Gabe Ehri has been Executive Director of Friends Journal since 2011. He has worked for Friends Journal since 2004. He is a member of Green Street Monthly Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting).
What faith did you grow up in?
Gabe: I grew up a Quaker. My parents became Quakers when I was very young three years old or so. They had come from a Catholic background, but sort of a radical strain. We were living in Anchorage, Alaska, and they were really interested in doing nuclear activism-and the people that were doing that in Anchorage included a lot of Quakers. They got curious, got involved, and we moved to Seattle, Washington. Most of my childhood we went to University Friends Meeting in Seattle, which is a large meeting for the West Coast – a large unprogrammed meeting with a lot of liberals, and a lot of Eastern influence, people bringing aspects of Buddhist practice into it. The meetinghouse itself was Japanese-inspired in architecture, which I think helps with that.
Have you stayed in this tradition?
Gabe: It would be accurate to say that I haven’t been anywhere else. There have been times in my life where the need for an active, practicing spiritual life has been less important or less in the forefront. But I love learning about other religions, just as a part of my own curiosity to know about that stuff, and fascination with intersections. I have never really been tempted to think that another path was the right one for me. I will say that my understanding of Quakerism has changed over the years.
Have you ever left (formally or informally) for a period of time and then come back to it? Tell me a bit about one of those times. What did you learn from that experience in terms of your faith and spiritual life?
Gabe: It’s always been circumstantial. When I was at Haverford College I enjoyed going to Haverford Friends Meeting, when I went, and I found it a useful practice for self-reflection and working things through in my head. But I didn’t really feel like I was part of a spiritual community. My home Meeting sent me a subscription to Friends Journal so I was reading that during college, and that was a way to keep up with Quaker thought and what Quakers were doing at a time when I was integrating all these other learnings into my brain. I never felt like, outside of Sundays, I wanted to be involved. I had enough social community in other parts of my life. It wasn’t a falling out or frustration, other than that what I had tried wasn’t clicking for me at that point.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Gabe: In the last five years or so I recommitted myself to an active practice, where I’m not just showing up and attending and taking it for me, but really trying to figure out what I have to give to a community. I’ve been a member at Green Street Monthly Meeting for a few years, and I find at Green Street that the range and variety of people is more diverse than I have in other aspects of my social life, in age, race, class, the gender spectrum, and sexuality, too. Being among different people who are all seeking in the same way, and intentional about wanting to be a community together, who help each other in practical and spiritual ways, and who try to be positive influences in the world around us, that is really important for me. Having exposed my children to that, and having them have the chance to be around other people that see the world through a similar lens as I do, is a helpful support.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Gabe: I think going to meeting is really important, having a dedicated time with other people to listen to the stirring of the Spirit-that’s something that gives me a lot. Just trying to be a loving person in the world, in my family, with the people I encounter, whenever I am able to consciously keep in my head that I’m looking for that of God in the other person. I also get a lot out of talking; in my job, I get an opportunity to talk with lots of Friends Journal readers and supporters and get to know them. I learn about people’s journeys, and we have the opportunity to share with one another. I find that to be a really rich experience. There’s a lot of people who are great patterns and examples of how to live a good life, in many senses of that word.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Gabe: I go as often as I can. It helps that my six year old likes to go, so I would say most months we go three Sundays.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Gabe: I have a lot of friends who are not religious, quite a few of whom describe themselves as atheist, and don’t see exploring the question of God or Spirit as something that is valuable to them at all – there’s no room for that. We have so many other things to do in our lives. I can’t say with absolute certainty that God exists and is working in the way I presume God is working. So there’s doubt, that maybe the brilliant and wonderful people who are my friends are right-there’s nothing except to be good people. That makes it a lot less work. Sometimes I like to preach about how Quakers need to be more out there about what we have and how we’re seeking God. I don’t always practice that with my friends – I’m not that guy who is constantly telling them to turn toward Christ or poking them about spirituality. So there’s a nagging feeling that at least in my personal life, I’m not always practicing what I think Quakers ought to do. I think I am successful at looking for that of God in others, but I realize I’m not perfect, and there are many ways I fall short of that. I’m not wracked by guilt or doubt about these things, but recognize that I’m not always doing it perfectly.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Gabe: I was interested in two things when I was 15: science and writing. I thought maybe I wanted to be a journalist, or a scientist, or a doctor, or a journalist who wrote about science -they all did a lot of reading and interpretation.
