A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Travelling in the Electronic Ministry

The world is changing and Quakerism must adapt or disappear. That’s actually a good thing and we should welcome it. New circumstances call for us not to mechanically attempt to relive the past, but rather to consider carefully what parts of Quaker tradition are essential and what parts are merely of antiquarian interest. Everyone should try this on their own but here is my attempt to get down to the central core of Quakerism: We believe that God speaks to everyone. He calls each of us to a new and more abundant life. Moreover, he speaks to us not just collectively but individually. God will give any person who wants to listen personal advice on how to deal with the specific events happening in their life. This being true, there is no need of a middle man. We do not need a priest to tell us what God wants us to do. We do not even need the Bible to tell us this. This is not to say that we should ignore the Bible or the advice of other people, but these are secondary helps. Each of us can and should directly listen for and follow God’s advice.

More traditional Christians rejected Quakerism as a dangerous doctrine. If everyone felt free to listen to God’s advice on their own then, they argued, this opens the floodgates to ranterism. People, being what they are, without a pastor or at least the Bible to constrain them will rationalize that whatever pops into their heads must be from God. Many modern secularists echo this idea. The dangerous actions of George Bush, are the direct result of his dangerous belief that his violent and reckless ideas were really God’s personal advice to the President. Quakerism recognized the danger of individuals mistaking their own whims for divine guidance and emphasized that the advice of weighty Friends was a crucial factor in helping individuals tell the difference between their own personal feelings and God. Quakerism isn’t pure individualism. There is a need to rely on collective wisdom because the voice of God is often hard to hear over the noise produced by the world. “Sense of meeting” is a sounder guide than the autocratic rule of any priesthood (because in practice these priesthoods are just self-appointed bureaucracies.) Individuals should rely primarily on their own sense of God’s will but for help in discernment depend on the decentralized advice of fellow seekers. This remains grounded in the local face to face relationships of the monthly meeting.

If this is the essential core of Quakerism, then how do we apply this insight in the 21st century? What, if anything, does it tell us about blogging, Facebook and Twitter? Quite a lot actually.

First we should distinguish between electronic intervisitation and electronic ministry. Facebook is almost exclusively an avenue for intervisitation and most blogs are primarily a form of intervisitation. Keeping a Facebook page or blogging are ways to keep in touch and share the ephemera of life. Intervisitation has traditionally been recognized as a good thing and been much encouraged. Paradoxically as travel has become easier intervisitation has decreased among us. Venues like Facebook may change that. Intervisitation was encouraged because it strengthened the bonds of community and allowed Friends to learn each other’s special needs so that we could love each other in practical down-to-earth ways. The dangers to be avoided were time-wasting on triviality and, more seriously, the temptation to gossip. These dangers are also present in electronic intervisitation. Perhaps all that is needed here is to update our queries to make Friends mindful of what is good and what is potentially harmful about such activities.

Second, there is the issue of electronic ministry. Some Friends see their blogs as more than intervisitation. They feel they have some message to share with the world and maintaining a blog is their way of sharing it. This is ministry rather than intervisitation and Friends traditionally took greater care to provide oversight for ministers. While traditional Quakerism recognizes a free and unprogrammed ministry open to all, it is also mindful of the dangers of unguided ministry. Individuals are encouraged to speak during meeting for worship as a way of learning if their messages are genuine or not. Feedback from the other members of meeting is essential. “Friend, your ministry today spoke to my condition” is not meant as flattery. It is meant to provide useful feedback. Elders were appointed to be particularly responsible to provide both positive and negative advice to individuals seeking to develop their gift of vocal ministry. In many modern meetings this function is taken over by a Ministry and Counsel Committee, but the intent is largely the same: to provide collective guidance to individuals about their efforts at ministry. When ministers would feel a leading to travel and share their messages with more distant groups of Friends additional care was taken. Monthly Meetings would be asked to give the minister a Travel Minute approving his or her leading to travel. Friends mindful of their responsibilities would not travel in the ministry without the collective approval of their Monthly Meeting. In addition often an elder was sent with the Friend to listen to the ministry they gave to the distant Friends and to report back to the local meeting what took place. Finally, the distant Friends were asked to endorse to travel minute, that is, to report back as well.

Can we replicate this for the 21st century? Certainly we can. Friends who feel that their blog is not just for intervisitation but also for public ministry can make their monthly meeting aware of what they intend to do. They can ask that the blog be monitored by the elders or by the corresponding committee of the monthly meeting. And they can record this approval on the blog itself. This would create an electronic equivalent of travel minutes and travelling companions in the ministry. Members of the monthly meeting could even read comments recorded on the blog as the equivalent of endorsements of travel minutes.

17 Comments:

OpenID michaeldavidjay said...

