Barry Crossno

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.

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

Spiritual Life

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.

Work Life

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.

Advice

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.

What is something you wish you’d known at an earlier point in your spiritual path and/or career?

Barry Crossno, Friends General Conference

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.

For more of Barry’s story, click here

Diane Randall, Friends Committee on National Legislation:

Hannah Whitall Smith has this great line in a letter she writes to her daughter, “I make it a practice to never live with regrets.” I agree with that a lot. I told you that I regretted not getting an advanced degree, and when I think about things that I regret in my life, choices that I’ve made, that’s probably one that I have.

For more of Diane’s story, click here

Jen Karsten, Pendle Hill:

I’ve certainly had struggles in those areas–personal life, work life, and career life–so the things I might have wished to have known would probably be different in each of those arenas. But one general message I’d send back to younger me would be that whatever fear, confusion, destabilization you’re experiencing is natural, and that all of your heroes and role models feel equally fearful and destabilized, but that it need not paralyze you. This too shall pass. Courage–coeur, from the heart–is to go towards or be with that which gives you fear, and then when you’re tempered by that fire, you’re stronger for next time. So–persist. Listen for the opportunity or invitation to change you. Understand that you can’t change others, but that you can play a role in their change, and persist. When I’ve been heartbroken, or terrified of hurting others, or of doing something which might seem to be for the greater good but which will cause some people to feel angry or disappointed, I made it, through the grace of others who’ve made such moves letting me know that on the other side, there’s joy again, and stability, and a better way.

For more of Jen’s story, click here

Shan Cretin, American Friends Service Committee:

That question kind of goes against my personality. I am not a person who looks back and says, “Oh, if only.” It just isn’t in me. There are lots of choices in life and I think I’ve always felt, “Don’t agonize over them. Make a choice and make it work.” So it’s hard for me to think of something in that way-what do I wish I had known then-would it have changed something. I feel like I’ve been really lucky. I wouldn’t have changed anything. If I am giving somebody else advice who’s agonizing over things, one of the things I say is, “If a decision is hard, it’s a sign that it doesn’t matter what you choose.” Easy decisions are when this is obviously what you need to do. If you can’t decide, because it could be this or that, it’s not a big deal, pick one!

For more of Shan’s story, click here

Gretchen Castle, Friends World Committee for Consultation:

I think fearlessness is a really big thing for me, and part of that just comes with age and experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not worried about what people think, but really rely on what I know, feel, sense, intuit to feel confident that God is speaking through me, and not worry about outcome.

For more of Gretchen’s story, click here

Gabe Ehri, Friends Journal:

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.

For more of Gabe’s story, click here

Christina Repoley, Quaker Voluntary Service:

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.

For more of Christina’s story, click here

Drew Smith, Friends Council on Education:

I believe that it’s not possible for any of us to get outside our own heads. We live in our heads. There’s that David Foster Wallace guy, who gave a talk at Kenyon College that’s what it was about. I’d be disingenuous if I said I was a fully practiced master at always recognizing when I was in my own way. But I can’t say that when I was a younger person, that I was aware of that as fully as I am now. One of the beauties of a place like Earlham was it really challenged you to get out of your own way. I feel lucky that, in formative years, I did have mentors and peers who were really pushing on me to get out of my own way.

But I also remember in college–it’s interesting watching people react to Black Lives Matter right now, because it reminds me of women I went to college with who were challenging the patriarchy. First time a lot of us guys had heard all this. And I remember, my freshman and sophomore year, personalizing a lot of what they said, instead of just listening to them, which I learned to do later. Just listen to what they were trying to say. And in listening, realizing that there were personal things that I needed to wrestle with, as a man, in thinking about this. And the second piece is, while I struggled with that, there’s no reason why I couldn’t been supportive of them. As I’ve gotten older, I wish I had found the level of confidence, personal confidence, that I have now, at earlier points along the way, so that I would have been better able to get out of my own way, and more supportive of the people who worked with me and for me. That would have been a helpful thing to have been better practiced at when I was a younger person.

For more of Drew’s story, click here

Doug Bennett, Earlham College (Emeritus):

One of the things that Rufus Jones taught me deeply was that final big answers are not available to human beings, and they are not going to fit together it into any deep intellectual package; that it was ok to be comfortable with not knowing. I don’t know how you teach somebody that, especially somebody who grows up smart, doing well in school, for whom knowing the answer comes easily: to learn that not knowing the answer is important.

For more of Doug’s story, click here

Colin Saxton, Friends United Meeting:

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?”

For more of Colin’s story, click here

Who have your mentors been? (Generally, spiritually, work, all of the above)

Barry Crossno, Friends General Conference

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.

For more of Barry’s story, click here

Diane Randall, Friends Committee on National Legislation:

First and foremost, my mother has had an impact on me. We’ve always been fairly close, and she has been a leader in her own work, which was education, and talked about her role as a woman in a leadership position. Both from what it was like to work with men when she was the only woman, and also what it was like to negotiate for salary. She would have never identified herself as a feminist, but I felt like I had this role model of how to operate in a world that’s not always open to women, and how to be a leader. That was really important to me.

When I was working at the Partnership for Strong Communities, before I came here, we were funded by the Melville Charitable Trust. The executive director, this guy named Bob Hohler, was a real mentor to me to think about the power of big ideas and the ability to change systems and what that takes, how to hold onto those big ideas and think about the arc of change from both a policy focus and from a political focus. Then there are people I work with who are lobbyists, just really good strategic people about how to to do a power analysis, just figuring out what’s going to motivate people, and trying to come up with a plan and execute it.

This is kind of an aside, because we don’t do political endorsements at all — but I was captivated by this idea that, Hillary Clinton just turned 68, and she’s running for this super-big job. It’s an amazing inspiration to me.

For more of Diane’s story, click here

Jen Karsten, Pendle Hill:

I think of people who’ve provided excellent counsel or helped me a lot. Clerks of the Pendle Hill Board. My friends and my mom. My husband is somebody whose counsel I rely on on a regular basis, and who I really look up to. Sarah Willie-LeBreton, one of our board members, is somebody who I knew prior to being on the board. I lift her up because I’m thinking about how many Quakers I know have personal/professional overlap, thus in the Quaker world where many of us are known to each other, we must learn to wear various hats (f/Friendship). So many people have been generous and helpful, role models and nurturers, too many to count!

For more of Jen’s story, click here

Shan Cretin, American Friends Service Committee:

One of my undergraduate professors in probability theory, and his wife, who was an MIT graduate: they really were my mentors. They taught me a lot of things, gave me a lot of advice along the way. Since I got to AFSC, I have had some wonderful mentors, a couple of women of color who have become friends, mentors, and helpers for me in understanding my role and my privilege and how I come across sometimes. One is a woman, Eisha Mason, who’s my associate regional director in LA. She’s a member of the Agape Church. She studied with Reverend Jim Lawson, and she just totally has nonviolence at her core. She’s a wonderful person who’s been a mentor.

For more of Shan’s story, click here

Gretchen Castle, Friends World Committee for Consultation:

My dearest mentor died last year – Warren Witte. I worked with him, for him. He was sort of my Quaker organizational guru. He was just a really wonderful teacher. He and I met years ago when I work for Friends General Conference and he worked at American Friends Service Committee in communications. We were part of a group bringing together Quakers Uniting in Publication – we kind of got that started. I’ve always said to him his middle name is collaboration because he’s really great mentor. He’s my major one.

Larry Miller is a great spiritual mentor. He was my former father-in-law, and he also worked for AFSC. He had a degree in divinity, and yet he was always questioning his spirituality. He’d always say to me, “Gretchen, I don’t know how you’re always so sure of God’s presence.” And I’d say, “I don’t know either, but maybe I came into the world with that.”

For more of Gretchen’s story, click here

Gabe Ehri, Friends Journal:

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.

For more of Gabe’s story, click here

Christina Repoley, Quaker Voluntary Service:

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.

