Tag Archives: spoken ministry

Is “a bit of quiet” Quaker worship?

My friend and colleague Maud Grainger asked me this the other day: when people in Quaker settings, like a workshop or a discussion session, say things like ‘let’s just have a moment of stillness’ or ‘we’ll start with a bit of quiet’, are they really introducing a period of Quaker worship? And from that question she drew out a deeper one: is Quaker worship really about being still or quiet, or is something else going on?

Thinking about these questions, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was facilitating just that sort of workshop, and we’d just started – we were in silence to begin  the workshop – when someone who was running late knocked on the door. I went to let her in and said as quietly as I could (probably not very – I’m better at being loud and clear!), “Come in, we’re just having some worship.” She came in, we had our worship and our workshop, and at the end of the session, she sought me out to say: “I really liked the way you introduced that. You made worship sound completely ordinary, like having a cup of tea.”

I didn’t do that on purpose, but she was picking up something which is true in my life – worship is part of my ordinary day. In my worship life, I do use silence as a tool. But silence is only one of the tools available for worship, and it isn’t automatically related. I usually live alone, and I like to be in silence most of the time – I’m writing in silence now, in the quiet of an early Saturday morning before other people are mostly awake; I spend time in silence to read, to think, to go to sleep… you get the idea. Of course I try, as Thomas Kelly wrote, to keep up a practice of “inner, secret turning to God” throughout that silence – but silence doesn’t really have much to do with that. Kelly goes on to talk about keeping it up while you “walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends”: he’s writing about a habit which exists in the mind and can be maintained through many situations, rather than an outward practice. I can be as distant from the inner Light in a silence which allows me to get distracted and wrapped up in worldly concerns as I can be close to the Light when I’m holding close to my leadings and inner sense in order to navigate a crowded place or complex situation.

The phrase ‘outward practice’ raises a more difficult possibility. Do we sometimes risk making the unprogrammed, open, listening space of Quaker worship into an outward ritual – just the kind of ritual early Quakers were rejecting when they threw out the practices of previous generations of Christians and created unprogrammed worship instead – by focusing too much on the fact of silence or sitting still? I think we sometimes do. Actually, I think it can be useful to admit this and to be aware of the liturgies of Quakerism, the ways in which we do have a ritual structure and for some of us that’s really helpful in our worship lives. People who study and create more complex rituals talk about the structure of them – the way a good beginning can help us move from everyday concerns into focusing on the purpose of the ritual, and so on. In Quaker worship, we often have to find a natural structure for ourselves, or we may fall back on using things which are not essential to the process as markers. Moving to online worship has sometimes made this more obvious: for example, I realised that the walk to meeting had been a more important part of my process than I thought, because when it was taken away – because the meeting for worship was right here in my house, on Zoom – the period of time I needed at the beginning of worship to settle and centre myself was longer.

Moving online also came with new freedoms, though. Although there was no longer any need to walk to meeting, I could pick up my colouring book for the first five minutes without disturbing anyone else – since they couldn’t see the book or hear me moving. Walking and colouring aren’t at all the same, and yet for me they can serve the same purpose: engaging my body in something simple and relaxing. Like silence, they’re tools which can help me move into a worshipful perspective.

In that worshipful space, of course, there might not be silence or stillness. “Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts,” George Fox instructed, but life isn’t always like that. Sometimes apparent calm is the swan paddling furiously underneath the water, and sometimes our worship is successful but not at all still – Jane Fenn heard God’s voice and found not only that “my soul and all within me trembled at the hearing of it” but even that “my outward tabernacle shook insomuch that many present observed the deep exercise I was under.” Others find that physical stillness and inward closeness to the Divine don’t go together for all sorts of reasons – as the Quaker Disability Equality Group have recently written (link goes to a PDF document; a Word version can also be downloaded from their resources page).

So what is happening when we open a Quaker session with a request for ‘a bit of quiet’ or ‘a moment of stillness’? The aim, I think, is good: to offer people a short period of time to set aside concerns from outside the session and focus; to give people a space in which to tune in to their inner Light; and to use the tools of unprogrammed Quaker worship, including silence, to do that. However, when we name the tool – quiet, silence, stillness – rather than the goal or the process – settling, worshipping, listening – I worry about two risks. One is conflating them: assuming that for everyone, those are the tools which work. The other is diminishing them: leaving out some of the richness and the complexity of unprogrammed worship, in which anything can happen and we might be stirred up as well as calmed, in favour of a weaker version, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we know in advance that there will only be silence.

When I ask a group of Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition for a short period of worship, rather than a moment of quiet, I know that there will probably be silence. I’ve participated in hundreds of two minute silences and ten minute silences in which we were open, but nobody had a message to share. However, I’ve also been in just a few where there was a message: either something which came directly to me and for me alone, speaking to my condition even if I was anxious or fretful or clock-watching or whatever, or something which was shared with the group, such as a request to uphold a person or situation or a reading which set the tone for what came next. Whatever words we use to introduce our practice, I want to keep that possibility. Into our lives, through our listening and waiting, can come surprisingly possibilities and divine guidance. Stillness and quiet can help us be responsive to that – but so can anything else which helps us listen and be open, whether that’s walking, colouring, singing, dancing, the outdoors, friends and family, TV shows…

Quakers say that of God is in everyone and everywhere. Our task is to notice that and act on it, in whatever way works for us.

For answers to more questions about Quakers, see my new book, Quakers Do What! Why?

I had to speak – but not in Quaker meeting

What is the difference, or what are the differences, between different strengths of call to speak and different contexts within which the call comes? I’ve had a few occasions recently when I felt that I had to speak – to register disagreement or an alternative viewpoint, or because it was important that someone in my position be seen to speak out, or because I had a point which I needed to share – and it brought me to reflecting on the ways in which this is and isn’t like giving spoken ministry.

One big difference is obviously the situation. In an auditorium where I am probably the only Quaker, where I spoke from the audience to challenge an idea put forward by a panel member, the image of being called to deliver the word of God may be out of place – although my experience in the moment was that while I felt afraid, something was present with me and I was given the skill and the words to try and speak up on behalf of a group to which I do not belong. In that way, it was remarkably like giving spoken ministry. Other similar situations have arisen online, where due the to asynchronous nature of the communication perhaps it’s easier for me to sit at home at my keyboard and take a moment of silence before responding, but where not all the other participants are necessarily Quakers.

But I think perhaps there are also gradations of being called to speak. Not necessarily in order, I think some forms might include:

  • being led to speak prophetically, perhaps the most traditional experience of spoken ministry
  • having a need or duty to speak for a moral reason, and being supported by the Spirit in that process
  • having something to say and being prompted to say it at a specific time for the good of the community
  • having something to say which is useful but not inspired in content or timing
  • needing to say something, not because others need to hear it, but because I need to be heard
  • needing to say something because it is in the process of speaking aloud that I find out what I think

I’m sure these are different for everyone. I also don’t think these are restricted to speech as such, although that’s the most traditional form; writing, artwork, and other forms of expression might work in similar ways. I think I have blogged from most of these motivations over the years! (And this post is probably in the final category, thinking aloud.) They also don’t translate neatly into ‘what should be allowed or not allowed in meeting’, since God might be working through any of them, although the first and the third are probably closest to what Quakers usually mean by ‘spoken ministry’.

When have you had to speak or otherwise make sure your message got through? Who might need to speak but not be heard?

