Barry Crossno is the General Secretary of Friends General Conference. He is a member of Arch Street Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) and has served as General Secretary since 2011.
What faith did you grow up in?
Barry: My mother was raised Methodist and Jewish. Her father was Jewish and would take her to high holy days at Temple. Otherwise, she was playing piano at the Methodist Church. My father was raised Baptist. They married as Episcopalians, and decided that their children should find their own way spiritually, so I did not grow up attending church with any regularity. It was kind of an Easter/Christmas scenario. I found my way to Eastern spiritual practices as a teenager. That’s what most appealed to me at first.
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?
Barry: When I first started attending Dallas Monthly meeting, it was very sporadic. A friend took me, because they had been Quaker and thought it might fit for me. What I found was an intellectual fit, but I didn’t really find a way into the community at first. There wasn’t a big wide bear hug waiting for me when I arrived,so I found myself going very intermittently. It was a period of time when I was starting to have some mystical experiences that I wasn’t quite sure how to process. That was part of this coming to Quakerism. It’s not that I ever left. It’s more like I had a very slow start. My commitment to Quakerism didn’t happen until I moved from Dallas to New Mexico, where I started attending the Taos Worship Group. It was the right time and the right place and the right people for my Quaker practice to finally coalesce. Years later, I moved back to Dallas, and I found an incredibly different experience. I was embraced. My membership process was pretty intensive, but I’m grateful for it. It took me a lot of searching, and I prayed a lot around that time about Quakerism, because in some ways culturally it was a challenge for me, having spent a lot of time in the Buddhist community. What I got back in prayer was: stay the course, become a Friend, this is your path, live into this.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Barry: I think a major piece was that I was looking for a spiritual tradition that affirmed gender equality and racial equality. I was looking for a spiritual tradition that affirmed direct access to God as a primary piece. I was also really concerned with having an involvement in a spiritual tradition that was based in progressive witness. I was looking for a tradition that was open to multiple paths to God, which among Quakers I have a found receptivity to. In many ways, I was skeptical of Quakerism. I learned about it in college, while I was at a Catholic university, and it sounded a little too good to be true. I spent a lot of time reading about it. It took me six years between when I heard about Quakerism and when I first attended a meeting, because my experience of western Christian traditions was not what I might have wished. However, I was grateful to find out, when I started attending, that even though Quakerism has its cultural quirks, its base tenets and its practice lined up pretty well with my experience of God.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Barry: Being in nature is an incredibly important piece. I find being able to walk in the mountains really connects me to Spirit and opens me up. Another big piece for me is being in prayer and worship with other people who are in a very intentional space. I enjoy going to meeting for worship on First Day, and I’ve had some really beautiful openings there. But I have often found that gathering together with just one, two, or three other people, and having a very quiet time of prayer and worship together as a small group, is sometimes a more powerful experience for me. I belong to a spiritual peer group, and I also have an anchor committee. My anchor committee is very important to me in terms of my spiritual accountability practice. I find it’s important to do readings. They vary a great deal as to what they are, and why they are important at any given juncture—but I find that’s important to reconnect me at times. A surprising new piece has actually been watching movies and videos with spiritual content. That’s something I’ve been doing much more, and that’s been interesting.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Barry: Given the work of Friends General Conference (FGC), I’m in worship quite a bit, but it varies a great deal as to where it’s happening and with whom. There might be a longer worship that precedes committee meetings, or impromptu worship with donors. Formal worship at my own Meeting is actually more rare than I would like, in part because FGC committee meetings are often on the weekends. So I’m traveling back to Philly often on a Sunday night. Arch Street Meeting has a regular Wednesday night worship that I try to go to occasionally. I found there are anywhere from five to nine of us who are there. So it’s an intimate, quiet experience. I’ve enjoyed that. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to connect with newcomers. Usually there are one or two newcomers every time.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Barry: I think in asking the question, “Do you have challenges around being faithful?”, the question for me becomes, faithful to what? I feel like what Spirit has asked of me is multifold; I have been asked to make the Quaker way more visible and accessible for people who are seeking God, the deep well, or whatever you might wish to call it. I have been asked to make a connection between the spiritual practice and the witness that so many Friends are engaged in. In particular, I have a concern with the environment and I feel like I have been asked to engage on that topic. I also feel in that some ways I’ve been asked to witness around the mystical reality of Spirit. So what’s challenging in being faithful to those pieces is, how do you go about doing those things? What does it look like in lived practice? When I became General Secretary, I had a particular vision of how that might look through this position. I also knew that it was going to be service of spirit and the body, and that what I ended up doing might not look like what I’d imagined. Overall, it’s been a little bit of what I expected, and also a number of things I didn’t. The faithfulness piece, for me, is around asking myself, over and over again: is this what it looks like? Am I properly engaged? Am I walking a walk that has a godly outcome, for the benefit of others? One of the challenges of asking that question is the answers aren’t always clear. In particular around making Quaker faith and practice more visible and accessible to seekers—are we actually doing this? I feel it’s important to keep asking questions and really have faith that there’s guidance. That where I need to be and where others need to be will be revealed, and we will walk it together. And maybe at the end of the journey I can look back and say I was faithful.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Barry: When I was fifteen years old, I wanted to do a few different things. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to be an industrial designer or design engineer, preferably designing cars. And I wanted to work for a Tibetan Buddhist Lama.
