Quaker Organizations Welcome New Leaders

In recent months there have been numerous changes in the executive leadership of several Quaker organizations. Some observers have even referred to these transitions as "the great Quaker turnover." Among the changes:

  • Friends United Meeting’s current secretary, Sylvia Graves, will be retiring in July 2011 and the search committee is currently finalizing their decision for a new candidate. Colin Saxton has been recommended by the general board to fill the position.
  • Chuck Fager, the director of Quaker House, will be retiring in late November 2012.

Many organizations have already appointed new leaders:

  • Margaret Fraser, executive secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation-Section of the Americas, is retiring, and her successor will be Robin Mohr. In the World Office, Nancy Irving, the general secretary, plans to retire in 2012.
  • Shan Cretin was appointed as the new general secretary of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in September of 2010.
  • Diane Randall was appointed as the new executive secretary of Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) in November of 2010.
  • Friends Journal‘s own publisher and executive editor, Susan Corson-Finnerty, will be retiring in September 2011, and the Trustees of Friends Publishing Corporation have chosen Gabriel Ehri as the incoming executive director.
  • Bruce Birchard of Friends General Conference (FGC), will also be retiring in July 2011 and the Executive Committee has chosen Barry Crossno as the new general secretary.
  • Ben Lomond Quaker Center in California has announced its new directors, Bob and Kathy Runyan, of Chico (Calif.) Meeting.

Why are so many Quaker organizations changing executive leaders at the same time? The only discernible trend is that most of these leaders are now reaching retirement age. As Chuck Fager points out in his blog, A Friendly Letter, "There’s a generational change coming; us Baby Boomers are on the way out." A new generation means a fresh perspective, and many people in the Quaker community are excited to see how a new, younger group will take on this responsibility. What are the thoughts of these new leaders on contemporary Quaker issues and testimonies? How will they face the economic recession that is affecting budgets?

New Leadership

Quaker organizations continue to look for certain qualities in their executive leaders: individuals who are actively involved in other Quaker communities and organizations, who have experience in Quaker decision-making, and who have a strong commitment to traditional Friends testimonies.

An important aspect of leading a Friends organization is the approach of "leading from behind," or servant leadership. This is an important Quaker concept coined by Robert Greenleaf and explicated in his booklet, The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf defines the servant-leader as someone who "is servant first. . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead." Servant leadership requires flexibility, tact, and the ability to collaborate with others. In light of the current financial recession, executive leaders will be called to serve these communities through the implementation of new fundraising tactics.

Program Plans and Changes

Many organizations that are experiencing leadership transitions are also planning for changes in their structure and programming. For example, Friends General Conference is in the process of consolidating several committees of its long-term program into one large committee, which will be called the Discernment, Planning, and Priorities Committee. FGC is also hoping, as the newly appointed general secretary Barry Crossno describes, to become more "project-based," which will allow the organization to "respond more quickly to the needs of the Quaker community as they arise." FGC, like many others experiencing these transitions in the coming months, is reexamining how best to serve Friends in an increasingly dynamic world.

Friends United Meeting is also in the process of discerning a new sustainable and energizing structure. The organization will be implementing a peace curriculum for Quaker secondary and elementary schools in Kenya that will focus on conflict resolution and peacebuilding skills, and Kelly Kellum, chairman of the Search Committee for FUM, stressed that in a time of war, "Quakers have a voice, and there’s a need for our voice in matters of peace and reconciliation." FUM has successfully supported similar programs overseas, but now seems to be focusing its attention closer to home. One of FUM’s most important long-term goals is to nurture and maintain its domestic work and to reinforce its North American ministry.

Bruce Birchard spoke of similar goals for FGC. "Quakerism in North America is at a turning point," he said, and FGC has plans to strengthen programs such as its annual Gathering of Friends as well as Quaker Quest, a program that provides information to those in the broader public who want to learn more about Quaker life.

Another important element being lifted up for Friends organizations now is sustainable living. Shan Cretin, AFSC’s new general secretary, says that her organization’s main goal is to "bring about peace with justice in a sustainable way—that is, economically and environmentally sustainable." The current environmental concerns are closely linked with the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity. FGC’s Bruce Birchard believes an illness of materialism and consumerism is creating disastrous consequences on a personal as well as an environmental level; living simply, Friends can help curb the environmental destruction that threatens every aspect of our lives.

