For the past 5 years, I have been writing songs about Quakers, blogging about Quakerism, making videos about Quakers, vlogging about Quakerism, and traveling amongst Friends, sharing my music and my thoughts.
Now I have arrived at a turning point. The original call that I felt to commit to music was for five years. I knew that I would then stand back and re-evaluate, ask the hard questions, and change course if I felt called to.
I have decided to do this re-evaluation publicly, posting a “state of the art” report on my website and asking the query: “How can Jon Watts continue to be of service, considering his natural gifts and passions?”
…and, considering the current state of the art, “How can he be financially supported in this work?”
I have received more messages than I could have imagined, most of them encouraging me to continue, helping me to brainstorm financing, and affirming the value of my work.
I have also received a few messages of discouragement in my continuing along this path. These concerns seem to focus on my use of the word ministry.
And while I continue to be in private dialogue with these particular Friends about my continued use of this word, I thought that it was also worth exploring publicly.
What is “Ministry”?
Quakers believe that everyone has access to that of God within them. This is why we worship in silent waiting on 1st day mornings, and why we do not have hierarchical structures managing our corporate decisions. Our goal is to allow God to lead our congregation, and to decide our business. We can each be a channel for the voice of the Spirit, if we listen and humble ourselves.
Thus our congregation is traditionally not led by a single minister on 1st day mornings, but instead we wait until God selects the minister. Who will stand up this Sunday and be filled with the Spirit’s message? We don’t pretend to know.
Many of us, as Quakers, have the experience at one time or other of being selected to be the vessel for the Spirit in a worship setting. We often find that we have human resistance, human obstacles to overcome in order to faithfully deliver the message that has been given us.
It is a labor of love, for when we are faithful to the message we have been given, we are clothed in righteousness. Friends can be stirred, uncomfortable, hurt, liberated, and can have any number of other responses to our ministry, but when we know that the message has truly come from the Spirit, we can trust that God has a plan for healing transformation, and we can know that it might not look like we would expect it to.
This is a seriously valuable tool that Quakers have cultivated for inward transformation and for cultural transformation. Deep listening. Getting low. Opening one’s heart and ears to messages of Truth from unexpected sources. Trusting.
What is “Entertainment”?
I have been recording and releasing my own music since I was a Senior in high school (that was 2001 for those of you keeping score). After self-releasing 4 albums of my own music and organizing a handful of shows featuring my songwriting, I stood back and looked at myself as an artist.
- Who was I writing songs for?
- Who was benefiting from my efforts?
- Who was my biggest fan?
The answers, as I examined each of these questions, were all “me”.
It was seriously uncomfortable to examine myself in this way, but also somewhat liberating: I found that I was building myself up with, hiding behind, and providing myself validation with… my music. My pursuing music was fundamentally self serving.
And I was not unique. We live in a culture of celebrity. In place of our actual deity, we raise up deities out of our midst and worship them on our magazine covers. We fundamentally believe that they are better, more deserving, worth our studying them.
In the age of the internet, it is getting easier and easier to see who falls into this category. Who is desperately calling for our attention? Who is trying to raise themselves up to a higher status by making themselves into a celebrity? We are correct to be dubious of anyone who seems to be acting from this motivation.
And it doesn’t take an enlightened person to realize that the “celebrity-solution” is a myth. Just read an interview with someone who has attained celebrity. Look behind the veil of their public presentation to the true state of their lives, their relationships.
What we learn is that the self-love void cannot be filled by anything external. It is un-salvable, infinitely able to consume external validation and transform it into self-doubt. The self-doubter might be able to fill their void briefly by attaining celebrity, but it will come back. And it will be hungrier.
I know I labeled this section “what is entertainment” and then talked about the state of entertainers, but this truly is the price of our sitting back and passively expecting to be entertained: self-obsessed ego monsters, living on a pedestal and consuming our attention to feed their insatiable egos. A mad cycle.
We call it “self-serving”, but really this kind of behavior serves no one. Only destruction. The unraveling.
Drawing a Line
But what does this all mean for me? Does rejecting our culture of celebrify-ing artists mean that I should reject an artistic path altogether?
Any endeavor that does not serve a community is an empty endeavor. But could my music be a service?