Reading the Psalms in Meeting for Worship

In conversation with a f/Friend yesterday, I happened to recall a curious episode in my life as a Quaker which I don’t think I’ve written about before. Enough time has now passed for me to think of this as a finished pattern – what I’m about to describe took place roughly between three and four years ago. I haven’t entirely stopped reading Biblical passages in Meeting for Worship occasionally (I was led to read a section of the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago, with a few comments about why), but it feels like a more normal part of a mixed pattern of different kinds of spoken ministry, including many meetings when I don’t speak, times when I speak entirely from personal experience, and reading from Quaker faith & practice

For a while, though, I felt strongly and repeatedly (I’d guess this happened perhaps four times over the course of several months) led to read whole psalms in Meeting for Worship. I read them plain, without commentary or even giving the Biblical reference. I read them as well as I could within the skills I have – for example, I have a loud voice, and I tend to speak clearly and expressively, even dramatically. I didn’t always read the whole Psalm, but I usually did. I sometimes changed a pronoun, so that I alternated between masculine and feminine words for God, but I don’t remember changing any other words (although of course I could have mis-spoken or something). Some of the Psalms I was led to read were challenging, especially ones which use violent language not usually heard in Quaker meetings.

I would say I tested the leadings fairly thoroughly. I tend to be more confident about being led to read from Qf&p or the Bible than about being led to speak in my own words – texts have the advantages of being tested already, by time and other people, and it’s harder to go wrong. (Not impossible; I remember being relatively new to a meeting, reading from Qf&p in worship, and being told afterwards that it ‘would have sounded different to people who’d been in the meeting for a long time’; I never did really work out why.) I think I was more hesitant the second time it happened – I remember someone commenting on one of these occasions that she knew I was struggling with whether to speak or not because I kept picking up the Bible, looking at it, putting it down again on the seat next to me with the page open, waiting a while, and picking it up again. By the third time the calling was clearer and I was quicker to obey. And maybe that was the point, or some other message got through, because it didn’t happen much more.

It got mixed reactions. Often people asked me afterwards which Psalm it was, which I was able to tell them at the time although I can’t remember now. Some of them wished I’d announced that before reading – which I sort of did, too, because it would have felt much safer and more comfortable. It also wasn’t what I was being asked to do. Some noticed the style in which I read (one person described it as ‘fire and brimstone preaching’ style, which might have been an exaggeration for comic effect). Some in the meeting were, I think, discomforted by the language of enemies and war which is native to some Psalms; as I read, I was typically discovering meanings which related more the the metaphorical Lamb’s War than an outward war – but of course texts have many meanings, and I was not guided to share those interpretations in ministry (although I did discuss some of them in conversations after meeting). One effect of giving this ministry for me – not, I’m sure the main one, but worth noting – was that tea-and-coffee times which were sometimes filled with awkward questions about my job search and un/employment situation were changed into much more fulfilling conversations which included theology.

Writing this, I am imagining some Friends worrying about whether it is right of me to frame so much of this in the Quaker passive (‘I was led to…’ – I did it, someone else is to blame, and readers are expected to infer the elided deity). Should I take more responsibility for my actions? For example, if someone had been deeply upset by the words I read, should I own that as the consequences of my choice, rather than claiming that it was God’s choice and I was only an agent? I’m willing to take some responsibility because I did choose to follow my Guide: I don’t have the experience that I have to speak, only that I should and am led to do so. I trust God to give me words which are needed and which those present can cope with, even if it’s difficult. And perhaps that’s why I don’t want to accept the full responsibility. If I’m not picking up something from my co-creators of the meeting for worship, from Goddess and everyone else present, how can I have faith that such apparently random utterances are helpful?


Writing this, I’m also aware that I’ve been thinking more about how I shape the narratives of my spiritual life recently because I’m preparing to run a course on it. There are still places to come and talk about Spiritual Blogging with me and Gil Skidmore, 7th-9th May, if you’re interested.

‘Afterwords’ – two years on

(Welsh word of the post: ymchwilio, to research or investigate)

In the summer of 2016, I was at Woodbrooke as an Eva Koch scholar to research afterwords. This year’s scholars are coming to the end of their projects – or at least their time at Woodbrooke! – and I’ve just been corresponding with one of last year’s scholars. It seems like a good time to let you know what’s happened with my project since 2016: especially how I’ve shared my results and some new insights which have developed.



As well as presenting short sessions about afterwords and answering emails and telephone calls, I’ve run two formal events on this theme.

  • One was a course at Swarthmoor Hall, called ‘Worship, Ministry, and Afterwords’. A weekend course with a small group is a chance to dig into a topic in some depth, and we talked about the uses of silence, the many structures of ‘afterwords’, different understandings of spoken ministry, and many other things.
  • One was a Woodbrooke on the Road, requested by a local meeting to help them review their own use of afterwords. The Sunday afternoon session generated lots of interest and discussion – and could still be booked by other meetings who want to explore this topic.

New insights

In looking for ways to present my ideas to new audiences, one of the things I did was to try and turn my key points into diagrams. This doesn’t come very naturally to me, but when I make the effort it’s often very helpful to me as well as whoever I’m explaining to!

In this case, I made two sets of diagrams. One is a linear diagram which shows meeting for worship (the straight line), notices (a zig-zag line), afterwords (a wiggling line), and refreshments (a dotted line), all heading down the page as time passes. Here’s a version I drew for a course group.

Five lines - blue, green, orange, red, and black - go horizontally down the page, straight at first and starting to wiggle at different points.

Worship and afterwords – start at the top, and more time passes as you go down the page.

Each of the five coloured lines represents a different pattern for worship and afterwords. The blue one is what I grew up thinking of as ‘normal’: meeting for worship lasts an hour, it ends (with handshakes), there are notices, then refreshments. The green one shows afterwords as ‘bridging time’ – between meeting for worship and notices there is an in-between time, when we can adjust to the rules changing. The lines make it very clear why this model is not favoured by people who are ready for their coffee after an hour of worship!

The third line, the orange one, shows afterword happening towards the end of, but during, meeting for worship – as happens in meetings where it is more like ‘respectful listening’. Here, the rules of worship are adjusted into those of afterword but without formally ending meeting for worship – and, typically, sooner than meeting for worship would usually finish. The fourth line, in red, then shows other ways to order these elements. For example, some meetings have third items after the handshake and before refreshments: afterwords, joys and concerns, and notices. Depending on how they are each understood, these can be ordered differently and the guidelines for speaking in them may be more or less strict.

Finally, the black line shows afterwords moved to after the notices. This gives it a different feel – and, as the diagram suggests, usually gives people a way to opt out, to stay having refreshments and chatting rather than going into afterwords. (Options can be introduced in the other patterns in some cases: meetings with a separate room for refreshments can let people slip out even when afterwords is held directly after meeting for worship.)

Another set of diagrams tried to think through the ways in which ordinary speech, spoken ministry, and contributions to afterwords are related to one another. Here are all three drawn up on a flipchart – below this picture, I’ve re-drawn them digitally to make them easier to see, and I’ll talk about them one at a time.


Diagrams on a flipchart.

The first diagram is set of three columns, each filled with two colours.

afterwords ego insp columns

Comparing spoken ministry, ordinary speech, and afterwords

The three columns each represent a different kind of speech – spoken ministry, ordinary speech, and contributions to afterwords. The idea of this diagram is to try and get at the ways that different sources are understood to inform different kinds of speech. In traditional Quaker language, spoken ministry comes ‘through us, not from us’, because it is seen as a message from God. I didn’t want to make assumptions here about the internal or external reality of the Divine, but I did want to get at the idea that ministry is not just us saying whatever we like. I chose the terms ‘ego’ and ‘inspiration’ to try and make that distinction – ‘ego’ is from me, maybe not just from my ego in the Freudian sense, but what I choose to say and from my perspective. ‘Inspiration’ is from beyond or other than me, wherever you understand that to be located.

