As of this month, Christie Duncan-Tessmer is the new general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM). She follows Arthur M. Larabee, who served in the position for seven and a half years. I sat down with her this past June, shortly after she was appointed, to talk with her about the new role and her vision for PhYM. Below is the extended version of the interview.
You were raised in the Episcopal Church tradition in Ohio, and it says in your bio that you and your husband, Zach, “were drawn to explore the Religious Society of Friends as a spiritual home.” Would you share a bit about what drew you to Quakerism?
Well I first knew about it from my aunt, who is a Quaker and a member of Downingtown Meeting in Pennsylvania. I had attended meeting with her once or twice growing up. Shortly after my husband and I got married, we were looking for something that made sense to both of us, something that encouraged God in our spiritual paths to be front and center all the time. It wasn’t just a Sunday morning kind of thing for us—which wasn’t my experience in Episcopal Church either. I remember one time in Catholic school (I went to Catholic school for one year in high school) I was in religion class and the priest asked, “Now who here prays or thinks about God every day?” And I was the only one who raised a hand, and I remember feeling astonished, like how can you not? So that’s something about Quakers that has just always made sense. The practice of worship itself was really inviting to both of us; it felt welcoming of all of us—the whole of us.
Did you first start going to Chestnut Hill Meeting where you are a member now?
Well, we went meeting shopping. Starting in the fall of 1994, we went to one meeting for a month and then to another meeting for a month and then Chestnut Hill for a month, and the plan was to go to more meetings after that and then choose one. But by the second week at Chestnut Hill, we knew that was our home. So this fall it will be 20 years that we’ve been attending meeting on a very, very regular basis.
I know the PhYM General Secretary Search Committee conducted a thorough and extensive discernment process over eight months before recommending you to fill the position. What was that process like from your perspective?
I had the sense, the experience that they were being really careful about it. They were expansive, that is the word that comes to me, in taking in perspectives and ideas and experiences of Friends in this community—what’s needed and why, what are we looking for here. They did a really thorough job of doing that and of talking with the Long Range Planning Committee at the same time, because that committee was asking similar questions, and they were coming up with a plan that the new general secretary was going to have to help carry out. So they were careful about that. They had listening sessions all around: at young Friends gatherings and with high schoolers, too. They were also really attentive to casting a really wide net, making sure that people across the country knew about this position. They wanted to give the yearly meeting as much possibility as they could for finding the person with the perspective and experience that would serve the yearly meeting and possibly that would mean coming from a completely different place. They were pretty careful about publicizing it across the country.
They also asked for a fair amount of information beforehand. I talked to a consultant that they worked with who interviewed me on the phone. It was a screening kind of interview. It was supposed to be half an hour, but we talked for over an hour. And then at the interview, which was with about 12 people all in the same room, they all had questions lined up. And they started with asking me to address them as if I were at annual sessions and to speak to everybody as if I were already appointed as general secretary. They told me about that in advance so I had a few weeks to prepare. This exercise really helped me focus narrowly, clearly on what it is that I would want to say and what are the concepts that I want to share and how I would do that. Which is a different way than just asking questions like, “So what’s most important?” but to actually show how you are going to say this to the people in our community. So that was really interesting and is still the basis for what I’m planning to say at annual sessions.
One other thing that was important to me during the interview process was that I asked a friend from my meeting to help me set up a clearness committee. Four people from my meeting served on the committee, and they were really, really helpful in helping me separate my own fears and hesitations from how I’m really being called. They helped me decide that yes, I am going forward with this. Then when I was offered the position, before I said yes I talked with my husband and met with them again just to make sure I was being clear. That’s one of the things I love about Quakerism: that process of helping one another get to the core of what we can hear from God.
Yeah, it’s sort of like an incredible built-in support system, because you can really only go so far in your own mind. So during the application process, what is one question that stuck out to you?