In a sense, environmental concerns are linked with all Quaker testimonies, including Peace. Chuck Fager, outgoing director of Quaker House, has been trying to raise awareness of the "intimate connections" between militarism and the degradation of the environment: "Militarism is one of the major consumers of energy, and helps to drive its profligate use."

Connections Among Quaker Organizations

An important goal for the new leaders is to stay connected to other Friends organizations and meetings; technology and the Internet have become indispensable means of communication. FGC is in the midst of a major reconceptualization of web communications and services, which will clearly be a valuable tool for connecting with Friends meetings. Barry Crossno hopes that Quakers will share ideas on how to use common technologies to reduce costs and improve delivery of services. With these new technologies, he says, Quakers can "deepen their experience and understanding of Spirit and build stronger communities."

Shan Cretin, a self-proclaimed "technology geek," has also mentioned plans for a "Friends web connection page" for AFSC, where people can blog with the organization and discuss world issues. The new executive secretary of FCNL, Diane Randall, has expressed her enthusiasm for working with the heads of other Quaker organizations, "both the outgoing leaders who can offer wisdom and the new leaders who bring a fresh approach." Randall believes that effective collaboration is the key to strengthening Friends organizations and achieving positive results in the work they do.

With the movement of written forms of communication and self-expression from print to new media, Friends Journal hopes to take advantage of this global trend to reach more Friends around the world. Gabe Ehri, the executive director designate, says Friends Publishing Corporation will experiment with delivering Friends Journal "wherever Friends need us to be"—on the web, on e-reader devices, and on mobile devices. New Quaker leadership will attempt to harness the vital strengths of technology, while recognizing and addressing its challenges.


Many organizations and yearly meetings have experienced drastic budget cuts, and in many cases, staff has been cut as well.

For Friends Journal, the recession has reduced financial assets, opening the way for the organization to develop innovative funding solutions. One of these solutions is the creation of a new tiered subscription format, which would offer a reduced-price subscription for those of modest means, as well as giving those who can afford it opportunities to help support the Journal through sustaining financial contributions. Friends Journal will increasingly use its website and other forms of digital social media to publish the voices and stories of Friends, to be, as Gabe Ehri says, "a central piece in the strengthening and growth of Quakerism."

FCNL has planned a three-year transition in response to the economic crisis, reducing expenditures by one-third. Randall says FCNL owes the success of this plan to "careful financial management and strong support of our contributors. FCNL’s finances have been and remain solid." FCNL’s General Committee has even budgeted modest increases for income and expenses for the upcoming fiscal year.

Many Friends organizations see the recession as a challenge that has strengthened them. Janet Ross, clerk of the Board of Trustees of Friends Publishing Corporation (FPC), which publishes Friends Journal, explained: "In some ways the recession was good for us as it opened our eyes to the need to find additional financial avenues, and forced us to reexamine and clarify our fundamental values." FPC and other Friends organizations are looking for new executive leaders who not only are skilled fundraisers, dynamic and innovative enough to take on the myriad of problems posed by the recession, but bring fresh perspectives with which to respond creatively and wisely to the fluctuating economic climate. For FPC, this means moving fully into the world of Internet-based communications.

Despite the troubling financial crisis, some organizations are still thriving economically. While some have experienced a decrease in contributions, FGC has raised more money in the past year than ever before. Since Bruce Birchard began as general secretary in 1992, FGC has succeeded in raising its annual budget from $1.3 million to $3.3 million, a 150 percent increase.

It is clear that the new generation of leaders has a lot on its plate. These leaders will be expected to revitalize their organizations and provide a fresh perspective while still maintaining the organizations’ traditional testimonies and values. They will also face the challenge of creating innovative ways to deal with the current economic recession. All of the retiring leaders who were interviewed for this article were excited to see what the new generation of leaders has in store. Many are hoping that this younger generation will have a better understanding of technology and web communications, and that they will be able to utilize this booming technological trend to improve communication with their constituents as well as with other Friends organizations. The new leaders are also excited about their new positions and responsibilities, and are committed to collaborating with others.

Diana Allinger

Diana Allinger, an intern with Friends Journal in the fall of 2010, is a senior at Temple University. Several other FJ interns, including Melissa Archer, Patty Cangelosi, Julia Feerrar, and Madeline Schaefer, assisted with the development of this article.