This sounds like an excellent idea. I wonder if it would be a good idea to keep a meeting ministry blog, with multiple writers (perhaps multiple voices would be more inline with 'Quaker' models than a single censored voice). I do recall that often ministers traveled with another representative of the meeting.

10:00 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

One thing that's changed is that Meetings in my branch of the Quaker Thing don't record people as more-or-less qualified to minister. If we did, I'm not sure it would be entirely a good thing...

Sometimes a collective mind will have as many quirks as any individual. Since the mental workings of a group are not as directly 'given' as those of an individual, these aren't necessarily accessible for correction. Hmm, example: A new member of my Meeting wanted to know "if it was okay with us for her to invite her friends"! She had picked up something which none of us had ever explicitly said (and which I personally found shameful!): that the dominant tone of the group was hostile to new people and the threat of change they imply! This was not the only weird element of the dominant mental gestalt at work among us, which often enough clashes with what I consider more accurate perceptions! I don't know as there's any group of humans that won't have some such blinders. In theory, we have a way of life in which God may continually teach us... and I have lived that sort of life as an individual! But I have not found, since Pendle Hill, a group of people eagerly studying together with the expectation that we will be given deeper insights from God and each other! (I miss that, of course!)

Probably half of what I believe, most of my Meeting would consider pretty weird. Actually, they seem to consider the immanence of God to be an absurd notion. Only we ignorant folks can know that God reaches in and messes with our lives! "The bland leading the bland" sort of sums it all up.

I told you in a recent comment that I was having to think something out, about us being 'a people'; I hope you'll read it because it's too much to say again here. (Need I plug it more specifically?--I really do want to comment on what you're saying this time!)

The Quaker Thing seems to be a balancing act between individual and group authority. We hold that tension better than any other group I know... but it isn't something that can be resolved with an easy formula. If we fail to follow our individual leadings, we can't go to God with a note from our Meeting: "We have discerned that your recent message to ___ was in error so please excuse him from having to do it!" No matter how much we share minds, inspiration is experienced by us in our own heads--or not at all. No number of properly-approved minutes can substitute for one actual personal recognition of truth!

What I'm finding... is that Quakerism doesn't work unless we accept a responsibility to struggle against the group's inertia. People talk so much lately about 'gathered meetings' and religion as a group experience that we think what we personally know doesn't count. We don't want to fight our way out of the group, but if we let it stifle us, it thereby stifles itself! We can hardly justify blaming it for that!

10:23 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...

michael,

Some meetings have done exactly what you recommend. I'd like to hear from any that have done it for at least six months and hear how it is working.

I don't think that "censored" correctly captures the Quaker gestalt about community. It's a term more appropriate to authoritarian structures.

forrest,

I did notice that you had expressed the intention to write about some of the issues I had raised about integrity and change. But when I looked on your blog I didn't see it. Probably I looked before you finished writing and didn't look back. Anyway, I apologize for missing it. It is long and it will take me some time to read it, but I promise to get to it soon.

Concerning your comments on this post, it seems to me that it is your perception that Truth doesn't prosper in your local meeting. Of course I've never been there but I hear similar complaints from other Friends about their meetings and all of you can't be wrong!

Local meetings do differ greatly in their spiritual health. Some seem to degenerate into social clubs for people with similar political views. The quality of the guidance an individual would get would certainly depend on the strength of their meeting. Over the past twenty years I've gotten a great deal of help and support from Friends, especially at our Yearly Meeting. My local meeting is very small and there have been years when it was too spiritually weak to provide me much support, but I keep doing the best I can with what I've got and I know I've always got a core of weighty Friends at Yearly Meeting that I can talk to every July.

There are plenty of Quakers who are more secularly minded than spiritually minded. They tend to dismiss talk of being guided by God as being a quaint metaphor for a bunch of smart people coming to consensus. But, I think both you and I know that there's a huge difference between a sense of meeting and a group consensus.

It seems to me that you are struggling to be faithful in less than ideal conditions. Try to remain positive and to speak to that of God in those around you. God's really there in everyone and speaking to the God within others is the best way to get a response from them. I'll keep you in the Light.

1:07 PM  
OpenID michaeldavidjay said...

*blushing*I find I have a habit of using words that imply something stronger than I mean.

Perhaps censored was the wrong word -- still, I am not sure what the right word is when you are putting yourself under a publication committee for their endorsement. I have never seen such a committee -- so my frame of reference is reading about what happened in the 18th century.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Thank you for this excellent, thoughtful account. I have read several comments lately about blogging as ministry, but I have not come across the idea elsewhere of blogging as intervisitation, and I like that very much. I get a lot of my Quaker fellowship online, so perhaps this idea appeals to me because it's what I already experience in many ways.