The Search Committee asked for something in writing (in addition to my application) about what kinds of change I would want for the yearly meeting. Answering this was hard for me; I felt like I should be saying something new because change is new. But the kind of change that I am focused on is change that I have already been doing, so it’s not new for me. So there are the committees and working groups, and these are things that the yearly meeting does, but they are not the primary focus of the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting is all of us—and that’s the change. Yet it’s not brand new, because it’s something the thread approach does, which is an initiative that came out of my office. And so it’s really just continuing on that path. My hope is this concept of “we are us” will go deeper into paying attention to our spiritual journeys and talking more with one another about what our experiences are.
Would you explain the thread approach more and how it came to be?
All of our meetings have threads of the same ministry going across all of them. For example, they each have a worship and ministry committee, a care and council committee, a First-day school committee, a peace and social concerns committee. These are common things that all of our meetings do. And so what the thread approach does is find ways to, along those threads of concern, bring people together across all of our monthly meetings so that they can learn from and support one another. There are thread gatherings once a year for each of these topics that bring people from all monthly meetings together in one place to hear from one another about what are they working on: what’s working, what’s not working, what’s really hurting, where do they want to go, what’s in their way. The effect often is they feel less isolated, and they realize they’re not so bad off after all.
There are also thread luncheons and workshops to help people learn more skills so that they can do a ministry better. And there are thread letters as well, which are electronic newsletters among each of the themes that share stories of what’s happening in our meetings so that people can learn from and be inspired by one another. The letters ideally go out three to five times a year, but they don’t happen as frequently as I would like. It’s a lot of work to find the stories, and meetings aren’t spontaneously sharing them with us. So actually that’s one of the things on my mind as general secretary: I want to encourage us to find ways to share those stories more, for it to be more a part of the culture to recognize, “Oh, we’re doing this thing; we should let people know about it,” and write it out and send it in.
You worked under Arthur the entire time you were associate secretary for Programs and Religious Life (since 2008). What do you admire about his leadership during those years and what do you hope to carry forward from his time as general secretary?
The thing that comes immediately to mind is the way that when there is conflict or something’s happening that’s hard, how he moves right toward it. He will pick up the phone immediately and call someone. He doesn’t stand back and wait and see how things shift out or spend time strategizing “okay, maybe I should say this to this person and then this . . .” He just goes toward the problem and says, “Friends, let’s talk. What’s happening here?” Even if, and he says this, even if he doesn’t know what to say, he’ll just say that: “I don’t know what to say, but let’s just start talking; let’s find out what’s happening here.” That constant reach toward staying in relationship is so important, and he has such a huge capacity for it. It’s something I’ve absolutely learned from him. I’ll hear myself saying, “Okay, move toward that, move toward that.” There was one particular time at a gathering when I was bringing something forward that was making people upset so every time there was a meal, I would look around and feel myself be Arthur, looking around like who in this room is most angry at me right now? Let me go and sit down and talk with them. And it made a huge difference in how that particular thing was worked out.
That’s hard to do. Especially when you know you’re uncomfortable, but you do it anyway.
It’s really hard to do, and saying that out loud is a big part of it: “This is really hard; it’s really uncomfortable, and I’m just gonna do it anyway.” And actually knowing that I could go back and then tell Arthur, “Okay, this is what happened, and this is how I did it and just moved toward it,” that was part of what made it possible, knowing that I could go and process it with someone who really got how hard it was and what I was doing and why and would be supportive of that even when it was disastrous. It wasn’t, but even if it were, I could still go and talk with him about it. So I guess that would be another thing: right from the beginning he’s been someone who I’ve been able to say, “I don’t know how to do this,” or “I don’t know what’s happening here,” or “I need help figuring out this out.” And he’s almost like, “Goodie! Let’s get into it; let’s figure it out.”
There was one time when—this was back when staff meetings used to be clerked by a member of the staff, not the general secretary, that’s changed now, but there was a point when he was general secretary and I was clerk of the staff, and I remember clerking in a meeting and realizing I’m stuck: I don’t know how to make this thing go forward, and I kind of muddled through it, but went to his office right after and said, “That thing, how would you do it? What’s happening here?” And he’s like, “Oh! Sit down, let’s talk about this.”