Where did you attend college? What was your major in college?
Barry: I went to the University of Dallas, which is small, Catholic, liberal arts college in Dallas, Texas. I majored in History. I then immediately followed up by going to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in Modern European History.
How would you describe your career path?
Barry: My interest in design has never left me. I’ve really come to rely on what I would consider systems thinking or design thought, because I look at design as being about cohesive systems. It’s very much allied with my interest in history. History is a record, not so much of the past, but of what’s possible in the future. It gives a record of human possibility. The history and design pieces are very much interwoven for me, and so is the spirituality. When I was in graduate school, I worked for a special collections library which took me into a curatorial role part time. I was the assistant to the curator for photographs, and then assistant to the curator for manuscripts. I then jumped to museums and became a fundraiser for the arts. All the while, my love of politics had never subsided, and I found in my late twenties I was exploring a run for county commissioner in Dallas.
However, my life was about to take another detour. I resigned from my fundraising position to start a company, thinking about making this run. I went on a vacation in New Mexico with my then girlfriend, who is still a good friend, and had what I call “the accident.” This is where spirituality and career really started to collide for me. I was in the desert, and I had some sort of health event. Stroke? Heat stroke? Don’t know exactly, but it was life-altering. It was a year’s recovery, punctuated with really severe panic attacks. It really opened an existential can of worms for me. I ended up doing a very unexpected reevaluation of my life, while I was incapacitated. Realizing that, at the time, I didn’t know if I would ever hold down full time work again, whether I would actually ever be fully functional again. It was also a time where I started to have my spiritual openings become much more intense. Mystical experiences were happening more frequently, sometimes in my waking life rather than mostly in dreams as before—and I realized I had to make a massive life change. I went to work for my cousin, and found over time I could hold down a full-time job again. It actually was a really wonderful transition for me, and I am very grateful. He didn’t expect any more of me than I could do as the year was progressing. It allowed me to slowly get back into the world, and it allowed me to use a lot of the skill sets I had built up. That was great until we outran our cash flow and had to let go of the business. I learned a lot from that experience about judicious growth and planning. While he very successfully started another company, it was at that juncture that I decided to go to New Mexico to explore the spiritual leadings that were growing in me.
I ended up working for Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and that experience was extremely Spirit-led. When the company went out, I was looking for the next thing to do, and I had gone out to see my best friend Scott Affleck. I had spent a great week with him and was getting ready to go back to Dallas, because I had been admitted to get an MBA at University of Texas, Arlington. Scott looked over at me and said, “Why are you going back?” It was crystal clear in that moment. I thought, I don’t know why I’m going back. I sat there a while longer, and I said, “You know, I’m going back just long enough to get my things together, and I’ll be back.” And he said, “Ok. Let me know what I can do.” I went back to Dallas and started getting my things together. It really felt like Spirit was intervening over and over. Even though I didn’t have a job, I knew I would still leave Texas for New Mexico. I ended up getting a job at the Buddhist Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. That’s when all the various pieces around career and spirituality really started to plug into each other. It’s also when my Quakerism really took root. It was when I was working for Lama that I became a committed Quaker and was receiving a lot of direct guidance from Spirit. This was my path and where I was getting my energy. There was purpose in serving the Dharma at this juncture. Those experiences of serving the Dharma for those four years really set the stage for my walk now as General Secretary.
How did you come to apply to this job?
