Colin Saxton has served as General Secretary of Friends United Meeting since 2012. He and his wife are members of North Valley Friends Church (Northwest Yearly Meeting), and generally attend West Richmond Monthly Meeting (New Association of Friends).
What faith did you grow up in?
Colin: I really didn’t grow up with a faith background. Our family didn’t have any serious connection to the church. We didn’t talk about God. God wasn’t part of any practical part of our lives. I think there was a period of maybe three years where my parents sent my sister and I off to Sunday School at a local church until we were old enough to start working on the farm. Then suddenly we were home on Sundays, working on the farm. I had some inkling, an interest in God, but there was no community of support around it, or encouragement.
Can you talk a little bit about how you came to Quakerism, and what’s important to you about it now?
Colin: I became a Christian in college, after years of depression and struggle. I had a really profound religious experience in my freshman year of college. I wound up quitting school, moved home for a while, got involved in a local church, and was loved well there. But it wasn’t quite what I was looking for in terms of what I had come to experience inwardly, what I had read in the Scripture, what I understood the church to be about. I kind of bounced around a couple churches for a while. I wanted to find a community that would push me to be as faithful as I felt I was called to be, and I knew, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t live into that. I really wanted a community that was passionate about its spirituality and passionate about its witness in the world, and had a growing sense of what seemed like integrity to me before God. So I ran across the Quakers, and I thought, “That’s them! That’s my home.” At the time, I was working with street kids and kids in prison for a para-church organization, and I was starting to feel called to pastoral ministry, so I was looking for a spiritual community I could call home. I checked out both the unprogrammed Meeting and the programmed Meeting. As I said, I had this call to pastoral ministry, and I thought, “Those unprogrammed Friends aren’t going to have any openings anytime soon.” So I cast my lot with the programmed community, and they became home for me. That was in Northwest Yearly Meeting, in a little church called Sherwood Friends. That’s how I came to Quakers.
What drew me to them was that, at our best, we take seriously the idea that Christ is actually alive, that he is not some character in a book, he’s not some memory, not someone we just sort of try to emulate. But there’s a real living spiritual presence, there’s a power that animates our lives, and we can live into that, and know it, and it will guide and teach and change us. I was really drawn to the Peace Testimony. I felt like I became a Quaker before I knew who Quakers were. In my time of prayer and scripture reading and studying, without being able to give it those names, I had become a pacifist. I had a really strong commitment to simplicity. I had a desire to live with integrity. I had a sense of what equality was starting to mean. Things that are part of our self-understanding as a spiritual people were alive in me. So when I read about Quakers, I went, “That’s exactly the group I need.”
Have you ever left (formally or informally) for a period of time and then come back to Quakerism? What did you learn from that experience in terms of your faith and spiritual life?
Colin: No, I haven’t, but I’ve thought about it. Really hard. There was a period in my life where, back in the early to mid-90’s, I became frustrated with Quakers. I was frustrated with our conflict, I was frustrated with what felt like the lack of integrity sometimes. I was just about ready to leave. I was a pastor at the time, and I’d had an invitation to think about serving at a Mennonite church. So I gave it some serious thought, and what came to me, was a very strong sense of, “How could you leave your family?” I had to sit with that question and think about it. They had made a commitment, a deep investment in me, and I couldn’t turn my back on that. In doing that kind of reflection, I realized that the very same things I was frustrated with others about were, of course, my own issues, too. So, rather than abandoning ship, I had a sense of, “I need to get more deeply engaged. And I need to come at this from a different perspective.” That was a transforming moment for me, because it was around that time that several people had begun talking with me about the idea of being superintendent of the yearly meeting. I wasn’t anywhere prepared for that. The experience of going up to the door and say, “I’m leaving,” made me re-engage in a better way.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Colin: I’m enough of an introvert that I need alone time. So I have some daily practice that I do. I get up early, and I have time of quiet, and I spend time reading. I read the Bible daily. It’s good for me; it’s a good spiritual discipline. One of my regular spiritual practices is taken it from the Ignatian prayer practice, learning to see yourself as God sees you. With some of the issues that I grew up with, that’s been a really healing practice. It’s actually a really good practice for people in leadership positions, because sometimes people want to tell you who you are and what they think of you, and it’s nice to have a sense of, “What does God think of you?” That has been a sustaining practice for me. Exercise is really important, getting out and being outside. There’s a little bit too much sitting and meetings in my life. So having some activity is really good. Friendships are really important, too.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Colin: I attend worship every week, but usually it’s different places, because my job has me traveling a lot. So I’m only at what has become my home Meeting here, every couple months. To me that’s really important discipline, the spiritual practice of gathered worship in community. What I miss deeply right now though is the sense of being connected in a community. It feels like a hole in my life. I’m a big strong advocate for worship, and it ain’t happening right now, in terms of that kind of ongoing practice.