Another thing that he has done which I want to be able to carry forward is that he’s gotten us to an enormously stable place. The financial crisis upset us, but it wasn’t just about money . . . we’d been doing the same thing in the same way and not wanting to let go of anything. It was hard for us to get through that transition; we had to let go of half of our staff and cut back so much of our budget, and partly because of Arthur’s ability to go right into it and say, “What’s happening here?” and stay in relationship through that really hard time, he worked with lots of people who got us through that to a stable place that I think allows us now to just leap into what’s next, where do we wanna go? So while leaping is something that I’m really good at and comfortable with and excited about, maintaining that solid ground is a really important piece of what I need to do going forward, to continue working with our committees and our leadership to try not to do so much that we undermine ourselves, but let that ground support us as we follow where we’re led.
From the press release: “You envision an integrated, deliberate approach to our corporate work and life as opposed to a string of programs and resources. You want members to experience a large, vibrant community manifested in truth and spirit.” What do you mean by these statements?
We put out a booklet every year that lists all the programs that are sponsored by the yearly meeting in the next year. It lists everything that’s happening for all the age groups, including interim meetings, webinars, programs, and all the thread gatherings—all the things that we do. And this is great! What we offer is really good. But sometimes it feels like in order to be part of the yearly meeting, what you need to do is go to a bunch of programs. So you take time out of the rest of your life and go to this program or this event, and that’s fine, but that shouldn’t be only what the yearly meeting is. The yearly meeting isn’t just, “We offer these programs; we offer these resources.” The yearly meeting is again, this is us. This is our community. And so while it’s important to maintain living your life in relationship with your monthly meeting, going to meeting regularly, and knowing people from there or your Quaker community whatever that might be, it’s also important to see that we are more than that: there are thousands and thousands and thousands of us here, and this whole community is a place where Friends are seeking deeper relationships with the Divine, deeper spiritual relationships with one another, and that’s how we live our lives, and from that we parent, we go to our kids baseball games, we hang out on Wednesday night with our friends. But we have the sense that we are this meaningful, important, needed, spiritual community, and some of how you find that out is by going to programs and events, and some is just by knowing what’s happening in other places, in other meetings. So again this goes back to asking meetings to share more of what they’re doing and using our communication resources to help people know what’s happening; that’s the sort of integrated experience that I’m looking for.
Another way I’d like Friends to connect is by visiting each other’s meetings. This is something I’ll announce at sessions and will continue asking: for every Friend to visit two other meetings in the next year. This is inspired by the very old, traditional Quaker practice of intervisitation. So sometime in the next year go visit another meeting: go worship in another meeting; see what their building is like; see what meeting for worship feels like in their space; what it looks like when there are no kids, or when there are lots of kids. Find out what the meeting down the road from you does so that you can be closer neighbors. Find out what it’s like to go to a meeting three hours away that doesn’t have any other meeting anywhere near it. Go visit and experience how big and varied we are.
Here’s a question submitted by one of our readers Cynthia Terrell: “What is her vision for young Quakers? What programs might answer their needs? In what ways can PhYM strengthen experience for young people?”
In thinking about us being this integrated whole and not just a bunch of programs, it’s important to consider how it works for young adults whose Quakerism and spiritual journeys are really important to them; and they’re not attending meeting every Sunday morning nor are they on committees at meeting. So how do we make that work when our whole system is set up around monthly meeting? And monthly meetings are important because that kind of community is a way of holding one another accountable and helping us see more than what’s in our own eyes and in our own hearts. If it’s not monthly meeting, then what is it? And how do we do that and include all the vibrancy of everybody living their lives, listening to leadings, following that, and being as alive as they can be? That’s what I’m excited to live into.