Barry: I knew that Bruce Birchard was retiring, and the thought had gone through my mind a couple of times, but not seriously. At the time I was in service at Pendle Hill, and was looking. I really thought that I might be moving to North Carolina after that. Then I received a phone call from a member of the search committee, Byron Sanford, and it was a really important call. Byron knew how to engage me, to talk about what matters. I love and appreciate Byron. He asked me if I had considered applying for the position, and I told him that thought had not occurred to me. And… he chose his words carefully. “Your spiritual community needs you to prayerfully consider this.” And I just went,“Oh. Ok.” I really felt taken to accountability by those words, especially by it being Byron. I took it very seriously, and brought it to my Anchor Committee, and we spent two months in discernment around it before I decided to apply. I was not clear that what I was asked to do was best fulfilled through being General Secretary. I really had a thought in mind to try and create what at the time I called a path within the path. I wanted to create a set of practices, to design a form of Quaker practice that was within the FGC tradition, but for people who were wanting a more intensive spiritual experience. Something that would be relatively transformative, pack in, very front loaded, very much in the tradition of what I had experienced among Buddhists, in terms of people having a really intense experience of Buddhism over a relatively short period of time.
So I really had a long debate about whether I should be pursuing that project, which I called the Clearlight Project, or apply to become General Secretary. Ultimately, my anchor committee was able to ask questions and guide me in a way that it became clear I should apply. It was interesting, because I started to have doubts. I applied and found myself a finalist. Then I found out who the other finalists were and decided that this was a stellar group of human beings. I was not needed. So I went to my Anchor Committee and shared with them that I thought it might be possible for me to withdraw from the process, because of the strong candidates who were in it, and we went into worship. One of the members of my anchor committee broke the silence, and the words that came through her were, “This is no longer up to you. This is between our community and God. You will not short circuit the process.” It was one of those moments where I very clearly knew the truth had been spoken and that I was simply to submit, and so I stayed in the process. I actually didn’t believe that I would get the job. When they offered me the position, I have to admit, my reaction was I was sick to my stomach, because I kind of understood what went with this. That this was going to stretch me in ways I couldn’t imagine. Friends General Conference (FGC) is an institution that’s really important for Friends, and really important to the renewal movement. There are many friends who have deep hopes for the continuation and growth of the Society of Friends. I knew that if I said yes to the position, I was going to be making myself in some ways a vehicle to carry all of those hopes and aspirations, and that was not something to carry lightly. But it did become clear over the next twenty four hours that I was to say yes. That’s what brought me here.
How would you describe your current position?
Barry: There’s what it is, and then there’s what I hope it will become. It’s an interesting position: I’m the hierarchical head of staff in an organization that makes its decisions through Quaker process at the board level. It’s fascinating to go back and forth between those two worlds constantly. There is a community of both staff and governance who are very well practiced in walking those two worlds simultaneously. A lot of my work is spent trying to guide the mission itself, fulfill the mission, imagine how the mission will evolve; trying to shepherd the resources necessary for the fulfillment of that mission; and trying to make sure that the right people are in place to make all of that happen.
Where I would like the job to go over time is that I would love to have a little more public role than I’ve had. I had imagined there was a larger symbolic role for the General Secretary of Friends General Conference (FGC) to play in the broader Quaker world, in addition to the world at large. Since I became General Secretary, there’s been a lot of shifting here, which has really required me to be in the nuts and bolts of making the organization work—that the money was raised, that we met the budget. We will see in future years if I can have the opportunity to be more of a public figure. In some ways, I view it as fairly important, because there’s actually not that many Quakers who try to function as public figures in the broader society and yet those who do have really helped many seekers find transformation through Quaker practice. I find myself thinking of Parker Palmer among others. In trying to be a public figure there’s a delicate line to walk. What can the General Secretary of FGC really say in the public sphere about who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going? It has to be thoughtful and done with accountability.
What influences does your faith have in your job today?
Barry: The influences are from a few different directions. One is around how we choose to interact with one another as colleagues. Friends General Conference (FGC) is at a challenging moment in its history: we have lots of support, we’re doing lots of good work, but there are not the financial resources that we might wish. We’ve been in the process of cutting back, in terms of the number of programs we offer and our staffing levels. In the midst of this, we’ve had to really carefully consider: what does it mean to be letting go of staff as a Quaker institution? How do you do that in a way that is, we pray, s loving, compassionate, and rightly ordered? I’m not going to say that we’ve done that exceedingly well, but we’ve had the intention to do it as well and as thoughtfully as we can. Another aspect is around, what does it mean to be Quaker? What does it mean to live a Quaker life, especially in a work environment?
