Christina Repoley is the founding Executive Director of Quaker Voluntary Service, serving in this role since 2012. She is a member of Atlanta Friends Meeting (Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting).
What faith did you grow up in?
Christina: I grew up Quaker, in Charlotte Friends Meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a fairly typical unprogrammed meeting, pretty big. We were duly affiliated with Friends General Conference and North Carolina Yearly Meeting, Friends United Meeting (FUM), but we were unprogrammed.
Have you stayed in this tradition?
Christina: I never left, but there was a phase in my life where I was exploring lot of other things, too. I went through a period where I felt like I hadn’t learned as much about Quakers or my own faith, and definitely about the Christian tradition in general. I hadn’t been given a lot of religious education in my meeting, and I was very interested in other Christian traditions. I lived in a Catholic Worker house after college, in Philadelphia, was involved in other progressive Christian groups, and attended a Mennonite church for a while in Atlanta. I was also attending Atlanta Friends Meeting, so I never completely left, but had a lot of connections with other specifically Christian-based groups and other churches. I went to a United Methodist seminary for three years for my M.Div. So I’ve had a lot of ecumenical experiences that have been really meaningful to me, but have continued to identify as Quaker through all of those things.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Christina: I think the emphasis on everyone having a personal relationship with the divine. Though I really appreciate and get a lot out of programmed worship, whether it’s Quaker or in other denominations, I also really deeply appreciate the experience of unprogrammed worship, and the expectant listening and expectant waiting that come along with unprogrammed worship. I’ve had some really profound experiences of that kind of worship. As much as I appreciate and seek out other kinds of worship, that feels like my home grounding, probably because it’s how I was raised. Just being part of a tradition, period, it is important, but particularly being a part of a tradition with such a long history of prophetic witness in the world. I really identify with the aspects of Quaker tradition that are about living outwardly an inward reality. Our history and tradition of witness around that is certainly imperfect, but I still think that’s the tradition that I resonate with, and I’m happy to claim. Those are some of the things that have continued to be really important to me
Can you speak more about what those experiences of attending other worship services and being a part of those other communities, what you learned from that for your spiritual life?
Christina: I think growing up in the unprogrammed tradition, I got an unintentional or subliminal message that the Christian aspect of our identity as Quakers was not very important, or in some cases not welcome. I think what I saw in particular at the Catholic Worker community, and also in the Mennonite community, were groups of people who were very clear about their identities—very clear about claiming their Catholic identity or Mennonite identity or more generally Christian identity. Being very clear that formed the basis of their really radical engagement with the world and in social justice issues.The people who I saw engaging in that work were doing it in a very grounded and joyful way, even though they were engaging with really difficult issues. It just wasn’t something I experienced in the Quaker community as I was growing up. It may just be that whatever you grow up in, or what you see the most—you can see something else in someone else’s tradition that you don’t in your own. A person who grows up in a Catholic Worker house might have the same experience at a Quaker Meeting. Some of it’s just getting out of your own experience and seeing the world in a different way, right? But I think there’s also truth in that liberal Quakers have not been clear about our identity, and not been as clear about claiming-certainly not a Christian core of our identity. But even more broadly, speaking about our faith identity in a clear way, and that our prophetic tradition comes out of that faith identity.
At one point I was attending the Mennonite Church and the Quaker Meeting in Atlanta because the Mennonites met in the evening and the Quakers met in the mornings, so I could do both. I loved both communities but at some point I felt like I just couldn’t be a full participant in two different faith communities. I had to choose one. I felt, “Well, I’m a Quaker, so I have to choose my own tradition, my own community,” as much as I loved a lot of things and a lot of people in the other group. It felt like, that’s just who I am and I’m not willing to give that up yet. Again, it was comparing and seeing things that were imperfect in my own tradition and my own experience and finding those in other places, but then coming back and saying, “Well, if I want it to be different for my Quaker experience then I need to be responsible for helping to make it different.”
What feeds your spiritual life?
Christina: It’s actually something I feel like I really struggle with a lot, particularly being a “professional Quaker” and working for Quakers. Going to meeting is really important to my spiritual life, but it feels different than when I wasn’t a professional Quaker. Finding time to read, which I don’t as often as I used to because I have a baby. But whether it’s a few minutes a day of reading Quaker writing of some kind, or a pamphlet, or the Bible, finding that quiet time for reflection is important. I have a Support and Care Committee from Atlanta Friends Meeting, which I don’t meet with as often as probably would be good for me. But when we do meet, or when I just check in with individuals on my committee, it’s an important time to recenter. I’m so busy doing things all the time that it’s important to stop doing and just be and listen and be supported.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis?
