An Interview with Zachary Dutton
What is your Quaker story? How did you come and grow into Quakerism?
My mother was raised in a Quaker family that was involved with Friends United Meeting. She was a member of a Friends church that had a pastor in North Carolina. My father was a Baptist preacher before becoming a convinced Friend after meeting my mother. By the time they were married, they were a Quaker couple. When I was born, I was born into a Quaker family—at least my nuclear family. I have memories of worship at Birmingham Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, learning how to not talk. I remember my father teaching me how to twiddle my thumbs as a focusing technique.
Back then the meeting didn’t meet in a specific location, so we moved around a bunch. By the time I was a rebellious teenager, I was pushing back against Quakerism and feeling disconnected to the whole idea. This began to change when I encountered the young Friends program in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting; my own convincement experience occurred in that setting. I think I still needed to become convinced, even though I was raised in a Quaker family. I had gotten a lot of the cultural side of Quakerism—possibly nonsense stuff—but the core spiritual piece came to me when I was participating in Young Friends. I call myself a Quaker now largely due to those two things: my convincement experience in the Young Friends program and my upbringing in a Quaker family.
Was this Young Friends program volunteer or staff-led?
It was staff-led. It was a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting program with a full-time coordinator, Cookie Caldwell. He was really good at his job!
You’re now employed by that same Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Was Quaker employment a career goal for you, or did it come about in a more happenstance manner?
For about six years I was working toward becoming a professor of religion. I earned my master’s. When it came time to begin the next phase, which would’ve been PhD program, I changed my mind. It was difficult to decide to let go of six years of preparation. And at the same time, the position that I now have opened up. I applied for it largely because of who I knew would be my boss, and because of the direction and vision the yearly meeting had set for itself. So yes, it was happenstance, but it was possibly what was supposed to happen.
What is the work you do now?
My title is associate secretary for Program and Religious Life. It means that I run the program side of the nonprofit aspect of the yearly meeting, assist the general secretary with her relationships with governance bodies, and help in setting her vision for the yearly meeting staff.
So presumably much of the work that you’re doing is work that would be typical for a nonprofit staff anywhere. What is distinctively Quaker about it?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. The work that we’ve been doing on anti-racism, as a staff, is a good example of what makes us Quaker. Also we are ready and willing to set aside the typical professional norms and to shed tradition when that seems appropriate. Our willingness to have impromptu meetings is also Quaker. For example, there was a member of the staff who had a serious concern about something that he felt exposed racism. A group of us took two hours to process that concern and to work through potential changes in some of our practices. And that was just a regular day in the office! We also start every meeting with a period of centering worship. I think those are several concrete things that make us uniquely Quaker.
Is there something that might surprise readers? For example, even most Quaker nonprofits have staff roles, job descriptions, and a leadership hierarchy.
One of the things that I talk a lot about is that in Quakerism we can be co-creative, participatory, and consultative while still being very hierarchical. Our staff actually embraces the profoundly functional need for hierarchy in order to get things done. For example, in my program department we have a practice that every project has to have a lead person in charge who holds final say on decisions. We call that person the “Bottom Liner,” and everything we do needs to have someone in that role. It doesn’t mean that the person does everything, but there is someone in charge. I don’t think it would be healthy for us to try to make every decision together.
We’re here to do what we can to support the vitality and growth of a larger spiritual community. That spiritual commitment means that if the community decides to go in a different direction, then we will alter our staffing for that. We are ready to change the structure of our staffing, which means possibly letting people go. I know that might come as a shock to some people. It’s often a very hard thing to do, but it’s something that we need to be able to do if we’re going to serve the community well.
Friends have long voiced a perennial concern about the professionalization of Quaker staff. Over time we’ve seen more elaborate job titles and a higher percentage of roles held by non-Friends. You’ve written that you talk of yourself as an “amateur Quaker.” What do you mean by that?
In some ways, it is easier for me to live out my faith than it might be for Friends in non-Quaker settings, because I am swimming in our practices all day long. It isn’t as difficult to live my life with integrity at the yearly meeting as it might be for people working in spaces that aren’t specifically Quaker. Zen Buddhists will sometimes observe that the hardest and most venerable way to practice is to leave the monastery and try to do it out in the world. If I’m that dude hanging out in the monastery, it’s a lot easier for me than it is for someone working at a bank or a school.