Where did you attend college? What was your major in college?
Gabe: I attended Haverford College, and majored in English. I was aiming for pre-med, but at the same time that I found the college level sciences very hard, I was learning the study and appreciation of literature and what was going on beneath the surface of written human culture. Culture was fascinating to me, and I was making connections there that I thought were interesting. I worked as one of the editors for the bi-college newspaper, which was another way to stay connected to journalism. I also did work-study in the academic computing center, and spent a lot of time learning the craft of troubleshooting, which is a really useful practice that has served me well: isolating problems, understanding systems well enough to know what to check when, and following an algorithm to a conclusion with the goal of helping people solve something they need solving.
How would you describe your career path?
Gabe: My first job out of college was for a small internet startup based out of Bryn Mawr. I was working out of my boss’s apartment. He was a physicist turned investment banker turned entrepreneur working to build a different kind of search engine than existed at the time. After three years it was clear that it wasn’t going to take off. At that point I was going regularly to Merion Meeting, so I decided to see if there were jobs at Quaker organizations where I could do meaningful work that was not for nefarious purposes, feel good about about myself, and learn some things. I applied to a few Quaker jobs, and there was one at Friends Publishing Corporation, the institution that publishes Friends Journal. The job was project and database manager. I spent a lot of time working in the mentorship of my boss Susan Corson-Finnerty, who was the publisher and executive director who hired me. I learned a lot over time. I was at various stations on the business side of the organization, so I got to work on marketing, I got to work on fundraising-especially things that involved writing, computers, and technology systems. I credit Susan for being willing to move me around and let me learn these things. I think that was tremendous.
In 2010, my boss decided she was going to retire, and I decided that I would throw my hat into the ring for the position. It was being refined as executive director, taking the editorial piece out of the job, because it was really too much to expect somebody to do both things really well. There’s been tons of learning on the job, but I really feel well used, like this work is making good use of all my attitudes and talents. I feel very blessed to be able to do something that is so engaging. It doesn’t leave me totally drained, so I get some work/life balance too.
How would you describe your current position?
Gabe: I think the most important part of the job is to be really clear about what the vision of the organization is and reminding people about it – reminding people and repeating oneself more than one ever thought one would. I’m the person who holds that out there. I like to be a shameless cheerleader for what we’re doing and why it’s important. Cheerleading the work is such a big piece of being an effective organizational leader and that was something I learned on the job. No job description could quite put it that way. I had the great fortune of having a former board member to the organization who was an executive coach who offered as a gift to work with me as much as I wanted when I was starting out as executive director-just to have somebody to talk to and coach me on all the things I hadn’t learned yet. I would not recommend that anybody take an executive position without an executive coach. It was one of the most valuable things that happened. I’ve also learned about the importance of delegating. I like to help if people have a problem I could help solve, but my team has been really helpful at letting me know: let us work through this. You might be able to swoop in here and solve it, but let us work with it, because learning happens by solving problems. The team is good at solving problems on their own and asking me to be involved at the right level. It’s good to work with people that care about the organization and take pride in their work.
How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for the job?
