Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conditions for Gospel Ministry: A Least for Me...

I am speaking at a Friends Meeting on Sunday. That's not unusual. I receive regular invitations to travel in ministry -- which often includes giving a message if the place I've been invited is a pastoral meeting. But lately, as I've been working on the ideas in "A Modest Proposal" and how they impact my personal ministry, I have been feeling more and more led to adopt some new conditions (though that sounds harsher than I mean it) before I accept an invitation. Most of them have to do with my needing to both think about and practice what it means for me to be a Friends minister traveling in Gospel ministry. So I've been mulling over things such as not using a prepared text (as I normally do) and sitting out in the congregation and speaking from there.

So, in the interest of trying to follow this leading, I am going to be sharing the following with any pastoral meeting that invites me to come share in worship --

Hello XX –

Thanks so much for inviting me to bring a message at XX Friends Meeting on XX. I appreciate this opportunity. There are a few things, however, that you should know before I accept your invitation. Each of these is a response to my wishing to be faithful to my understanding of what it means to be a Friends minister traveling in Gospel service.

  1. As I endeavor to honor the Friends witness of speaking only when led, I will not prepare a written sermon beforehand. Therefore, I won’t be able to send a sermon title or scripture reading to you for the bulletin (if you have one). I will continue to read and study in preparation for speaking, as I always have.
  2. Also, when God’s spirit directs me to I will speak out of the time designated for holy silence (open worship, silent worship, etc.) of the gathered people of faith. I do try to be faithful to listening to Christ our present teacher and so, if I do not feel lead, will not speak. While this has rarely happened, I do want to honor the direct leading of the Spirit.
  3. If you have a time in Meeting for Worship in which the pastor normally prays aloud (pastoral prayer), I will be honored to do that, if requested.
  4. I do not have a set fee nor do I require an honorarium to bring a message. If you are led to support my ministry, then any amount (or none) is welcome.
  5. If possible, I would prefer to not speak from behind a pulpit or lectern. I would rather stand and speak, when lead, from the same level on which the other Friends are seated.
These things are not meant to be quirks or set me apart from other Friends ministers. Rather , they are ways that I am attempting to be faithful to the way Christ continues to teach me what it means for me to be a Friends minister. They are negotiable, depending on the needs of your Meeting. I certainly understand if you find these a bit odd and would prefer to invite someone else to speak to you. If God continues to lead you to issue an invitation, I look forward to worshipping with you.

In Friendship,

Following this leading is a real leap of faith for Mr. Anal-Retentive, Obsessive-Compulsive. But, in my lifelong quest for faithfulness to where I am in my life with God, I think it's what I'm supposed to do. And I certainly don't recommend this as THE way for anyone else -- it's just where I am right now.

Especially as regards the first point in the letter, I want to make clear what I mean by "prepare." What I mean is that I won't prepare a specific written manuscript, which has been my tendency. This is a real challenge for me...

When I first started out in pastoral ministry I was so smart and knew exactly what God wanted me to say (well, that's a bit strong, but not much. I think I probably came across as more than a little bit arrogant. I hope not, but ...). Back then I gave sermons based on 3 points I jotted down on a 3 x 5 card. I filled in the rest from the vast storehouse of knowledge in my shallow soul.

As I aged though, and after a hiatus from pastoral ministry, I changed and began using prepared manuscripts. That's because I'd writing much more and deeper and was learning to be care-ful with words. Words are so important -- especially in communicating the deep riches of the spiritual life. But as I look back, perhaps I was too slavish in adhering to them and in trying "plan" worship too much along the lines I thought the congregation should go/needed.

I'm not sure that either of the above (my young fill in the blanks approach or my older power of words approach) those are bad things. They might even have been good things. I'm just no longer convinced that they were the best thing. The most faithful thing. And I think the Gospel ministry deserves the best, most faithful thing.

So when I say I'm not going to prepare as I used to, what I mean is that I won't write anything down. I will think about what's in my heart/mind as I see the day approaching. And I will continue to read and study during the week. Just not with an eye toward coming up with some amazing technical points or fascinating anecdotes. I will spend time in silence listening for the voice of God around a couple of queries -- "Why did You have them invite me to give a message?" and "What is the message You want me to bring.?"

Now before someone asks, "Do you believe that God can only lead you to speak during the time allotted to waiting/open/silent worship? Couldn’t God also lead you to the message in advance?", let me say that I believe that. I think God can work in all sorts of ways. I think that my past prepared manuscripts (and even the 3x5 cards) were examples of God at work in the "advance" instead of the moment.

Who knows (or maybe I should say "God only knows" ) maybe I'll be led to some combination new combination of preparation -- 3x5 notes, typed manuscript, and complete openness to the movement of the Spirit in the moment.

For now, though, this seems like the place for me to set out on a new adventure of being a disciple and learning to listen more carefully. And for renewing my own ministry.

-- Brent

PS The photo is of the young 3x5 card Brent Bill. More hair but even less smarts than now.


Annie said...