I think of myself as an amateur Quaker precisely because I’m not practicing our faith in a more difficult setting. I understand that framing it that way can seem kind of disingenuous, but I think it’s helpful in terms of re-framing how people think about those of us who are getting paid to do this sort of work.
I have noticed and even started participating in the institutional gossip: “Someone just left this position at that organization. And who’s gonna fill that position?” and “Who raised the most money this year?” These questions should not to be ignored entirely, but they can take on a life of their own and become quite powerful and attractive. It’s a quality of institutional inertia, and it’s tempting for me to go along with it. It might be dangerous to assert that there’s a particular cluster or class or field of people from which we draw staffers. So it’s important for me personally to continue to think of myself not as a professional—not as pursuing a career with Friends—but as someone with a spiritually grounded leading that happens to coincide with what the community needs of a member of staff. It’s important for me, at least, to keep that distinction alive.
Do you ever feel that it’s hard to be both a Quaker employee and a Quaker in the meeting? Do you find a tension in going back into more anonymity when you actually go to worship?
Yeah. Well, there’s this one time when I was in a business meeting at my monthly meeting, and a question about the yearly meeting’s budget came up. One of the people facilitating that business meeting pointed at me—actually took their arm and their finger and pointed at me—and said, “Zachary, would you know the answer to that question?” At that moment it was important for me to say, “No, I’m not going to answer that.” I felt that I needed to set a clear boundary: when I am at my monthly meeting, I’m not representing the nonprofit institution that is Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
I chose Central Philadelphia Meeting because there are not a lot of people coming up to me wanting to talk about all the politics or institutional gossip. Mostly people want to know about me and my life and my relationships and deeper things. I’ve never been accosted about something that the yearly meeting has done that someone thinks shouldn’t have happened, or told what someone thinks the yearly meeting should do. This is a huge blessing. It’s probably the result of many other professional Quakers who have been in and out of Central Philadelphia. They understand what it feels like to navigate that tension.
You’ve been academically trained in religious studies. Do you find you have a different perspective on larger spiritual trends after having gone through that training?
I feel like I’m still learning about Quakers and Quaker history despite my training in religion. My academic education has allowed me to see Quakerism through two different lenses. I can see Quakerism through the liberal Philadelphia perspective of someone who grew up in it. But I also see it from a more academic analysis. A lot of my most recent writing has been an attempt to describe and make sense of Quaker theology without using “Quakerese.” But I feel like I’ve been largely unsuccessful getting out of “academese.” I’ve just been replacing “Quakerese” with academic language.
Still, it’s helped me see that none of this is the point of Quakerism. For me, Quakerism is about an inward journey that we all travel with the support of our community. Whatever language we need to use and whatever practices we need to raise up is secondary.
One of the things we’ve been struggling with in the yearly meeting is our anti-racism work. There’s been a lot of controversy around it. Certain people in the yearly meeting are ready for us to really dig into anti-racism, while others, who aren’t there yet, have accused the first group of hijacking the process. People have accused other Friends of not being spiritually grounded. I think it is false. If there’s any hijacking, it’s being done by the Spirit and not by particular individuals. It’s been helpful to see language as an expression of people grappling with the lived experience.
A wise Quaker once looked me in the eye, arched his eyebrow, and sternly warned me: “Never work for Quakers for so long that you can only work for Quakers.” It’s probably too late for me, but what about you? What is the alternative to careerism?
I think of myself as having skills and experiences that the yearly meeting has claimed—taken off the market, if you will—while I’m working for it. This isn’t something that I want to do forever. But forever is a relative term. There are some days when I feel like two years has already been too long! But it can take a generation for the seeds we’re planting now to really bloom. I wrestle with that: Do I need to stay being paid by Quakers in order to see that through? And I think what’s beautiful is that no, I don’t.
Once I’m finished here, I can get involved in ways that I can’t now because of being a staff member. Now I need to take a step back and let others engage in most of the leadership. I think it’s good not to plan on staying on indefinitely as a paid staffer. There needs to be a balance. We should stay open to the possibility that someone’s particular set of gifts and skills might be needed for longer than a few years.
So is it sometimes that maybe it’s just a job, and that’s okay?
Yes, sometimes it’s just a job, and that’s okay, because sometimes it’s part of a mosaic of things I want to do with my life that contributes to the increased vitality of Quakers.