Monday, January 6, 2014

Eldering and Vocal Ministry: Guidelines for the Vexed and Perplexed

Nurturing the quality and depth of vocal ministry is one of the recurrent challenges of unprogrammed Quakerism. In an article entitled “The Divine Source of Vocal Ministry” (Friends Journal, December 2004) Benjamin Lloyd describes the anguish that he and other Friends feel when messages seem too frequent (the so-called “popcorn meeting” effect) or too intellectual. He calls for more emotionally authentic messages and decries the fact that Friends no longer “elder” those whose vocal ministry seems uninspiring or inappropriate.

“Inappropriate” is of course a subjective term. Every meeting has its own sense of what constitutes an apt message. Individual members also have their idiosyncratic tastes and needs. Most Friends would agree that messages should not be “too long,” “too personal,”  “too preachy,” or “too intellectual,” etc.  The question arises: who decides when these epithets apply to someone’s vocal ministry? And how does the Meeting communicate its concern to a person whose message did not speak to its condition?

A few years ago an incident occurred that caused me to take these questions seriously. A newcomer to our Meeting—a woman who moved into our area from the East Coast and has been a Friend for 30 years—gave a message that seemed too long and too intellectual for the tastes of some Friends present. Angered by the length of the message, a Friend stood up in protest, and so did two other Friends.

After meeting, I talked with the newcomer, who was quite upset. Understandably, she felt that she had been publicly humiliated. The Friend who stood up to elder the newcomer came to her at the rise of meeting and said that her message seemed like a mere “performance” since it talked about Quaker history and referred to a personal event that occurred 15 years ago rather than to an immediate felt experience. 

I then spoke to the Friend who eldered the newcomer. She is a person whom I know, respect and love dearly. A person of strong convictions, she told me that she felt that she had clearly done the right thing because Friends had been complaining about "inappropriate" and insufficiently spiritual messages during meeting for worship for some time. Some had even left our meeting because of the unsatisfactory quality of vocal ministry.

 These concerns are quite valid. There has been a marked increase in the quantity of spoken contributions in our Meeting, and unsuitable things have occasionally been said (particularly relating to political issues).  I listened sympathetically and patiently to my Friend’s concerns.

When she asked for my thoughts, I told her that while I feel it is important to let Friends know when their vocal ministry seems inappropriate, standing up to protest a message has, in my experience, been an extreme measure, usually undertaken only when a person has spoken for an inordinate length of time (say, 10 minutes or more) or has said something totally un-Quakerly in tone or content.  When a message is "slightly off," it is the usual practice to wait until rise of meeting, take the person aside very tenderly, ask questions about where the message is coming from, and gently explain that the message seemed a little too long or a little too intellectual or whatever for the tastes or the culture of our meeting.

 I explained that this in fact had happened to me this very morning. A Friend in our meeting was not comfortable with a message that I gave several weeks before. He called and left a message on my answering machine, and I asked him about his call. He told me that he felt that my telling two stories during vocal ministry was too much, and that I went on a bit too long and it was not helpful to him spiritually. I thanked him for being frank and genuinely appreciated his feedback. I told him that in future I would try to be briefer. 

Not every Friend would agree with him that I went on too long, however. Several had thanked me for my message—one even wanted me to write it up!—but clearly others (or at least one other) felt differently and I needed to hear and respect this concern.

 If someone had stood up in meeting to protest my message, I would have felt humiliated. I appreciated his sensitivity in bringing up his feelings with me privately. What he did corresponded with what I have been taught about the Quaker eldering process.

 Upon hearing my response, my Friend thanked me and even gave me a hug. She then went to speak to the newcomer and had a heart-to-heart talk. It helped, but the newcomer will carry the pain of this incident with her for a long time.

 While such extreme “eldering” is uncommon among liberal Friends,  annoyance and anger with inappropriate messages are not infrequent. Some Friends feel very strongly that messages which do not arise from the depths of the Spirit desecrate the silence and should be discouraged by whatever means necessary. One Friend  even said it was “courageous” for  these three Friends to stand up in protest of our newcomer’s  message.