Christina: I’m a member of Atlanta Friends Meeting and attend regularly—not every Sunday, but as often as I can. Definitely, that’s my community.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Christina: Where I struggle the most is in being always busy and always doing and always accomplishing and always checking things off my to-do list. Not that those are not ways of being faithful, because I think often they are. But also I have a tendency to stay in that mode so much that I’m not taking the time to stop and recharge, listen and be still. I think one of my big challenges is not prioritizing times of stillness and renewal. Maybe because I’m such an accomplishment-oriented person, I often don’t prioritize that space, and I think that’s probably my biggest challenge around faithfulness. Because if you’re not stopping and listening, then you’re just listening to yourself, you’re not necessarily paying attention to when the call changes, or when you’re asked to do something that’s not just what, in your head, you’re thinking you should be doing. I would say I rely on other people to remind me of that, and to check in.
When you were fifteen, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Christina: I was always interested in doing something to help make the world a better place. Pretty cheesy and vague, but I think that that’s probably where I was when I was fifteen. My parents were both peace activists and involved in different forms of social justice work, so I think that’s what I assumed and expected I would do in some way. I don’t think that I had a specific career path that I would have said I wanted to be on at that point.
Where did you attend college? What was your major?
Christina: I was a Religious Studies and Spanish double major at Guilford College.
Was there a specific topic that you pursued in your M.Div?
Christina: I officially had a concentration in Church and Leadership Studies, or something like that. But before I started my M.Div, the idea and leading for Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) was already in the world. I wasn’t sure where, coming out of the M.Div, that was actually going to happen. But it was what I was carrying in, something I was really passionate about and engaged in—so if there was any real focus, it actually was in preparing me for that. I wrote my M.Div thesis on the history of Quaker service and service as a religious practice, trying to answer some of questions that I had for myself about why past iterations and experiences of Quaker service were so important in and how they shaped people. Getting to have some focused intellectual time to look at some of those questions was really, really good. But I also, in this three year program, just took some time to do things I had never really done before: took preaching classes, New Testament, Old Testament classes-things I didn’t have a lot of knowledge or focus in, which was really, really wonderful.
How would you describe your career path?
Christina: I always say this to people, especially QVSers, who are at the beginning of their career journey: I think looking back, I can see how a lot of things I did over the past ten or so years make sense, and helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. But at the time, it didn’t really feel like that. I would say more or less everything I’ve done has had something to do with the intersection of social justice, faith, and spirituality. Those have been the common elements, but it doesn’t feel like there was a clear linear path. It was just like, okay, this is what I’m doing now and this is great, and that led to something else, which led to something else. A lot of it was about the people I met along the way, the relationships I built, and the passions that deepened through the things I was doing—but all of it was social justice related to some extent.
Have you had trying times in your work (struggling to find work or discern what career path you should be on?), and how did you work your way through those?
Christina: I think one of the biggest struggles for me happened when I had what I thought was my dream job, which was working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). This is not a criticism of AFSC, it’s just where I was in my life. If you had asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated from college, I probably would have said my ideal would be to work for AFSC. I started working for AFSC as a full-time peace educator for the Southeast region, here in Atlanta. My college self would have looked at that and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do, it’s the perfect job for me.” I did it for just a couple of years, and it felt increasingly like… I was burned out, I was kind of depressed, I didn’t feel at all like I was bringing my full self to the work. It felt like this one piece of me was being utilized but all this other stuff that was important to me, including faith and Quakerism, was not at all part of the job. It felt like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. It felt like good work. I believed in the work I was doing. But it just didn’t feel like what I was supposed to be doing. That was a struggle because it was like, if this—what I always wanted to do, the dream job that anyone I know would love to have—if this isn’t it, then what the heck am I supposed to do? It was at that point that I decided to go to seminary—in part because I felt like there had to be some other way to be engaged in social justice work that would be sustainable. Most of the people from the Catholic Worker and other places I was working, people I really admired and wanted to be like for some reason, had gone to seminary. That theological education had been part of their formation and it felt like there might be something there for me. I’d been interested in religious studies and theology already. It was more like, “Well, I’ll apply and see what happens.” I only applied to one place here in Atlanta – Emory – and it was like, well if it works out then I’ll do it. Doors kept opening, and it was really important shift. Quaker Voluntary Service isn’t a total shift from AFSC in some ways, but in terms of my leading and calling, and feeling like it’s what I’m supposed to do at this time, it’s kind of night and day. And in terms of how I feel engaged in the work. That’s not at all criticism of AFSC, it’s just me and where I was. The person who took over for me is absolutely doing what he is called to do. That was a good lesson.