The rending of each column into quarters is a rough estimate – just enough to make a comparison, since I wouldn’t want to claim that these things are measurable! The ‘ministry’ column is three-quarters inspiration and one-quarter ego: this tries to represent my own experience of giving spoken ministry, that I have a role to play it in and my knowledge and experiences feed it, but it is not mostly my own. The ‘ordinary speech’ column is three-quarters ego and one-quarter inspiration: sometimes in the most mundane conversations someone says something which is so insightful or revealing that it seems to contain that of God, but this isn’t the majority of the time. The last column, for afterwords, is half ego and half inspiration. That tries to reflect the shifting balance respondents in my survey reported, that contributions to afterwords can contain more of the speaker’s personal stuff than is acceptable in ministry, but also that afterwords are more likely to be channels for the Light than things said in ordinary conversation.

The second diagram is a Venn diagram which again tries to show how afterwords might relate to other forms of speech. To be honest, I think this is the least successful of the three.

afterwords speech comm venn

Venn diagram of communication, speech, ministry, and afterwords

There are four ovals in this diagram. The black one represents ‘all communication’ and is largest. The red one represents ‘all speech’ – the majority of it is inside the black oval, although I left a little outside to represent speech which fails to communicate (perhaps by accident, like when I try to say something in a language I’m learning and my pronunciation or grammar is so atrocious nothing gets across, or on purpose, as when I say something out loud to an empty room in the hope that I will then not say something regrettable on Twitter).

The next largest oval is a green one for ‘spoken ministry’. I have put this entirely inside both ‘speech’ and ‘communication’. Spoken ministry is speech by definition, although of course things other than speech can certainly be ministry. I think it is also communication every time, even though it might sometimes fail ordinary tests of communication – if I am inspired to stand in meeting for worship and say something in such garbled Welsh that it’s incomprehensible, something about that is still God’s message even if it isn’t what I think I’m trying to say!

I’ve then drawn a small blue circle for afterwords, half in the ‘spoken ministry’ oval and half outside. Actually, I think some contributions to afterwords could fail to communicate in some of the ways speech can – although perhaps the act of trying to speak during afterwords succeeds in communicating something, even if it isn’t the message as intended.

The final diagram shows a testing net, with ministry, ordinary speech, and afterwords as stones or balls of various sizes.

afterwords testing net

A ‘testing net’ image for speech, afterwords, and ministry.

In this version of the diagram, I’ve made the three sizes of circle three different shades of blue to suggest why we need a testing net – they have lots of similarities, and can be difficult to tell apart. The testing net is made up from whatever tests you use when deciding whether or not to speak during meeting for worship: typically, questions like “is this message just for me, or for the whole meeting?” and “am I so strongly led to speak that I can’t NOT speak?” form part of this process. Ordinary speech, represented here by the dark blue circle, is too large to go through the grid – it gets stopped by the testing net. Spoken ministry, here some small, light blue circles, can go through easily. Some circles are just about the same size as the holes, and they might or might not get through… so they form the is-it-or-isn’t-it category of ‘afterwords’.

When I’ve tried these diagrams out in workshops, so far this last one seems to be the most successful in creating useful discussion. It can be a diagram, but could easily be made into a 3D, tactile model – I could imagine using ordinary household items (colander, sugar, peas?) to start a discussion about this with an all-age group.

Afterwords and Ministry: a developing puzzle in our practice

This article appeared in Friends Quarterly in February 2017.

The author spent the summer of 2016 as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. This article reflects her work during that time.

Afterwords are a collection of practices which can include a period of worship sharing between the end of Meeting and notices, time to share ‘nearly ministry’ before the end of Meeting for Worship, and arrangements in which people are invited either to stay in the Meeting room or to gather in a different room to share thoughts and feelings after worship. Broadly defined, it might include practices such as ‘joys and sorrows’ which allow people to give personal news or reflections, but in this article I am going to focus on formats which encourage the sharing of ‘not quite ministry’, because these present a particular puzzle to our understanding of worship and ministry.

The concept of afterwords is a practice which is not mentioned in our current Book of Discipline, Quaker Faith & Practice. It seems to have arisen during the last twenty to thirty years, so that now something like afterwords is being used in roughly half the meetings in Britain Yearly Meeting. It is spread by contact – people see it somewhere else, like it, and give it a try in their own Meeting – and because there are several forms with no discernible older or common root, it seems likely that similar ideas arose in different places at roughly the same time.

I researched afterwords by running an online survey, which was advertised through Quaker email lists and Facebook groups. Most people who responded were from Britain Yearly Meeting, although I also got some answers about meetings around the world. In this article, I want to explore one of the dominant themes from these responses: the relationship between afterwords and spoken ministry. There were other important themes in the responses, including the use of afterwords for community building and issues about whether afterwords provides a smooth transition from Meeting for Worship into other activities, but the idea that afterwords improves ministry has implications which are particularly complex and, because of the importance of spoken ministry to our whole practice of worship, vital to our understanding of the role of afterwords.


From and through, in and out

One way to explore the relationships between ministry and afterwords is to consider them in relation to four directions of movement for contributions, which can be understood as two pairs: from/through and in/out. Spoken contributions which are given as ministry are often said to come through us, while things appropriate for afterwords may come wholly from us; adding afterwords to a Meeting’s practice might move some contributions into ministry and others out of it. I now want to explore these four directions in more detail.

True ministry, things which are correctly offered as spoken contributions during Meeting for Worship , are usually considered to come through us, not from us.[1] Water may taste of the pipes and in the same way ministry is affected by our personality and experiences, but the origin of it lies beyond us: it is from the Spirit and not the self. In traditional Quaker understanding, there is that of God in everyone, so this Source may be reached through our own hearts, minds and lives – and through the hearts, minds and lives of others around us. We distinguish, though, between things which arise from God within us and things which are from our own thoughts and emotions. That the voice of our Inward Teacher can be heard through silent, waiting worship with others is a central tenet of the Quaker way, and the ability to share what we hear on some occasions is an important aspect of this practice.

Both ‘through us’ and ‘from us’ suggest a destination outside ourselves, and indeed both ministry and afterwords are meant to be heard by others. In Meeting, we can sometimes hear the voice of God speaking only to us, and these messages are not for sharing, while a test of true ministry is that it speaks to the condition of others. Like many Friends, I have had the experience of hearing in ministry just what I needed to hear, or something which illuminates a situation in my life – even if others present knew nothing about this. True ministry, then, comes through us and can reach others.

Contributions suitable for afterwords, in contrast, come from us. They are described as ‘not quite ministry’, but the element which holds them back from being true ministry is their closeness to the self or ego of the speaker. They may be enriched by the living water which we taste in Meeting for Worship , but the origin of the contribution is within ourselves. They may be understood as our thoughts – perhaps prompted by the Spirit, by other ministry, or by events in our lives or on the world stage. Because God may speak through us at any time, these offerings may be understood by others as ministry if something happens to speak deeply to them. On the other hand, contributions for afterwords do not have to be tested by this measure. It will often be enough to have said something which the speaker, as an individual, needed to say or have heard.

