Category Archives: Supporting Ministry

Does recording ministers still happen? What does that mean?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Does recording ministers still happen? What does that mean?

People often say that Quakers have no ministers or that all of us are ministers. It’s true that anyone can minister, but to minister as a verb and to be a minister as a noun are different things.

Historically, Friends did not practice ordination of ministers because they felt a person became a minister when God made them one—not as part of a particular ritual. Ministers were people who had certain types of gifts, most often gifts of speaking or possibly writing, and who used these gifts in service of God. At first ministers were recognized informally. When Quakers got big enough that not everybody knew everybody, ministers started being recorded. This just meant that their local meetings wrote their names down in a minute during business meeting: “we recognize so-and-so as a minister with the following gifts…”

Today, most (not all) ministers in programmed meetings are pastors. Some unprogrammed meetings don’t record ministers anymore, but others do. The process varies and is usually complicated.

The most important thing about recording is that it doesn’t make a person a minister. It is the action of recognizing and writing down something that God has already made true.

Being the Church: Ministers and Clergy

Some faith communities have grown a great deal compared to two years ago, but others have decreased in number, and still others have experienced so much change that their needs are radically different.  Some faith communities have begun to think, “Maybe we don’t need full-time employees anymore.  Maybe we can’t afford full-time employees anymore.  What happens if we shift to a part-time or bivocational or volunteer ministry model?”

This is a great thing to be thinking about.  It shows that the community is reassessing its call and priorities.  It’s important, though, that it’s not coming from a place of simply wanting to improve the financial bottom line without making other changes.  Are you actually reevaluating your priorities and your budget according to how God’s calling your community?

If you’re clear that you’re considering restructuring your staff as a response to God’s changing call, then it’s time to pay attention to a few other things that may not be immediately obvious.

Are you naming something as part-time ministry when it actually requires full-time attention?  Part-time clergy positions can work, but only if the community itself is really stepping up.  How much time do you expect your part-time clergy person to spend on preaching and preparing to preach?  On pastoral care for your community?  On organizing events?  On answering emails and preparing programs and handling logistical emergencies?  Shepherding community takes a lot of time, to say nothing of emotional and spiritual energy.  The best use of a part-time minister involves assessing the needs of the community, the spiritual gifts of the minister themselves, and the spiritual gifts of other members of the community.  If your minister has a strong gift for speaking, you may want to ask them to preach and have other people providing pastoral care.  If your minister’s primary gifts are in caregiving, it might be better if others take turns preaching.  The most significant danger here is paying a clergy person part-time with expectations that are more appropriate for a full-time employee.  That’s abusive to the clergy person.  It puts them in the position of either working for free or letting things slide, and in a pastoral role, sometimes “letting things slide” equates to genuine suffering.

Are you paying attention to who takes on unpaid labor?  Historically, in many societies, this has been the women, and more often people of color than white people.  That’s not to say that men never do unpaid labor, but when we take a look at data, we discover the distribution is disproportionate.  If your faith community is moving toward more volunteer support and less paid clergy support, you might want to pay attention to how that work gets distributed, especially because it’s often distributed silently.  Committee service alone doesn’t tell the story of the unpaid labor.  What about the work that doesn’t get recorded?  Who’s making the coffee, sweeping up after socials, organizing meal trains, and providing childcare?  How does God guide you as you assign, accept, and appreciate unpaid labor?  As your congregation navigates this, how do you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God?

Are you noticing who can and cannot minister?  Time-consuming unpaid ministry is inaccessible to people who must be paid in order to survive or support families, even if those people are genuinely called by God.  If we’re not offering clear and accessible pathways to full-time paid ministry, then we need to be paying even more attention to one another’s spiritual gifts and callings.  In my tradition—Quakers—we talk about the responsibility of the community to recognize and receive God-given ministry.  And this can’t be done if the minister is unable to live into their gifts because the financial support isn’t provided.  Shifting to an all-volunteer or mostly-volunteer model becomes more complicated when you realize that not everyone is equally able to give of their time freely.  Are there ways to make financial support available to those among you who must have it in order to be able to serve?

What happens to ministers who have already been called and who are already trained?  Some denominations are experiencing a shortage of clergy, but others are experiencing a surplus—trained and called ministers with nowhere to go.  In some cases, this crosses over with the paragraphs above: if a person needs full-time employment and health insurance to support themselves and/or a family, then offering that person a selection of part-time or volunteer ministry positions isn’t actually offering them anything at all.  Trained and experienced ministers have skills that our faith communities desperately need.  If too many local congregations are shifting away from employing full-time staff, how will ministers be supported in this new model?

This last piece is something to be considered on a denominational level, maybe even across multiple denominations.  Will we need a radically new form of financial support for ministry?  If so, who’s ready to experiment?

Dangerous Theology

This text is based on a presentation originally given at the Quaker Theological Discussion Group Panels in December 2020. The query given to presenters was, “What is a Quaker theology of vocational ministry, and how is it enfleshed/embodied in community?”

Ministry is inherently risky.  The existence of a call to ministry implies potential failure: failure to respond, failure to discern, failure to fulfill.  Ministry also carries with it potential societal and personal consequences, ranging from outright persecution to subtler judgment for counter-cultural words and actions to loss or rearrangement of personal relationships.

