The Four Types of Vocal Ministry
by Donald Mick
New Haven Meeting (NEYM)
This exploration of vocal or spoken ministry is based on observations made over fifty years of attending un-programmed meetings, mostly in the Northeast of the United States. My experience has been consistent in different places. The exploration is intended to be nonjudgmental. All types, at various times, have met the spiritual needs of a community in worship and have led to a deeper community experience of the divine.
Types of Vocal Ministry
I would like to suggest that the spiritual leading for vocal ministry arises in four forms:
Faith- or Testimony-led
Three types are left-brained
Three of the sources of vocal ministry are left-brained. In this context that means consciously crafted and often logical, analytical, detailed and fact oriented. Those three types are Prepared, Faith- or Testimony-led, and Experience-led.
One type is right-brained
The source of Numinous vocal ministry is right-brained. In this context that means the leading to vocal ministry comes upon the speaker unplanned and may seem to have its source outside of the individual. It is experienced as happening to the person rather than being a product of the person.
These types are not always pure and mutually exclusive. The internal process can be a blended experience.
Left-brained Vocal Ministry
Prepared. Prepared vocal ministry means that a person decides to speak before worship and in part, or wholly, prepares his or her spoken message in advance. Some Friends who are clear that they are called to a spoken ministry are open about their process and feel that such ministry is part of their spiritual calling. One Friend described his process to me in the following way. Every week, during the week, he decides on a message that he may bring to worship. He prepares the message in advance, usually writing it out. He goes to meeting prepared, but not committed, to give vocal ministry. For this person, whether he speaks or not is dependent on whether he feels the spirit moves him. Sometimes he delivers his prepared message (reciting but not reading it), sometimes he remains silent and does not speak. He comes prepared, but lets the spirit determine whether or not he speaks.
There is evidence that “prepared” spoken ministry has been part of the Friends tradition from the beginning. Early Friends would attend the church service in their community and after the minister finished his sermon, stand up and speak. Often what they said was the same message Friends shared over and over again, reflecting a perspective rather than a spontaneous message. The same could be said of early Quaker leaders speaking in meetings as worship evolved into the form of worship unprogrammed Friends use today.
Led by belief, faith or testimony. The second type is vocal ministry arising out of Friends’ religious beliefs or testimonies. By religious beliefs I refer to Friends’ common assumptions about theology or testimonies. A Friend may have an issue on his or her mind, or be concerned with what is happening in the external world. The leading to speak could be sparked by a specific event or a general concern about an issue. The leading to speak needn’t be less spiritually rooted because it arises from a conscious process.
In this case the decision to speak is conscious. Often the Friend goes through a process of refining his or her thoughts to create a clear, logical coherent message. On occasion, messages can stimulate other friends who are led to speak out of the same or similar leading.
Led by experience, self or other. The form of vocal ministry arising out of a personal experience or feeling can be based on one’s self or refer to another person. Messages can be based on a positive experience, a negative experience, or something troubling. An example of a positive experience might be relating attending a wedding or some joyous event. A negative experience might relate what the friend experienced when confronted with a conflict or disappointment. Messages can also arise from some internal condition that weighs heavy on the speaker, an illness or state of mind.
Like vocal ministry based on faith or testimony, the decision to speak is generally conscious. Depending on the depth of emotion involved in the decision to speak, the friend may or may not spend time planning or refining the message before speaking. Such a message can be light, in the sense of not being deeply personal or revealing. Such a message can also be poignant, in the sense of being deeply revealing on a personal level, and involve opening up to the community in a vulnerable way. This type of message can also lead friends to feel led to speak to the theme that was raised or to their perception of the condition of the Friend who spoke first on the issue.
What all of these three types of messages have in common is that they arise from a conscious process. The speaker consciously thinks about the issues, or consciously feels the issue before being led to speak. As the leading to speak increases, the Friend often spends some time, perhaps a good deal of time, processing what they intend to say.
The right-brained or numinous leading to speak is different by virtual of origin, not subject of the message. In this case, the individual is not thinking about the issue. They are not consciously reflecting on an event or concern. The leading to speak comes upon them unbidden and unformed. It is numinous in the sense that the leading has affect and power and seems not to be of our creation. For some, this is experienced as the voice of the Divine, for others as a psychological process. In all instances it is an experience of kenosis, the sense that one’s ego is not the source of the leading. (In Christian theology, kenosis is the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will.) Mystics have often struggled to describe this experience. For early Friends the experience was ecstatic and emotional and led to our earning the name Quakers.
There is often a special quality of the extemporaneous and or unease that may be apparent when a numinous message is shared. Friends often describe resisting an impulse that seemed to come upon them, but then need to surrender to God’s will. It is not the content of the message or subject of the message that sets this type of vocal ministry apart, simply the impetuousness.
Why Does Having Distinctions Matter?
There are two types of value to be derived from having distinctions about the types of message. The first is to understand where each type of message leads the community of worshippers.
If the origin of the message is left-brained and the content of the message is structured, whether logical or feeling-based and emotional, the impact on the listener is likely to be conscious as well. The other worshippers may be led to think consciously, and perhaps analytically, about a message that is logical and analytical. When a message is personal or emotional, other worshippers may be drawn in emotionally or be led to be analytical in response to the message. In either case the community is engaged. Often, the experience of worship is shaped by the left-brained vocal ministry. The thesis is that the structure of the vocal ministry influences but does not determine the type of response of the community. The more logical and analytical, the greater the tendency to evoke a logical or analytical response. The more right-brained or numinous, the more likely to evoke a right-brained or numinous response. This, of course, is filtered through the personality and worship practices of the individuals hearing the message.
A numinous message can have the effect of engendering a numinous experience in other worshippers. It can create a communal opening for others to experience the touch of the other as well.
The pattern of vocal ministry in a meeting can be reinforcing. When a second or third Friend is led to speak out of the same or similar leading as an initial speaker, the spiritual experience of the community can be intensified by those additional messages. A conscious analytical message can lead to a conscious and analytical experience of the worshippers. A numinous message can bring about a shared “right-brained” experience in the community of worshippers.
Friends sometimes come away from worship with a communal sense that something special has taken place. A term used to describe this state is a gathered or covered meeting. Whether the sense of a gathered meeting was instigated by left- or right- brained messages, the communal experience of something special is in itself numinous, mystical.
The second type of value is to be mindful of what is leading a Friend to speak when going through the decision process. Quakers have developed decision trees for Friends to use when considering vocal ministry. These analytical tools are useful when the urge to speak is left-brained. Generally, in such instances, it is useful to examine the urge to speak, logically asking one’s self questions about why this message belongs in worship. Why is it something useful for the whole community?
When the impetus to speak is numinous, perhaps the process should be reversed. Why should we resist speaking? If this message arises from what the Friend experiences as other, why shouldn’t the person speak? What happens to the message if too much time is spent “thinking” about the message after it arises? Is some of the affect and power of a message diminished if a Friend spends too much time analytically considering a leading to speak that has just “happened to them?”
In unprogrammed worship, for those for whom it is a compelling form of worship, both sitting in silence and the leading to speak are powerful experiences that shape our faith and our lives outside of worship. Both silence and vocal ministry are blessings and together compose the central quality of what it means to be a worshipper in an unprogrammed meeting. The thesis of this short article is that reflecting on the sources vocal ministry has the potential to open us to a richer life of worship. Reflection provides an opportunity to deepen our appreciation for the messages of others and to lead us to a fuller sense of what role vocal ministry might play in our own participation in worship.