 The vitality of Meeting for Worship depends on having a healthy balance between deep, silent worship and vital Spirit-led vocal ministry.  When Meetings insist too much on enforcing silence, they may stifle authentic and needed ministry. When messages become too frequent, too personal, or too intellectual, the depth and quality of worship may suffer.  What’s to be done?

Judging vocal ministry

We need to remember that even the best of Friends may give vocal ministry that is not to everyone’s taste. Rufus Jones, a Haverford professor and one of the spiritual giants of twentieth century Quakerism, was sometimes chided for giving messages that seemed too long or too high-flown. At rise of meeting, one woman is reported to have said, “Friend Rufus, our Lord told us to feed his sheep, not his giraffes.” In a documentary about Rufus Jones, Steve Carey said that Rufus gave messages so frequently and predictably that young Friends would take bets on the precise minute when he would rise and speak. When Rufus arose, these young Friends would look at their watch to see who won the bet!

When I first became a Friend in Princeton, NJ, I loved the deep, worshipful silence, but was not terribly impressed with the quality of vocal ministry in our meeting. Those who live in this highly charged academic community tend to have high standards.  Some of us who were new to Quakerism, but felt we understood it quite well, would gather after meeting and critique the messages, just as we would critique papers at an academic forum.

A wise old Friend named Rose helped us to understand the way that seasoned Friends evaluate messages.

“Some messages may not be meant for you,” she said. “They are for someone else in the Meeting who really needs to hear this message. If you hear a message that doesn’t speak to your condition, don’t worry about it. Let it go. Trust that it will reach the person that it was intended for.”

Rose also helped us to appreciate messages that seemed “too personal.” 

“Sometimes when a Friend is sharing something painful or personal, I hold that person in the Light and pray for healing. At the rise of Meeting, I am sometimes led to minister to that person, or I see someone else doing it, and I am very grateful.”

Similar views are expressed by George Gorman in his pamphlet The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship. Gorman writes with great sensitivity about vocal ministry that jars the sensibilities of some listeners:

...A spoken contribution may disrupt the silence and jar upon the ears of the listeners. One's immediate and natural reaction will be a strong sense of irritation, if not outright annoy­ance, that the tranquility of the stillness has been broken. This may be a quite justified reaction, but equally it may be a misleading one. The Society of Friends has long advised those who worship after the manner of Friends to listen sympatheti­cally to anything said in meeting, and to try to wrest from the words their inner meaning and real significance.

...If you are unable to find anything of value, and the speaker's unabated flow of words smothers the silence for you, then you may find it helpful to ask yourself why is message is not reaching you, or is causing such a negative reac­tion. Questioning yourself in this way may well spark off something that is creative in you. In fact, you will possibly come to see that the words you have been hearing with irritation do, after all, have something for you. Meetings are not always tranquil through. What is said may rightly chal­lenge and disturb.

I have myself had negative reactions to certain “spoken contributions.” Many years ago, during meeting for worship in a certain Eastern city that will go nameless, I heard a couple of  messages that seemed so rambling and incoherent that I couldn’t help feeling judgmental. As I sat seething with annoyance, I heard a voice—I never actually saw the speaker—who said simply and with great feeling:

“Please forgive me, O God. I have been sitting here judging Friends and their messages.”

There was a long silence after that message, which I have never forgotten. The words seemed to come directly from God and seared my heart, like Jesus words, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Over the years,  I have tried to put into practice these lessons.  Whenever I find judgmentalism rising up in me during meeting for worship, I try to remember that not every message is intended for me. Some messages are cries for help (sometimes carefully disguised)  from God and from Friends.  Other messages are meant to disturb and to arouse me from my complacency. During meeting for worship, my job is not to judge, but to hold Friends and their messages in the Light of God’s love.