Meetings which introduce afterwords often want to move contributions either into or out of worship. If the Meeting has very little spoken ministry during worship, they may feel that some people who could give ministry – who are in touch with that of God within themselves or the Meeting and hence are able to act as a channel in this way – are not speaking. Perhaps they are not sure enough of the call to speak, or are held back by shyness or a sense of their own unworthiness. By giving them a chance to speak to the whole group close to but slightly outside the context of worship itself –  i.e. by introducing afterwords – Meetings hope to build the confidence of these Friends and encourage them to heed any call to ministry which they might feel. If a Friend is being called to minister but refusing to do so, afterwords become the whale which takes the prophet to the right place: a way of moving them in the right direction. If other Friends hear something which could have been ministry during afterwords, they are in the position of a Ninevite eavesdropping on Jonah’s wailings during his sea passage, getting an advance preview of the real message.

A side effect of this is that Friends who are not sure of their call, or who choose not to thoroughly test their leading to speak, might choose to contribute during afterwords rather than wrestling with the need to give ministry. Especially in formats of afterwords where not everyone in the Meeting hears them, this is like giving the message to a sailor from Nineveh rather than going there yourself. Even if everyone does hear it, the message does not carry the same weight if given in afterwords rather than during Meeting for Worship, specifically because the barrier to speaking has been lowered and the expectation of testing the leading has been removed. This is comparable with the way we trust a report from a close friend but would be doubtful about the same story from a stranger: by testing the call before speaking, a minister helps us to trust that the message is truly from the Spirit and not the speaker’s self.[2] To save something which could be given as ministry and give it during afterword might be like publishing an important scientific finding in a tabloid newspaper instead of a peer-reviewed journal. Some people who need the message might be able to hear you, but equally they may have difficulty taking it as seriously as the message deserves.

Sometimes, however, Meetings introduce afterwords in the hope of getting exactly this outward movement – to get rid of inappropriate ministry, while being able to reassure the Friend who gives it that they are heard. Inappropriate ministry can include any number of things which are felt to have come from the self and not the Spirit: typically Friends might include ‘daffodil ministry’ (reflections on the loveliness of the natural world), ‘Radio 4’ or ‘Guardian’ ministry (comments on material from news reports and other media), and ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way to meeting’ (stories of recent personal experiences which lack depth or spiritual insight). All of these themes can properly be included in ministry at times, but used repeatedly or merely in order to have something to say, they become dry. At other times, a particular issue becomes the ‘hobby-horse’ of an individual, and Friends find that ministry about it no longer speaks to them.

These four directions of movement give clues about the theology of the Quaker groups who talk in these terms. There are varied but harmonious understandings of the true source of ministry –  language of ‘beyond’ and ‘outside’ the worshippers is common, and even where the ‘supernatural’ is rejected, something deep is accepted. Michael Wright, clerk of the Nontheist Friends Network, writes that while he is

simply mystified and incredulous at the possibility of some divine Spirit using me as a channel of communication” he is nevertheless “quite sure that when I engage with still silence, I engage with some source I find indefinable, wonderful, deep, from which I can draw strength, tranquility, and perception that I find nowhere else.[3]

He rejects the metaphor of God for this experience, but continues to speak about a ‘source’ which is not the same as himself (although it might be located entirely in the human realm) and which has many of the properties – such as ineffability, depth, and supportiveness – which Quakers ascribe to God.

The idea that afterwords can encourage the movement of ‘true ministry’ into worship and ‘not quite ministry’ out of worship, both supports the idea that there is a real and intelligible difference between the two, arising from their distinct sources, and also highlights the fact that it is often difficult to tell. When reaching out for that deep Source, and finding some wisdom there, it is also possible to become confused and find oneself speaking from the self instead. Comments made to me during my research on afterwords often included mentions of discipline and control, usually along one of the following four lines:

  • afterwords improve the discipline of worship, by encouraging people to distinguish more clearly between true ministry and that which is not true ministry;
  • afterwords make the discipline of ministry too strict, encouraging people to expect the Spirit to come as a hurricane where it may only arrive as a soft exhalation;
  • afterwords should be kept disciplined, so only that which comes close to ministry is shared and not items which are merely factual; or
  • the notion of afterwords is too rigid and formalised, so that it lacks any feeling of relaxation and spaciousness after the discipline of worship.

The actual disciplines of worship and afterwords can be vary considerably between different Meetings, but the overall need to maintain a distinction which is, in practice, a very difficult one to make emerges as a clear theme. Where Friends are struggling with the distinction between true ministry and that which is not ministry, an open discussion of this issue, either as a group or with individuals, may be more helpful than the introduction of afterwords. Unless the concept of afterwords is understood clearly by those present, it is highly likely to have an unintended effect.


Hearing to speech

Another way to understand the struggle is to think about our process of listening worship as a way of ‘hearing God to speech’. This image draws on Nelle Morton’s classic description of members of a feminist group hearing one another to speech.[4] The core idea is that by listening very carefully to what has not yet been said and what needs to be said, a group of people can support one another into articulating their experiences in ways which would not otherwise be possible.[5] Quaker Meetings are sometimes compared with therapy or encounter groups which might be expected to work in this way; but Quakers who make this comparison usually do so disparagingly, saying things like “it was a ‘popcorn meeting’ with Friends rising frequently to use the silence as a kind of group therapy instead of worship”.[6] Here, the worship is contrasted with therapy – although they are similar in form, it is a mistake to confuse them. This survey respondent continued to explain that in order to restore appropriate contributions during the worship itself, the Meeting introduced afterwords, noting that adding this space takes the pressure off the worship: “afterwords can provide a sort of steam vent for non-messages”.

These contributions, which are not true ministry in the sense that they are not understood to come mainly from the divine source which lies beyond individuals, are nevertheless often valued by those who are able to hear them during afterwords. Survey respondents commented on the community-building value of afterwords, saying that the practice increased the inclusiveness of the group by allowing people who did not speak during worship to say something to the whole Meeting, or saying that afterwords “help members understand each other better”.[7] This is to be expected when afterwords genuinely creates a space in which people who would otherwise do not speak are able to share something of their personal experience and perspective. (I will return later to cases in which people who speak anyway use afterwords as a time to speak again.)

However, it is also part of the distinction which Quakers continue to draw between true ministry and nearly ministry. True ministry may use personal experience and knowledge, and might incidentally help members of a Meeting to get to know one another better, but that is not its purpose, and if something was offered during Meeting for Worship for that reason alone it would not be true ministry. Instead, spoken ministry in Meeting for Worship is intended to be speech on behalf of the Spirit, inspired and guided by the God who is understood to be present in each individual but especially present to the settled and gathered meeting. This God, I should note, need not be personal nor impersonal, nor possessed of an outward reality, in order to be heard into speech by communal efforts. Rather, it is the experience of communion, including communication, which is fundamental to the Quaker way.

During the process of hearing God into speech, Friends necessarily also think of things which are relevant to themselves specifically. Some of these are categorised as true messages from the divine but intended only for one recipient, and therefore not to be given as spoken ministry. These can, nonetheless, be very powerful, even life-changing, messages. Others arise much more obviously from the self or ego, and are equally unsuited to both ministry and afterwords – the majority of Friends have at some point contemplated their shopping list or plans for the afternoon during the worship (I certainly have), but these are not items suitable for afterwords. Instead, afterwords usually seems to consist of items which are neither fully one thing or the other. They may be partially Spirit-led messages which are too strongly coloured by the Friend’s personal opinions, or insights arising from the Friend’s personal experience and illuminated by the Inward Light. Either way, to be suitable as afterwords they typically have both a strong element of the self and some small element of the Spirit. This can even be true of items further from being true ministry, such as news of Friends and notices; if they arise from the spiritual life of the Meeting, such a commitment to a particular project or love for an absent friend, inspiration often comes through them.