What’s important for you about that? What elements do you miss about that?
Colin: Some of it’s the worship itself. There’s something for me that’s transformative and powerful when two or three are gathered. It’s different from my own worship, and that’s good. God shows up in some often remarkable ways, through the spoken ministry of others, through the experience of the Spirit connecting us. I also think it’s really important, because I tend to think of a Meeting or church as a laboratory of faith, where we get to practice loving one another and serving one another and forgiving one another. It’s not just the means to an end. It’s the end, too. What happens in community is core to our spirituality. That’s the piece I probably miss the most.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Colin: There’s a loneliness around the kind of work that I have in this season of life. I travel a lot, like I said. I’m not part of a community. Sometimes that’s just wearing on me. There are days when it’s easier to just get distracted. There’s something about being in fellowship with similarly minded and similarly kindled-hearted people that keeps one alive and moving forward in more healthy ways. So I think that probably is the biggest challenge for me. One of the ways I’ve tried to work on that is I’ve formed a virtual community of friends that I send a monthly confessional letter. In some ways, it’s like a support committee, but we don’t meet face-to-face. I just say, “Here’s where I’m at in my spiritual life. Here’s some ways you can hold me in prayer. Here’s some stuff I’m thinking about in terms of discerning both personal issues and work issues.” That’s been helpful for me.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Colin: When I was 15, I wanted to be a journalist. I started working for the school newspaper then, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do. I want to write, and I want to be a reporter.”
You said that you attended college and then you left. Did you return? What was your major while you were there?
Colin: I did return. I went back to school, almost right away, and did an undergraduate degree in psychology at Portland State University. Later on in life, I went back and got a master’s degree at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in theology and church history. Later on, I went back and got a doctoral degree from George Fox University in spiritual formation and leadership.
How would you describe your career path?
Colin: My joke is, I’ve been demoted consistently. My career path has surprised me. I would never have imagined myself working in the roles that I have. I’ve been really blessed to have these wonderful opportunities. After college, I worked with kids in prison and kids who were in the juvenile justice system, and it was during that time that I felt this call to pastoral ministry. I was a pastor for about 17 years, and then felt this other call and encouragement to think about, what does that look like on a Yearly Meeting level? How can you provide that sort of pastoral support and leadership and service within a larger community, so that you’re building a sense of a gathered people, and an empowered people? It felt more like, this was the unique call that God had given me, and I needed to live into it, and it was affirmed by the community. So I did that for about seven and a half years. Then this invitation came to be at Friend United Meeting, and it was an extension of that. I think of it as a community rather than an organization. How do we be in relationship with one another across cultures, across worship styles, across all the barriers that we want to create with each other? How do Friends live together in a way that’s healthy and redemptive?
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?
Colin: I’ve never been out of work since I’ve been an adult. I’ve worked bi-vocationally a couple different times, sometimes working two or three jobs because that’s what we felt was right at the time and what we needed to do to survive financially. In terms of opportunities, they’ve sort of presented themselves. I guess I’ve tried to be open to opportunities as they’ve come. For me it’s been helpful to try each one on a little bit, just imagine myself in that role, and in the process of doing that, that’s where I get a clear sense of, “Does this fit who God’s made me to be, and the things that I feel like I’m actually called to do?”
How would you describe your current position?
Colin: I would define it as about building connections. How do you help this group of 34 Yearly Meetings be in fellowship with each other, and to be meaningfully connected? It’s not just some sort of organizational affiliation. It’s a real relationship that’s actually making a difference in the lives of meetings, churches and yearly meetings. A concern I bring to the position is just that: “How does an FUM umbrella organization actually serve its constituency, rather than being served by the constituency?” Because I don’t think the latter has any future. I think that if these organizations do have a future, they have to be actually touching the real lives of people who live out their Friends’ faith on the ground each and every day. So part of my role is to help us think organizationally about that. How does our vision get fleshed out through our programming, through the relationships that we establish, through the way we spend our money? Part of my work is listening, paying attention to what the community says is working and what we think we need and want from FUM. I think part of my job is peacebuilding, to help Friends who are across the aisles from one another sometimes, or along the spectrum in ways that feel very far apart, to stay connected to each other.
How did you come to apply for this job?