(Could celebrity, for that matter? This is maybe another blog post)
In 2006 I turned to the model of Quaker ministry to inform my making music. Getting low. Being humble. Only writing songs that felt like a message from the Spirit. Knowing that the message is not my own. Attempting to be a vessel. Releasing my agenda, knowing that my own perspective is severely limited. Letting go and letting God.
(It is worth mentioning that these are very difficult practices, especially with the culture all around pressuring us to frame everything with the self at the center. I don’t claim to be perfect or even consistently successful in my experimenting with holding these practices as a musician.)
I picked up my music again after I was made low in this way. The first album I recorded was solely meant to be of service: exploring stories of Early Quakers and putting them to song. Inviting other Quakers to come into the studio and play on the album. Listening to the Spirit, being held accountable by a support committee.
And indeed, it was anything but an empty endeavor. It was powerful. We were all broken apart, remade. Including myself as artist. Especially myself as artist. Our faith was deepened.
But when I went out into the world to share this Spirit-given ministry with the wider world of Friends, I immediately ran into a wall of feedback: I was told, “Open your eyes more, be more engaging and less prayerful”. In other words, “Entertain us!”
Oh! What paradox!
“Giving Ministry” VS “Having a Ministry”
Quakers have long held a common practice of recognizing Friends amongst us with a clear call to ministry. Often these would be the Friends in our Meetings who would speak often, or who would speak passionately, or most faithfully.
Recognizing a ministry means coming together as a community to acknowledge one Friend’s particular gifts, recognizing their potential service to the congregation (possibly to the wider body), coming together to help cultivate their faithfulness in using their gifts, to support them and to hold them accountable to the Spirit.
Over the years, that practice of recognizing ministers amongst us solidified into a list of criteria for Friends Ministers.
- A Friends minister travels with an elder.
- A Friends minister is rooted in a Monthly Meeting.
- A Friends minister travels under a temporary “concern”.
- A Friends minister travels with a traveling minute from their home Meeting.
The only way that I know all of this, though, is because I’ve studied history.
Most modern liberal Quaker Meetings have no practice of recognizing ministers. No practice of supporting ministers, cultivating faithfulness in their use of their gifts, no practice of publicly acknowledging the gift of ministry, no practice of writing or receiving traveling minutes.
“The Burden of Vision”
Those modern Friends who have felt a call to ministry therefore have a difficult choice in front of them:
- Go out into the world on their own, lacking the structures of support and accountability.
- Wrestle with their home Meeting, putting off their call to ministry until such time as their congregation comes together to re-claim the tools of recognizing ministers. This is a process that can happen over the course of years or not at all.
To ask a Friend with a call to ministry to first teach their home Meeting how to recognize ministers… this is a difficult thing to ask of a budding minister. I have seen more than a few calls to ministry ignored or burned up in this process of wrestling with the lack of tools in home communities.
I want to take a moment to honor those Friends who have faithfully and patiently waited or laid down a call to ministry as their Meeting discussed (or didn’t discuss!) their relationship with supporting ministers.
All or Nothing?
I have not chosen the path that I just described.
In the past five years I have gone in and out of periods of having support committees. I have no traveling minute, just a smattering of supportive words from different Meetings and institutions that I have played for. I travel with an elder when I can, which ends up being about half the time. I maintain my own finances, booking, and website, and I have moved every so often, meaning that my local Meeting is often not very familiar with me or my work.
I would be the first to say that this is clearly not the ideal circumstance for a Friends minister.
But where does the responsibility lie?
- Should I drastically change my trajectory, considering that no local Friends organization is holding me accountable and supporting my ministry?
(ie stop blogging, writing and performing about Quakers? What are the wider implications of this conclusion? Any blogger who writes about Quakerism should be a formally recognized minister? Anyone who posts on Facebook? Any Friend who writes a song and uploads it to youtube? Where do we draw this line?)
- Should I continue exactly as I have been, blogging, vlogging, writing music, performing, only stop calling it a ministry?
(Is this just a matter of semantics? In trying to keep our understanding of ministry pure are we deaf to the new ways that ministry is rising amongst us? Is it responsible of me to not at least attempt some accountability to Friends considering my level of visibility?)
- Or should we recognize that my circumstances are thematic for a new age and transition our institutions accordingly into practices that are more faithful considering the realities of the modern age?
- All of the above?
- Something entirely different?
Thank you for your faithful consideration of this issue, Friends. I would love to hear your thoughts.