Hearing God to speech is not easy. It requires patience and discipline, focus and a setting aside of the worries of every day. This is perhaps why Quaker literature provides many examples of people who made mistakes – who spoke from their own minds and not as they were led by the Spirit, a mistake traditionally known as ‘outrunning your Guide’; or conversely who did not speak when they were led to do so, not heeding their Guide.[8] Afterwords can provide a welcome respite from this struggle, a space in which the bar to participation is lowered and Friends are able to speak without needing an unmistakeable prompt. However, this works both ways: Friends, able to speak in afterwords without fully testing whether they are led to offer this contribution as ministry, may say things which are not helpful at all. This can include direct criticism of things said during Meeting for Worship, usually a significant taboo, or simply speaking too much or too often.[9]

My online survey respondents often mentioned the latter, including people who “rant about their hobby horses”, the “one Friend who was hijacking the discussion”, and those “who have a tendency to talk a lot and repeat themselves”.[10] Friends who were more sympathetic also described this situation in terms to being able to provide a space for speech. One wrote:

We have a member who always needs to contribute verbally and I found it unhelpful and rather disruptive in mfw but he now uses afterword which works much better for the mfw and for him as we are able to respond in afterword to his needs in a way which is not appropriate in mfw.[11]

I did not get first-hand reports of being ‘the Friend who always speaks’, perhaps because these Friends do not see themselves as such and/or because they are less likely to be the kind of experienced and connected Friends who were reached by my survey distribution methods. Speech, in the form of spoken ministry, is an important part of the worship process, but it must be used sparingly and, preferably, be unpredictable: to speak too often, or to repeat material, or to return to the same topic repeatedly, leads others in the Meeting to suspect that this comes not from the Spirit but from the speaker. Sometimes a long-term focus can be accommodated if it is understood as a ‘concern’, a call to work on a large or complex issue, but it is also in danger of being rejected as a ‘hobby-horse’, especially if others in the Meeting do not share the call to work on the topic at hand.


Learning to give ministry

Finally, I want to consider whether afterwords can work as a teaching space, within which some of the conventions around ministry described above can be learned. In describing the relationship between afterwords and ministry, some survey respondents talk about afterwords as a space in which people who would not otherwise give ministry can gain the skills and confidence necessary to do so. If the skills involved are practical ones – speaking to a group the size of the whole meeting or feeling able to stand and speak publicly at all – this may well work. However, there are also reports of Meetings where it does not work, and I want to suggest that this is because there are skills involved in giving ministry which are specifically not taught by afterwords. In fact, if a Meeting had little or no spoken ministry to begin with, adding afterwords may worsen rather than improve the situation.

To show this, I want to begin by looking at spoken ministry, drawing on a study of spoken ministry conducted by Alan Davis in the 1980s.[12] He concludes that giving ministry is a learned activity – there are a set of social conventions about acceptable ministry which can be learned so that ministry retains a certain style, tends to work around a particular theme during a meeting, and excludes inappropriate content. Davis is able to describe some of these elements; for example, he describes some “more highly valued performance styles” for ministry, including those which are “more laconic, distanced, even gnomic, that at the same time fit directly into the discourse, into the developed meditation”. However, even with the aid of the complete examples he cites, it would be difficult to turn this description into a living practice.[13] Ministry seems to be mainly learned by observation, although there may also be explicit teaching about it. Afterwords, we might therefore think, is also a learned activity. Indeed, since we have lowered the expectation of the presence of the Spirit in afterwords, it is even easier to see it as a learned activity.

How does this bear on the question of whether introducing afterwords will improve the ministry in Meeting for Worship? First, it is clear that afterwords and ministry are different enough that learning to speak in afterwords – even to give ‘not quite ministry’ – will not, on its own, be enough to teach people to give good spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship. The introduction of afterwords together with some specific guidance to an individual might help in some cases; the Friend who speaks every week, told that her or his contribution would be better placed in afterwords, might go along with this and thereby improve the ministry by removing a source of inappropriate ministry. However, even in this case we would want to be sure that the Friend understood why the ministry was inappropriate, in particular so that they are not blocked from sharing true ministry which might be given to them in future. It may also be necessary to consider the impact on other members of the Meeting who might move their contributions out of ministry and into afterwords from a misplaced fear of speaking inappropriately.

We can return to Davis’s thoughts to shed some more light on this. In comparing spoken ministry to other forms of speech – such as conversations, giving announcements, and the ‘incipient talk’ characteristic of people working side by side and speaking occasionally – he provides us with some examples to consider in thinking about how people learn to give ministry. Many people learn by watching and mimicking others, and when the rules change there is often an adjustment period. For example, if you change from working in one office to another office, with different people and a different layout of desks, the rules for incipient talk will change, perhaps dramatically. Getting used to the new pattern and working out which comments require answers and which can be left without a response often takes some time – any particular example might not be very important, but the overall effect is a significant part of your working relationships. The pattern you end up with will take account of your needs for quiet and social contact, the needs of your colleagues, and the demands of the work. In the same way, to give good and appropriate ministry is a learned skill, and a meeting often evolves a pattern which takes account of the demands of the Spirit and the needs of the people.

If you had tried to learn to have a conversation in a new language by reading a phrase book, however, when you had the chance to listen to a native speaker, you might be able to fake it for a short while. But you would soon realise that you lacked the breadth of vocabulary, and the feel for what is naturally grammatical, required to discuss a range of topics, or anything in depth. In the same way, learning to give ministry without hearing enough examples of good ministry is likely to be difficult. A traditional Quaker answer might ask us to trust it all to the Spirit, and it is certainly possible that someone in a might be given this gift without hearing other people give ministry. On the other hand, it is also for us to support the development of such gifts. If someone is close to giving ministry, but worries about their reception or needs to practice the physical actions of speaking to the whole group, an opportunity to speak in a space such as afterwords might be helpful in that development. If there are other problems, such as lack of clarity about what would constitute true ministry and how to test whether something should be said during worship, the practice of afterwords alone is unlikely to help.

The only way afterwords might support this development is where it is used as a space to reflect on the experience of worship and any ministry which was given. This needs to be done compassionately, to support those who gave ministry and not to embarrass them, but does not need to refrain from the subject of ministry entirely. It might help to think of this within the language teaching analogy: by commenting on the grammar of a particular sentence, we can show someone the underlying structure and the rules on which it is constructed. This need not pass judgement on different possibilities: for example, I say that “I’ve got a new book” and a friend of mine that he has “gotten a new book”. We are both generally understood, but someone learning to speak English might be confused by the alternatives, which are deemed ‘correct’ in different contexts. Similarly, sometimes it is appropriate for a Friend to, for example, speak near the end of the Meeting for Worship (it needs rounding off; they have had a long struggle with it; they are new and not familiar with the guidance), but it may be helpful for someone to explain why it was appropriate in this situation when it is not considered appropriate every week.

There are, as I mentioned in my opening, other good reasons to introduce afterwords, which may have nothing to do with the quality of ministry. However, introducing afterwords does not have any straightforward or automatic effect on ministry, and if it does have an effect, the use of afterwords is as likely to be to the detriment of spoken ministry as a whole as to improve it.

[1] Quaker faith & practice (Britain Yearly Meeting, 1994) 2.60

[2] Although not every message is for us as individuals, and we use our own process of testing as we listen to spoken ministry.