I quite agree. One thing that continues to be overlooked in "the work of the pastor" is "the work of the Divine." Oh, yes, one can say it is God who gives us the message. But, truthfully any pastor knows, it is we who stress over the right words. So, then, is the work truly God's or is it ours? I wonder if our work is not to hone our message, but hone our inner being to be one with the Divine, ready to be used and be the carrier of his message?

As you state, preparation is key.

Thank you for your insight. Looking forward to the workshop on January 28-29.

Martin Kelley said...

Fabulous Brent, thanks for sharing this. I too have a "set of conditions" but I don't think I've ever written them down. There's a lot of settings where Friends today use models that don't quite fit our gospel order and it's important to at least acknowledge this so we can remain faithful when delivering what messages we've been given.

My preparation before a talk is to read and think about it obsessively beforehand (this period often includes a lot of talking to myself when I think I'm out of earshot!). When I do prepare I usually over-prepare and have three hours of material for every hour I've been asked to speak.

I find it very important to let it all go, though, because often the message that Christ is giving me and the audience needs is different from the one I've been prepping in my head. I think it's also often the case that our words matter less than our demeanor, our centeredness and how well we carefully listen to the immediate Instructor's directions. Just starting in silence and letting yourself fall back into silence when you need to re-poll the guide is a powerful witness and deeply counter-cultural in a world that expects polish.

Tom Smith said...

I believe your points are very well taken. I strongly concur with points 1,2,4, and 5. I don't want to detract from the impact these points an have, but there is a point that I have been struggling with for some time now. As a "part-time" minister of a Friends Meeting in a previous "life-time," at least it seems so over 40 years ago and being in an extended family that has its roots in Indiana Yearly Meeting strongly pastoral tradition, I was usually asked to say the "Blessing" at the appointed time before my wife's family gatherings. However, I have declined to do so more recently as I have examined more and more what "pray without ceasing' means and what adopting "priestly" function means. I know I am probably taking "programmed prayer" too far as an issue, but I thought that with the "programmed speaking" being a concern then I wonder about vocal prayer in Friends tradition.

Laurel said...

It is easy to be caught up in the trappings of a role. Your approach sounds authentic and wholly unordinary. Coming to a place in one's life where a person is able to be free of pretense, direct, and transparent requires courage, confidence, and healthy sense of self. Would that more people could let the trappings fall away and deal directly with each other in these ways.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks all for the comments and thoughts. 'Tis good to be in a place in my life where perhaps I can listen to the Spirit a little more carefully and shut out the noises of intellect and ego a bit more.

ElderChild said...
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Robin M. said...

Brent, I think this is a wonderful experiment to test your leading to preach directly from the Holy Spirit. I have two thoughts I'd like to offer and it would take too long to figure out a way to say them other than "I think you should..." but I simply offer them for your further discernment.

First, you should ask for space and time to settle into silent worship in the meeting room about an hour before they'd like to hear your message. It may not take that long to hear what God wants you to say, but often it does, and if you only sit down with them at the beginning of a programmed worship service where you're trying to follow along with the hymns and the readings for 15 minutes before your turn to speak, you may not be ready. And they may not be ready to wait with you in silence for the next half hour while you listen for where the words will come from. Are you actually proposing that you will speak at any time in the programmed service when you feel led or are you willing to let them put in the bulletin that Brent Bill will speak to us at 11:20 after the prelude and scripture reading and before the praise band?

Second is another question. What will you do with a message that hits you two days before you're scheduled to speak? Because as you know, sometimes God's time is not our time. And sometimes, God's timing is terrible. I think you should consider writing the message out, or at least making notes, if one comes to you, then giving yourself time to ponder it, and then let it go before you're scheduled to speak. For me, capturing a message in writing allows me to think about something else for a while (like finishing driving home or listening to the person speaking to me) until I'm in a better place to consider it. Your mind may work differently.

I wish you well for this Sunday!

Brent Bill said...

Hi All -- Thanks for you many helpful comments and thoughts! Very helpful -- useful in helping me clarify my leading. An on-line clearness committee!

Yesterday's message went well (I think) -- blending my preparation (reading and study) with the events of the weekend (leading a sacred compass retreat at the meeting) and then something that occurred during meeting for worship.

Dont' know how it was for the congregation -- but it was an amazing experience in trust and worship for me.

Anonymous said...

this was a very edifying post Brent. i appreciate your candor

Anonymous said...
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Ember said...

What you have written in this post rejoices my heart. God bless you!!

Stuart Greene said...

Brent, Your sentiments resonate with me. I’ve been interested in the subject of what does a pastor do at the moment he/she is scheduled to give the sermon and there is nothing there – nothing of God to say? When I was in grade school in the '60s before my Mom converted to Christian Science we were Presbyterians and as you might imagine there isn’t a lot that I remember from our pastor’s sermons at this point but one of the things I do recall is a day when he went to the pulpit to give his sermon and he knew he had nothing of God to say and admitted it to us. He talked about the experience a little and of the hours he had spent in prayer and preparation the previous week that had yielded nothing. I admired him for that and still do.

[I was not born into the RSF but came to it about 20 yrs. ago. I travel in the ministry in the way of Friends but I have yet to experience worship in a Friends Church.]