by Lewis Benson

The beginning of all ministry motivated by the Holy Spirit is an attitude of prayer. In the opening moment of public worship, the minister casts aside all preconceptions of the words that may be given him to speak. He is entirely free of any sense of necessity that he should speak. His whole being is concentrated on prayer which is, first of all, a longing to feel the presence of Christ and a fervent desire that all present should experience the living presence of Christ.

The role of a minister is to minister. Therefore, his ministry should be related to the real state of the meeting and not some imagined state. But this should not start him thinking and analyzing and coming to judgements based only on his past experience and knowledge of the inner life of the meeting. A meeting or congregation that has been wayward and hard-hearted may, on a particular occasion, become especially tendered by the presence of Christ and his Spirit. If the minister is rightly centered in prayer he will be helped by the Holy Spirit to sense this precious moment of openness. This is not a psychic apprehension. The minister is not endowed with supra-normal powers. It is the Holy Spirit whom Christ sends who causes openness and causes the minister to be aware of it. But if, through prayer, the minister senses a particular need or an unusual attitude of openness, he must remember that others may be sensing this same thing.

His prayer then focuses on whether this sensed need requires some special service from him and he must earnestly seek for guidance from the head of the church. If this prayer and seeking leaves him free to be silent it may be that the Holy Spirit will direct his mind toward the person whom the Spirit is moving to this particular service. His prayer now focuses on the person to whom the Holy Spirit is giving the call. His prayer will strengthen and confirm the sense of urgency in the other person. It is sometimes helpful to speak to a minister after meeting testifying that you have felt, in the meeting, a confirmation and premonition of his call to speak. Where this sense of another’s being called to speak is sufficiently strong and unmistakable, it is sometimes necessary to speak to a minister who has not been obedient to the call. Such occasions would be rare but, in Quaker experience, the erring minister has nearly always acknowledged his lapse.

However, the progress of prayer may lead the minister to a clear sense that it is his duty to minister. At some periods of Quaker history, this was the point where the minister immediately arose to his feet and commenced to preach, trusting that the words would be given. I believe that there are some occasions when a minister may be required to do this. But in my experience, it is more usual to wait for the general outline of a message to be given and to wait for appropriate opening words. When the sense of need, the sense of immediate calling, and the general content of the message have all been given out of a deep attitude of prayer, it is still wiser to pray again for a final word of assurance that this exercise is truly required and motivated by the Holy Spirit. One sign of this assurance, attested to by many ministers, is an acceleration of the heartbeat or even sometimes a quaking of the body. By whatever sign the minister will feel a free, open, clear leading to rise to his feet and give the message. But even at the moment just before rising, he will do well to give a silent prayer that he will be strengthened to do what is required and that his words will find their way to the hearts and minds of the gathered group and confirm the witness of God’s spirit in them. This final prayer, inwardly spoken, may be very brief, an invocation of the blessing of God on the messenger and his message.

There may be times when the minister feels uncertainty as to whether he is being called to speak. This, by itself, should not prevent him from speaking. He must consider whether the uncertainty comes from God or springs from feelings of weakness and inadequacy. If the call is really from God, strength will be given. If not, the minister will feel a gentle rebuke and inner disquiet after he has spoken. Experience will teach him to distinguish between a sense of uncertainty that comes from God and human uncertainty.

The form of words taken should conform as nearly as possible to what has been given in the prayer experience that has been the matrix of this ministry. It should leave the hearers with a clear sense of the meaning and application of the message. To this end, it should keep the minds of the hearers focused on the central theme. On the whole, this effort will tend to shorten communications, but brevity is not always necessary or desirable.

The concern of the ministry should be, throughout this whole process, for the welfare of the people of God and especially those presently assembled. Most ministry should have the effect of making the Presence of Christ more real and of giving the hearers a sense that the authority and subject matter of the ministry come from a higher source than the minister himself.

Prophetic ministry, ministry under the motivation of the Holy Spirit, should give both speaker and hearer the sense that they are participating in the kind of communication with God that has historical consequences. Ministry is never good or bad in itself. It is not an end in itself. It is for the sake of those who are gathered together in the name of Jesus to wait for a word from their Lord. The effect of a minister’s words should be to strengthen the sense of being a people gathered to Christ to serve, witness, and suffer in his name. Ministry that has a scattering or disintegrating effect on the congregation is to be looked upon with suspicion. The minister, while he is preaching, may at the same time be aware of an increased sense of gatheredness and oneness in Christ. When he concludes his message, therefore, he may be led to gather up this corporate exercise of the whole meeting in a brief vocal prayer.

These thoughts, based on experience, are only general guidelines. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth and the greatest fault in the historical Quaker ministry has been the temptation to standardize it and thereby produce an ever-increasing narrowness of the conception of its nature and function. There is a great latitude for various types of ministry and that Christian society will be best served that has been blessed by a variety of ministries. Some ministers may be called to stress a single theme throughout the whole duration of their service as ministers. In this case, the minister should be careful not to overburden one congregation with unprofitable repetition but should seek guidance on ways of traveling and sharing his message. Other ministers may excel in prayer and seldom give a message in sermon form. There is room for variety but, in general, the humble approach to all vocal ministry through prayer, as outlined above, is a safe and proven path to follow.

A gift in the ministry is something that does not belong to anyone as part of his natural endowment such as a good speaking voice, a charm of manner, a skill in producing oratorical effects, etc. It is truly a gift of God, and it does not remain effective unless it is exercised. The minister must therefore be faithful to his calling or he will find that the gift has been withdrawn.

The true minister is always free either to speak or be silent, and he can find inner contentment and peace in either condition. He is as much concerned that others should be faithful in their ministry as he is about his own faithfulness. His chief concern is for the good of the whole.

In attempting to describe what it means to speak as moved by the Holy Spirit, I have tried to emphasize that the role of the prophetic minister is not a passive one. The work of the minister involves active full participation on his part. He does not go into a trance-like state. Yet at every point—from the beginning of his turning inwardly in prayer to the conclusion of his service—he is aware of the divine presence and of the initiative that is being taken by the guiding power beyond himself. Prophetic ministry cannot be imitated. It can only come through those who seek to open their lives to Christ and who are willing to let him be the Lord of their ministry. The work of the prophetic minister is real work. It involves enriching his mind with the language of prophecy and the imagery of prophecy. It means finding time for the maturing of insights and the quiet prayer and meditation that leads to wisdom. It means meditating on the great themes of the Christian faith. These meditations will later enrich his ministry, but they are not rehearsals of sermons to be given at any particular time and place.

The New Testament speaks of “spiritual sacrifices” and the minister soon learns that in his work he is, indeed, bringing gifts to the altar, and it becomes his increasing labor and concern to make his gift acceptable to God. What is it that makes the gift pleasing to God? Is he not most pleased when ministry strengthens the sense of fellowship and makes the witness and mission of the church more effective? The minister is not a mere functionary—he is a part of the means by which God is seeking to redeem his world. The measure of ministry is in its power to lead people to Christ and in its power to change things.

The prophetic ministry can go into almost total eclipse, as it seems to have done, but its potential power remains undiminished. So there is reason for Christ’s ministers to take courage. It is a wonderful thing to be called to the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Originally published in New Foundation Publications #4, Winter 1979 issue on “The Quaker Vision”. Appreciation to Brian Drayton for requesting that we post this article in this library.