[3] Michael Wright, ‘Where does Vocal Ministry come from?’, in Ambler, Davison, Scott and Wright, Through Us, Not From Us: vocal ministry and Quaker Worship (The Kindlers, 2015) p. 35

[4] Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home (Beacon Press Books, 1985).

[5] I have explored this idea before. My conference paper about it, ‘Speaking from Silence: a Quaker feminist understanding of relevation’ can be read at https://orwhateveryoucallit.wordpress.com/speaking-from-silence/

[6] Anonymous contributor describing an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in the USA, as part of an online survey on afterwords conducted June-July 2016.

[7] Anonymous contributor describing an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in the UK.

[8] For classic examples of these, see Quaker faith & practice 2.56 and 2.57.

[9] For criticism of ministry, see for example Simon Western writing in the Friend, 2nd January 2014.

[10] Three anonymous contributors describing unprogrammed Quaker meetings in the UK.

[11] Anonymous contributor describing an unprogrammed Quaker meeting in the UK.

[12] Alan Davis, ‘Talking in Silence’, p105-137 in Nikolas Coupland, ed., Styles of Discourse (Croom Helm, 1988).

[13] Ibid., p132

Learning about Afterwords

This was originally published in ‘Quaker Voices’ in 2016.

As soon as I started to tell people that I was going to do a research project about ‘afterwords’, supported by the Eva Koch scholarship at Woodbrooke, I began to hear strong opinions about afterwords. Quakers had almost all heard of ‘afterwords’, and they said, “Ah, we have that in our meeting,” or “I went to a meeting once where they did that.” Then they either told me how good it was, or leaned in conspiratorially and explained that they don’t like it at all. Afterwords, I rapidly learned, is not something which Quakers in Britain agree about.

This placed me in a difficult position. I wanted to hear from people with a range of perspectives on afterwords, and people obviously wanted to tell me. My personal experience of meetings which use afterwords is limited, though, and while I have family who have opinions just as strong as everyone else’s, I’m actually in a smaller third category of people who are genuinely ambivalent about it. In a way, this was the prompt for my project. In particular, I wanted to understand better how afterwords changes the experience of attending Meeting for Worship. Does it really improve the community in a meeting, or affect the quality of spoken ministry? In order to learn more about this, I decided to use an online survey to ask people to tell me about their experiences.

In reading the survey responses, I found many people describing things I could recognise and relate to. For example, I’m familiar with the worry about time and wanting to get away from the meeting house promptly, so I can see how an afterwords which feels like a “drag of undefined time” is unwelcome. Actually, in the course of the wider research, I learned that tea-and-biscuits time is also a relatively newfangled invention – social time seems to have appeared in the mid-20th century, while afterwords has become much more common since 2000. I often find social time awkward and emotionally difficult, so I found it easy to relate to those Friends who like afterwords because it provides a smoother transition from the depths of worship into notices and chatter which can feel shallow. Good notices arise from the life of the meeting, our spiritual perspectives moving into action, and don’t have to have this effect – but I have certainly had times when I felt that the busy-ness of the community ran beyond what was guided by the Spirit, or when someone made notices sound boring by delivering them in a bored tone of voice.

As I read and re-read the responses, a handful of central themes began to emerge. Some were practical, like the issue about time I mentioned already, and issues around where afterwords is held. A meeting which holds afterwords in a separate room, or allows people to leave before afterwords, can feel fragmented by this. Those who stay might feel an increased fellowship with one another, but this doesn’t have the same effect if it doesn’t include the whole meeting. Another theme, though, was community, and specifically the idea that afterwords is helpful in forming the meeting into a community in which people know one another in “the things which are eternal”. Afterwords can be part of ‘making ourselves known’, a space to share recent experience which might be neither spiritual enough for ministry nor significant enough for notices. This is the main role in which Zélie Gross suggests it in With a Tender Hand (p338).

Besides giving more space to speak, afterwords may change who speaks: it is often meant to make the meeting more inclusive by helping everyone to feel able to speak to the whole group, even if they don’t have a leading to give ministry or a need to offer a notice. Some people in the survey report that this works, saying for example that afterwords “provides a way of binding us together in our spiritual concerns”. Other people are clearly so busy worrying about the time afterwords takes, or the negative effect they feel it has on ministry, that they don’t experience this positive community-building effect.

For many meetings, afterwords is clearly polarising. Some people take up positions for and others against it, leading to a division which may or may not be visible. Even if afterwords itself is helpful to some in the meeting, this polarisation is obviously unhelpful for the meeting community as a whole. People who filled in the survey – who were mostly experienced Friends, and disproportionately likely to be in membership compared to Quakers as a whole – often didn’t know why their meeting had begun using afterwords, even though few meetings reported using it before 2000. When respondents did know why they started, it was frequently described as something which someone, perhaps an elder, had seen or heard about elsewhere and liked. Only two reports, out of over 180 responses to the detailed survey, said that a local Meeting for Worship for Business had been consulted. Where the meeting has been using it for some time, this might simply be because the process has been forgotten, but it nevertheless raises questions about what the appropriate mechanism is for making changes to a meeting’s practice.

Another key theme was a complex set of relationships between afterwords and ministry. Often, people introduce afterwords to encourage good spoken ministry in meeting for worship. The survey responses included some first-hand accounts from people for whom this had worked: they spoke in afterwords first and, as they gained confidence and became clearer in their faith, they began to give ministry in worship as well. One person said that afterwords “provided a way of ‘testing’ whether the contribution that I could make was really ministry”. For meetings where there is little vocal ministry, or where several people who might contribute are held back by shyness, this obviously has the potential to be a positive effect.

However, there is also the danger that introducing afterwords encourages people to save something they might have offered in ministry and say it during afterwords, taking good ministry out of meeting. This was also commonly reported in the survey – some meetings even find that having introduced afterwords, their worship becomes completely silent, with no spoken ministry at all. Although a few people, especially those who have recent experience of inappropriate ministry, feel that this is an improvement, it is usually reported as a loss or a misunderstanding about the nature of Quaker worship. One respondent said that afterwords “makes silence into an end in itself” rather than helping us to use silence as a way to be in communion, while another said directly that “When something is bubbling you are let off the hook of testing whether it is ministry as you think you’ll just drop it into Afterwords.” For those who are relatively new to the Quaker way and trying to learn how to give ministry, attending a meeting where there is no spoken ministry, only afterwords, must be like trying to learn how to knit from someone who can only crochet. You might get the general idea of making fabric from loops of yarn, but the actual technique will be elusive.

The positive side of the movement of contributions out of ministry and into afterwords is that it can help to prevent or manage inappropriate ministry. There’s still a need to let the Friend whose ministry is inappropriate know that afterwords would be a better place for it, but a large number of survey respondents told me that this was one of the key roles of afterwords in their meeting: it helps them cope with “a member who always needs to contribute verbally”, it “managed those who ministered on a hairtrigger”, or that it was brought in because “we had a couple of friends who would regularly minister on the same political subject”. These are relatively sympathetic portrayals of the Friend who speaks too often, and other survey responses described meetings where afterwords had been discontinued because it was “’hijacked’ by one or two members of the meeting who very often rode their hobbyhorses”, or the problems which arise when “people who have a tendency to talk a lot and repeat themselves make a sort of field day of it”. I certainly recognise the picture, having known Friends like this (and being prone to be one myself).