How would you describe your current position?
Christina: That’s probably a really different question for me than for most of the other people you’ve interviewed. First of all being one of the founders-but also QVS is such a new organization that it feels like it’s changing every minute. In the very beginning, which was four years ago, I was called the executive director, which is funny because there wasn’t any other staff. It was the board and me. But in a way, we intentionally chose that title because that was the organization that we wanted to grow into. A lot of my role has always been about relationship building, whether it’s with a donor, with an older Quaker, or someone out of college who’s interested in doing QVS. I feel like all of our staff have to relate to people of all ages really well. We have local support communities in all of our cities who or give time and energy to QVS. Some of my work has been inspiring them and helping them understand our mission, and working with them when they have conflicts with each other or with the organization or they should be doing something different than they are doing. We work with a diversity of Quakers in terms of theological branches of Quakerism, particularly in Portland, Oregon. Some of my work has been conflict mediation for lack of a better word: helping people communicate better and navigating conflicts, helping folks get to the other side. A lot of my work is relationship building and communicating the vision and mission of QVS.
How did you come to apply for this job?
Christina: Well, I didn’t apply for the job. The whole process of starting QVS was a ten year process. All that time I was telling you about, jumping from job to job, working at AFSC, and going to seminary – all that time QVS was something I was working on, talking about and thinking about. In the years before we started QVS in 2012, there was a group of people who were working on this and eventually became the board. I was the person who was the driver of that group – the person who was consistently saying, “We’re not going to just let this drop.” It was just constantly pushing to make sure meetings happened, that we were taking notes, and inviting people into the group – leading and organizing it. By the time we got to the point of feeling clear that we wanted to start our own organization and program, I was the person who had spent the most time and energy on it, and was the person who was at a point where I could do this as my focus, because I was just finishing seminary. It wasn’t an application process. We decided to do it in Atlanta because I was in Atlanta and was willing to do it. The board was confident that I had the skills, knowledge, connections, and relationships: that if anyone could do it, I could. They made the official decision to appoint me as Executive Director after many years of working and building relationships. Definitely not your typical “apply for a job” situation-sort of a create your own job, I guess.
What influences does your faith have in your job today?
Christina: In a very fundamental way, this organization wouldn’t exist if I and others didn’t have a deep belief that the Quaker faith is worth investing in and worth saving, or at least revitalizing. It’s a tradition that is useful for many people who don’t yet know about it. Part of the role of QVS is being a doorway to Quakerism for many young adults who otherwise wouldn’t have a doorway in. As much as I have criticisms of Quakers-as we all do, because we’re not perfect-if there wasn’t a deep belief that there was something valuable and important that we offer the world, none of us would be putting any of our energy into this. There’s plenty of other great service organizations out there. We didn’t need another service organization; but there wasn’t a Quaker service organization in this particular way we are doing it. I would say as an organization, Quakerism essentially is at the heart of what we do. It’s something we’re always wanting to come back to, making sure that we’re not getting too far off of our message. It’s easy to do that when you’re just off and running trying to get things done.
How would you describe your leadership skills or style?
Christina: I have really high expectations, and everyone knows that-but I’m also very collaborative. There’s not a lot that I feel like “has to be done this way.” I’m very open to other people saying, “I think we should try this or try that,” and I usually say, “Yeah let’s try that out,” “Sounds good,” or “Let’s talk about how to make that work.” I definitely like to make decisions by talking through them with several people, whether it’s the board or the staff. At the end of the day, I might be the one making some of the larger decisions, but I hope and I think everyone would say that it’s mostly a very collaborative team process where everyone brings different skills and gifts. I like to find ways to encourage someone to bring what they’re really excited about into QVS and that makes us as an organization who we are. We are different, because of this person working for us than we were before that person came. Everyone’s individual passions, leadings, and skills really influence the organization, partly because we’re so small and partly because that’s how I want it to be.
Do you feel your work brings you closer or further away to your faith and faithfulness?
