Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Testing Ministry

In a Quaker meeting, be it simple worship or worship for business, or any other sort of focussed worship, the contributions we make are not simply things we wish to say, or our spontaneous or planned thoughts on a matter. We are led to speak, or as some would put it compelled to speak, by the divine. I would like to share some thoughts on this process.
For now, I'll work on the uncomplicated case of a plain, ordinary Meeting for Worship. We gather in the silence, each of us waiting, ideally attentively, for the urgings of the Spirit to prompt us. It may occur to us that there is something we could say; in the most extreme case, we may find ourselves on our feet and speaking before we are quite sure what's going on, but that is quite rare in my experience. More often, an idea, maybe some specific words, start to come together in our minds. As you try to maintain stillness and inward silence, this may become clearer, more settled, and you know at least what you will start with should you stand to share it. However, part of this process is what we call “testing” the possible ministry. We are often reminded, especially in business sessions, of the need to test ministry before speaking. However, we don't often discuss what it means in any detail.
At the simplest level, as I've often heard said, we test it under the question “is this something for the meeting, or is it just something for me?” Less often, I've also heard that a question to test with is “is this from the Spirit, or from my own thoughts?”. Both valid questions, and certainly not entirely interdependent. You may feel a leading in worship that is leading for you, not a message for the whole meeting, but is still a genuine leading of the Spirit. You may also have a wonderful idea that is worth sharing with Friends, but is not actually Spirit-led; you want to save that for conversations outside of Meeting for Worship. However, what the question of testing ministry ultimately comes down to is “should I share this?”
I’ve often heard people tell enquirers that the test is “can I do anything but share this?” – that one should not minister if one can bear not to. That is, to my mind, an absurdly high bar. I have resisted ministering even with a very strong call, and have regretted it afterwards. It left me with rather a lasting – for a few days – sense of work undone, of having let people, or perhaps myself, down. A sense of restlessness and discomfort. It wasn’t nice. That said, it was very much possible to resist giving ministry. When people are unsure or reluctant as regards giving spoken ministry, it is much easier to resist – or so I gather from conversations. By setting so high a bar, when we teach people who are new to our practices, we are discouraging them from giving spoken ministry, and thus likely depriving them and our meetings of spiritual enrichment.
So what should the test be, when we test our ministry? What yardsticks and references can we use, or more important can we teach to those who come to us, to enable them to judge this absolutely fundamental element of Quaker practice? Discomfort after the rise of meeting isn’t a very good one, after all, as you only know when it is too late. There must be some way we can explain it, beyond what usually amounts to “you know it when you feel it” – itself singularly unhelpful advice, because it’s only true once you have it figured out, not when it’s all new to you.
I’ve given it a lot of thought, reflecting on my own experience of Meeting for Worship, and the tentative conclusion I have come to is that there are no hard and fast rules. There are some factors that indicate that ministry is “true”, and should be shared, and some factors that point to it not so being. However, you certainly don’t need all of the “yes” factors, and nor is it necessarily true that having any of the “no” factors rules it out as ministry that should be shared. Some of those “yes” factors, for undirected Meeting for Worship, I would give as:
  1. You don’t personally agree with it. Where you feel a sense, even a conviction, that you should share something, but actually do not agree with it, it’s a good indication that the ministry is not coming from a place of ego, nor of trying to say something you personally want said. Where people do give ministry that comes from themselves, rather than the Spirit, it tends to reflect their own views and opinions. Similarly…
  2. It makes you uncomfortable. The Divine is not, in my experience, overly concerned with our emotional comfort during worship. It often seems to be trying to shake us up, knock us out of comfort zones, think about things we don’t want to think about, or in ways we do not want to think about them. This is not to say that we never receive ministry that is comforting to us, or to others, or that ministry is never pleasant and fluffy. However, it would be unusual to give ministry that makes you, the speaker, uncomfortable without a true leading to do so.