So there are two ways of paying attention to young Friends. One is making space for people of different ages to have time together—for high schoolers to have their space of being Quaker together and being with their friends; and this is really, really important. But it’s also really important for them to experience themselves as being part of all of us. So they’re not just their own program, and they go and have weekend events and that’s what it is to be Quaker for them. They’re part of all of us, and so how do we do that? We’ve been doing it more and more, and one activity from annual sessions is a really good example: we have young Friends write the queries for worship sharing. Everyone, high school and up, is assigned to a small worship-sharing group, and for each morning they gather, the queries are from the young Friends. So young Friends are part of the worship sharing and are in fact leaders in it.
Another important way of paying attention to our youth is making sure that the way in which we do things is accessible to them. So there are times when we’re all together and people are talking too long, and you know the youth just tune out. There are more fun ways of interacting, but it’s not just fun; it’s also about spirit. Last year at sessions, we divided into small groups of different ages, and each person wrote a six-word poem about what’s important to him or her about being Quaker. So we’re all doing the same task, but you might come at it in a more concrete way or a more poetic way. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but here’s a place where we’re doing the same thing together that’s interactive, fun, and engaging and meaningful all at the same time. So that’s the kind of thing I’m always looking for. What doors do we need to build? In what ways do we need to shift how we do things so that it is accessible to everybody? What are the things we need to shift so that it’s possible for young adult Friends to be more involved?
We’ve just funded a young adult Friends coordinator position that will start October 1 with our new fiscal year, and part of that job description is helping meetings learn what young adults are looking for, giving the meetings tools and suggestions, and working with the young adults in meetings to figure out what kinds of things we need to shift so that this is a place where they want to be.
You’ve done a lot of work with children in the Quaker community in your past positions serving as junior gathering coordinator for Friends General Conference, religious life coordinator for Newtown Friends School, and then PhYM’s children’s religious education coordinator. What useful skills have you gained working with children that have helped you in your current role working more with the adults?
I think a couple of things about working with kids have translated in and helped me do the work that I do well. One thing is when working with kids, you need to be multimodal. Whatever you do, when you are teaching kids or learning with kids, it can’t just all be about talking and the head and thinking or reading. You’ve got to be active; there’s got to be feeling it in, color and movement and art and just lots of different ways to interact with kids. And actually one of the reasons I love doing multi-generational things is because when kids are in the room, then adults are going to be more likely to be okay about writing a six-word poem or drawing a picture or something like that. They’ll feel like, “Okay, the kids are here, I’ll do it.” But what happens is they use a different part of themselves. We spend so much time sitting on benches and being in our heads as adult Quakers that I think it really limits our experience of one another and of the Divine. And so it’s important to find ways where we can bring more of our whole selves to what we’re doing and get beyond what you know yourself, then it becomes more meaningful for the whole community.
Another thing about working with youth is you always have to have a plan B ready and you have to be ready to invent a plan C at any moment. It’s one of the reasons I love working with people who work with youth, because they’re always ready for that: to figure out what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, and it doesn’t matter how many things are falling apart, they can figure out what’s next and how to stay present in what’s happening. And you know, that’s always going to be a useful skill no matter who you’re working with or where.
Another question from one of our readers Lucy Duncan: “What about stoking the fire of spirit-led activism, reclaiming our roots as a community of resistance? What about undoing racism as a core Quaker commitment, how might she encourage that within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting?”
So this question reveals one of the complicated things about being in this position and being staff at all. It’s the community who makes the decisions about what we’re doing and where we’re going. And it’s not my role to set an agenda. We have an acronym that we use on my team for Program and Religious Life, developed a long time ago: it’s SWBCH, which stands for Super Weird Business Church Hybrid. On one hand, we are a church: we are a religion, and we are a religion that is led by us. And on the other hand, we’re like a business: we’re an organization with staff, with rules, with job descriptions, with supervisors, and it’s a super weird hybrid of those two. And so there’s a constant negotiation of where do we take leadership and set the stage versus where do we follow as staff? Those are constant questions that we’re asking, and everybody has different answers to those questions. So there will be places where we will take leadership, and there will be people who’re upset with that, and vice versa. So Lucy’s questions are very SWBCHy.