Colin: There’s an annual gathering called “Supes and Secs” that happens every year, superintendents and secretaries. About four years ago, Margaret Fraser was leaving Friends World Committee for Consultation, and there were a bunch of us in that community that were about to retire. Margaret at our retreat says, “I think we shouldn’t retire. I think we should just change jobs,” and so she wrote all the Quaker organizations on a piece of paper in a hat, and we went around the circle and pulled out different organizations. So it comes around to me, and I pull out FUM. I was the superintendent of Northwest Yearly Meeting at the time, and one or two people said to me, “That’s prophetic.” And I said “Nooooo, it’s not prophetic!” Later I was told by the person who was then the General Secretary that actually, my name had come up. She told me, “Don’t be surprised if you get called and asked if you would consider applying for the job.” About a year later, I got a phone call and they said, “Would you apply?” and my initial response was, “No.” I was really interested, on some level, because I really like what FUM intends to be, and what it does. But I couldn’t imagine my wife being interested in moving, and I wasn’t sure that I was. I had a sense that FUM really needed somebody who was going to be able to spend a lot of time and energy on building relationships. I didn’t know most of the people at FUM, and it seemed like that was a real deficit. Anyway, the search team called back and said, “We really would like you to consider this.” So we talked about it as a family, and I asked a couple other friends for their discernment, and it became clear that at least I ought to apply. So I did, and the first interview happened, then I came away from that thinking, “That went really well. I wonder what that means.” Two days later they called back and said, “You’re the person we would really like to take this position, if you’re serious.” So they flew us, me and my wife, out here to visit face-to-face, and that’s how it came to be. The other thing I’ll say, because this was really important to me: I was starting to feel released from my other work. I felt like my time was done there. I was coming to a place of completion. I wouldn’t have applied if I hadn’t felt clear to let go of the other.
What influences does your faith have in your job today?
Colin: It has everything to do with it. It’s the motivation for the work. It’s the source of whatever good I may actually be able to accomplish. I believe that. It’s a job that feels overwhelming to me often, and so it’s like, “Okay, God, if anything good is going to happen, you’re going to have to somehow make it happen.” I see that at work in me. I think part of the way that my faith has been really instrumental, has also been a sense that it’s not my job to fix all the problems in the Quaker world, FUM’s or anybody else’s. All I’m called to do is be faithful.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Colin: Relational. I like the image of, “You lead from the front and you call people forward, you lead from the back and you kinda push people along,” I like the idea of leading from the middle, that it’s done relationally, and whatever vision emerges from the community actually emerges from the community; I might have a sense, a piece of what our vision is, but it’s also evoked from talking to people and asking them to participate and to share in the community’s life together. I think my interest is, “How do you inspire community? How do you invite people?” Thinking about invitational leadership rather than demanding leadership.
How did you learn leadership skills – within the Quaker world? Outside of it? In either case, describe some of the ways you’ve learned these skills?
Colin: Quakers have a funny relationship with leadership. We often ridicule ourselves for being as easy to lead as herding cats. We laugh about that, but it’s really not funny, it’s actually an issue that we have to address. Part of it’s built into our theology. There’s a healthy side to that, but sometimes it gets out of whack, and it gets unhealthy. I had a sense of being called into leadership, and I see that as a role and a gift. It’s not a better-than sort of thing. It’s just a part of how every group functions. There are some people — and it’s often people at different times, and in different ways — who provide leadership. We should be grateful for whoever that is, and support them to the fullest. We don’t always do that as Quakers.
I think I got sort of sucked into that unhealthiness for a while, and had a sense for a while that, “Well, nobody should be a leader,” or, “We’re all always equally leaders at any particular time.” Then I was serving at a church, and part of my philosophy about leadership is, you need to do your best thinking, your most careful discernment. You bring that to the group and offer it as a gift, and then you trust that they’ll actually engage with it, and they may modify it, they may change it, and hopefully we come to a better place afterward. Well, I kept bringing all these ideas to the church, to the elders at this particular church, and I kept asking them for their input. Finally one of the wise women of the group said, “Colin, you have all these really great ideas. We’re not a group of leaders here. We really trust you. So do them! You don’t need to bring everything to our attention all the time.” That was really freeing for me. It made me think, “What is leadership? How do you be a leader, and be accountable to a group of people, but not be stymied by it, or put so many restrictions that you don’t move forward?” Which I see us doing sometimes. That kindled an interest in me to do some further study, and that’s one of the reasons why I went back to school and did this doctorate program that focused on leadership. I knew I had these notions in my head about what leadership was and what leadership wasn’t. It was good for me to have to read a bunch of books that I may not have read otherwise, and to do some more thoughtful self-analysis about the kind of leader I am and what it means to lead an organization. So, it was both within the context of a Quaker community, but also stepping outside of it and looking at what business people had written, what nonprofit organization people had written, what I saw as healthy leadership models in other denominations and institutions.
Do you feel your work brings you closer or further away to your faith and faithfulness?