For more of Christina’s story, click here

Doug Bennett, Earlham College (Emeritus):

Somebody I never met but began to be aware of when I was at Haverford, was Rufus Jones. As I grew more interested in Quakerism I began reading a lot of Rufus Jones, and realized that if I had intellectual and spiritual forbearance for Rufus Jones, that he had thought through a lot of the difficulties in faith that I found myself confronting, and he had thought them through a lot better than I had. Douglas Steere is someone else who I’ve read a lot. I learned a lot as a fellow with the American Council on Education during the week-long seminars we attended. They’d bring in a smart person, and they’d say things to us, and we’d ask questions. As a professor, I thought my job was to be the smartest person in the room. At the end of that year, I realized I needed a complete transformation of the way that I approached what I did. I need to go into the room thinking: I am the person who knows the least. I am the perfection of ignorance, and my job is to ask questions and to draw as much out of everybody else in the room as I can, and try to see if we can distill that into something that makes sense.
For more of Doug’s story, click here

Colin Saxton, Friends United Meeting:

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.

For more of Colin’s story, click here

What feeds your spiritual life?

Barry Crossno, Friends General Conference

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.

For more of Barry’s story, click here

Diane Randall, Friends Committee on National Legislation:

Definitely time in worship. There was a time when I started going to Meeting in Hartford where it was really hard to leave that Meeting. Some of it was because family was there, and I had obligations teaching or doing something else, so it just felt like I couldn’t go visit another Meeting. Now I get to visit a lot of Meetings, and I get to participate in worship with a lot of Meetings and churches, and it’s really a rich experience-one of the delights for me in this job has been that I have found community in almost everywhere I travel. I’d say what feeds my soul is definitely having some time in nature. I find that spiritual reading, and other kinds of literature, poetry, feed me in lots of ways. The times I’ve been in small spiritual support groups – that includes both worship-sharing and silent worship – has been enriching for me, and continue to be. And time with family is a kind of renewal time for me as well. Time with friends is important. So, all those things.

For more of Diane’s story, click here

Jen Karsten, Pendle Hill:

Crisis feeds my spiritual life. It spurs me to seek, with a fervent dedication, and pushes me to remain grounded and rooted so that I can’t fall into despair or have my impact minimized by despair. Nature feeds my spiritual life too. I’ve had some of my most transcendent spiritual experiences at dawn on the beaches of India. It’s one of the most satisfying and inspiring things to see something unusual in the natural world. There’s something called a “glory,” (I think?) when you see a rainbow as a border around objects. I remember kayaking one day with friends, and getting out for a stretch– they hiked up onto a sandy ridge, holding their arms up for a photo, and there was a rainbow around them like a hazy colorful border, with long shadows. I’d never seen anything like that and this was in the age before the internet, so we didn’t have an easy way to quickly identify what that was. We talked to some naturalists, and it was fascinating to learn about. In those moments, you understand how prior cultures would have of course found their spiritualities through these amazing natural phenomena, right?

For more of Jen’s story, click here

Shan Cretin, American Friends Service Committee:

This is something I learned as a child in a Catholic school: that prayer is not something different from being alive. Everything you do can be a prayer; it’s a matter of how you do it. I do find that what I try to do is have that attitude about what I’m doing. It may be mundane, but if I can think of it as a prayer, if I can think of it as something to connect more deeply with other people, that’s a good thing.

For more of Shan’s story, click here

Gretchen Castle, Friends World Committee for Consultation:

Worship for me is the heart of it.  It is sort of ironic, because in my current work at Friends World Committee for Consultation I have the opportunity to worship with all kinds of Friends, and I find myself increasingly drawn more to programmed worship then unprogrammed worship. In Britain, where I live, the culture is becoming increasingly secular, so all the mainline churches in the UK are losing membership. I think Quakers are doing fairly well because there’s just so much activity with their social action, they are very active group in that way. I have sometimes prayed outloud in a meeting for worship and then had people come to me afterwards and tell me “I haven’t heard a prayer in two years in this meeting house.” For me I think, “Goodness, how could that be?” Because for me, prayer is everything.

For more of Gretchen’s story, click here

Gabe Ehri, Friends Journal:

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.

For more of Gabe’s story, click here

Christina Repoley, Quaker Voluntary Service:

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.

For more of Christina’s story, click here

Drew Smith, Friends Council on Education:

I think work feeds my spiritual life. I feel lucky that I’ve found a place where, on a regular basis, there’s something about my work that connects with my spiritual life. I feel like that’s an incredible gift that most people I know don’t actually share; I’m lucky and fortunate. I’m not a concrete thinker, but for some reason when I talk about my spiritual life, deeds and things I do and things I can work on are always the things that deepen me more than being contemplative. I don’t know why I’m that way. I’ve never been able to figure that out. I actually not only started going to Quaker meeting as a kid, but I also started working in the summer at a Shaker community up in Maine. I was working at their museum, but there were Shakers there. I think between the Shakers and the Quakers, the emphasis on “the way that you lived is who you are as a spiritual being”–I internalized that. I feel like the work that you do actually almost has to be spiritual; otherwise it doesn’t feel like the right work. It’s helping someone at a new school, maybe a new teacher or someone who’s not a Quaker who’s trying to figure it out, and somehow connecting that person with the heart of the school that they’re working at. That feels spiritual to me. The work, when I was a teacher, of helping connect kids with things that are deeply important to them, and then helping them try to figure out where that is in the world. Of all the things that I do, that’s the thing that helps me feel most deeply spiritual, and like I’m living what I profess to be living.

For more of Drew’s story, click here

Doug Bennett, Earlham College (Emeritus):

Lots of reading, lots of prayer-waiting worship is important to me, too. But I also regularly am reading something. I do think that reading people and what they have to say is worthwhile.

For more of Doug’s story, click here

Colin Saxton, Friends United Meeting:

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.

For more of Colin’s story, click here

Gabe Ehri

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).

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

 

Spiritual Life

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.

Work Life

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.

Advice

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.

Gretchen Castle

Gretchen Castle has been the General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation  since 2013. She is a member of Doylestown Monthly Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting), and attends meetings in London, England.

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

 

Spiritual Life

What faith did you grow up in?

Gretchen: I was born a Quaker, in a Quaker household, and grew up in Friends United Meeting. My dad was a pastor of two programmed meetings or churches – Valley Mills Friends Church and then College Avenue Friends Church in Iowa. Mostly I grew up in Iowa, Iowa Yearly Meeting.

 

Have you stayed in this tradition?

Gretchen:  That’s a good question, because my siblings haven’t. I’ve definitely stayed in it and I really treasure it: the Quaker faith, Quaker life, Quaker work. I’ve worked almost all of my professional life in Quaker settings. I’m very committed to it; it’s very important to me.

 

What is important to you now about Quakerism?

Gretchen: I love the whole Quaker idea of waiting on God and listening to God’s voice. It’s like Quakerism gives us permission to be more intuitive-and when I haven’t listened to that, it’s always been disastrous. I don’t have energy, and I’m not motivated. My personal motivation has always come out of that spiritual place, for all things. I just love worship. In London we go to evensong in cathedrals, and I hear Quakers say, “What a waste of space, what a waste of money.” But I cry every time I enter because it’s just… all of that to the glory of God. It’s amazing to me: no matter how simple, no matter how grand, it’s all the same to worship God. I’ve often thought what I would do if I wasn’t a Quaker, how would that be to have a different perspective? Because Quakerism offers a perspective of how to be in the world.

 

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?

Gretchen:  When I was first out of college, I went to Montana for a year. It was a wonderful place to be and the meeting was very tiny- it was 6 people in a living room, which was lovely for a time. I felt like I needed more, so for a while I went to this really remarkable church that was of a Catholic nature, but very radical. I did volunteer work with one of the priests and served on the board for his organization that helped people with disabilities. It was through that connection with him and our conversations about spiritual life that I found it was good for me to be in that energy. It felt a little bit odd to not continue to engage with Quaker meeting, but on the other hand, that experience helps me appreciate today how very different every meeting is, big or small. When I moved again I did find another Quaker meeting. I think that’s the only time I’ve really ever left it.

 

What feeds your spiritual life?

