Traditionally Friends reserved the term ministry to refer specifically to Spirit-led vocal ministry during worship. Friends today place greater emphasis on a diversity of gifts held within the faith community. The Apostle Paul frequently writes about the importance of embracing a range of gifts including preaching, teaching, prophecy, healing, discerning, and ecstatic utterance. In keeping with a wider view, Friends increasingly use the word ministry to describe a variety of gifts that members offer our faith community and the world around us, including faith-led social witness, chaplaincy, religious education, spiritual formation, and healing work. The traditional term “gospel minister” may be used to distinguish those with a call to Spirit-led ministry during worship in contrast to other forms of ministry.
Noah Baker discussed these issues in the Dwight and Ardis Michener Memorial Lecture he gave in 2013 at Southeastern Yearly Meeting on the subject of Prophets, Midwives, and Thieves: Reclaiming the Ministry of the Whole. Friends involved in ministry of any kind can benefit from the support and assistance of Friends with eldering gifts – not just those with a gift of vocal ministry.
A Subcommittee on Ministry & Leadings of Pacific YM’s Ministry & Counsel Committee drafted a terrific pamphlet called Faithfulness in Action: Supporting Leadings in Pacific YM in 2009. Several excerpts from this pamphlet are posted below.
Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting has approved documents that describe in detail the ways in which the meeting nurtures the leadings and ministries of its members:
Nurturing Faithfulness to the Leadings of the Spirit offers a general description of the many different ways, both informal and formal, in which a meeting supports its members’ gifts.
The Handbook for Formal Care of Friends Called to Ministry or Witness accompanies the above general description and provides detailed descriptions of the meeting’s practices around clearness committees, spiritual accountability groups, minutes of support, and financial support for meeting members as they seek to be faithful to their callings.
What Are Leadings
This is a Quaker term for when God speaks to an individual providing direction for an individual action or choice. Leadings are both the precursor to a more well-defined spiritual gift or ministry – and also the ongoing guide as Friends seek to pursue faithfully their gift or ministry. Faithfully responding to leadings from God is the individual equivalent of a community’s faithfulness in responding to God’s guidance in its corporate decisions and actions.
What Is a Leading from the Pacific YM Faithfulness pamphlet.
Discerning One’s Call
Any path of religious service or ministry begins with the recognition of some kind of call by God to a particular work or service. This often begins with small promptings in the heart. Friends feeling such nudges often initially request a clearness committee to help them discern their call. This can either be done formally through a ministry and counsel committee or more informally.
Five Tests for a True Leading by Hugh Barbour
Meetings for Clearness
Prior to about 1970 Friends utilized clearness committees basically for two purposes: to determine whether a meeting was comfortable accepting an applicant into meeting membership and to discern the rightness of marriage by a couple seeking marriage “under the care” of the local meeting. Beginning, perhaps, in Young Friends of North America during the 1960’s and 70’s and later spreading much more widely among U.S. Friends, clearness committees now provide assistance to individual Friends in helping them to discern what God is asking them to do on a wide variety of personal decisions from vocational choices and financial decisions to discerning calls to ministry.
Clearness Committees – a post by Marcelle Martin on her A Whole Heart website. Post includes guidelines, resources, and videos.
Clearness Committees & Their Use in Personal Discernment by Jan Hoffman
Clearness Committees: Engaging One’s Community in Individual Discernment from the Pacific YM pamphlet on leadings.
Meeting Support for a Friend’s Calling
Anyone feeling a long-term calling to particular service needs to discern in an ongoing way how to faithfully live out that call. Discerning how one is being led can be done through personal prayer, exploration, and reflection. But we often need others to help us discern our true path of faithful service. Again, this can be via clearness committees (that meet one or perhaps a few times with the person asking for assistance in discerning God’s leading), meeting with others who have perhaps pursued a similar path for a longer period, or through asking the meeting to provide ongoing oversight of the ministry. (Note: Some Friends reject use of the term “oversight” because of its association with overseers in chattel slavery.)
Traditionally Friends recognized gifts of vocal ministry during worship by “recording” ministers. This practice was abandoned by most unprogrammed meetings other than those in the three Conservative yearly meetings in the U.S. However, many meetings that reject formal “recording” of a gift of ministry will appoint an ongoing committee to meet regularly with an individual meeting member to nurture a particular spiritual gift of various kinds and to hold the individual accountable for living out their gift in the best possible way.
Sometimes meetings have offered formal recognition of a ministry to assist a member with a particular legal obligation, such as work in hospital chaplaincy or prison visitation. It is important, however, to recognize that recognizing a member’s gift for a legal reason is very different from doing this to assist a member’s capacity to faithfully live out their calling to service.
Anyone attempting to pursue a ministry faithfully may, at times, lose the way or “outrun their guide” – where they are following ego or intellect rather than God’s direction. A support of ministry committee sometimes plays a passive role of listening to the minister’s description of how they are being led, providing feedback and suggestions, prayerful support, and eldership. The strongest support committees, however, truly hold the minister being supported accountable. Many Friends have talked about times when a support committee told the minister that the minister was off course. Many of us tend to take on too much in our lives and become exhausted and unable, as a result, to pursue our calling faithfully. In such cases, the support committee and minister may agree that the minister will not take on additional activities or projects without bringing the proposed activity first to the support committee for prayerful discernment.
Spiritual Accountability Groups: Formal Community Support for a Miinsitry from the Pacific YM pamphlet on leadings
Marcelle Martin and several other Friends have recently developed a new approach to mutual discernment, support, and accountability. Instead of having several Friends provide one-way support to an individual Friend as in a support of ministry committee, three or four Friends meet and offer support to each others’ ministries and leadings. This enables many more Friends within a faith community to receive support in pursuing their own spiritual gifts.
- Description of Faithfulness Groups on Marcelle’s “A Whole Heart” website.
- A Guide to Faithfulness Groups by Marcelle Martin, Inner Light Books, 2019.
- Review of this book in Friends Journal.
Nominating Committees as Discernment of Gifts
When a Nomination Becomes a Leading from the Pacific YM pamphlets.