The first generation of Friends developed a unique approach to worship in which those already active in the faith community gathered in silence to wait upon God. Each of those present sought to turn her/his heart towards God. As more and more of those present do so, the worship becomes “gathered” in communion with God and with those present.

There is no pre-planned singing, preaching, or vocal prayer. Instead, if any present believe clearly that God requires her or him to speak, the words given are spoken out of the silence.

This practice was largely lost among Friends. During the 19th century many meetings replaced waiting worship with Protestant style services with pre-planned hymns, Bible readings, and sermon. Among those meetings that kept to the waiting format, many came in time to lose the heart of the practice, namely the deep communion with the Holy Spirit. The silence in many unprogrammed meetings today rarely if ever becomes truly gathered in God’s living presence and, as a result, spoken messages often stay on a surface level, arising from the thoughts of the speaker rather than the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Traditionally Friends used the term ministry to refer to Christ-guided vocal preaching and prayer. The term minister referred to Friends who were recognized by their own monthly meeting and yearly meeting as demonstrating over time a special calling to Spirit-led vocal ministry. There are a number of settings where a “Gospel Minister” could be used by God to speak to preach, teach, pray, prophesy, or sing, including:

  • regularly scheduled meetings for worship
  • smaller and perhaps ad hoc gatherings (what Bill Taber liked to call “opportunities”)
  • while traveling under religious concern among Friends beyond one’s own meeting, and
  • public evangelical gatherings to share the good news of Quakerism to non-Friends.

Historical Background

The Biblical Roots of Quaker Worship explores a variety of passages in the Bible beginning with John 4:19-24 that undergird waiting worship and spirit-led prophetic vocal ministry. Includes an appendix with a summary of additional citations used by Barclay in the 10th proposition “Concerning Worship” from his Apology.

An Historical Note on Recording Gifts in the Ministry by Brian Drayton of New England YM

A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister. This wonderful 18th century volume by Samuel Bownas offers invaluable advice to those who feel led to vocal ministry during worship. [Note: The above link allows you to read the original for free. It is also available in hardcover for $15 from Pendle Hill Publications here]

An Epistle to Friends Coming Forth in Ministry by Charles Marshall, excerpted from the Life of Charles Marshall.

Gathered Worship

Friends who practice traditional waiting worship do not gather initially in silence as an empty ritual. Early Friends discovered that moving deeply into silent prayer before words are uttered increases the possibility that Friends will be able to follow the leading of Christ within in their spoken prayers, preaching, or song.

“The first that enters into the place of your meeting…” This 1660 quotation from Alexander Parker describes in simple but moving words the process by which Friends turn their hearts towards the Light as they enter into the silent waiting worship til all hearts are knit together as one.

Experiences of Worship and the “Gathered Meeting” comes from a Meeting for Discernment on the process of preparing for and entering into worship at QuakerSpring in 2012.

The Gathered Meeting is a tract by Thomas Kelly. The first sections deal with what happens between participants in the silence whereas later sections address vocal ministry.

Spirit-led Vocal Ministry

Early Friends were adamant that vocal prayer, preaching, and singing can only be true expressions of worship if it is given in direct response to the inward direction of Christ. Those who have a special call to this work were engaged in what they called “Gospel Ministry”.

Do Messages in Meeting Really Come from God? Is a wonderful short essay by my friend and fellow New Swarthmoor Community alumnus, Richard Accetta-Evans, who writes the Christ-centered Quaker blog, Brooklyn Quaker.

Some Quaker Voices about Vocal Ministry collected by Bridge City Meeting, Portland OR

Friends Ministry is an article written in 1981 by Ralph Greene. He says that Christ’s message can be made real to our fellow travelers in this world only when there are Friends who hear what he calls “a clear, inward call to work for the Kingdom of Christ”

Excerpts from YM Disciplines on the Subject of Spirit-led Vocal Ministry was a handout prepared for a course curriculum on Gospel Order.

Nurturing Gospel Ministry is the minute of exercise from a meeting for discernment held on ways to deepen worship in the meeting held at Quaker Spring in 2008.

Advice to Ministers by Brian Drayton. In this short piece Brian talks not so much how one discerns what Christ lays upon us during worship as the way those who feel a calling to vocal ministry live their lives.