Gretchen: Worship for me is the heart of it.  It is sort of ironic, because in my current work at Friends World Committee for Consultation I have the opportunity to worship with all kinds of Friends, and I find myself increasingly drawn more to programmed worship then unprogrammed worship. In Britain, where I live, the culture is becoming increasingly secular, so all the mainline churches in the UK are losing membership. I think Quakers are doing fairly well because there’s just so much activity with their social action, they are very active group in that way. I have sometimes prayed outloud in a meeting for worship and then had people come to me afterwards and tell me “I haven’t heard a prayer in two years in this meeting house.” For me I think, “Goodness, how could that be?” Because for me, prayer is everything.

 

Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?

Gretchen:  I get to worship with all kinds of groups. I think it is important to be grounded in a meeting, and I still feel grounded in my meeting in Doylestown. When I’m back I try to go there, because I was in that meeting for 30 years. I find it hard to get into the nitty-gritty of the meeting as much as I did in the the one I was in for 30 years: leading the young people, teaching First Day School, being clerk. It’s hard to be in at that same level, so then worship becomes the crux more than the activity of community building.

 

What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?

Gretchen: I worked at Pendle Hill for a year, which was really amazing-but before, that I had been unemployed. I had been working for a large non-profit 350 employees and part of my job as chief organization development officer was to reduce the staff by 30%. I was flying all over the country telling people they were losing their jobs. It was a difficult job at best, and people often appreciated my thoughtfulness. I lost my job after I did all that letting go. All my life, jobs always fell in my lap and it was easy. I don’t think there was ever a time before that when I had ever had a heavy discernment, other than, “Should I go to graduate school or have a baby?” kind of questions. I was unemployed for a couple of years, and it was a really long time of wondering, Gretchen: “Oh God, what is next for me?” and “Can you help me?” I often think our prayers are either prayers of thanks or prayers of “help me,” and during that time there were a lot of “help me” prayers. It’s hard when we have an idea of what should happen and God’s time is just so different. I didn’t get either of those jobs, and I was really struggling, thinking maybe I just shouldn’t just work for Quakers, maybe my time with that had run its course. Then I remembered that I had met my predecessor at a fundraising meeting in New York about a year before, and she had said “I’m leaving the job, just so you know.” I really believe that God put that idea in my head, because it was the day before the application was due. So I just started cranking away on the computer, and sent it in at 2am. Then heard that I was invited to London for an interview. The other job interviews were hard. I had to work hard at them. This one-even though I had to fly to London, the interview was two days with five people that were from all parts of the world, I had to give a talk, I had to meet with staff, I did some email responses, all of that. It wasn’t an easy interview by most standards. But it was easy. For me, the lesson was: what God calls you to do may come easy to you, even though it’s not easy work, because we walk with God. When it’s discerned well, when I feel that God has a hand on it, the decision becomes an easy one. I got the job, I sold my three-story house and moved into a two-bedroom flat in London, sold my car. It was all of the stuff that most people would say, “Why in the world, Gretchen, would you want to do this?” But it was not a question. It was clear that God was calling me to it, and I continue to feel that way. I feel really blessed to be doing this work. I feel very clear about its purpose, and feel very excited about it. It’s big work, with a tiny little staff, but it’s absolutely thrilling. I love it; everyday I feel very blessed to be doing this work.

Work Life

When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Gretchen: When I was 15, I lived in Iowa, on a farm. I remember sitting on this hill that was my favorite spot – my thinking spot, my meditation spot. I was sitting there, and I remember thinking, “If I died tomorrow I would feel like I’ve already lived a good life.” At that age, it was remarkable because you know, I hadn’t lived much at all. I think I’ve always sort of filled my days and my life with things that I love doing. I’ve always had sort of an enthusiasm for life.

I never really had a clear direction. I’ve always loved people, and had social skills that have taken me to certain places. My college degree was in human development and social relations. It was an integration of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and human biology. I love that sort of integration of things. My masters degree was psychoeducational processes, which was basically social psychology. What I like to do is bring people together, get clear about what they want to do, and help them do that. It’s really about gathering people and their energy, and using what they have. When I was at Earlham, I had the idea that I might work internationally on behalf of the Planned Parenthood movement. I didn’t do that, but now I get to do international work in what I love doing, which is gathering Quakers, which is another thing that I love doing. That’s probably why I’m so enthusiastic about what I’m doing-it brings together those elements from a younger time of gathering people, working internationally, and gathering Quakers.

 

How would you describe your career path?

Gretchen: Out of college, I was doing social work in Chicago, in the projects. I think that I learned lot of empathy and what the reality of life for many people is. It only begins to scratch the surface, when you think of the millions of people who have lived in poverty and are displaced. Then I went to graduate school and came out doing training and group work, which I’ve always loved. I went on to do board development: gathering a board who has great passion and expectations for an organization, helping them move into where they want the organization to be in a way that is effective, appropriate, and collaborative. Then I worked for Quaker organizations. When I had kids, I was committed to being at home with them, which was lovely-but I could continue with some of the consulting work. Then I worked for Friends General Conference and I worked for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

One of my big leadership experiences was being the presiding clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. As a young person I remember a particular moment when I was aware that I was happy to step in and provide leadership if the group needed it. But I’ve never really felt like I have to be the leader of this or that. Leadership is always in service to the group or the organization. So when I say now that I’d like to work for FWCC until I retire-that’s only if God continues to call me to it and it continues to be useful to the organization. We’ve all had experiences of people who push being the leader, and that’s very different from serving.

 

How would you describe your current position?

Gretchen: My job description is funny. I have done a good bit of discovering what it is. There are five or so areas. One is administrative, keeping the office open and staffed, reviewing staff performance, and all that. Then there is the element of working at FWCC where we work to connect the four Sections and see where there can be collaborations. It’s really supporting those other four Sections’ secretaries. I view myself as a peer, but bringing those ideas together, since every section has different Quaker traditions of worship, and every section has multiple languages.

 

How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for it?

Gretchen: It continues to affirm the work I’m doing, that I’m in the right place, and that God helps me through it. It is a tough job, because I’m the only full time person in the office and I’m traveling around a good bit of the time. I intend to be in it for the long haul. In order to do that, I really do take off the weekend. I am committed to doing a good, hard, working day every day that I’m there, and going home at six or so. I don’t work long hours, but I work hard when I’m there, and that’s my survival strategy. God’s presence every day is where I gain my strength and my optimism. It’s really important to me to rely on that.

 

How would you describe your leadership skills?

Gretchen: The way I manage people is to look at what their gifts are and what they have to offer, and provide them resources or to help them over barriers but let them do their work. Most people are highly motivated. In the office, we have a clear sense of what we’re there for. People love to come into the office; it’s a really lovely environment – a bright space, windows that open, pictures on the wall from around the world, beautiful and colorful. There’s a good energy. I think that’s important, to provide the space to greet people. I love when we have guests and visitors.

What’s important in leadership, especially in Quaker organizations, is to offer some ideas, some structure, some ways to consider things; but it’s not my decision whether any change goes through. I’m just the servant, and do my best to offer what I think would be best for the organization. But then I let it go. It’s about gathering people and giving them a voice.

 

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?

Gretchen: Certainly life experience is a great teacher. I’d say one of my most challenging leadership experiences was being clerk of a yearly meeting. It’s not a paid position and I was very committed while I was working. It’s an important message for me just to not be fearful, don’t be afraid, God will hold us. I think of the Buddhist bowl and there’s all the space in the center that held by the bowl or held by God and then we have lots of choice within those workings. We have to be very fearless and just come out of love, but say what needs to be said and not be overly worried. It’s always that person’s choice how they hear it-it’s an interaction, its relational. If you’re being faithful to our relationship with each other then God gives us the words for that. We can be held to speak truth to power and it’s important to do that as a leader.

Advices

How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?

Gretchen: Doylestown Meeting has asked me to speak about FWCC; they are very supportive of what I’m doing, to the extent they can in my absence. I recently got a note which the meeting sends to far flung members, and I just cried. It was so sweet, so supportive. I feel their support. The meeting in London-I’ve spoken there about FWCC.

I feel there’s so much that Friends at large don’t understand about FWCC. The farther we get away from our meetings the more challenging it is to describe the value of a Quaker organization. How do we help people understand that when you join the meeting, you join this larger organizational world?

 

Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?