Perhaps for this reason, within the Quaker context, we can’t address a theology of ministry while only addressing the minister.  Quakerism is not a faith of the individual but of the community.  In theological and theoretical circles, Friends say that the community, not the individual, has the responsibility for empowering ministry.  The individual may be called, but the community must respond faithfully.

What does this mean?  Consider first the simplest of circumstances: one individual is called to give vocal ministry one time in the context of expectant worship.  What role does the community play in making this ministry possible?  The community is deeply centered in worship, which makes the rising up of vocal ministry more likely; the community has taught the individual how to recognize and discern a call to vocal ministry; the community has created an environment in which the individual knows that, if the ministry is given imperfectly, the minister will not be ridiculed but, instead, appropriately supported and guided; the community has demonstrated its willingness to listen to and respond to well-led ministry, even when it’s challenging; the community may pray silently for the minister who is standing and speaking; and the community has provided the necessary physical support, such as a microphone and sound system.  All of this empowers ministry, making more possible any individual’s faithful response to a call.

But when we are speaking of vocational ministry, the role of the community necessarily grows more complicated.  “Vocational ministry” is either continuous or recurring, consuming a significant portion of the time and energy of the minister.  In the case of vocational ministry, much more is needed to make the ministry possible.  The community still must educate about ministry, refrain from ridicule, support and encourage and guide the minister, accept the fruits of the ministry, and provide appropriate physical and spiritual support.  But “appropriate physical and spiritual support,” in this instance, would likely include clearness committees, travel minutes, recording, logistical assistance, financial support, prayer, spiritual guidance, emotional support, and help with family obligations.  Suddenly, the empowering of ministry is a considerably larger task.

The community is responsible for empowering ministry.  In the context of a covenant community, this makes sense—because ultimately, of course, it is God who empowers ministry, but God generally does this not by invisible miracle but by way of placing the minister within a community, which faithfully fulfills the charge.

This is a dangerous theology.

It is dangerous because ministry is inherently risky, and when Friends say to a minister, “The community is responsible for empowering ministry,” it can cause an individual to commit to the risk, believing that the community will be present to play its role, and often, the community is not there.

It’s obvious how this can damage the minister, but it also damages communities.  It is inevitably damaging to the community because the community is failing to fulfil an expectation that it often did not know existed and that members of the community have never agreed to.  Yes, in theological and theoretical circles, we often say that the community is responsible for empowering ministry.  But among Friends generally, many have never even heard of this concept, and some of those who have heard of it have rejected it explicitly.

Can Friends continue to claim that this is our theology?  If theology, among Friends, is discovered through a process of corporate discernment, and if many of the Friends alive today are not in unity with this idea (that the community is responsible for empowering ministry), then at what point must we admit that this is no longer the sense of the meeting?  It’s certainly true that, historically, this has been our theology, and tradition is the contribution of our ancestors to contemporary corporate discernment.  Still, it’s difficult to argue that any theology is still our collective theology when the majority of Friends have never heard of it and when some who have, have rejected it.

In the twenty-first century, Friends also must question whether such a theology is a reasonable expectation of our communities.  Our spiritual ancestors lived in communities that were mostly self-contained.  Partly because Friends were not accepted in mainstream society, Friends tended to live close together, eat food from one another’s farms, send their children to school together, patronize one another’s businesses, socialize with one another, and marry each other.  

Today, we have non-Quaker neighbors; our children attend school with non-Quakers; we obtain our food and other goods from non-Quakers; we marry non-Quakers; we work for non-Quakers; we have non-Quaker social obligations.  Without judging whether this is a positive or a negative change, it certainly is a change, and we all have obligations to our non-Quaker human connections.  We may see the Friends in our meetings for no more than ninety minutes each week.  Under those conditions, is it reasonable to expect that we will manage to fulfill all of our obligations to our non-Quaker connections and still have sufficient time, energy, and financial resources to take full responsibility for empowering ministry within our Quaker communities?

I don’t believe we have a Quaker theology of vocational ministry.  I do not believe we have done the necessary work of discernment within our communities to know what such a theology, today, would be.

Friends do continue to be called to vocational ministry.  From time to time, a Friend comes to me who is experiencing such a call and asks for my advice, as someone who’s living it.  Here’s what I say:

You will experience extraordinary support and faithfulness from your community, and particularly, from certain individual Friends.  You’ll have much for which to be grateful.  But the community will not take responsibility for ensuring that your needs are met.  You must do so, and doing so is part of the ministry.  You must learn to, first, discern what you need; second, ask for what you need; and thirdly, accept support when it’s given.  You must also learn to recognize the moments when the community is not able to give you what you need, and you will have to find another way.  Obtaining the necessary emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial support for the ministry is not something you must do in addition to the ministry.  It is part of the ministry.  Learn to think of it this way.

I wish that most Quaker communities were ready to discern a theology of ministry, but in my experience, this is not where we are.  Instead, we’re in a place of needing to discern what it means, more generally, to be a thriving, twenty-first century covenant community.  Nearly every Quaker community I know is entangled and bound in the dominant culture and “we’ve always done it this way,” but faithfulness is risky, and the work before us is learning to be faithful communities.  After that, a theology of ministry will come.