Traveling Ministry

On Traveling Ministry This is a particular form of Gospel Ministry where a Friend is led to travel under religious concern to Friends beyond one’s own meeting and perhaps to non-Friends as well. Discussion of issues by Peter Blood-Patterson.

Engaging with a Monthly Meeting about Ministry is an article describing the process by which a monthly meeting wrestles with the request by a traveling minister to have her ministry acknowledged formally by her meeting.

Nurture and Oversight of Worship

Everyone taking part in Quaker worship shares a responsibility for holding and nurturing the life of the waiting worship, to help knit hearts together in the Living Christ, and to pray that Christ-led speech and song will emerge from the gathered silence. It is important, however, for certain Friends to give special attention to the fabric and depth of the meeting’s worship and the extent to which God is truly guiding this worship.

For the first two hundred years, this was the responsibility of the appointed ministers and elders of the meeting (see below under Recording Gifts of Ministry). When the practice of recording gifts of gospel ministry and formal recognition of meeting elders was discontinued in most unprogrammed meetings, this responsibility was passed to a committee (variously called Ministry & Counsel, Worship & Ministry, etc.). The members of the this committee are generally chosen by the meeting with specific time limits such as three years. Unfortunately many such committees have very limited understanding of how to nurture Spirit-guided worship, or even feel uncomfortable exercising such oversight of worship.

Nurturing the Gift of Vocal Ministry is an article written by Peter Blood-Patterson in 2001 for the New Zealand Friends Newsletter. It focuses describes the traditional Quaker practice of formally recording gifts of vocal ministry, a practice now abandoned by most unprogrammed meetings. It also describes, however, other means of deepening the quality of vocal ministry during waiting worship and includes a set of queries that any member of a meeting can use to reflect on the quality of spoken ministry in her / his meeting.

The Quality of Worship Is a Corporate Responsibility. In this article Nancy Haines of Wellesley (Massachusetts) Monthly Meeting discusses the importance of not elevating gifts of vocal ministry above other forms of ministry that serve the faith community.

Recording Gifts of Ministry

At some point within the first century of Quakerism, the practice developed in which Friends meetings began to give formal recognition to Friends who had demonstrated over time a gift of giving Christ-guided vocal ministry, whether in the local meeting or in larger circles of Friends. Both men and women were recognized as ministers. Meetings also formally recognized as elders those members with a gift for discerning and nurturing the gifts of ministers. Ministers and elders usually sat on facing benches at the front of meetings for worship. Vocal ministry was not limited to formally recognized ministers, but in practice the bulk of vocal ministry was given by the designated meeting ministers.

The ministers and elders of the meeting met regularly, usually once a month, to:

  • discern together the spiritual depth and richness of meetings for worship
  • provide feedback to individual ministers about the faithfulness of their vocal ministry – including:
  • letting them know if they seemed to be failing, for some reason, to deliver the gospel message or
  • where the minister appeared to the elders or other ministers to be “running beyond her or his guide”.

Needless to say, this kind of sharing required a great deal of trust and a commitment to hold each other both in truth and in love. Ministers and Elders also met on the quarterly meeting and the yearly meeting level.

When a meeting discontinued the practice of formally recognizing ministers and elders, the Ministers and Elders’ Meetings evolved into Ministry and Worship Committees made up of meeting members appointed for fixed terms.

The Practice of Recording Gifts in the Ministry is a report from a subcommittee of the Ministry & Counsel Committee of Vassalboro QM in Maine.

Observations on Ministry, Leadership, and the Recording of Gifts. Allen Myers discusses how recording gifts helps to establish a mutually accountable relationship between individual members in exercising their spiritual gifts and the faith community of which they are a part.

“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”: Thoughts on Being a Recorded Minister in the Religious Society of Friends by Alice Hildebrand

Comparing the Practices of Recording Ministers in Various Yearly Meetings explores the differences in how different yearly meetings approach the process of recording gifts of vocal ministry – if they utilize this practice at all.

Since We Are All Ministers, Why Record the Gifts of Any? is an article by Marcianna Caplis of Westerly (Rhode Island) Monthly Meeting laying out arguments often advanced against recording gifts of ministry.