Gretchen: As soon as I moved to Britain, the then-clerk of FWCC said, “My last task is to get you a support committee, to be sure you have them.” I really appreciate that I chose the people. There are three people: we meet three times a year, and I have called them when I’ve been struggling. They were so responsive, they were fantastic. We have worship together. I find it very grounding. They are the type of people that send me a card on occasion, or they’ll text or email to ask, “How are you doing? How are things?” It’s more of a personal supportive group. In relation to the job I hold, for accountability, the Central Executive Committee is great.

 

Who have your mentors been?

Gretchen: My dearest mentor died last year – Warren Witte. I worked with him, for him. He was sort of my Quaker organizational guru. He was just a really wonderful teacher. He and I met years ago when I work for Friends General Conference and he worked at American Friends Service Committee in communications. We were part of a group bringing together Quakers Uniting in Publication – we kind of got that started. I’ve always said to him his middle name is collaboration because he’s really great mentor. He’s my major one.

Larry Miller is a great spiritual mentor. He was my former father-in-law, and he also worked for AFSC. He had a degree in divinity, and yet he was always questioning his spirituality. He’d always say to me, “Gretchen, I don’t know how you’re always so sure of God’s presence.” And I’d say, “I don’t know either, but maybe I came into the world with that.”

 

What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?

Gretchen: I think fearlessness is a really big thing for me, and part of that just comes with age and experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not worried about what people think, but really rely on what I know, feel, sense, intuit to feel confident that God is speaking through me, and not worry about outcome.

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys?

Gretchen: I’m thinking back to both the people I spoke about, Warren and Larry. What I learned from Warren was probably more about just watching him and seeing him; it’s more kinesthetic than it is cerebral. He really taught me the value of people and learning how to help people collaborate. He was brilliant at that.

 

What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?

Gretchen: One of the books I really have loved, from a professional standpoint is Good to Great, by Jim Collins. He’s talking from a leadership standpoint about determination and seeing it through. At the same time, he says, be very humble. I’m not aching to get out in front of the masses and wax on. I think it’s just important to keep at it, be consistent, love people through whatever they are going through, and be really loving and tender, and yet decisive and strong.

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path?

Gretchen: We only have a few years in which to do what we want to do. So if I’m feeling called to my work, I want to give it my all while I’m here because I’m not sure how long one can sustain it. I want to offer what I can. They hired me in this position in part because of my organizational development experience, and so I want to be effective and useful as best I can to the organization. It’s that servant leadership way of, “How can I best serve your organization?”

Jen Karsten

Jen Karsten has served as Executive Director of Pendle Hill since 2012. She has been at Pendle Hill since 2010. She and her family are members of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting).

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

 

Spiritual Life

What faith did you grow up in?

Jen: There was a pretty clear path through the Friends schools for my family to come into Quakerism. I grew up a member of Doylestown Monthly Meeting, and then took a long time, actually, in my late teens and early 20s, away from Quakerism. Then my family and I–my nuclear family now– joined Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting.

 

What is important to you now about Quakerism?

Jen: Trying to unify the inner life, the inner landscape, with outer action, and how those two layers sometimes find a friction-but in that friction or tension is the life of the Spirit, for me. I wouldn’t want to be purely inward, and I wouldn’t want to be purely outward, but in marrying the two, and noticing what happens when they become decoupled, and trying to bring them back together, I find myself really joined and held in Quakerism. I value the ongoing prompts of Quakerism to re-evaluate, look again, continuing revelation. The coming-back as a sort of group aspiration really draws me. And being in silent worship is a real draw and special feature of this faith community for me.

 

You talked about having left in your late teens and 20s. Can you tell me about that, and what you learned from that experience in terms of your faith and spiritual life, and then coming back to Quakerism?

Jen: As a young child, I didn’t experience a conscious need for religion, and was feeling almost a rejection of anything that seemed to have an institutional frame that I didn’t feel like trying to fit into. I had to be dragged to Meeting. I didn’t often want to attend. By the time I went off to college, I really would only go to Meeting one or two times a year. One habit my mom had that I really valued, actually, was that she likes to explore smaller, low-attendance meetinghouses. It was a fun adventure for my mom and me to take together-so that felt special. That was the thin thread that kept me connected. I was traveling, living in different cities, and swept up into a life where there was a lot of activism and a lot of exploration of different practices. It wasn’t really a rejection of Quakerism as much as a rejection of anybody telling me what to do. Then I had a cancer diagnosis in my late 20s. You asked about the spiritual piece of return and separation–you know, when you get really really sick like that, and you wonder if your mortality is at stake, there comes a sort of questioning and bargaining. I was drawn back into a strong desire to be reassured, and to connect with something greater than myself. That, coupled with getting married and deciding as a pair that we wanted to raise our child as a Quaker and within a faith community, led us back into checking out different Meetings.

 

What feeds your spiritual life?

Jen: Crisis feeds my spiritual life. It spurs me to seek, with a fervent dedication, and pushes me to remain grounded and rooted so that I can’t fall into despair or have my impact minimized by despair. Nature feeds my spiritual life too. I’ve had some of my most transcendent spiritual experiences at dawn on the beaches of India. It’s one of the most satisfying and inspiring things to see something unusual in the natural world. There’s something called a “glory,” (I think?) when you see a rainbow as a border around objects. I remember kayaking one day with friends, and getting out for a stretch– they hiked up onto a sandy ridge, holding their arms up for a photo, and there was a rainbow around them like a hazy colorful border, with long shadows. I’d never seen anything like that and this was in the age before the internet, so we didn’t have an easy way to quickly identify what that was. We talked to some naturalists, and it was fascinating to learn about. In those moments, you understand how prior cultures would have of course found their spiritualities through these amazing natural phenomena, right?

 

Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?

Jen:I have a love/guilt relationship with my meeting attendance. Living here at Pendle Hill, I’m so lucky to get to start every day with worship if I opt in. I don’t start every single day with worship, but probably 3-4 times a week. I get to begin my day grounded in stillness, which is incredible. But I feel guilty, sometimes because my monthly meeting attendance has been so sparse, and that’s largely due to wanting to balance my work life with family time on weekends. On First Day mornings we typically like to just get up and make pancakes and hang out together, and it’s rare that we decide to head into meeting. I don’t feel like I have too few opportunities for worship, but I do recognize that being part of a monthly meeting includes showing up and being part of the community. I feel well nested in the Pendle Hill community, and a little bit negligent in my longer worship opportunities.

An interesting thing about worshipping here at Pendle Hill for half an hour is that when I go to monthly meetings, and I sink into that hour, I have this mid-worship “coming out of the depths” experience about half-way in, like I’m being pulled up into my head and my thoughts because I’m so used to half-hour worship. I try to dive back down-and, when I’m able to do so, it’s in that second dive where there’s richer depth and noticing the inner teacher. I appreciate both types of worship, for different reasons. The ministry from around the world here at Pendle Hill, it teaches me so much.  It’s funny how there are days when there’s no spoken ministry at all, and other days where it’ll be bubbling with words. Either way, I get to experience the ministry and the seeking of others, and I like that. Here, it’s a continually renewing cast of ministers, you might hear words that move your thinking for a week by someone you’ll never see again. It’s a gift-half an hour daily, compared to weekly hour-long worship, or extended worship once in awhile. I’ve noticed, for myself at least, what a really different experience half an hour is.

 

What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?

Jen: When I think of faith, I think of trust in an ability to believe beyond evidence, and to rely on that during times where there’s confusion, or the path or the end-state is not known. The nature of faith work is to be in the confusion and reliance at the same time. I’m not a master of that. I also have long felt like, when it comes to faith, I’m “doing it wrong,” because I’ve always assumed that my conceptions of Spirit or relationship to holy traditions are not conforming to set orthodox practices. It’s taken me a long while to come to feel self-acceptance as well as comfort in talking about my own spirituality with others. As someone who has a job in a center defined by its religious tradition and commitments, I’ve never wanted to feel inadequate to that work. Also, realizing that I’ll never be able to be everybody’s conception of what Quakerism is, and so the decision to simply be one’s own, and make peace with knowing that that won’t be something that certain people relate to, has been really helpful and good work for me. It’s hard to know what it means to be faithful-and I think some people use that word with a definition that feels clear to them and unclear to me. When I need renewal, it’s helpful to remind myself that all things change.