Christina: Overall, closer, in a deep, fundamental way. The challenge can be more on a day to day, week to week, Sunday to Sunday basis. Mostly, my work brings me closer to the Quaker faith and deeper into my faith ,and makes me different by relationship with the Religious Society of Friends, even though there are challenges day to day.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Christina: I’m in a bit of a unique position because QVS began in Atlanta, and Atlanta Friends Meeting was the first meeting to formally take a QVS program under their care. So in some ways I would say it’s very well understood, because the meeting made a commitment to us in the very beginning. Part of that was because they knew me, trusted me, and wanted to support me. Over time that has changed a little bit, because we’re no longer new – we’re in the 4th year in Atlanta. There’s probably a bit less of an understanding of what all of QVS is. I think the meeting understands more or less what the Atlanta program means. I travel a lot, so I’m not always in Atlanta, not physically there making the connections and talking about QVS as much as I used to.
Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Christina: It was originally formed before QVS, when I was in seminary. I asked for it because I was doing an internship at the meeting as part of my seminary requirements. Normally in seminary structure, the pastor of the church would be a mentor or supervisor for that person, but since Quakers there wasn’t a pastor I asked for a Care Committee to play the role for me in that context. It has morphed over the years, and a struggle for me with my Care Committee is: is this committee for me, or is it a committee for QVS? Sometimes even I don’t see the distinction between the two, which is kind of a problem. Yes, it’s about my ministry, which right now is QVS, but that might not always be true. Also, knowing that my ministry is more than just the functioning of the organization-so that has shifted and become better.
It is officially under the care of the Worship and Care Committee of our meeting. That committee checks in to see how things are going, and our community has a number of committees like that. I’m definitely not the only one; there are a number of Care Committees for folks that are meeting. That’s generally something our meeting does pretty well.
Who have your mentors been?
Christina: I think I’ve mentioned some people from longer ago-from the Catholic Worker days, there were people who I really admired who were pastors or other people involved in faith communities doing really powerful work. A couple of professors in college and graduate school have been really valuable to me. One person in particular at Atlanta meeting has been very consistently there. Whether she’s on my support committee or just meeting one on one. She cares for me, asks me questions both from a professional and a personal perspective, and helps to keep me grounded and connected. A couple of board members, in a professional capacity, have done things like coaching: how to run an organization, how to manage people well, how to network, all those kinds of professional things.
One of the things I’ve done a lot of is asking people to meet with me, asking people to be my mentors and teachers, and not being too shy or hesitant to say, “Hey, I just met you but you seem really great and interesting and like you have experiences that I can learn from. Can we have lunch?” That has really helped me and helped QVS in a lot of ways.
What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?
Christina: I wish I had known that, for the most part, people do not judge you for the biggest mistake that you make. For the most part, people are still going to love you, trust you, and support you. Making mistakes is part of what you have to do to learn, to do something new and be creative. You’re going to do things that don’t always work or that you have to redo, or you didn’t know something important that you learn and do it over. I always want to do things right and have people think highly of me and all of that. For the most part they do, but also, that is just part of being human. Part of doing something at all worthwhile is that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to do things imperfectly, but that’s okay. I wish I’d known that; it’s also something that I am continuously learning.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys?
Christina: You don’t need enough light to see the whole path, you only need enough light to see the next step. That has been really really important to me. It’s something somebody said to me right after college. I think about it all the time: you don’t have to know the whole thing, you don’t have to know the whole story, you don’t have to know the whole path, just, how do you make that next faithful step? Whatever it is.
Another piece of advice someone gave to me, and to QVS early on, is to fail early and often. I don’t know if I’d quite say it that way, but I do think that’s been an important lesson. You’re not going to learn new things if you don’t take risks and experiment, if you’re not willing to fail or make mistakes or make a mess. As long as you’re doing it faithfully and with integrity and doing your best.
What is your favorite advice to give to other people who seem to be or are already on similar trajectories as you are on?
Christina: Don’t be afraid of asking for help, asking for mentors, and doing that networking and reaching out. Especially for young people there can be a tendency and it was for me, too, to wonder why this person would want to spend time with me or not think I’m important enough to ask this person. Generally, everyone likes to be asked for advice. Just say, “I think you’re interesting, would you have lunch with me?” Who is going to say no to that? So that’s advice I give, especially to young adults. If there’s something you’re interested in, seek out those people that you think are going to be useful to you, good mentors and good connections. A lot of what I did in the early days of QVS was think: who do I need to know, to build a relationship with, to talk to and convince about this vision? Think about how you build relationships and seek professional networks and connections and support outside of your organization. How do you build relationships with other executive directors, or other people in leadership positions, who are in similar situations?