Thursday, 14 September 2017

Ownership of Ministry

Since I first started writing down and sharing written ministry, something has been troubling me. It may sound shallow and trivial, but it's a really complicated question with real implications on what I can and should do in future.
To what extent can I, or should I, claim ownership of the written ministry I produce? The law is very clear, because the law doesn't take into account claims of divine inspiration in writing. It came from my head, through my hands, onto paper (or keyboard), and its my intellectual property. What happened to get it into my head in the first place, the law doesn't care about (unless I was literally copying from existing creative work). When it comes to spiritual writing, however, there's so much more to it than that.
On the “about” page of this blog, I have set out some guidance on the circumstances and conditions under which people can use material from the blog. My right to do that in law is clear; the imperative to do so is my best judgement of my spiritual leadings in the matter.
Blog posts like this one, categorised as “writing”, are intellectual exercises. I write them because I decide to, I put effort into working out what I want to say, how best to present it. I may take positions, though in this case I do not, which are generally my own positions, reached either intellectually or viscerally. I make arguments, explore ideas, and the tool by which I do this is my own intellect, my knowledge, studies, researching existing writings in the area, and so on. I share them because I think people might be interested, and sometimes in an effort to inform, or even to change minds. Some form part of an ongoing, slow-motion, written debate taking place in the world of Quaker online presence – there are several such debates raging, from the centrality of Christianity and the role of non-theism, to the desirability of greater (or different) outreach, the role of younger people, and several others. So, those writings I own entirely, intellectually, legally, and morally – they are mine. The conditions I outline for other people to reproduce them suit my objectives and protect my interests.
The posts categorised as “ministry”, however, are different. As explained in an earlier post, they are akin to ministry spoken in Meeting for Worship. They are demanding, and I resist writing and sharing them at my peril. I don't feel I can claim the idea encapsulated in one is mine, though occasionally they correspond with a position I already held. The structure is generally not something I consciously choose or evaluate. Most of the choice of words is mine, but not all of it. Yet it may be questioned whether, even if one were to assume for the sake of argument that ministry comes from a theistic God and that this is valid, true ministry, the choices of structure and words are subconsciously mine, even if I do not consciously choose them. Does the Spirit make a habit of communicating in words, or does it communicate in ideas that our own faculties then shape into forms we can share, be they words, images, or even music?
It's a strange situation to be in. I frequently seek support, be it moral or intellectual, from my partner, Jenn. She has far longer experience with Quaker spirituality, worship and processes than I, and I trust her as absolutely as I think anyone can trust another person. Outside of the context of Quaker traditions, writing down what might be characterised as “messages from God”, sharing those messages with others, might be taken as egotistical, deranged, even psychotic. I am grounded by Jenn's faith that it is none of those things. I paraphrase, perhaps for better elegance of phrasing, but mostly because I can't remember her exact words, but she said to me, “we all have different gifts, and the Spirit makes use of us according to those gifts. One of your gifts is writing, and so it's no real surprise that the Spirit has found a way to use that.”
I am convinced that this ministry comes to me not solely for my benefit – otherwise I wouldn't have this compulsion to share it. So I share it, and do what I can to see it shared as far as might be. Yet three of the five most-read posts on this blog, at time of writing, are deliberate writing rather than ministry. Maybe that's related to the topics involved, or some strange coincidence of timing, I don't know. That's beside the point when it comes to the question of ownership, however. This gift is given not to me, but through me. Do I have the right to control it? Or do I have a responsibility to do so?
Each piece of ministry is complete in itself, while being part of a whole that extends far beyond my own ministry, or my wider writing. I cannot stop it taking its place in that whole, but I have a responsibility to ensure that each particular gift of the Spirit maintains its integrity; not that there can never be a message that differs from it, even contradicts it – the messages of the Spirit have never been consistent, taken as a whole. Rather that each individual, atomic chunk of ministry not be misrepresented or corrupted. That is why I ask that people reproduce them entire in most cases. I ask that it be attributed so that people can readily find more of it.
But how much benefit should I be prepared to take from the ministry. If there were to be the opportunity to publish the ministry in a collection, should I take royalties on the volume? It takes work to produce the ministry, even if it is inspired by the Divine. If Jenn's reading of the situation is right, it's using my talents and abilities, even when I don't realise it. Certainly, if I had that opportunity, I would benefit from any income from it, however slight.
I don't know. It's so complex, and the Spirit hasn't offered me any guidance yet. If it ever became more of a definite possibility, I would make a concerted effort to seek that guidance, and probably ask for a Meeting for Clearness with support of local elders, but I'm not going to seek that trouble before I need to.
The question of ownership covers both responsibility, which I do feel keenly, and the potential for material benefit. I share these thoughts with you now in the hope that it might generate some discussion, stimulate some thoughts on both elements, and on any other elements that might come up. Please share your thoughts in the comment section; I'd love to hear what you all have to say.
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