What the yearly meeting absolutely can do—and this is the work that I want to do is directly—is stoke the fire in individual friends and encourage us to hold one another accountable, expect one another to live our lives in a spirit-led way. The more we do that for one another, the more things like reclaiming our roots as a community of resistance is just going to happen. So how I see my role is to make sure that what comes first is relationship to the Divine and listening and following that. That’s absolutely the very first thing. I think that’s the first thing in Quakerism and that’s the first thing in a monthly meeting or a yearly meeting or my job: to help make that be first in being spirit-led; listening for the still, small voice; following the Inward Teacher; and doing that in community and helping one another do that.
One of the concepts that was most important to me growing up as an Episcopalian was that we create the Kingdom of God by living it; we manifest it by the way that we live our lives. The Kingdom of God isn’t heaven and something that happens after we die. It’s right here and right now in the way that we speak, the choices that we make, the way we live our lives, the way we interact with one another. That is what creates and builds the Kingdom of God.
So in applying for this job, one of the things that held me back is [the decision to leave behind my past work]. I started out in social services, working with kids in shelters who had just come in in the middle of the night because their moms had been beaten up for the one-hundredth time, and it wasn’t safe for them and so their moms fled. And my job was to help take care of the kids and help the moms take care of the kids and make this be a safe place for their kids—help their kids have a different kind of experience of what it’s like to be alive, an experience that was not all violence focused. I also worked with teenage girls with babies who were living in a residential facility because either they’d been abusing their own babies or they’d been abused themselves and weren’t safe at home with their babies. And what was keeping the babies and their mothers together was by being in this place. And the girls would be fighting each other regularly; there was just a constant culture of violence underlying all of their experience.
So I have a lot of skills; I am good at what I do. Why am I using that to come be in an office and to travel around and work with Quakers who are largely a pretty privileged people? How is that useful in this world, rather than taking what I have learned about running a good organization back to social service agencies and helping them be more effective? Part of the answer is—and I feel really vulnerable sharing this, but it’s absolutely true so I’ll just keep saying it—part of the answer is that if I can be in a position that helps encourage people, in each moment of their lives, to manifest the Kingdom of God then that’s even more effective than helping the three kids who are in the shelter this week. So that’s my answer to Lucy’s question. I can’t say, “This is what we’re going to do and we are going to do it in this way and here let’s go.” But I can say, “Live from the center, and this is how we do that.” And I can help make that be the beginning of what we do. And I can’t imagine how that doesn’t lead to being a community of resistance and spirit-led activism.
Another piece of that is that this way of living, this amazing gift of Quakerism isn’t just for white, middle-class people. This is for anybody, but part of what we need to do is be accessible. What are the doors in? What do they look like? And when you come in, are we functioning in way that’s welcoming of lots of different ways of being and seeing and experiencing the world? And so racism is a piece of that. What is it that we need to do in our meeting communities to see the barriers that we have put up (that we don’t even know that we have) and to transform that? And I think racism is something that Friends are more and more wanting to address, but I think along with it is classism and ageism, being accessible to all ages, and also gender concerns. I feel like moving toward transformation is all about how we are welcoming and open and recognizing where we aren’t and identifying what tools are there to help us make that change. And that’s essential in order to be a people that is truly living from the center.
Another question from one of our readers Carrie Engeman Sandler: “How will she address issues of transgender Friends?”
