The “Great Quaker Turnover” Is Underway

Have you noticed the “Great Quaker Turnover” yet? It’s well underway.

The Great Quaker Turnover (GQT for short) is a change in top management at a number of the major Quaker organizations. Among them are AFSC, FCNL, FGC, and even Quaker House here on the doorstep of the Military machine. I hear there are others, including FUM, coming up. (Readers are invited to add to the list.)

Across the pond, the turnover just washed over that venerable publication, The Friend of London. Editor Judy Kirby, the first real journalist to hold that post, retired at the end of April, and has been succeeded by Ian Kirk-Smith. Welcome, Ian; we should talk soon.

Ian Kirk-Smith (New Editor) and Judy Kirby, moving The Friend forward

While these changes are all coming in the normal order of things: incumbents reaching retirement age, there are still two features that are worth tracking:

One: there’s a generational change coming; us Baby Boomers are on the way out. One or two Boomers may still be in place when the dust clears, but more and more these desks will be occupied by people like our new U.S. President: folks who never had to deal with the military draft, know about the Vietnam War only secondhand, for whom abortion has always been legal.

I’ve often wondered where the new Quaker organizational executives are being prepared. If we were talking about the Supreme Court–then we could look to the Ivy League law schools, and simply prospect among their alumni.

But who is preparing the Quaker poohbahs? I don’t say “leaders” here, because for the most part, they’re not. They’re managers, people who keep organizations running.

Quaker Poohbah on phone

But it’s not the same as “leadership.” Despite the periodic handwringing workshops and consultations on the topic, there’s no “Quaker Leaders Academy,” at least as far as I’ve been able to discover, and I’m not sure there could be one. Quaker “leaders” are the people who move the Society of Friends where it needs to go.

And who decides that? The answer is in John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Chinese Willow & Breeze

Which means that as often as not, the real Quaker “leadership” comes from the margins, not from the center. Or a leader will emerge, get the job done, then fade back into the benches.

But such leadership is a topic for another day. (But you can read more about it; click.)
We’re talking managers here; and that’s a much more measurable set of skills, that people get degrees for every year, then spend years learning the ropes in existing organizations. We need that organizational management done, and done well.

But again, who’s doing it? The Quaker schools? They mainly prepare people either for expensive colleges – or for work in Quaker schools. Quaker colleges? With an occasional exception, they barely teach Quakerism.

Looking at the record of the “big three” groups, one answer could be the AFSC: the retiring executives at both FCNL and FGC worked for AFSC first.

But this brings us to the second big X factor: the impact of the economic crash. It’s hit AFSC especially hard, reducing it by something like half, which means many fewer slots to fill with promising Friends. And even though AFSC has seemed to be more Quaker-friendly in its hiring over the past few years, the percentage of Quakers on its staff still seems quite low. So my sense is its ability to play the “managers school” role is much diminished.

In which case, the most likely pool of candidates will be insiders at the various groups; they will have had the best chances for picking up the needed practical learning.

In our view, this will be promising in one case, not so much in another.

Almost three months ago, we made our prediction about the selection of AFSC’s next General Secretary.

I’ve seen no reason to change that prediction since.

The two other large groups coming up are more wide open. But in one case, FCNL, we’re ready to make a call; and in the other, a cautionary recommendation.

Bridget Moix

FCNL: the Quaker lobby. The organization’s wheels are turning slowly and deliberately in this process; but for me, naming Joe Volk’s successor is a slam-dunk: it’s Bridget Moix.

Bridget is whip-smart, widely-traveled, gobbles up international affairs policy issues like candy, and already has more than a decade of high-level policy experience. She’s also personable and diplomatic. (Read her staff bio here. )

There are several “Associate Secretaries” at FCNL who outrank her in seniority; but they are mostly of the Boomer cohort, and while neither they nor their work can be disparaged, the hard truth requires to be spoken plainly: I think their time is passing.

The FCNL top slot is one to be filled for a generation. Bridget will bring to it a combination of youth, high achievement, policy experience and breadth of vision that will be very hard to match, and can go the distance. And I bet the FCNL search committee did not read such a recommendation here first.

learning Quaker leadership

Now, as to Friends General Conference (FGC). This is a horse of a very different color.

From one angle, FGC is in fine shape: solvent, only marginally impacted thus far by the financial crunch, and looks to make a soft landing.

If it does, that will be the result of careful financial management and skilled fundraising for a long time, almost 30 years. But I’m old enough to remember the early 1980s when FGC almost went bust, and still know that such cushions are not eternal.

As with FCNL, there’s several senior staffers who could make a plausible candidate to succeed the retiring FGC general Secretary.

But our recommendation to the search committee is that they do not follow this line of least resistance, and look OUTSIDE the organization for the next top manager.

Why? Because while it is considered very indelicate to say so, FGC is a haunted organization As one very astute younger Friend said to me not long ago, there’s a dead elephant in its living room.

dead elephant

That dead elephant is the Quaker Sweat Lodge, which the FGC poohbahs thought they had killed off six years ago, in 2004, and then, after a brief lapse into fairness in 2006 had buried forever in 2008.

But it’s not staying buried. The memories of betrayal and injustice still simmer, particularly among younger Friends who had a beloved and very spiritual experience arbitrarily snatched away from them and stomped into the dirt. And the record of unprofessional and ignoble behavior by those responsible has undermined FGC’s moral and spiritual credibility for many.

(More about this sordid history here.)