Thank you for giving me such good food for thought!

4:07 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Michael,

Most of our thinking since the Enlightenment has been along the lines of individual rights vs centralized authority. I think part of the genius of Quakerism is that it avoids this polarity in favor of the ideal of community.

The idea of an author being accountable to the Society is familiar to me. Llyod Lee Wilson won't publish until he brings the manuscript before the YM for their feedback. It's not that he has to do so. But he genuinely wants feedback from the community because he respects the collective wisdom of the whole.

Heather,

Thanks for the kind words. I think intervisitation both electronic and face-to-face is more valuable than most of us appreciate.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Richard, I'm so glad you took the time and energy to flesh out your thoughts from your original comment on Gil's post.

I have often thought of Quaker blogs as something like epistles--the "written" word that conveys how the Truth prospers among us, where the Light has taken us in our walk-about the Kingdom of God... But maybe your thought of blogs as a form of electronic intervisitation is a better fit.

Plus, I sometimes think that if there were one "endangered" practice among Liberal Friends that I would want to restore and/or strengthen, it would be that of intervisitation.

Only by having visited other yearly meetings and having traveled to different meet-ups and workshops have I come to a richer understanding of the Religious Society of Friends--who we are as a people of God.

And mostly through face-to-face and electronic intervisitation have I come to a richer understanding of Quakerism--that practices, history, and gestalt of our peculiar faith tradition.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

7:35 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Disowing seems to have been less like 'exercising censorship' than withholding endorsement.' A contemporary analogy would be AFSC's policy of not endorsing or partnering with groups, no matter what their aims, which approve violent means.

I suspect that if modern liberal Friends took up recording people as ministers, they would either have a hard time deciding with people like me--or they would instead be so reluctant to not record, that the effect would be insignificant.

This 'speaking to that of God in everyone' was such a throwaway line in the context where Fox said it. It may have been just another way of saying "awaken the witness of God in them!" But he was very clear that it was in them, even if they kept it imprisoned in there! But as in sense-of-Meeting vs consensus, it isn't quite the same as appealing to reason, or conscience. What you're telling me to do--which sounds like what I would want to accomplish--would be to bring the inspiration of God in them to their attention, to help them distinguish that (when it differs) from their personal mental & emotional habits.

Wow! I've always known I couldn't do that, that only God could do it, while even God is generally restrained in the attempt, at least until people have taken the Prodigal Son route to the max! I could hardly claim to care more about people than God! Or to be wiser. But I've got this urge to poke them awake, which is also part of the plot line here! Okay, God, Richard, et al, how?!

11:44 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...

I don't think "that of God" was a throwaway line to Fox. I think he meant it literally. I agree you can't guarantee results and there's no mechanical procedure. There are rules of thumb that are helpful, like being totally honest and peaceful. But you can't plan it in advance, you just have to depend on God to give you the right words and try to be obedient to what you are given in the moment.

God always gives us what we need. Look for support among the Friends in your meeting. You may find more help there than you think is there.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Kim Ranger said...

I realized that I had done things kind of backwards by sending proposals for a manuscript to publishers before I asked for the blessing/encouragement (or something) of my Meeting. The book is about having been a Quaker studying and worshiping with Seventh-day Adventists for a couple of years. During that period I was recorded as a "Minister of Ecumenism" by the Meeting. I did a program for the Meeting about our 2 denominations, but I hadn't released the manuscript to them.... I gave it to Ministry & Nurture a couple of days ago, asking for guidance! Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Richard.

7:10 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Kim,

I'm glad it was helpful to you. North Carolina conservative has preserved more of the old traditions of Friends than most other meetings. One thing I like about QuakerQuaker is that it gives us an opportunity to remind folks of these traditions.

7:14 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

Okay, much thanks for quibbling over "what Fox meant by 'that of God,'", or more specifically, what he meant by "answering" it. This may well have led me to an answer for my own question (though I will have to let it digest to see, (Pardon the metaphoric dogstew of my last phrase here!)):

http://www.ilym.org/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=24. was a talk on this at Illinois Yearly Meeting by Paul Lacey (knew him, liked him a lot, at Pendle Hill.)

I wasn't meaning that Fox didn't mean the line, but that the context isn't what most people think it is... & Lacey's talk is clear about that, also makes it clear that it wasn't quite as I'd thought of it either.

THIS whole issue could use a post & 1/2
on somebody's blog, discussion, whatever! Want to start?!

2:22 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

forrest,

I'll try to find time to read the Lacey talk on Fox. It should be interesting. I hope other Friends reading this will look it up as well.

7:34 PM  
Blogger David P said...

“My” blog is under the care of the Ministry and Counsel committee of my Meeting. (Not for six months yet, though.)