Work Life

When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Jen: It was always challenging to me that you were supposed to pick one thing. I always wanted to be able to be everything. When I was 15, I wanted to be free of others’ expectations of me, and at liberty to travel, explore, experiment, get into mischief. I really, frankly, as a teenager, wanted to hit the road and just explore and travel, and I did a lot of that in my teens and early 20s. I didn’t have a “this is what I want to be.” I wanted to be everywhere and see everything and taste everything and leave no stone unturned.

 

Where did you attend college, and what was your major when you were there?

Jen: I went to Elon College, in North Carolina. I majored in journalism and electronic communications, and I minored in psychology. I really wanted to be a journalist who would travel, and embed with rebel factions and community groups, and see the real story of what was happening beyond what is shown through normal news channels. I have a sense of heroism for what I’ll call “true journalists” that are led to follow that path and reveal the real pan and beauty of the world. I never really lost my wanderlust.

 

If you did graduate work, what degree(s) did you pursue and what were their topics?

Jen: I did master’s work in environmental education with a focus on community-building. I did doctoral studies in the Bioresource Engineering department of McGill University, but my topic was related to education, and how what’s known from the field of complexity thinking has relevance for education, culture, and how we conceive of ourselves as a part of a web, an ecosystem. My academic career, sort of similar to my vocational career, has been less a matter of deciding at an early age what the final chapter would be and writing the book to get there; it’s been more like swinging on a vine in the jungle and grabbing the next interesting vine that comes by, because it’s interesting.

 

How would you describe your career path?

Jen: Unfolding. I don’t feel like I’ve known where I’m headed far in advance, but I like to be tested and I really want to be well used. I never want to have a job that just has me doing functions to perpetuate status quo. I want to be doing something that leads to the kind of change that I value and feels important to me. If I’m not feeling as though my contributions are leading to that on different levels, then I will be stagnant and poorly used. I like what I do with others when there’s excitement and a big goal to accomplish. I feel like there’s “unstoppability” when excited, creative, talented groups get together. One of the best mindsets that I’ve ever enjoyed is loving the mystery of what’s coming next. If you can’t retain a sense of mystery around vocation, where you spend the bulk of your waking hours every day and every week, that’s sad! I don’t want that! I don’t want to know what I’m doing next.

 

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?

Jen: Yes. By talking to people who’ve had similar experiences. By talking to people with different life experience than I have. And not giving up. Persistence is a key quality in moving through life changes, be they career or otherwise. It’s natural, for me at least, to want to escape at times or give up. You can usually find a way to move or shift, to no longer be in an unsatisfying situation. But I find that “standing in it” has been a huge teacher to me, when I’m really challenged. I’ve experienced a range of tests here at Pendle Hill. Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, just knowing that someone does, or that a group coming together and sitting with the question will, is all I need. Knowing that I can ask, and that the wisdom is out there, is what makes it possible to stand there not knowing what’s coming.

 

How would you describe your current position?

Jen: My job description’s spot-on for administration in this setting. If we wanted to boil it all down, it’s about being a good listener to the needs of the community, including not just the staff, but board and wider associates, alumni, formerly deeply-involved people. And listening for Spirit’s nudge, so that we don’t do things only because it’s tradition or because we did it last year. If it’s something we’re called to do because it’s going to effectively lead to beloved community, then let’s do that. Let’s be responsible stewards. Listening to where there’s a loss of energy on any level is important. Listening for the voice of those who aren’t yet here, and the ghosts or the presence of those who were here a long long time ago, but need for someone else to recognize their cautionary tales about equity. Because if you look far enough back, there are always marginalized and oppressed people. So listening for Truth, listening for the hints that there’s always more to do, and any gains achieved in that regard are fragile and precarious. They need vigilance and constant re-working. I’m still learning to do this well.

 

How did you come to apply for this job?

Jen: My predecessor, who was very inspirational to me, who hired me and taught me a lot, suffered a car accident six months into my tenure. So, due to the nature of my then-role as Dean, being technically considered the “second in charge,” I sort of de facto became acting Executive Director. After several months, and a transition to being interim director, the Board opened up a search for a new permanent director. I met with a range of people whom I trust, to get clear to make the application, and when I did, it was with a disposition to say, “I’ve been doing this work for close to a year now, so I feel quite familiar with what’s needed, and what the routines are. If there’s somebody who can come in and do it better, that’s the person I want to work for! I will throw the weight of my support and any training I can pass over to them. Meanwhile, if they really do a wide search and become clear to hire me, then I’ll feel as though I earned it and it didn’t just fall to me through these circumstances.” It was a really testing process. I felt vulnerable, because I knew that the staff knew that I’d applied. I knew that the process would be long. I felt sort of “out there,” not knowing what would come. But I felt so honored to have been selected, in the end. I definitely made a clear decision to apply, and would have been happy for Pendle Hill in any event. I also knew that it was a size too big for me. I knew that I would be trying on practices and skills that I had experimented with, but never frequently used in combination, and that there would be some things, like providing leadership during a capital campaign, as a staff person, that would be new to my experience and would help me grow. I’ve felt honored and excited, all of these years, to be able to keep learning through a position, but also being of service while I’m learning.

 

How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for it?

Jen: Mostly, I suppose, in the process of seeking clarity to proceed. Also knowing that because I was applying to a Quaker center, I needed to ask myself, “Am I ready to be a voice of Quakerism for people unfamiliar with the religion and coming to visit?”

 

What influences does your faith have in your job today?

Jen:

In Quakerism there’s an allowance for slowness that’s not mainstream. I can take a pause and choose to act with greater thoughtfulness over time than I might be able to in another workplace setting. That’s been hugely valuable on personnel issues, or issues regarding fairness at the individual level, but also at the structural level. There are some things for which being able to make a quick executive decision is needed and valuable, and being able to trust in your leadership to make a decision that through the lens of time you’ll feel glad about. To be in a place where I can speak of Love as that which should inspire and bind our work here. It’s really magical to have to ask myself, “Do I pass that test? Am I coming from a place of love right now? How much of this is ego? How much of this is about crafting a sense of reputation for the staff that I need or want to have, rather than being of service and doing what’s best for the greater good?” Getting to play with those questions openly in the workplace is an incredible gift. It’s tempting for me to want to give the right answer, or to reply with clarity, when often, the true answer is, “I don’t know.” Even if you don’t utter those words, just to say, “I’d like some time to think about that,” or “Can I get back to you Monday?”-what a gift, to feel okay asking for that!

How would you describe your leadership style?

Jen: Collaborative. Open to change. Relationship-oriented. My leadership style tries to say as many possible “yeses” so that on those occasions when I have to say “no,” it does not feel arbitrary. I don’t feel like I have a permissive leadership style, but I have an accepting style; accepting of what is, accepting of style differences. I have a desire to maximize the range of gifts and differences of personality and work style among the many people that contribute to the organization, while minimizing anything that comes up as a roadblock that doesn’t have to be there. I think it’s my job to help the community set strategy and vision, make sure all these talented staff people are clear on their roles, then just rove the landscape, scan for detritus, and get prohibitive factors out of the way so that everyone can make good use of their gifts and achieve shared goals.

 

How did you learn leadership skills?

Jen: No one source. Lots of life and job experience. And with dedication, pursuing my own growth over life. I think that’s a characteristic that I bring to this. I think that every outcome of that is due to the good graces of other people sharing their stories and cautionary tales, and making their witness known so that I could be inspired and have a template for myself in human others, not just fiction. Repeat exposure to amazing people. And keeping eyes open to that which is broken all around, so that I felt compelled to apply myself, and whatever skills I didn’t have to bring to it, going and finding them.

 

Do you feel that your work brings you closer, or further away, to your faith and faithfulness?

Jen: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to separate the fact that I live and exist here from the work that I do in and for the place. They’re all so bound up together in my worshipful seeking. I take workshops here, just like other people do, and I learn and grow. I seek here. I don’t know how to find a dividing line between those two things, so I guess they’re joined.

Advices

How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your Meeting?

Jen: I’m a member of a large meeting, Central Philadelphia, and membership in that meeting for a long time has included people who are working in various Quaker organizations, and leaders of those. So I feel like there’s a culture of understanding for that, and forgiveness for my low attendance that can be partly attributed to my involvement in this work. I would say that if there’s been any disjointedness between myself and the meeting, it’s on me for not drawing on its many support resources or participating as much as I might like. My meeting’s pretty incredible.