It’s telling that the new “Spirit Rising” book, a collection of writing and art by younger Friends, includes a piece about the Sweat Lodge and its dismal fate. It’s a good news-bad news essay, which both laments the crushing of the sweat lodge, but ends by parroting the official line that the injustice done to its creators and participants was not the “real issue” – no, the important thing was how FGC could mollify its young without it. (A young Friend close to the editorial process said this doublespeak denouement was required for the piece to be published at all.)

That institutionally self-serving conclusion is gravely mistaken. Justice matters here. Truth matters. The whole affair stank in 2004. It still stinks, from under the rug where it’s been shoved. And part of the fallout from the affair is egregiously unprofessional behavior it evoked from FGC’s executives, and complicity from the rest.

No, this affair is not done with. And all the inside aspirants to FGC’s top spot are tainted by it. So the Search Committee would best serve FGC and its constituency by finding someone not thus compromised to be its next General Secretary.

There are other close observers, who don’t think the sweat lodge travesty as weighty as I do, who still have scented this air of well-masked decay in FGC. It is an undercurrent that as yet is spoken of mainly sotto voce, or in safe spaces. But it is there, and reinforces the sensed need for new, outside executive talent.

We don’t have a candidate to recommend. Clearly the job demands fundraising skill; all the GQT positions do, along with managerial skills. In this case, a well-functioning crap detector will also be a key management tool. Good hunting.

Watch for GQT updates as these searches continue.

7 thoughts on “The “Great Quaker Turnover” Is Underway”

  1. It’s a smaller and lower-profile organization, but you can add Ben Lomond Quaker Center to the list as Jacob and Gretta Stone prepare to move on.

    Thanks for this, Neil. For the benefit of some non-California readers, I’ll note that the Quaker Center mentioned is near Santa Cruz. And as you’ll see in another comment, FUM is evidently part of the “Great Quaker Turnover” too. So that makes six major groups on our GQT list (Quaker Center is a major institution for western US Friends), including “The Friend” in London which has just made its change.

  2. A comment from Jeremy Hardin Mott:


    The forthcoming changes at the four major Quaker organizations (AFSC, FCNL, FGC and FUM) are very important. Two (AFSC and FUM) are actually worldwide organizations in their program, even though their funding bases are mostly in the U.S.A. AFSC was once the main missionary organization for liberal Quakerism; it started and fostered new “independent” Friends meetings in the U.S. during the 1920’s and 1930’s; along with British Friends it created Quaker Houses and accompanying meetings in Europe; in the U.S.A. in the 1940’s and 1950’s and into the 1960’s it ran many work camps, usually
    for a month in the summer. Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Quakerism do a great deal of missionary work in the usual sense overseas. Friends General Conference, unlike AFSC, still does missionary work for liberal Quakerism.
    All four groups (we’ll exclude EFI from this discussion from now on) need new General Secretaries. And all four are said to be broke. Both FUM and FGC could return to less frequent gatherings of Friends, and rely more on electronic communication to save money and energy and time. We must hold the search committees in the Light.

    Jeremy Hardin Mott

  3. From what I’ve learned from past and current staff of some of the organizations you mentioned above, it is a stretch to call some of them “Quaker” organizations. (I’m not naming names, but I will say that Quaker House is not one of the groups I’m referring to here)

    Some of them are ran like poorly run corporations, instead of Spirit-led endeavors. There is way too much ego and way too much territorialism. And there is frankly way too much hype and claiming successes that the organizations had little to do with.

    I can only speak for myself (as a relatively young bi-religious Quaker), but I can’t imagine young quakerly Quakers giving serious thought to stepping into some of these roles, mostly because doing so would involve way too much Spirit-squelching.

  4. Also I’ll add that I Quaker organizations should be neither corporate or poorly run, but unfortunately it seems to be that both sins seem to be concurrent with each other all too often.

  5. James, I’d agree with much of what you said in your first comment. My main disagreement would come in your latter sentence, as I think that many “young quakerly Quakers” WILL step into these roles. They’ll massage away their concern with the belief that “somebody has to do the job.” They’ll get help in doing so from various “elders” who see certain talents in them.

    In the same way, many “young quakerly Quakers” serve roles in their meetings, yielding to the egos of their organizational progenitors when they’re led in a different direction. Those who don’t are branded “troublemakers” and subjected to all sorts of prohibitions.

  6. James M. Branum Says:

    “From what I’ve learned from past and current staff of some of the organizations you mentioned above, it is a stretch to call some of them “Quaker” organizations. (I’m not naming names, but I will say that Quaker House is not one of the groups I’m referring to here)”

    I say that not naming names is not speaking “frankly.” And talking of “way too much hype and claiming successes that the organizations had little to do with” without specifying the organizations and just what is meant is more akin to gossip than to “speaking Truth to power.”

    This is not to say that criticisms of the organizations mentioned cannot or should not be made. There are valid (and, I think, important) criticisms to be made, but mumbling is not communications and obscure references to something being rotten in Denmark do nothing toward putting compost out to rot productively.

  7. Fair point Neil.

    I guess I rationalized my statements by saying that raising the issues in generalities without naming names was kinder to all involved. But what I said wasn’t specific enough to be helpful. And being silent isn’t much better.

    So, in the interests of clarity… my main concerns are with AFSC.

    I think that AFSC is much better at PR, than they are in actually getting shit done. I also think that AFSC is way too top-down in the way it does things. There are some really good people involved with AFSC (I know many through GI rights work), but I myself cannot enthusiastically support them until the organization reforms itself and becomes more democratic and grassroots in its orientation.

    That is as specific as I feel comfortable being.

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