The blog (and me) being under the care of the Meeting seemed a necessary outgrowth of my experience that I am living most fully and rightly when my actions are in gospel order – part of a “holistic challenge to all areas of life” to live daily in deep relationship with the Divine. I have an affinity to Friends’ theology that says that this gospel order is fostered by the communal experience of knowing each other deeply and being able to guide each other toward the power of God.

I think that these are the “responsibilites” of ministers that Richard spoke of in his post - to engage with the faith community. Therefore, it was a joy and not a frustration to wait on that discernment, and I felt that without it I would be lacking an important aspect of my experience of God’s guidance.

It gave me the opportunity to rely on my trust in God to show the clearest way, and in turn reduced any possible agenda I may have had.

It also required my trust that those on Ministry and Counsel were (and are) committed to seeking Divine guidance as to whether my sense of leading is right, and capable to giving faithful guidance, not just their personal preferences.

I like the sense of the blogs as intervisitation, but my sense is that my leading to facilitate the class and to share that experience via the blog has been a sense of ministry . . . wait, I just realized that this may simply be using different words to describe a similar experience of leadings toward spiritual nurture.

Richard, you don’t really say how you define intervisitation, especially given the new context of electronic intervisitation. Are you saying that intervisitation is spiritual nurture of “distant” Friends through sharing one’s experiences of the Divine, or through creating a shared experience/exchange, while ministry is evangelizing (specific sharing a profound, seemingly Divine message)?

Intervisitation and ministry seem quite similar to me. I guess I see both the face-to-face discussions I facilitate and the resulting blog as potential nurture of individuals and sharing of experiences (intervisitation?) combined with some message-giving through prompting thought and discussion about topics on which I think Friends have been given much guidance (ministry?).

Okay, well, it seems to me that either form of God-given leading (on-going intervisitation or on-going ministry) should be discerned and cared for by fellow committed folk in order to move toward fullness of life in the Presence for the minister, as well as for those ministered to.

3:21 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

David,

Yes, travelling in the ministry and intervisitation are very similar. Thanks for the nudge to articulate what I see as the difference.

When I think of ministry I primarily think of vocal ministry, though I know Friends talk about many different sorts of ministry. Someone with a gift of vocal ministry is someone who is used by God to deliver messages to other people. Most often they do so by standing up in meeting for worship to deliver the message they have been given.

Travelling in the ministry suggests to me that the person has a gift of vocal ministry and is lead to travel. They may, but need not, have some general topic that they feel lead to share with an audience larger than their MM or they may just be a minister who feels led to travel and who is then likely to give vocal ministry when they get there.

Intervisitation is by Friends who are not ministers and have no specific message to deliver. Nevertheless, God may use the visiting Friend in many ways including delivering messages. It is not unusual for Friends who do not have a gift of vocal ministry to say things in casual conversation that are in fact spiritually helpful to those they are with. When there is intervisitation "opportunities" arise. It is one very important reason to visit.

I had noticed how intervisitation from Friends of Rich Square and Virginia Beach had been helpful to us in Greenville. At YM sessions several years back I found myself telling the YM this and being surprised to feel welling up in me the need to begin visiting the worship group in Beaufort. In subsequent YMs I've mentioned this leading and reported on it. There was no existing practice of asking the YM to approve intervisitation but it seemed right to make this known to the body and I was warmly encouraged to continue.

Travelling in the ministry makes one a public Friend in a way that mere intervisitation does not. So there seems less need for approval of visiting. Perhaps I was lead to bring this up to the YM in order to help remind Friends of the value of intervisitation.

6:37 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Once again, spamsters are using the comments facilities of your blog.

Are they getting around the letter-recognition test somehow? Are you using it, let's see...?

8:18 AM  
Blogger val said...

The Bible is the book of the knowledge of good and evil. The KJV must be rightly divided 2 Tim 2:15 God's way Isa 28:9-10 with his spirit to understand the Bible.
God chose a woman to deliver Rev 12:5-6 the true word John 1:1, Acts 3:21-23 like unto Moses Deut 18:18 proving the power of God as Elijah Matt 17:3, Luke 1:17. The proof is in the hearing.

If you claim to love God with all your heart, soul and mind then obey God's word Matt 4:4 and prove ALL things 1 Thes 5:20-21 Despise not prophesyings.
Our heavenly Father will not put any child of his into a hell fire no matter what their sins, whether they repent or not.

It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer7:31, Jer 19:5. God only gives his Holy Spirit to those who obey him Acts 5:32.

If you are not keeping his commandments and laws his way he does not know you Matt 25:12, Luke 13:23-28.

The true Gospel is now delivered as a witness Matt 24:14 on these websites http://thegoodtale.blogspot.com., http://thegoodtale.wordpress.com.

4:54 PM  

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