How to improve the depth and quality of vocal ministry

We cannot simply sit passively by, however, if messages during Meeting distract us or other Friends from the experience of the Divine Presence. In fact, we have an obligation to do our best to nurture the vocal ministry and ensure that it is Spirit-inspired, as our [Pacific Yearly Meeting] Faith and Practice advises:

[Members of the Worship and Ministry Committee] should encourage those who show promising gifts and lovingly guide those who speak unacceptably, too often or for too long. They should endeavor to open the way for those who are timid and inexperienced in vocal ministry and should encourage all Friends to listen with tenderness. In trying to be helpful, they should not assume superior wisdom, trusting instead that all are sharing in the search for guidance.

While this advice is useful, it does not spell out specifically what can be done to improve the quality and depth of Meeting for Worship.  Nor does our Faith and Explain how we can  “loving guide those who speak unacceptably.”

I have found that one of the best ways to “elder” a Friend is to create a space for the Spirit to do the eldering. Let me cite another example.

About a week after the incident described earlier, I called one of the Friends who stood up in protest. Before calling her, I reminded myself that this Friend is a highly intelligent, compassionate and spiritual person. My job wasn’t to judge, but to listen to her. After we had talked briefly of other matters, I asked her about what happened on the previous Sunday.

“I think I overreacted a bit,” she replied. “I was very angry at the time. We have had so many messages that I felt I had to do something, so I stood up. Others joined me. But I think what I did was hurtful. And it’s probably not good practice to stand unless a message is really off base, which this one wasn’t. “

She went on in this vein for some time as I listened sympathetically. I didn’t have to say anything critical. Her Inner Elder had figured out what went wrong, and together we came up with ideas about how we could deal better with such situations in the future (this article is partly a result of our conversation). After my Friend had “eldered herself,” she thanked me. And I thanked her. It is of course the Spirit who deserves the thanks. When we are guided by Love which is greater than we can imagine, we feel humble and grateful, not angry and superior.

One of the most famous cases of “self-eldering” can be found in John Woolman’s Journal.  Woolman writes of a time when his vocal ministry went on too long:

One day being under a strong exercise of spirit,  I stood up and said some words in a meeting; but not keeping close to the Divine opening, I said more than was required of me. Being soon sensible of my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could not take satisfaction in anything. I remembered God, and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence; my mind because calm and quiet, and I was truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies.

Everyone is not as spiritually sensitive as John Woolman, but the same Inner Guide that pricked Woolman’s conscience resides in all of us. What most of us need from time to time is gentle reminder to pay more attention to our Guide.  Asking questions in kind, non-judgmental tone of voice is often the best way to help us get back in touch with this Inner Elder.

Over the past thirty or so years that I have been a Friend, I have observed other ways that Meetings have improved the depth and quality of vocal ministry:

1) When messages become too frequent (the so-called “popcorn meeting”), it is helpful for Ministry and Council to educate the Meeting about how to prepare both to give and receive a message.  Ministry and Council can work with Adult Education to set up opportunities for discussion and reflection about vocal ministry. The library committee can recommend books and pamphlets.  This educational process needs to be ongoing since a healthy and vital meeting will always have newcomers who need to be educated about the ways of Friends. Even the most seasoned Friends need reminders and refresher courses!  In the face of the great responsibility that comes with vocal ministry, we must all be humble and “teachable.”

2) After meeting for worship, some Meetings set aside time for reflections that “did not rise to the level of vocal ministry.” This post-worship sharing time helps Friends to appreciate that the silence of worship is sacred and should not be “broken” lightly. It also allows Friends a needed opportunity to share significant thoughts and to make prayer requests.  This time of sharing can be done with the Meeting as a whole (if time permits) or in small groups.

3) If too many messages have been given, or if the messages seem too long, a Friend may feel led to rise and remind the group that we need more silence in which to reflect upon and appreciate what has been shared.  Such reminders, if given lovingly, can help to center the Meeting.