The transgender policy was a really complicated and painful experience from lots of different perspectives, and we’ve been working pretty hard, especially in recent months, to transform that. What we’ve done is worked with FGC’s Traveling Ministries Program: they identified a friend to travel in the ministry and she has an elder and she has come here to PhYM. She’s talked individually with all young Friends who were invited to talk with her; several Friendly adult presences were also invited. She met with the Education Standing Committee, who had responsibility for approving the policy to begin with, and we made the opportunity for her to meet with young Friends as a group, with the Friendly adult presences as a group, and with staff. She’s done all of that work, and people have been able to share deeply how they were hurt, what needed to be said, what needed to be understood, what they felt wasn’t understood. And so she is now holding that whole constellation of what’s happened, and the next step is she’s continuing to work with us and we’ll start to bring some of those groups together to continue to really hear from one another: what was going on, what are the feelings, what are the experiences, where are they now, and what needs to happen in a relationship between those groups. So it’s not widely known that that’s happening, but it is, and we’re paying lot of attention to it.
Another thing that’s happening is that there’s an annual National Trans-Health Conference that’s held in Philadelphia, and it’s next week [June 12–14]. They have a religion room or spirituality room, where different kinds of religious services or experiences are held throughout the conference, and there will be Quaker meeting for worship that’s held under the care of the Worship and Care Standing Committee of this yearly meeting. And the speaker at PhYM’s annual sessions this year is Peterson Toscano, an actor and performance artist who has done a lot of work around gender, sexuality, and transgender issues. So one of the things that we’re doing is paying attention to the message that we’re giving and being inclusive and making opportunity for there to be conversations, but also for it just to be part of the way we function: to be accepting of and supportive and inclusive of transgender people in our community.
The last question for you from our readers was submitted by Karlene Ellsworth: “How will she raise the PhYM profile in the Philadelphia region? Using the press, media, public events, and social action.”
That’s a really good question and something that’s very important. By virtue of being general secretary, I will be on the governing board of the National Council of Churches which is an organization that includes many Protestant churches in the country. There was a meeting recently of the National Council of Churches with the governing board and also the people who are working on the programs of the Council of Churches. And one of the things that was really striking to me in meeting people from across the country and from many different religions is the level of respect and almost this sense of awe that people have about Quakers—for the kind of impact that we have in the world—which was really gratifying and powerful to experience at National Council of Churches. I mean, it didn’t come up all the time, but a couple of times a day people would say something to me . . . you know the head of some other mainline Protestant church would say, “Quakers have been so important.” The person who ran the music for the whole time was a professor in religious music at, I forget where, some prestigious college, and I had lunch with him at one point, and he was talking about what an impact we’ve had in the world and how it’s been important to him and then he said, “Yet you have no music in your service, like how can that be?! I don’t understand how those two things can go together!” [laughs] But he was really respectful of Quakers and glad we’re in the world.
So we have an impact and we have recognition of being a powerful people and so we need to be more present than we’ve been in a way that people can see us. So I think that there are two things: one is—and our communications director has a lot to do with this and we’ve been talking more about it—one thing is we need to have a strategy for social media and using social media a little more, because right now it’s not really something we’ve done and we’re ready. We’ve gotten to a place where our communications have a really solid bedrock—which is new for us—and Martin [Reber] has done a huge amount of work to get us to that place and so now we need to pay attention to social media and share our message and experiences and the work that we’re doing.
And the other thing is the traditional media: building relationships with print media around here. To some extent we can do that here in the yearly meeting with the big outlets; that’s something we should start to cultivate. But the other piece of it is that meetings need to do it. We can give them help, and in fact we do have some resources already that our friend from Newtown Meeting has put together and that we’ve shared through a Communications thread letter that explains how to be in relationship with your local paper, when to put stuff in, how to do it, what are the actual steps, and then the thing is you have to do it. So we can give all the resources to help meetings do it, but they’ve gotta do it; we can’t do it for the meetings. But we can get scaffolding in place, and that’s our job. It’s funny I haven’t said this yet, because it’s something I say a lot: the job of staff is to develop scaffolding and to provide scaffolding. So we can provide the scaffolding for the structures for meetings to be able to communicate with each other through the thread letters, through our website, through social media, through whatever, so that we can hear more of the stories of what’s happening among us. Because I know there’s amazing stuff happening, and once we start hearing those stories more among ourselves, I think it’s one way of inspiring one another to live close to the Spirit and from the center.