The overall impression I got from the survey was that it may be better to have these Friends speak during afterwords than during meeting, but at the same time it might be better if they could be taught not to speak in problematic ways at all. “Waffle”, “rambling” and “judgemental even arrogant” contributions all came in for negative comment, and afterwords is as likely to be stopped because of these contributions as started to contain them. A similar problem was reported in cases where afterwords became a discussion, with people responding directly to one another – although in some meetings where afterwords was held alongside the social time, often in a different room, discussion could be welcome or even encouraged.

The problem of Friends who contribute inappropriately, even with the lower bar set on afterwords, relates to the need which some respondents felt for afterwords to be properly controlled. “Elders,” said one person, “keep careful watch to ensure that afterwords don’t become indisciplined.” It was also felt in the emphasis people placed on introducing afterwords correctly – a lot of respondents gave me, with at least an impression of exactness, the words used to introduce afterwords in their meeting. A typical example has an elder introduce the time by saying, after the handshake, “we now continue in the spirit of worship with afterwords, which is a time when we can share any insights which occurred to us either in Meeting or in the week before. When we have finished afterwords we will have notices, then coffee”. Others use phrases such as ‘not quite ministry’ or ‘nearly ministry’, referring back to the issue of the relationship between ministry and afterwords. Alongside many respondents who feel that discipline is important for a good afterwords, there are also a few who feel that it has gone too far the other way, and call their local meeting’s afterwords “rather too programmed” or say that they “find the rigid structure rather restrictive”. Since the relative informality of afterwords – that people can contribute without the strict testing they would give to ministry – is a central feature of it for many purposes, this is something which elders and others using afterwords need to watch for carefully.

As I take the results of this research out into the community of Friends, the biggest thing I am taking away from it is the ongoing need for us to learn about our practices and understand why we do things the way we do them. Afterwords might be a practice pool for those who are uncertain about swimming in the open sea of worship – happy to float, perhaps, but not sure if they will be getting somewhere if they offer ministry. It won’t replace swimming lessons, though, because the conditions are very different. What can we offer by way of clearer opportunities for people to explicitly explore the guidelines on our practice, understanding why some contributions are not true ministry rather than guessing from their observations? Books can be helpful, but a book on swimming cannot replace the feeling of the water upholding you and the tides of the Spirit pulling you. A well-held teaching space, in which people who have the skills involved both demonstrate and discuss their techniques and experience, is more likely to be useful.

Quality of Spoken Ministry

My previous post on Daffodil Ministry sparked a lot of debate on my Facebook page, and it raised so many questions I thought I’d expand some of my responses here. Many thanks to all who participated in that discussion, with special appreciation for those who had the courage to disagree respectfully.

Should we be judging spoken ministry at all? 

I think we all do – setting aside the question of whether we should or not, everyone makes judgements about what they see and hear. It might be a moral judgement, or an emotional reaction such as liking or disliking, or just ‘I want more/less of that’, but it’s there. Some will then ruthlessly suppress those judgements, others will take them home and moan about them in private, and sometimes I choose to blog about them. I’d have just the same thoughts whether I chose to tell you or not! If I choose not to share them, these judgements can often fester in a way which poisons me against particular people, meetings, situations, etc. Sharing them creates a more honest community in which we know one another better.

And should we? Yes, actually, I think we should. If we are to encourage helpful ministry and address unsuitable ministry, as elders are asked to do in Qf&p 12.12c, we’re going to have to work out which is which.

Reflecting on this, I considered my own experience of giving spoken ministry. Sometimes I am thanked for it, or people comment on the content, and I find that very helpful (although being thanked is sometimes awkward – I’d rather be thanked for being faithful to the leading to speak than for speaking itself or for what I am given to say). I’ve never been told directly that I shouldn’t have said something. I have, though, sometimes given ministry to which nobody referred at all afterwards… and then I go home and wonder what happened. I’m fairly sure they heard me because when I’m not being told off for talking too loudly I’m being thanked for being clear and audible. Did they avoid saying something because I’d outrun my Guide but they didn’t want to be judgemental or critical? In a way, I’d rather be told off sometimes because then I’d know I could trust the meeting to be honest with me.

(I am aware that posting this on a widely read blog might have the effect of producing criticism! And that in the moment I might well find that criticism upsetting. I promise that I’m just thin-skinned and will be fine.)

Shouldn’t we encourage (something which daffodil ministry is taken to have, e.g. appreciation for the natural world, thankfulness)?

Yes – if it really does that. Yes – if it is a real appreciation for the actual world, and not just for a common symbol. (Why daffodils and not dung beetles or Dutch elm disease?) Yes – if it is balanced by other elements. A&Q 10 says “Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy.” We don’t have to have all of them in any one piece of spoken ministry, but over a month does your meeting include them all?

How does daffodil ministry relate to other problematic forms of ministry?

In the discussion, ‘media ministry’ (typically Radio 4 ministry and Guardian ministry) were also mentioned, and this led me to reflect on another ministry pattern which bothered me in one of my previous meetings. When there was a terrorist attack in Europe, a Friend would often stand and say how terrible this was and how incomprehensible. That the deaths of tens or hundreds are terrible I agree. That the actions of terrorists are incomprehensible I do not agree – this is the line given by journalists and politicians who don’t want us to understand, but to accept it at face value is to deny that there is that of God in everyone. One of the problems I identified with daffodil ministry was its shallowness. Sometimes we need to be reminded of things, or the obvious needs to be stated, but this is most effective if done in an unpredictable way. Observations about the seasons, and repetitions of news items, are neither deep nor surprising and that increases the chances that they won’t be helpful.

What if the way you talk about this stops someone giving ministry?

My intention is not to hold anyone back from following the leadings they are given – and if they are following their leadings faithfully, they’ll say what they have to say whether I like it or not! If people are not following their leadings (and we all do it sometimes, for all sorts of reasons) we have a bigger problem than daffodil ministry.

In practice, I think we all make mistakes. I have held back from giving ministry – I spoke last week, my mother already spoke, it’s nearly the end, that’s too personal – and regretted it afterwards. I have also spoken and regretted it later. I don’t think that discussing ministry openly and seeing that there is a variety of opinion is more likely to prevent helpful ministry than to prevent unsuitable ministry, or more likely to encourage unsuitable ministry than to encourage helpful ministry, so over all, I predict that any effects balance each other out. Please let me know if you have evidence to the contrary!

Aren’t you taking this all too seriously?

I take my faith seriously. Is there really anything else I should be more serious about?

What’s wrong with ‘daffodil ministry’?

Daffodil ministry, in case you’re not familiar with it, is that ministry people give in response to seasonal events – snowdrops, daffodils, and autumn leaves are especial favourites. Someone at my meeting gave ministry today in which she mentioned daffodils, and mentioned daffodil ministry, saying that it was felt to be ‘lighthearted’. (Her spoken ministry wasn’t lighthearted, or any of the other things I’m about to say that daffodil ministry often is, by the way; it prompted this post but I’m not responding to that specific incident.) I’m not sure that ‘lighthearted’ is the problem with daffodil ministry – I’ve heard, and even given, ministry which was genuinely lighthearted, in the sense of including jokes or evoking laughter in response. So what is the problem with daffodil ministry? Here are my three conjectures.

It’s shallow. Ministry which happens to include mention of daffodils isn’t automatically daffodil ministry and daffodil ministry might not mention daffodils. To me, the key thing which identifies a ‘daffodil ministry’ is that the message is shallow. It might have more words in than this, but the content could be summed up as: “Look at the daffodils, aren’t they lovely?” That’s why you can use other seasonal events in just the same way. “Look at the autumn colours, aren’t they lovely?” I’m happy with this as small talk – although I’d rather not make small talk if it’s all the same to you. In meeting for worship, I’m going to worry that this isn’t real ministry, but just a thought or reflection, especially if it comes over as sentimental or twee.