On a larger level, the faith tradition informs me in terms of mission. The part that gets me up in the morning is the recognition that there are people seeking for a different way forward around Western spiritually. We have something that I believe is compelling, so fulfilling the mission really means something for a lot of people. Having a spirituality that is trying to affirm that of God in everyone, trying to affirm basic tenets of equality, in a world that still denies equality to many people—to have a spiritual tradition that attempts to talk about stewardship and attempts to understand our place in world around the environment and around science and the intersection of ethics and development issues—is really important. There is so much good work being done by secular activists on these issues, but I think there’s also a real need for people of faith to be engaged there. There are sometimes particular, important pieces that people of faith bring to these incredibly important worldwide issues around climate change, social justice, and economics. To provide a faith tradition that people can use, not only to transform their personal life, but to consider how it is that they are going to live in the world as a personal witness, is really important to me.
We talk about the prophetic tradition among Friends. There’s been a long standing discussion and understanding around how personal transformation transforms a society. I’m intensely interested in how the spiritual practices actually result in changed lives and a changed world.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Barry: It’s necessary for me to think of myself as a leader, and simultaneously, it’s not a very comfortable mantle for me to wear in some ways. Many Quakers wrestle with the role of leadership in an egalitarian society, and I do as well in some ways. I also recognize that different people, at different junctures, are asked to carry particular messages and to complete particular tasks. At this time in my life, I have a particular piece to carry. First and foremost, recognizing that I am not the only leader in this equation. This is a huge group effort and there are many people who play really pivotal roles. Part of my role as a leader is to find, recognize, and empower other people who are leading, and to try and put them in a position to succeed. I look at my position as a facilitative position; my role is to find and acquire resources and put them at the disposal of people who can get it done. A good leader is one who listens. I think that is a very interesting piece especially in a Quaker organization, because listening is so core to our spiritual practice. It’s a key skill, because if you’re not listening, you won’t be leading anything. Listening is critical in order to understand where people really want to go. What is it that they’re hoping for, what are their aspirations, and what are the things they have at their disposal that can help fulfill those aspirations? Sometimes it’s almost like a naming of gifts in ministry, helping people realize what it is that they have already in their own skill set, their own resources, that they can bring to this. Working for a Quaker organization is fascinating, because we believe in ongoing revelation, and we also believe in really thorough planning. I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive.We’re now living in an age where a lot of corporations have shifted: they really don’t do five-year plans, for the most part, especially tech firms. They’re working more along the lines of what some would call “dynamic steering.” You do a little bit and then you adjust, do a little bit, adjust. We’re coming into an era where we absolutely have to keep our eye on the long-term goal and mission, but we need to be much more iterative, much more experimental. Part of my role as leader is to bring some of that structural thinking to the question of how to restructure an organization to be experimental instead of only long-term-planning based.
How did you learn leadership skills – within the Quaker world? Outside of it?
Barry: One of the best things my mother ever taught me was: surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you. That’s really been my mantra since I came to FGC, to try and find people who were smarter and better than me. One of the pieces I learned outside of the Quaker world is public speaking. At about fifteen, I recognized that having the ability to speak effectively in front of a group of people was going to be crucial in whatever I choose to do in the future. I joined the Future Business Leaders of America. I was competing in impromptu speaking, which was really terrifying. I was very shy. Something that has been important for me is that at various junctures, I’ve tried to steer into fear.
For someone who wants to develop leadership skills, involving yourself on different boards is tremendously important, especially in your twenties and thirties. There are so few people who serve in their twenties and thirties, and you end up knowing phenomenal people and picking up a ton along the way. I served on four non-Quaker boards in my thirties, and it was really pivotal for me to be surrounded by a lot of people in their fifties and sixties who had been there, done that, were really good at it—just soaking all of that up from them.
In terms of Quaker places, Quaker business meetings taught me a lot in terms of coming to an understanding of what happens in a meeting with a group of people. It taught me about the preparation that is necessary, both spiritually and also just logistically, before a group of people come and sit down together and try and talk through something. What I’ve learned over time is that the intellectual, especially if you’re Quaker, is really necessary, but it’s the emotional and spiritual where people actually engage. It’s where I think people ultimately make a determination of what truth is.
Do you feel that your work brings you closer or further away to your faith?
Barry: It depends on the day. The greatest challenge of this position, in terms of Quaker practice, is that sometimes the days are so jam-packed that I don’t feel like I’ve actually had much time to step back and center, pray, worship—really be in a listening space. There’s a lot that happens with this job. Sometimes just the crush of: sign the contract, read the paper, go to the meeting, take the phone call, return the 50 emails. There are days when I leave that I don’t actually feel very connected to the Divine, just from the pace. Where it brings me closer is when I can step back and have an opportunity to engage, especially when it’s an opportunity to engage around what’s really driving people, whether it’s people who are volunteering for the programs, people who are using the programs, a staff member who is feeling called to a particular piece. When I can be in some sort of relationship with those movements, then I feel really connected.
Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Barry: My accountability is lodged in two places. One is with my spiritual peer group, and the other is with my anchor committee. Neither of them is actually grounded in my local Meeting because they formed ahead of me transferring to my current meeting. My anchor committee is not designed to be solely about this job, since it pre-existed my becoming General Secretary. My whole life is accountable to them, so while the job is a piece, they’re concerned with the whole person and for the larger ministry. They’re clear that being General Secretary of FGC is a role that I’m currently fulfilling, and it is the vehicle through which I am currently fulfilling my ministry, but my ministry pre-exists and has a mission that is more than this job. My spiritual peer group also pre-existed this job, but is much more about the job than the anchor committee, because our running question is always, “Are you faithful?” Often when I’m thinking in terms of faithfulness, I’m thinking about this work and whether I’m fulfilling my responsibilities.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Barry: Part of the reason I selected Arch Street Meeting is they really don’t care that I’m General Secretary of Friends General Conference. That suits me well, because my need of my worshipping community is an opportunity to decompress, to plug in and hear Spirit and hear God, not necessarily to be a vehicle of their concerns around my daily position. From that standpoint it works out really well.
Who have your mentors been (generally, spiritually, work, all of the above)?
Barry: My mother was huge mentor to me. She ran restaurants. When I was growing up, she had a staff of about 40 people, and the way she interacted with people taught me a lot about how to be a leader, how to be fair minded, how to try and create win-win situations for people. In terms of mentors, there’s the real life people, and then there’s people that I’ve only read about. One of the people I’ve only read about is Theodore Roosevelt. I grew up fairly sick as a child. I was in danger of passing away a few times in my childhood. Theodore Roosevelt was someone I fastened upon because he had also been a really sickly child. When I was young, it was important to have a role model who had overcome their physical frailties in order to do something larger. Some mentors in the Quaker world have been Marcelle Martin, Michael Wadja, Jim Perkins, Stan Brown, Sue Regen, as well as Jean-Marie and Frank Barch. I want to stop naming names because the more I name, the more I know there will be people left out.
Scott Affleck was my best friend for many years. He had been raised Methodist, became Quaker, then became Buddhist. Absolutely brilliant, one of the finest minds I’ve ever known, extremely funny, deeply spiritual, and taught me what grace looks like while suffering. He died young, suffered the last fifteen years of his life with a really crippling illness, and completely changed my life and the lives of many other people. There’s a whole pack of us who are in leadership positions now that he mentored.
What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?
Barry: Something that’s been an important part of my journey is that I’ve struggled with chronic depression. I’ve had depression, deep depression, on and off through my adult life, which is kind of an interesting thing, because I’ve also had these really powerful experiences of God, and I sometimes don’t understand how the two things can coexist. But, in me, they do. Part of what I would tell my twenty-something-year-old self is to have faith that there’s meaning, and that through listening it’s possible to find our way through the darkness. There were some junctures where I felt pretty hopeless. It’s important to understand that there are things we can’t see and can’t know, and that there really is meaning even if it’s small. It doesn’t have to be world changing.
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?
Barry: The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about my spiritual journey was said by two different people, a week apart. One right before I had the accident, and the other one right after. It’s been something that I’ve reflected on over and over again: “Control is not a way to God.” What that’s meant to me over the years is to engage in a practice of surrender to Spirit. I find that really challenging, on a personal level, and it’s important exploration for others as well. In the modern world we can get very caught up in the idea that we’re driving the boat, and I think the reality is much more complex than that. Having an ability to let go and see something larger than we might see with our own eyes is really important.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/work path and then what’s your favorite piece to give, of advice to give to somebody if they ask you for their career path?
Barry: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten was in graduate school. Dr. Hopkins, my advisor, asked me to meet with him and he said, “You’re struggling a little bit, right now. I think it’s because you’re suffering from an illusion.” I said “What’s that?” He said, “I think you’re suffering from the illusion that graduate school is about being brilliant. Graduate school is really about perseverance.” It was another one of those moments where I really understood the truth of what he had shared, and it has stood me well over time. There’s that saying that 90% of success is just showing up. I find that to be true, especially at times when the outcome is not at all guaranteed. That you just keep showing up, keep persisting, keep working, being open, listening. There may be something different that needs to happen. Just keep at it. It makes all the difference in the world.