Colin: Most every day, I would say closer, because I see the work of God through the work. I see stuff happening that would otherwise not be happening. Despite all the cruddy things in the world, I see these amazing things and amazing people that are making a transformative difference. I think that enlivens my faith most of the time. The challenge of it from the administrative role is, you’re several layers removed from the actual hands-on work. When I can’t see the connection between what I’m doing and the hands-on work, that’s where I wonder, “Am I making a difference? Is this really God’s work? Or is this me just propping up an institution that may or may not be making a difference?” That’s one of the reasons why I like to be out of the office and see what’s going on, because it gives me hope.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Colin: That’s a really great question, and I have no idea. When I was superintendent of Northwest Yearly Meeting, I had pastored the church that we were attending, and they really wanted us to stay there, and we did. So the people knew me, and they kind of knew what I was doing. On that level they did but I felt disconnected from them. It felt like it was, “That’s his ministry.” I feel that same way here, that whether it’s the meeting that we attend some, or my home meeting, it’s like, “Well, that’s his thing.”
Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Colin: I have had them in the past. I don’t currently. It’s something that I need to do. I think I need something a little bit more intimate than that. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve not done it, because this was a move across the country for us-I’m gone so much, and we just haven’t built the kind of depth of relationship, that would make it more obvious who that group should be. But it would be really, really healthy.
Who have your mentors been (generally, spiritually, work, all of the above)?
Colin: Some of them are dead Quakers whose writings have affected me deeply. Another mentor was the pastor of the first church that I ever attended. His name’s Gayle Beebe. He’s currently the president of Westmont College out in California. He was really influential for me. He just sort of took me in. He was a thoughtful leader type, and that was useful for me. There’ve been other people along the way, people who’ve been tremendously supportive, helped me think through stuff. Paul Anderson from George Fox University, Howard Macy from George Fox, are two good friends who’ve been helpful. Here at FUM, the former presiding clerk Kelly Kellum from North Carolina Yearly Meeting has been, not only a really good friend, he’s just been a spiritual encouragement, he’s helped me learn about FUM and about the community. I think he models some good ways of relating to the diversity of Friends that I’ve found really useful. There’ve been some wonderful elders that I’ve worked with along the way. A woman named Jean Shoehart from Oregon was a really good elder, not only for me but for the church that I served. I’ve learned a lot from lots of different people.
How do you balance your work and spiritual lives?
Colin: I know, on my best days, that I’m responsible for my spiritual life, and so it’s really important to not use work as an excuse, for me, to say, “Yeah, I would take my spiritual life seriously, but work’s too much.” So I really try pretty hard to live with the daily practices that for me are just so much a part of my health. I try to take those seriously. When I was feeling profoundly this lack of community, and not knowing what to do with it, that’s when I organized the virtual group, because I needed something. My wife is also a really good barometer for me about how I’m doing. I mean that in a really positive way. She’s good at saying, “Are you taking care of yourself? Are you doing this…?” I have a couple other friends that check in on me regularly, too.
What is something that you wish you had known at X, Y, or Z point in your spiritual path or career?
Colin: I think there was a time, a long time ago, when I realized that, “Oh yeah, this isn’t about you,” and I wish I had known that earlier. Especially when you find yourself in one of these weird roles where you’re a public Friend, or that sort of thing, it’s really good to remember, “This isn’t about you.” Maybe somebody can’t tell you that, you have to figure that out. But I was really glad when I finally figured that out. It made me a better person, I think, and helped me do my job better. I wish I had known how draining managing staff can be sometimes. It’s not any comment about my current staff! But honestly, there are just things that come up between people, and there are hard decisions that have to get made sometimes in our organization for its health and for individuals. I didn’t realize how draining that can be, how much time it takes, how much emotional energy it costs, and so that would have been good to know. The other thing that comes to mind is — and I don’t know an easy answer for this — but, what’s the balance between one’s individual calling and their family, and how does that get held together in a way that’s good for everybody? You make your choices, and you do the best you can, and you still scratch your head and think, “Did I do that right?”
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys? What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?
Colin: “Listen well and trust God’s leading.” That’s probably the advice that I would give, too.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path? What is your favorite advice to give to other people who seem to be or are already on similar trajectories as you are on (i.e. someone who is a potential head of a Quaker organization)?
Colin: The best advice was really about staying focused on the mission of the organization you’re serving. Always keep that in mind. Why does this group exist, and what would it look like for this group to be faithful to that sense of mission? Wherever I’ve been, that’s the thing that I’ve tried to keep in mind, as sort of the steward, helping to care for or cradle that sense of mission.
In terms of advice for others, in some ways it’s parallel to what I just said trying to help the person to really think, “What is your sense of call? What is it that you really feel called to do, and does that connect with what this opportunity is for you?”