  3. Not speaking leads to increasing agitation and restlessness. This can be a difficult one to apply. One has to consider whether the restlessness occurred before the possible call to speak, or followed from it. If the restlessness came first, the idea of speaking may be an artefact of that experience, a way of being able to acceptably break the silence and stillness; in that case, speaking is not appropriate, though choosing to leave the Meeting for Worship may be. If, however, the restlessness comes increasingly as you resist speaking, especially if this is a marked change from your state of mind immediately before the possible call to speak, it may be that the inner light is agitating you in order to get you to pay attention to it. This agitation may be found in fidgeting, or changes in your heartbeat and respiration. Be cautious, however, as an increased or otherwise altered heart rate may actually be a symptom of a heart condition. I say this in all seriousness, given that a Friend of my acquaintance once experienced this, and it turned out they were having a takutsubo heart attack in Meeting for Worship – though the full truth of this was not realised for some hours.
  4. An inability to divert your thoughts elsewhere. I find this one very useful, though it is no more foolproof than the other indicators. When I wait in the silence of meeting, my thoughts drift, alighting on this subject or that, and then flitting on. This is not a lightning racing of thoughts; I drift slowly from one thing to the next, taking time to appreciate each as I pass through it, and with definite gaps between areas. If an idea occurs that might be ministry, I might try to set my thoughts fluttering again, and see where they go. With ministry I have judged to be true, I generally find my thoughts returning inexorably to the topic in question – perhaps from a different direction, in a different way, a new slant on the idea. This actually, I feel, also helps to develop the depth and quality of the spoken ministry as well.
The indications that I should not share a thought or idea as ministry are somewhat less reliable, but are still helpful. These “no” factors include:
  1. It’s something you’ve been thinking about a lot. This is perhaps the least reliable, but it can be a good indication, especially if there aren’t many strong “yes” factors. Yes, you will often hear ministry on topical matters, and I don’t suggest that this ministry is less likely to be truly led than other ministry. Yes, something that’s been preying on your mind is perfectly able to be answered by the Divine. However, I find that such leadings during worship are more likely than usual to be for you, rather than for the meeting. Similarly, the fact you have thought about something a lot recently makes you more likely to have the inclination to share some thoughts from a place of ego, even if you do not realise this. However, this factor is less likely to be relevant if the thought seems completely new, unrelated to your previous thoughts on the matter, or if you do not agree with it (see the “yes” factors above).
  2. You have ministered repeatedly on a similar point. This is also difficult. A thread of ministry from an individual may develop over a long time. However, if a particular point needs making repeatedly, then one might expect it to come via multiple people, especially in a larger Meeting.
  3. It is responding directly to other ministry. Again, don’t be quick to judge yourself on this one. Ministry in a single Meeting for Worship often seems to build, one on another, creating a thread weaving through the ministry, linking and joining the contributions. I have especially experienced this in the meetings I have considered most gathered. However, ministry should not be a direct reaction to other ministry. If you find yourself thinking “that ministry has problems, how should I respond to it?”, or “that ministry was lovely, how can I build on it?”, stop. If you feel led to speak and it seems to be reacting to other ministry, sit with it longer than you otherwise might. Try to be a little bit surer.
I would not suggest anyone rely on these points. They are all fallible, and there are doubtless other points that can be used in considering whether to share ministry. I’d be particularly interested to hear about tests that others find useful, and if you feel able, you might share them in the comments section.
I would also caution against anyone using these to judge anyone else’s ministry. These tests are highly subjective, and challenging the ministry of others for its validity is fraught with problems. I do not envy elders their task in this matter.
There is one point that I would urge people not to use to test their ministry, though perhaps it is a good yardstick for more careful consideration of words. That is whether or not the ministry will be popular with the audience. Much as you may not agree with what the Spirit would have you say, the Spirit would sometimes have you say things that people present will disagree with, perhaps strongly. Maybe it is doing so in order to provoke debate, or shake people awake. Maybe it is trying to steer your community in a slightly different direction. As we Quakers often say, try to be tender, try to understand how people might react and phrase your ministry appropriately, to the extent you feel able to choose your phrasing – but do not silence yourself, or the Spirit.
The situation is slightly different in business meetings, which I will explore further in a future post.
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