It’s aimed at children or otherwise meant to be ‘accessible’. I have absolutely no data to back this up, but I have a suspicion that daffodil ministry is given more often during the first fifteen/last ten minutes of meeting for worship when the children are present. I’m sure I heard it in my childhood, when I wouldn’t routinely have heard other spoken ministry in ‘big meeting’. I think it’s good for Quaker children to hear spoken ministry rather than being left to assume that the adults have nothing but silence, but I don’t think it helps anyone to be spoken down to. It does help everyone if messages given as ministry are expressed clearly with not too many long words, but anything which changes the message because of who is in the room runs the risk of changing or diluting what the minister has been given to say. Daffodil ministry given because children can see the flowers is a problem in itself, but it’s also likely to lead to shallow ministry.

It’s predictable. This is partly because the daffodils themselves are predictable, arriving every spring as if on cue – well, actually on nature’s cue. However, predictability in ministry is usually held to be a problem. We suspect that people who speak too predictably are riding their own hobby horses rather than being blown where the Spirit takes them. I’m actually a bit torn about this one, because predictability – regularity, reliability – could also be seen as an important aspect of God’s love, and the daffodils arising regularly can be taken as a good symbol of God’s reliability even when things are difficult. (“Love like the yellow daffodil/is coming through the snow” as the song about Julian of Norwich says.)

What do you think? Do you use the phrase ‘daffodil ministry’ in the way I’ve outlined above? Is such ministry acceptable? Why or why not? Has it ever spoken to you personally in that deep way of ministry you needed to hear?

Afterwords: coming towards the end

I’m now in my last week as an Eva Koch scholar. Over the weekend, the four Eva Koch scholars gave presentations to some local Friends and those who happened to be at Woodbrooke, outlining our findings and sharing some of our experience. Here are some of the headlines from mine – things which haven’t yet been covered in blog posts (see my afterwords tag to find them all). I’ve also included a few of the pictures I used in my presentation, all taken in Woodbrooke’s garden during my time here.DSCF7947

Afterwords has three main purposes: community building, improving ministry, and smoothing transitions. Unfortunately, these all have a flip side. Afterwords can help a meeting to flourish as a community by helping people to get to know one another better – especially in ‘the things which are eternal’. It can move a community beyond chatting about daily life and into a deeper sharing about experiences of worship and spiritual insight. However, it can also split the community: either physically, if the afterwords is held in such a way that not everyone participates or feels able to participate, or emotionally, especially if people in the meeting have very strong and opposed views about afterwords. Because people tend to really like or really dislike afterwords, with the middle ground sparsely populated,  the whole idea can be polarising.

Afterwords can improve ministry. This can be by encouraging people who are perhaps newer or shyer to speak in a space where there is less pressure tDSCF7853.JPGo give ‘true ministry’. It can also be by moving contributions from those who need to speak often, or who need a more direct response than is acceptable during worship, into a space where that’s acceptable. (Whether this actually is seen as acceptable depends a lot on how the Friend concerned is characterised: there’s sympathy for cases where a mental health or emotional need is hinted at, but very little for cases where something is thought to be a hobby-horse or campaigning point.) On the other hand, afterwords can also confuse newcomers (how do you know what’s nearly ministry if you don’t have any idea what ministry is?) or encourage people to hold back from ministry, thinking that if they are at all unsure of their leading to speak they should wait until afterwords. Some people in the survey reported that having introduced afterwords, their meeting now has very little or no ministry during worship.

For some people, afterwords smooths over a transition from worship into the ordinary world. If notices seem like a jolt after the silence, afterwords – held in a spirit of worship, but with more relaxed rules on speaking – can feel like a gentle introduction.
Unfortunately, there are also (sometimes in the same meeting!) people wDSCF7880ho feel that moving into too many words is a rough road, and would find well-given notices and a cup of coffee provide a smoother transition. In a way, this finding is even less of a finding than the others – you can look to see whether community building is needed in your meeting and whether afterwords might help, and you can put in other ways of explaining and improving ministry, but you can’t do much else about the transition. However, I also think that this finding is more interesting than the others, because so little attention is usually paid to the spiritual experience of the ending of a meeting for worship. The advice on centring down is not paired with advice on ‘rising up’ – except in the activist sense – and yet the movement out of waiting worship is clearly important to people and deserves further attention.

How do we take what we have learned during meeting for worship out into the world? Can we find ways to clarify and consolidate what our Inward Teacher gives us while we are listening, and apply it to our whole lives? To answer these questions, I think we need to consider and review all our practices around the end of worship, including afterwords, but also how we give notices, how we use social time, and our mixed bag of current taboos about discussing and building on spoken ministry.


Afterwords: digging deeper

I didn’t feel ready to write this on Wednesday, when I was expecting to post, partly because the news about my new job dominated my attention for a few days. However, I would like to share some of the ideas I’m playing around with at the moment and ask you whether they ring true.

I’m looking at the relationship between afterwords and spoken ministry – in my survey, lots of people said that their form of afterwords was either meant to improve, or had a negative effect on, the spoken ministry in their meeting, and I’ve been trying to think about why this is.

Some of obviously depends on how you think about ministry in the first place. I might think about ministry as a particular way of speaking, with special rules, in which case afterwords has similar-but-slightly-different rules. I might think about ministry as a gift from God or something we channel from the depths we contact during worship, in which case afterwords might seem like a space for sharing small but potentially precious gifts, or a mockery which doesn’t acknowledge the specialness of this contact. I might think about ministry as something we learn to do, whatever else we think it is, and in that case I might ask: what does the use of afterwords teach about ministry?

Sometimes people talk about afterwords moving unwanted contributions out of ministry, by making another space in which they can be shared. Sometimes people talk about afterwords taking wanted contributions out of ministry, because having another space means that people have to be very sure about their leading before they speak during worship. These are obviously two sides of the same coin, and can both be happening at once in the same meeting! Other people talk about afterwords as a space in which people might gain confidence in speaking, and thus feel more about to give ministry during worship in the future. My impression is that this works for some people – where what is lacking is confidence about speaking to the whole group, or feeling that their contribution will be welcomed – but that it just muddies the water for other people, if they aren’t sure what will count as ministry.

A situation which is mentioned sometimes in the survey responses – and which I probably won’t have time to explore fully in this project, but would like to consider in the future – is how people can learn to give spoken ministry in situations where they don’t have experience of hearing it. In a 1988 book chapter on spoken ministry, Alan Davis says that although “like other forms of discourse, it [spoken ministry] must be learned” this is an open process: “anyone may speak, all may learn” (p134, ‘Talking in Silence’, in N. Coupland (ed.) Styles of Discourse). That’s certainly true in the Meetings for Worship he examine, where every meeting had at least four pieces of ministry during their hour of worship, and some had as many as seven. But I know meetings who go for weeks or months without hearing any spoken ministry at all, and several survey respondents told me that their meetings are often entirely silent. In that case, adding an afterword for ‘not quite ministry’ might be tempting, but it might not make sense, especially if many of those attending the meeting have no idea at all of what afterwords isn’t quite.

Have you got experience of any of the situations described here? Has afterwords supported you in giving spoken ministry, or does it encourage you to hold back from speaking during worship?