves the minute, I will then take it to Connecticut Valley Quarterly Meeting and New England Yearly Meeting for their endorsement.

A travel minute is used to introduce an individual and their ministry to other communities of Friends. After a visit, a travel minute is endorsed by the visited meeting, and those comments can then be shared with the home meeting. I will make a yearly report to the meeting on the work done with this travel minute.

I feel led to travel both within New England Yearly Meeting and outside. I anticipate traveling with other Friends, as this ministry is best done with a companion.

At that meeting, Hartford Meeting approved providing a travel minute, which was signed by then-clerk Cynthia Reik.

To Friends in New England and elsewhere:

We commend to you our beloved Friend, Debbie Humphries, whose leading to travel in the ministry has been seasoned in Hartford Monthly Meeting. We recognize her call to travel among Friends as the Spirit leads, to join them in fellowship, worship, and prayer.

Her concern is to deepen the spiritual life of the Religious Society of Friends, to reawaken us to experience the vitality and power of the Spirit, and to remind Friends of the truths of our tradition. Her faithfulness to this call has been an ongoing source of spiritual nourishment for her, our Meeting, and beyond. Debbie has served on many committees within our meeting and also on several committees of New England Yearly Meeting. In all of these works Debbie’s gifts of discernment, faithfulness to the traditions of Friends, as well as listening and counsel have increased.

We encourage her in this response to what we discern to be the promptings of love and truth, trusting that, under the Lord’s hand, and with the prayers of Friends, her service among you will be faithful and fruitful.

With Debbie we send our loving greetings to all Friends whom she may encounter.

In the last three years, I have visited more than 20 meetings, often experiencing a kind of grace that has given me words to speak to the condition of individuals and meetings. I believe that this grace is in part due to Hartford Meeting’s support. When I visit a worshiping community, I come into the worship in a much deeper way because I am carrying my meeting’s endorsement.

The process that I have used in traveling in the ministry is to write to monthly meetings, asking for an opportunity to visit. When possible, I gather with them in worship outside of their regularly scheduled meeting for worship, often meeting with a small group on a Saturday evening, and then attend meeting for worship on First Day. Spending worship-sharing time with a smaller group from the meeting deepens the regular worship the next morning.

As a way to share my travels and the accountability for the ministry, I write a report annually to Hartford Meeting, which is read in meeting for business, along with endorsements from visited meetings and sometimes a written report from my support committee.
In each of my visits the vocal ministry has varied, but the underlying theme always returns to attending to our Quaker heritage, listening to what it has to teach us, and learning to live more faithfully as Quakers today. The treasures of our faith tradition can help us respond to the world around us, if we practice our disciplines of listening and individual and corporate discernment.

Every day we make decisions about how we will act. Quaker faith and practice holds the hope of clarity in every aspect of our lives–from the small, daily decisions to the large life decisions. One of the promises of Quakerism is an answer to the question: “What am I called to do?” The emphasis on individual ministry and discernment is strengthened by the tradition of corporate listening, where we discern together how the Spirit is calling us. Each of us has a ministry, and our worshiping community can serve to strengthen us in carrying out our own.

© 2008 Friends Journal. This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Friends Journal. All rights are reserved.

Debbie has traveled under the Traveling Ministries & Intervisiation Program of New England YM. The program had at the time a directory of 40 Friends available for travel among meetings in NEYM.

Diane Randall was at that time director of Partnership for Strong Communities, a Connecticut-based nonprofit dedicated to advocating solutions to homelessness, affordable housing, and community development. She also then served on the Board of Advisors of Earlham School of Religion.

Both authors are members of Hartford (Conn.) Meeting.