 

Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?

Jen: I don’t have a formal one. I’m currently participating in an anchor committee for a dear Friend, and I’m finding that even as we seek to support her, it’s as affirming and nourishing for me to be part of it. I understand the value of those, because so many people have recommended that for me since I took this position. The truth is that, due to the nature of the position, my time is limited, and what I find nourishing is time with my family, time with my daughter and husband, and frankly, as an introvert, to be alone. When I need support, I call a particular individual or two–often outside the Quaker world, sometimes in. I also know that if I needed something more, it would be a short turnaround to create that for myself. That’s one thing I love about our community-knowing that there are so many different ways you can seek out deep listening and supportive engagement from others.

 

Who have your mentors been? Could be generally, or spiritually, or work-related; etc.

Jen: I think of people who’ve provided excellent counsel or helped me a lot. Clerks of the Pendle Hill Board. My friends and my mom. My husband is somebody whose counsel I rely on on a regular basis, and who I really look up to. Sarah Willie-LeBreton, one of our board members, is somebody who I knew prior to being on the board. I lift her up because I’m thinking about how many Quakers I know have personal/professional overlap, thus in the Quaker world where many of us are known to each other, we must learn to wear various hats (f/Friendship). So many people have been generous and helpful, role models and nurturers, too many to count!

What is something that you wish you had known at X, Y, or Z points in your spiritual path or career?

Jen: I’ve certainly had struggles in those areas–personal life, work life, and career life–so the things I might have wished to have known would probably be different in each of those arenas. But one general message I’d send back to younger me would be that whatever fear, confusion, destabilization you’re experiencing is natural, and that all of your heroes and role models feel equally fearful and destabilized, but that it need not paralyze you. This too shall pass. Courage–coeur, from the heart–is to go towards or be with that which gives you fear, and then when you’re tempered by that fire, you’re stronger for next time. So–persist. Listen for the opportunity or invitation to change you. Understand that you can’t change others, but that you can play a role in their change, and persist. When I’ve been heartbroken, or terrified of hurting others, or of doing something which might seem to be for the greater good but which will cause some people to feel angry or disappointed, I made it, through the grace of others who’ve made such moves letting me know that on the other side, there’s joy again, and stability, and a better way.

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys?

Jen: There are many Pendle Hill pamphlets that I’ve had the good fortune to read, more frequently than probably anyone else because they’re all right outside my door. I think what’s been most helpful is that, as a collection, I’m able to see the range of voices. What I’m getting at is the multiplicity of viewpoints within Quakerism and within society. I’ve learned to seek them out.

A favorite passage that I turn to sometimes is by Elizabeth Watson. The piece in which she says, “I will not ask for good fortune. I am good fortune.” I love that passage. Though we’ve never touched hands or locked eyes, we meet across time and space. Elise Boulding’s work does the same thing for me.

 

What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?

Jen: Be yourself. Be in this moment. Let me know if I can help. Know that you’re held. I don’t think I find myself giving spiritual advice often, but I’d like to test that with people who spend a lot of time with me who might say something very different.

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path?

Jen: Don’t settle into something that’s not fulfilling for you. Don’t hesitate to pursue an opportunity, even if it seems beyond your grasp. There’s a lot to be gained from the asking. Sometimes trying on a fit too big can reveal growth opportunities, and most anything can be worked on and practiced through, until it becomes a skill. There are some innate characteristics that might not sound like leadership skills, but that executives would name as leading to their successes, and which can be really helpful to have in your bag of tricks. I’ve mentioned a few times the value of learning from other people’s life experiences, but I don’t mean that to imply that only people who’ve had longer lives than mine are wonderful resources. They often are, but I think it’s helpful  to have a social life with people who are like me and dissimilar to me, so that I don’t fall too much into a self-affirming groove of friends. Being around my daughter and her friends, and the older students at her school, and high school and college students, and grad students, and people and leaders from different camps around the country, I’m reminded of the potency and relevancy of different stages of life.

What is your favorite advice to give to other people who seem to be or are already on similar trajectories as you are on?

Jen: Do your best to know yourself. Not just the self that you were five years ago, or yesterday-but knowing yourself in this moment, and knowing yourself in general is a responsibility that we have if we want to be in leadership. Knowing myself prepares me to share my stories and make my requests for support, pass on the benefits of things that have come easily or been granted to me, so that that could be shared by the community, as well as the places where I’m deficient or limited. When I know that, it makes it easy for me to specify what I could use in order to be strengthened. When I’m with others who are doing the work of knowing themselves, I can respond with tenderness and gladness to their requests, because part of knowing myself is knowing the struggle of being human, the emotionality, and where my different reactions and responses are coming from. That’s something that makes us all so able to relate to one to another, that emotional experience. So, how to join with that connection? Find those people who, like you, are waving the flag of self-discovery pointed towards beloved community building, and when you find those others, join with them and dedicate yourself to doing good work with them.

Diane Randall

Diane Randall is Executive Secretary of Friends Committee on National Legislation, where she has served since 2011. She is a member of Hartford Monthly Meeting (New England Yearly Meeting).

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

 

Spiritual Life

What faith did you grow up in?

Diane: I grew up as a Lutheran in Omaha, Nebraska, and my family attended what was then the Division of the Lutheran Church of America, predecessor to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and we were pretty faithful. I grew up going to church every Sunday, going to Sunday school. I was confirmed in the church, and involved in the Luther League — the “Young Friends program” of the Lutheran Churches-active in the church camp program. Then when I was in college and as young adult, probably in my 20s, I started searching for different churches. My family had left that particular home church, and that caused me to start looking around. I tried a lot of different faith places until I moved to Connecticut and started attending Hartford Monthly Meeting. I tell people it was the Peace Testimony that attracted me to the Meeting, but it was the matriarchs that drew me in. And in truth, it was really the spiritual formation of the Religious Society of Friends that called me.

What is important to you now about Quakerism?

Diane: I think it’s the notion of the lived faith, the lived Gospel, the idea that there is an immediacy of God in our lives, God in my life, that I can have a sensibility about. That is informed by a community of people with whom I worship, informed by the faith tradition of the Religious Society of Friends. The traditions of the Religious Society of Friends that speak to me, of course, are the Testimonies. They offer us a pretty broad understanding of how to operate in the world without setting rigid structures for what we must do, and I find that appealing. I find worship to be an incredibly hopeful part of my week. The idea of being with other people who are together, listening for God, is kind of miraculous to me. Particularly as I see the secularization of the world, it becomes perhaps even more precious. I think that there’s a way of being, I suppose for most people of faith, there are both the traditions that we have in some cases grown up with and adhere to, but also the choices we make of who we want to be with and be around. Meetings have a social dynamic as well as a spiritual dynamic which can be really important and informative, and that happened for us. When I started attending meeting I was a young mother. It was a place for us to have a community of support as a family, and it was the thing that we all did together as a family every week. So that became really important, because it was a consolidating element for us. I think the fact that there is a continuing practice of being a Friend, and a continuing revelation of what it means to be a Friend-both for me personally, and for the Religious Society-that isn’t driven by a council of elders, but is fomented and fermented by people around the country. It’s a challenge to us to steep ourselves in practice and in worship. You don’t have to be a Quaker head, or even a weighty elder, to do that. It’s there for everyone.

What feeds your spiritual life (examples: going to meeting, meditation, connecting with nature, music, etc)?

Diane: Definitely time in worship. There was a time when I started going to Meeting in Hartford where it was really hard to leave that Meeting. Some of it was because family was there, and I had obligations teaching or doing something else, so it just felt like I couldn’t go visit another Meeting. Now I get to visit a lot of Meetings, and I get to participate in worship with a lot of Meetings and churches, and it’s really a rich experience-one of the delights for me in this job has been that I have found community in almost everywhere I travel. I’d say what feeds my soul is definitely having some time in nature. I find that spiritual reading, and other kinds of literature, poetry, feed me in lots of ways. The times I’ve been in small spiritual support groups – that includes both worship-sharing and silent worship – has been enriching for me, and continue to be. And time with family is a kind of renewal time for me as well. Time with friends is important. So, all those things.

Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?

Diane: My membership is still in Hartford. My husband and I attend Langley Hill Friends Meeting, which is in Northern Virginia, most regularly. We haven’t transferred our membership there, but I like the physical space, and it’s a meeting that has good vocal ministry and good silent ministry. I’m finding it difficult to serve on committees and do that kind of work that is really important for monthly meetings. I think that monthly meetings really are both the seedbed of how we grow, and the flourishing garden of what makes our community strong, and so I think it’s really important to be present in Meeting and to participate. Participating for most of us has to be on committees, and because of the job, that’s hard.

What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?

Diane: Well, that starts to get into the realm of being the Head of a Quaker organization, and marrying what’s a faith practice and what’s a daily piece of work. In terms of being faithful, I think just creating the time for God, creating a time to both listen and pray. That’s been something that I’ve found increasingly important, because this work requires a level of stamina that I’m not sure that I thought about before I took the job. Now that I’ve been doing it almost five years I see that there’s a certain level of physical stamina, but there’s definitely a spiritual stamina that’s necessary, too.

Work Life

When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Diane: Oh, a teacher-and I was a teacher. I taught English for four years in public high school outside of Omaha, in Millard Public Schools. I left there to go work for the Nuclear Freeze Campaign-wanting to take a leave of absence, but just assuming I would go back to teaching-and then went from one kind of nonprofit to another. But I really felt a calling to teaching. My mother was a teacher, and we talked a lot about teaching and learning, we talked about motivation and what makes people want to learn.

Where did you attend college? What was your major in college?

Diane: I went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and I studied teaching. I actually wanted to be a health teacher, so I studied health and English.

If you did graduate work, what degree(s) did you pursue and what were their topics?

Diane: I did a little graduate school, but never finished. I don’t have a lot of regrets, but that’s one. I really wish that I would have done that. And there was a time I looked at divinity school. I looked at both Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School when I got out to Connecticut, and almost went through the process of applying, and then it just felt like, “Well, what would I do with this degree?” In retrospect I think, “Oh, well of course I probably would have done what I’m doing right now.”

How would you describe your career path?

Diane: I think the idea of teaching is a theme. Even as I’ve gone from teaching to working in nonprofits- and I guess I’ve really gone from teaching to running nonprofits-I also think about the teaching element of engaging people. I think that has applied in the work that I’ve done leading organizations, it’s not just, “Oh, I’m in charge and I make all the decisions,” but “All right, I’m willing to put myself in this place where I will help manage and organize and provide a voice and a front for it.”

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?

Diane: I’ve never felt like I couldn’t find work. I’d been a waitress at one point when I was in high school, so I felt like, “Well, there are things I can do. I can always go wait tables. I can do something.” So I’ve never had that sense of, “Oh my God, how will I live?” I’ve also had family and others who would be able to support me. So that hasn’t been a struggle. There are times now when I look back and wonder, “What if I’d stayed in teaching?” I’m pretty sure I would have been a principal. I might have had another kind of administrative job, but I think I’m definitely drawn toward leadership positions.

How would you describe your current position?

Diane: My current position as Executive Secretary of FCNL is to head up a staff of 43 people who work primarily lobbying Congress to influence them on legislative priorities that are set by Quakers around the country. My job is a mixture of administrative work, development work, fundraising work, and being a public face for the organization. This is an organization that has a lot of expertise and people who represent FCNL in lots of different ways, so I would say I’m probably the most visible face to the Quaker community, and to some degree in Washington, D.C. I see my role as being the person who clearly has responsibility to our governing body. And, different people staff committees, but I’m the “buck stops here” person.

How did you come to apply for this job?

Diane: When Joe Volk, my predecessor, was retiring, a friend of mine who was on the committee said, “You should really look at this job. You could be good at it,” because I’d done advocacy work. I kind of dismissed it, really, because I was in Connecticut at the time. Then somebody else from my own meeting said, “Oh, Diane, you should consider this, they’re really trying to build the pool.” I thought about it a little more, and then Ernie Buscemi, had agreed to serve on the search committee, called me. She didn’t know me, but she said in a very compelling way “We hope you’ll really give this some consideration, some prayerful thought, and consider whether you want to apply.” I think it was that call, really. It was like being asked, somebody wants you-and it wasn’t saying “Oh, this job is for you,” it was saying, “We want you to consider whether this is the job for you, and we want you to consider putting your application forward.” I liked that process.

When I did a phone interview, and then when I went for the in-person interview, it felt like, “This is the right thing to do,” and it felt good. When they asked me to come be interviewed as a finalist, I thought, “Okay, this will be great, I know Quakers.” But, it was really different, being in a Quaker organization. But they offered me the job. I was pretty clear that if I had the offer, I would take it, and so I didn’t need to take a long time to think about it.

The search was happening, as you may know, as a part of this big transition five years ago. So one of the questions was, “American Friends Service Committee is looking for a head, and Friends General Conference is looking for a head. Why have you applied for this, and are you going to apply for those?” And I was just like “No! No! I wouldn’t want to apply for those jobs!” Because this was about advocacy for me, about public policy work, and that felt like it was what I wanted to do, because I really believe in systems change. The idea of working for a Quaker organization, to come here and be able to do that with Quakers, was a thrilling idea. But it wasn’t that I just wanted to work for a Quaker organization. That was certainly compelling, but I never had an aspiration to be the head of a Quaker organization.

How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for it?

Diane: I think a lot. I realized there was potentially something there for me, and that part of following a path of faithfulness would be just allowing myself to be there, to be a candidate, and if I didn’t get selected, then that was okay. I had worked on housing and homelessness ,and I felt like the lobbying work I’d done was in the same vein: not being partisan, trying to talk to everyone, and really being open to who would support these initiatives. To do that with Friends at the federal level was definitely a different order of magnitude, and a different range of issues. It seemed like a good opportunity to test what I understood about my Quaker faith in a political arena.

What influences does your faith have in your job today?

Diane: I think about it all the time. We have this wonderful vision: “We seek a world free of war and the threat of war, a society with equity and justice for all, a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled, and an earth restored”-also known as the Kingdom of God vision. It’s emblazoned on the wall downstairs, it’s on the little markers outside, it’s on a lot of our materials. We talk about it. That’s an active conversation. The Quaker perspective isn’t the whole faith perspective, but it is a perspective that’s important and useful and offers something. We were the first faith-based lobby in Washington, D.C.: so we’ve been here 73 years. So I am well aware of the grounding that we have from those Friends who started FCNL in Richmond, Indiana in 1943. But I am also aware of those Friends who signed petitions to King George, and who throughout history felt called by their faith to speak truth to power. That is awesome, and sometimes daunting, but it’s also just like being, as Daisy Newman wrote, a procession of Friends, being in the living stream of Friends. I feel that so strongly. But again, not me as a leader, but this organization and all the people that pick it up, are all part of that.

How would you describe your leadership skills?

Diane: Let me just define leadership overall, and I think I fit this. I think a leader is someone who is willing to stand up and speak, and stand up and listen, and/but to really occupy a space and be present for something. In that regard, it doesn’t have to be leadership of an organization or of an entity; it can be in our own right. There’s a certain ground that you hold and a presence that you convey. I think with regard to how I lead the organization, I try to be collaborative, certainly with the management team, the leadership team here at FCNL, so there’s a certain collaborative nature to it with the executive committee. I try to be clear about boundaries: what’s my work versus what’s the policy, what’s the board of governors’ work versus what’s my associates’ work-and I expect that back from them. I try to have clear expectations. A leader has to have some vision for where, in this case, an organization should go.

With a Quaker organization, because we are a community, it has to be a community. It can’t be a single person’s vision. I think a person can offer real ideas and a forward-leaning approach to the work, but I think you have to be really aware of the grounding and the backing that surround. I am constantly learning and being reminded that because of the role that I have here, what I say and do has an effect that it wouldn’t have if I wasn’t in this role. That’s an interesting place to be. I try to be cognizant of that and respectful of it, which means I have to sometimes not say what I want to say. Because it is different being the head of a Quaker organization than it is being a member of a Quaker meeting.