4) If a Friend gives a message that another Friend feels is inappropriate, it is usually best to bring the matter up with a member of the worship and ministry committee rather than confront directly the person who gave the message.  The more strongly we feel about the inappropriateness of the message, the more important it is to seek the guidance and wisdom of others rather than to rely on one’s own feelings.  When we are caught up in the grip of our emotions, it is easy for the ego to ride roughshod over the Spirit and to hurt others who, like us, are seeking the Light.

5)  It can be helpful for Ministry and Council to hold special meetings for those who give vocal ministry more than once or twice a year, as well as for those who have concerns about the quality of vocal ministry. In the early days, elders and those called to be “recorded ministers” held regular meetings in which to foster more effective vocal ministry. Marty Grundy has called for a revival of that old Quaker tradition. Although I am not aware of any Meetings that are doing so, the concept seems sound and worth experimenting with.

6) Workshop and training sessions for those called to give vocal ministry are also highly desirable. I was happy to read that Benjamin Lloyd feels called to lead such workshops. I hope that others follow this example!

A final word needs to be said about extreme cases. I have been present at Meetings in which a person who has psychological problems, or who doesn’t understand what silent worship is all about, has done serious damage with inappropriate messages and behavior. Dealing with such a disturbed and disturbing individual can become a long term spiritual “project” that challenges the spiritual and emotional resources of Meeting. For those having such a problem, I recommend “The Wounded Meeting: Dealing with Difficult Behavior in Meeting for Worship” (Friends General Conference, 1993).

Unprogrammed meeting for worship has been aptly been described as  “open worship.”  When we leave ourselves and our meeting open to the Spirit, we are taking a risk. Being open means that dead leaves, old newspapers, and strange critters will occasionally find their way into the Meetinghouse along with the healing winds of the Spirit. Such is the nature of our Quaker worship. Friends feel it is a small price to pay for experiencing the miraculous and unpredictable Spirit of the Living God  in our midst.

Thoughts and Reflections on Vocal Ministry and Silent Worship

“A Friends’  meeting for worship finds no room for debate or for answering (still less for contradicting) one another; if this is desirable, it will be left for another occasion. And if anything should seem to be spoken amiss, the spiritually minded worshipper will have the wit to get at the heart of the message, overlooking crudity and lack of skill in presentation, and so far from giving way to irritation at what seems unprofitable, he will be deeply concerned for his own share in creating the right atmosphere in which the harm fades out and the good grows. Many a meeting has known this power, transforming what might have been hurtful into a means of grace….”—A.  Neave Brayshaws, 1921 (quoted in Renfer’s Daily Readings, p. 105).

“There are some persons who attend a Friends’ meeting for worship with the hope that there will be no vocal ministry at all. They prefer the silence, and resent messages of vocal ministry as intrusions. I suppose that in a certain sense all of have these moments when we would rather not be disturbed. But the actual truth of the matter is that meetings that have turned completely silent almost invariably wither away. Something is missing in the corporate relationship.”—Douglas Steere, On Speaking Out of the Silence, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 182

In writing about using silence as a “medium through which we become aware of the divine presence,” Christopher Holdsworth notes that such silence must be inward and quotes this passage from the Desert Fathers: “Aba Poemen, for example, once said,

‘There is one sort of person who seems to be silent, but inwardly criticizes other people. Such a person is really talking all the time. Another may talk from morning to night, but says only what is meaningful, and so keeps silence.’

“What is their aim in seeking silence? They wanted to find it so that they could hear, to attend to the voice of God which normally they were too busy, too disturbed, too bathed in noise to hear. In this sense becoming quiet was a crucial part of that form of exploration of inner space which is called prayer.”—from Renfer, p. 258. 

“I know that, in Friends’ meetings as elsewhere, one must be prepared to meet with much human weakness and imperfection; many things may be heard in them which are trying to the flesh—yes, and perhaps to the spirit also. Certainly many things may be heard which are open to criticism from an intellectual and literary point of view. Let no one go to Friends’ meetings with the expectation of finding everything to his taste. But criticism fades away abashed in the presence of what is felt to be a real, however faltering, endeavour to open actual communication with the Father of spirits, and with each other as in His presence and His name.”—Caroline Stephen, 1890, quoted in Refer, p. 217.