Gabe: My faith got me in the door of the organization back in 2004, and having a lifelong experience of relationship with the organization. Friends Journal was on my parents’ coffee table when I was a kid, it was something my meeting sent to me when I was in college. I had a story with it that was strong by the time I came to apply for the Executive Director role. I still have that story, and it has grown over the years. I think being an active, practicing Quaker was an important piece of my role – I don’t think they would have hired someone who wasn’t-this is an organization where you need to have a Quaker at the helm. I knew if I was offered the job and decided to try my hand at it, that I would really have to be more deliberate about practicing Quakerism. I was going to burn out if I didn’t have some specially Quaker spiritual uplift coming from an active practice. I also knew I would feel like a phony if I was trying to lead an organization that was dedicated to this and I was not in a relationship with a practicing spiritual community. I was very lucky that I found that. Doing this work and trying to be a good monthly meeting Quaker at the same time has really been a mutually supportive thing to those two parts of my life. One of the joys of doing this work is getting feedback from people who read the articles, or see the issues, or watch the videos. Hearing with my own ears that what we do as an organization has a positive effect in the Quaker world is one of the real perks of the job.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Gabe: I see myself as a communicator-in-chief, and I think one of my gifts is being able to perceive something and say what I see. Communications is at the core of what we do as an organization, trying to make things clear so people learn something. Modeling speaking and writing really clearly, and having alignment with what I believe and what I say, being really consistent-that’s important. One of the things the coach taught me was that it’s important to model. When you’re the leader of an organization, everybody looks at you for cues as to what you care about and what you think is important. Those cues might be ones you’re consciously or unconsciously sending. It’s important that you recognize those, and that you consciously communicate the right things with how you’re carrying yourself, the way that you communicate in body language, energy level, the way that you write and speak. All of those things are sending the signals that people need to understand. They’re not necessarily going to be asking you what you think about something all the time; they’re going to try to read what’s important.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Gabe: I think it’s very well understood, and really appreciated. I have people tell me all the time, “I’m so glad for what you’re doing.” There’s another member who is on the board of trustees, and so there’s a number of us who have had long connections with Friends Journal. When I was joining and going through the clearness process, I was very forthright in saying that I have a demanding job, and I may not be able to serve on as many committees as another person, is that ok? And they said, “Yes, it’s important what you do-how can we be supportive of that? We want you as a member of this community.” Nominating committee has invited me to undertake work that is spiritually nourishing rather than strict application of what it seems like I might do, because of the job I have.
Some people in my meeting have asked for support committees to help them be supported in the work they do. I haven’t asked for that, but if I did I would get it. I’ve been okay, and I think my meeting has been terrific at supporting the work of people who worship there. It’s a great meeting.
Who have your mentors been (generally, spiritually, work, all of the above)?
Gabe: First of all, I would name Susan Corson-Finnerty. She did a wonderful job leading an organization that has been a big part of my life. I’ve been there for 11 years now, and seven of those years working for her. She’s been a great mentor. Many members of my meeting come to mind. JoAnn Seaver is an elder of the meeting, you can practically see the Light shining out of her. She’s great example of a radiant, wise Quaker, and she has been a rock for me. Gabbreell James was one of the people who really grabbed me right away saying – we are going to have a great, spiritual, and fun friendship, and we’re going to be able to talk about deep stuff and learn from each other. She’s a wonderful person to have as a friend and teacher.
I have gotten a great deal of value and insight from the teaching of Seth Godin, who is a well-known marketing business writer, a clear communicator. I had the good fortune of taking a workshop with him and 60 other people for a weekend. He also blogs daily, so I feel mentored every day.
When I started as executive director, we also brought in Chris Mohr as a new board member and clerk of the board. He had just moved cross-country from San Francisco, and happened to also be a member of the meeting I was starting to go to. He and I have had a great working relationship, trying to help lead the organization. He has experience as executive director of a non-profit, so he was really helpful. Having access to Chris’s mind and spirit has been really important for me.
How do you balance your work and spiritual lives?
Gabe: I think, if anything, I care so much about what is going on in Quakerism and what we’re trying to communicate in our pages, that the temptation is to get too emotionally involved in content, to the detriment of being able to focus on the work that only I can do. Generally, I don’t think of that balance being a problem, they flow together and work happens.
What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?
Gabe: If I were to give advice to my younger self, I think it would have been in the period where I knew I was a Quaker but didn’t have a meeting membership, and hadn’t found a community. My advice would have been to try harder, either to find another meeting or to talk to somebody about that, because I get so much out of being an active member of a meeting. It’s easy to say, “I can be a Quaker, but I don’t have to go to meeting every Sunday, let’s have brunch or whatever.” I think that’s laziness to some extent. We’re super fortunate here in Philadelphia, because there’s 106 or so meetings in the area. I had to go halfway across the city to find one that really clicked for me. I should have done that earlier.
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?
Gabe: I’ve been reading Seth Godin lately, and what he advises is to figure out what you’re good at, and what you alone see, and find a way to turn that into something that works. The tools and technologies are out there now, in a way that is without precedent in human history, to allow you to find an audience and do the work. You don’t need to get picked to do the work you’re meant to do. Society now rewards people who take initiative to do something rather than follow all the rules and become selected to do something. Figure out what you’re good at, and figure out a way to make that your life.