Quakers in my tradition use a practice called “clearness committee” to explore various individual decisions, such as membership in a meeting and marriage. A person or couple meets with a committee to help them reach clearness on their decision. I am trying to reach clearness on my sense of calling to ministry, but what I am offering here hasn’t been brought to a committee. This is important to state because one of the issues I have to clarify is the question of professional ministry and my branch of Quakers generally does not recognize such ministries.
This was the original Quaker view, from George Fox up until the late 19th century when the Wesleyan revivals led to a surging growth in orthodox Quaker meetings. These Quaker churches reinstituted a separate pastoral ministry, which evolved into a very similar form to most Protestant churches. Liberal and Conservative Quakers mostly rejected this innovation.
I am considering whether I should pursue a pastoral or other form of professional ministry. In fact, I fully expect to enter seminary in a few years with the aim of seeking a full-time paid ministry career. This is a surprising turn for me, given my strong commitment to unprogrammed Quakerism. I see no conflict, but other Quakers may see it differently.
I currently work 40 hours a week in the travel business. When I finish seminary, I will work that same 40 hours for a congregation or ministry organization or teach in a seminary. I will retain my membership in a Quaker meeting and attend their worship whenever it doesn’t conflict with my paid ministry. I will seek a position in any liberal Quaker meetings that hire ministers, as well as Unitarian, Humanist, and other liberal religious congregations.
My spiritual community with unprogrammed liberal Quakers is the right form of worship for me. I wouldn’t attend a more conventional church on a regular basis for my main spiritual practice, as I don’t find listening to sermons all that edifying. However, as a preacher’s kid, I grew up expecting that some day I would become a full-time preacher and it still feels like what I was born to do. I haven’t been able to shake that feeling despite avoiding any concrete steps in that direction for decades.
It is common for a religious group to believe that its particular religious practice is doing everything right and that those who do things differently are mistaken or deceived. I’ve never felt that people who go to churches with conventional preaching were mistaken or deceived. Early Quakers were convinced that all ministry must come from the spontaneous inspiration of the Living Christ. There is some truth to the claim that this ministry philosophy produces a more flexible and immediately relevant use of gifts. Many churches use a calendar that has been drawn up over the centuries from the celebration of religious holidays like Christmas and Easter, but Quakers were among the first to reject that practice, believing that the Spirit would speak directly to a congregation the new revelation that they needed.
However, there is something to be said for using a religious calendar. We all do live in a space-time continuum and experience the changing seasons. We also grow along somewhat predictable paths from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to elder. Perhaps some combination of the immediately inspired and historically celebratory ministry is more helpful to most people. I certainly carry an awareness of the flow of time from the past to the present to the future.
Unprogrammed Quaker ministry aims at being directly inspired in the present, and I certainly intend to incorporate that intention into into my ministry. I first became interested in unprogrammed worship when I was attending an unconventional church that typically allowed about 15 minutes each Sunday for “open sharing” where people were invited to approach the podium and share what was on their hearts and minds. There was also a period for verbal responses to the weekly congregational teaching period. These two periods were for me the most powerful moments of every Sunday. We’d fall into reverent silence and wait for someone to feel drawn to the podium. I knew that I wanted to find a place where this feeling of expectation was the entire focus of worship.
And yet, I feel called to offer the rest of my life to full-time ministry. That calling may not be fulfilled within unprogrammed Quakerism, though I may be wrong about that. Remaining open to the possibilities seems the right attitude to take.