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?

Diane: Well, definitely within the Quaker world. People whose way of being and speaking and leading I’ve watched have influenced me. My mother’s been a big influence on me, as someone who could stand before people and speak engagingly. I am an observer of how other leaders interact and react. I’ve read some books on leadership. I have had friends with whom I talk a lot about leadership, the strengths, and the different styles of leadership. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve worked with people, consultants and others who have done leadership skills training. I think naming leadership and having ownership of that within the Religious Society of Friends is important. I’m really grateful to Jay Marshall’s work at Earlham School of Relion about lifting that up as a conversation at a conference that they do. It has sometimes been something that Friends don’t want to name, and yet, we cultivate leaders. Clerking is cultivation of leadership, from my point of view: if you know how to clerk, you know how to lead. I’ve also talked a lot to people about how to you translate those clerking skills or other things that we learn as Friends into the wider world, the non-Quaker world. Sometimes you can, and you can see how they have an impact on people.

Do you feel your work brings you closer or further away to your faith and faithfulness?

Diane: Most days, closer. There are occasions when I can be frustrated and think, “Wow, this is a distant idea.” But most times, closer. It certainly makes me think a lot about the best of Quaker practice. I’ve also spent more time recently wondering, “Who am I, apart from this role and the Quaker practice? Who am I with God, apart from this role and Quaker practice?” I’m not very far along in that. I feel like a lot of my time is spent asking “Who am I in this role in relation to God and this organization?” But that’s a good thing. It’s interesting to contemplate.

Advices

How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?

Diane: I should have asked for a support committee from my meeting before I left, and I didn’t do that when I got here. I feel very appreciated, and I feel like there’s a certain level of understanding, and then there’s a level where…I don’t really know how to talk about it broadly. But I think there are some people who kind of understand and are just like, “It’s great that you’re doing this and we’re so glad,” but I’m not sure that they truly understand the work or my role in it. I don’t feel that I have a meeting community that says, “We have a responsibility for this work,” and I think that’s significantly because I haven’t asked for it. So I’m not suggesting that people haven’t taken it up. My own personnel committee often acts in terms of trying to provide support, and they recently have said to me, “We are going to create a support committee for you.” I think that’s great, and I’m really appreciative, so I think that’ll happen soon.

Who have your mentors been (generally, spiritually, work, all of the above)?

Diane: First and foremost, my mother has had an impact on me. We’ve always been fairly close, and she has been a leader in her own work, which was education, and talked about her role as a woman in a leadership position. Both from what it was like to work with men when she was the only woman, and also what it was like to negotiate for salary. She would have never identified herself as a feminist, but I felt like I had this role model of how to operate in a world that’s not always open to women, and how to be a leader. That was really important to me.

When I was working at the Partnership for Strong Communities, before I came here, we were funded by the Melville Charitable Trust. The executive director, this guy named Bob Hohler, was a real mentor to me to think about the power of big ideas and the ability to change systems and what that takes, how to hold onto those big ideas and think about the arc of change from both a policy focus and from a political focus. Then there are people I work with who are lobbyists, just really good strategic people about how to to do a power analysis, just figuring out what’s going to motivate people, and trying to come up with a plan and execute it.

This is kind of an aside, because we don’t do political endorsements at all — but I was captivated by this idea that, Hillary Clinton just turned 68, and she’s running for this super-big job. It’s an amazing inspiration to me.

How do you balance your work and spiritual lives?

Diane: Giving time in the morning to some centered time, rather than at work, and just stopping after a certain point: not picking up my phone again, not looking at email, and doing something with my husband, hanging out. In spiritual life, too, just taking some moments to reflect. It could be just taking a walk around the block, just drawing in a little bit. I guess the other thing I’d say is, because there’s an element of my spiritual life, my faith life, which is about the work, I feel like I am being spiritual when I’m working, so that’s good. What I think about more is how to get out of this frame, and into a different one, so getting out into the natural world is really important, and having that break. And actually, sometimes just being outside of Washington is also really good, physically to see a different kind of landscape, and to be with friends who aren’t part of this mix.

What is something you wish you’d known at X, Y, or Z point in your spiritual path and/or career?

Diane: Hannah Whitall Smith has this great line in a letter she writes to her daughter, “I make it a practice to never live with regrets.” I agree with that a lot. I told you that I regretted not getting an advanced degree, and when I think about things that I regret in my life, choices that I’ve made, that’s probably one that I have.

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?

Diane: Brian Drayton, from New England Yearly Meeting, has done some work around ministry, gospel ministry and the call to ministry. He came to Hartford Meeting a few years ago when we were doing a deepening our worship event. He talked about our spiritual diets. “What’s our diet of consumption?” That has come back to me recently. I think about that in terms of our political diet. What are we hearing and understanding about it? But also, as a spiritual people, what are we consuming? What are we listening to? What are we digesting? If part of what you’re digesting is whatever somebody’s ranting about on TV, as opposed to what Lloyd Lee Wilson is writing about…even though that may not be related to immigration debate, it still relates to how we treat other people. We can be grounded in a spiritual faith that still allows us to speak powerfully into a political world. The point of the advice is: What’s our diet? What are the things that we’re consuming that allow us to be in this world? I think that’s really important. The other thing Brian says that I think about sometimes is, he was talking about people getting together and offering support to each other and just going over to one another’s house and sitting in worship-and he was like, “It’d be like wildcat prayer! Out of control!” I think about that phrase sometimes. What if we just allowed ourselves to erupt into prayer? That’s not advice I’m giving, so much as the images that come to me.

We have a lot of young people who work at FCNL, a lot of people in their 20s, and one of the things we’ve done is to talk about mentorship, and think about what it means to be a mentoring community. It’s a work in progress. In addition to being that kind of community, we’re also a very busy community, where people are focused on trying to get their job done, and there’s a sense of urgency about it. But I think the part about it being a mentoring community is, again, having some availability to listen to people, to listen to them about where they are and how they’re growing, and the kinds of questions they ask. People in their 20s are asking a lot of questions. That is a rich, rich time for all of us. Sometimes I have to remember, I didn’t know what I was doing when I was 25, I didn’t know where I wanted to go. The hard part is that we have these great people who come in and work for a while, and then leave us and go work somewhere else. It just breaks my heart, but that’s a natural thing to do. So, trying to be available to them — and this is not just me, there are other people here who are senior staff and who play this role with the younger staff here — both in terms of what our commitment is to social justice, how that comes from a place of faith, and trying to be available to talk about and listen to the kinds of questions people ask. Some of that may be: when you think about your work life, think about who you’re meeting and who you want to be around and who you are watching. Because the fact is that we all watch one another at some level. I think the millennial generation thinks a lot. For the people I meet, authenticity is huge, and so that’s not a far thing to talk from authenticity to integrity. That’s also a piece of…not advice, so much as just a way of living, or trying to be and support.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path?

Diane: I got typical advice which just seems kind of canned now, but I think it’s very true, which is to follow your heart. I think there’s some truth to that. And I think — there’s a Biblical reference to this — don’t be afraid. Be not afraid. I think about that, when I think about what either intimidates me or puts me off. When I think about it, I have had people who say, “Don’t be afraid of this. Just do it.” A lot of it has to do with speaking to power, and leveraging my own power, which comes from a sense of groundedness and purpose. So the advice is to use that power, and go to the highest level. If you have the opportunity to talk to the person in charge, go to that person, don’t go to the three people underneath them.

 

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)?

Diane: There’s not one send-off thing I say to everybody. Here in this work, I definitely encourage people to network, and that is not a natural thing for many people to do, particularly people who are introverts. That’s a hard thing, to walk up to strangers, people you’ve just met, and stick out your hand and say, “I want to talk to you.” But I do think that’s the way we make connections like that across social media and we should be doing it in person. I think now, actually, I would advise people: put your phones down and look people in the eyes and have conversations. I think there’s something completely powerful about that. That’s the way the world changes, where you can have an effect that other people might not be able to.

Christina Repoley

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).

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

 

Spiritual Life

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.

 

Work Life

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.

 

Advices

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?

Colin Saxton

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).

Spiritual Life

Work Life

Advices

 

Spiritual Life

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.

Work Life

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.

Advices

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?”