Postscript thoughts

The question arises: are there messages that are “wrong” or should never be given? I am reminded of a cartoon in which a teacher tells a high school student:

“I told you that this is an essay exam and there are no ‘wrong’ answers, but if there were a wrong answer, yours would be it.”

 Some messages clearly fall into that category. Messages are un-Quakerly if they take a stand on partisan politics or criticizes others either by name or by implication. Caustic wit and sarcasm are also inappropriate.

Authentic vocal ministry may address the deep, burning political questions of the day, as long as the message is grounded in the Eternal Spirit, not in the daily editorial.  “Weighty” Friends have been known to use gentle humor during their vocal ministry. Simplicity, brevity and sincerity are what characterize the most useful, meaningful, and moving messages.















Some questions

Eldering, in the sense of questioning a person’s vocal ministry, has fallen out of fashion among liberal Friends. Some bemoan the “anything goes” quality of vocal ministry that has arisen as a result. I quote one weighty Friend whom I contacted:

Contemporary liberal Quakerism is, as you know, quite vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse, because we have relatively little hierarchy and few recognized authority figures.  There is often a strong presumption in favor of a simplistic egalitarianism, which I like to see as a throw-back to 17th-century Ranters:  "If I decide that I'm moved to speak, no one has the right to tell me I'm out of line."  When this presumption gains currency in a Meeting, an extra burden rests upon M&C/O to correct it.  Without formally-recognized elders and ministers to communicate and maintain good order, the spiritual liberty of Friends' worship can easily degenerate into a "lowest common denominator" of impulsive speech, masquerading as ministry. The "Ranter" interpretation can be partially corrected by reminding ourselves that Friends place spiritual authority not in individuals, but in the Meeting as a whole, and in the larger body of the Religious Society of Friends itself. 

These points are well taken, but what exactly should members of M & O do to “correct” this situation?  What concrete steps should be taken to “remind” Friends where the spiritual authority lies? The devil, as they say, lies in the specifics. Eldering, if done insensitively, can be as harmful to the life of the Meeting as inept vocal ministry.

At our upcoming adult ed session on “Eldering,” I would appreciate it if someone from M & O would give specific answers to the following questions:

  1. How does one determine what is an inappropriate topic, style, or length for a message at Santa Monica Meeting? If Friends need to be eldered because of the content, style, or length of their messages, will M & O develop some clear, specific guidelines so Friends will know what is okay and what may require eldering at our Meeting?
  2. Who is authorized to elder a Friend who has given vocal ministry? Should any Friend feel it is okay to go to someone who has given a message and tell them that his or her message is inappropriate, or should eldering be done only by members of M & O? How does M & O decide how and when to elder someone?
  3. When is it appropriate to stand in protest of a message? How does one determine that a message is so inappropriate that it is okay to stand in protest and perhaps cause someone to feel hurt and humiliated?
  4.  Does M and O feel it is important to encourage open-hearted, compassionate listening, as recommended in our Faith and Practice (see below)? If so, how will this be done?

“Those who are led to speak have different backgrounds, verbal skills and interpretive power. Friends try to listen more than they speak, keep an open heart, seek the Spirit behind the words and hold the speaker in love. Listeners may find it helpful to pray that the messenger is faithful to the call, and that God’s word will emerge through the medium of human speech. A message that does not speak to one person’s needs may be helpful to another. After a message has been given, it is important to allow time to ponder its meaning, letting the Spirit move through the assembly of Friends before another ministers.” –Pacific Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice


  1. I am new to Friends, and I am sure I have spoken too long, too often, and perhaps inappropriately. However, the members have been kind and patient, otherwise I would be humiliated would have never returned. I am growing because of my Friends' patience.

  2. word or texas to in colorado
    Zarlengo Ministries - We believe there is greatness on the inside of every person and we endeavor to help each individual live out his or her God given purpose.