An Interview with Barry Crossno

Barry is the new General Secretary of Friends General Conference. He was interviewed by Chris Pifer, Web and Online Communications Manager for FGC.

Barry is the new General Secretary of Friends General Conference.  He was interviewed by Chris Pifer, Web and Online Communications Manager for FGC.

1.    For those Friends who have never met you, tell me a little about yourself.  Where did you grow up?  How did you come to Quakerism?

“If I wasn’t Catholic, I’d be Quaker.” One of my college professors made this remark during a lecture on the Reformation and then started to move on to other topics.  Fortunately, a classmate asked the question that was already on the tip of my tongue.  “Professor, what’s a Quaker?” I was twenty-one years old, born in Tennessee, and had lived all my life in Arkansas, Texas, and New Mexico without knowing anything about Quakers.  Upon hearing the question our professor lit up and said something like, “Oh!  Interesting people.  They believe in direct access to God without an intermediary.  They believe in full equality of men, women, and all races.  And, for over three hundred years they’ve been witnesses for peace and justice.”  That exchange was the seed that started my Quaker journey.  

2.    You’ve worked in a wide variety of positions, in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors and inside and outside the Quaker world.  What are some of the highlights of this past work that you feel have particularly prepared you for your new position with FGC?  

In my early thirties I spent two years working for a company where the first couple hours of most mornings were spent cold calling technology executives.  It was my job to introduce them to our computer remarketing and recycling services.  In some ways, it was difficult.  But in those two years, not a single soul hung up on me, and I helped that company expand significantly.  I still remember what it felt like to work in partnership with my employer, to close my first million-dollar deal with a Fortune 500 company, a deal which started with a cold call several months earlier.  I’m not saying cold calling is a fun way to spend my mornings, but it taught me a lot about perseverance and how to engage someone with whom you’ve never spoken.  I also learned the value of having services that people actually want, need, or believe in.  People listened to us and we grew because we had a service that mattered to our customers, but equally as important, we also listened to our customers and developed new services based on what they told us they needed.  Whether the business is a nonprofit or a for-profit, listening is what makes it work.

Later I was a Quaker working at an international Buddhist institution, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT).  This organization has roots stretching back many decades but wasn’t incorporated until the 1980s.  Starting as a small and dedicated group of students, FPMT now has almost as many people associated with it as the yearly meetings affiliated with FGC.  There is no doubt that the majority of this happened because of the inspiring presence and teachings of Lama Yeshi and Lama Zopa.  However, it also happened because they were determined to make the Tibetan Buddhist experience teachable, repeatable, and clear.  They put in place tools, videos, books, conferences, and teachings that made Buddhism scalable—if people wanted to practice Buddhism they could.  They had removed the barriers.  If there was not study center near you, FPMT had retreats that would teach you how to start one.  Needed a teacher of Buddhism in your region, they would send one.  Needed videos to familiarize yourself with teachings, they produced them.  The list goes on.  While Quakerism is a completely different religion and mindscape with different structures, I learned a lot in my four years at FPMT about how accessibility, scalability, and clarity can transform lives.  For the past four of five years I’ve been working with many others in Quakerism to lay the foundation so we can construct more tools and services for meetings, making it easier for them to engage and nurture newcomers.  Seekers need access to the knowledge and tools that will allow them to be deeply and experientially engaged early in their journey with Friends.  These same tools will also serve many of the needs of experienced Friends.  I’m excited that there is a call being experienced by more and more Friends to make a spiritual offering of Quakerism to newcomers.  I think it’s becoming clear for many Friends that proselytizing and outreach are different concepts and that to make our tradition visible and accessible is a form of deeply grounded service that enriches us all.  As the growing number of meetings who are participating in Quaker Quest can attest, outreach has actually deepened their in-reach and has made their meetings more vital.  My time as a Quaker working for the Buddhadharma was deeply rewarding, and I believe my experiences there are enriching my service to Quakers.

With this experience as context, the last two years I’ve spent at Pendle Hill have been critical in my development as a Quaker.  Pendle Hill serves all the branches of Quakerism, people from other faith traditions, and those who do not affiliate with any religious tradition.  I’ve always believed there are many ways to God, and pluralism is important to me.  But, my understanding of the religious and spiritual paths of others has deepened.  Like many Friends, I came into Quaker practice feeling wounded by traditional Christianity.  I understood clearly when I started my walk with Friends that Spirit was inviting me to immerse myself in a tradition that originates from the life and witness of Jesus.  However, I was very resistant to embracing the Christian narrative within Quakerism.  In the two years prior to coming to Pendle Hill, I started to open up, and since arriving at Pendle Hill that opening has grown.  Studying with Will O’Brien at The Alternative Seminary in North Philadelphia, talking with Marcelle Martin about the writings of John Woolman, listening to Shane Claiborne talk about his witness as a Christian, being engaged by Lloyd Lee Wilson’s lecture “Who Do You Say I Am,” deepening my understanding of the theology of early Friends through time in the Pendle Hill library, talking with FUM and EFCI affiliated Friends about their spiritual journeys, meditating on the heart of Christ—these are just some of the experiences that have helped me re-imagine my understanding and experience of Christianity within and beyond Quakerism.  I believe my time at Pendle Hill has helped ground and open me so I can hear and walk with people who come from many different perspectives and experiences including Christian and non-Christian, as well as theist and nontheist, from inside and outside of the Religious Society of Friends.

3.    I’ve read some of your blog posts. You’ve clearly seen blogging as a medium for exploring Quaker theology.  What has been your experience been of blogging among Friends?

Blogging among Friends is very important.  There are not a lot of Quakers.  We’re spread out across the world.  Blogging opens up dialogues that just wouldn’t happen otherwise.  While I laid down my blog, “The Quaker Dharma,” a few years ago, and my thinking on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blogging is what allowed me to give voice to my call.  It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pendle Hill and, now by extension, FGC.  A lot of cutting edge Quaker thought is being shared through blogs.  Writing Cheerfully on the Web: A Quaker Blog Reader really speaks to the truth of this.  It’s a great compendium, though if you want to see the very latest writings you should, of course, go online.  You might be moved by what you find.

4.    What do you understand to be FGC’s unique gifts and purpose?

In terms of purpose, the FGC mission statement sums it up well:
Friends General Conference, with Divine guidance, nurtures the spiritual vitality of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) by providing programs and services for Friends, meetings, and seekers. 
For me, I think it is a combination of things that makes FGC a special and wonderful organization.  First, FGC serves the US and Canada and has representatives and participants from across Canada and the United States.  The people who serve FGC together on Central Committee see the big currents and needs moving through our Quaker communities and then have the opportunity to forge programs and services that do more than serve those needs—they stir renewal, they inspire.  Further, FGC, through Central Committee and our working groups, has a tremendous reservoir of talented people who have chosen to make common cause.  During my four years on Central Committee I was continually astonished by the dedication of the volunteers and staff who make FGC’s programs and mission possible.  These are faithful Friends.  In addition to all this, the recently approved new structure of Central Committee at FGC has amazing possibilities.  We’ll be able respond to needs with more flexibility and draw on the time and talents of people who sit on Central Committee and of those who are volunteering for individual projects but who might not have other ties to FGC.  What FGC has already accomplished is fantastic.  What we can accomplish with the new structure and our shared vision around strengthening our tradition, I think, might be astonishing.  As George Fox said, there is a great people to be gathered.  I believe the Quaker message is still revolutionary.  The Quaker way is deeply transformative and FGC, through a wide range of programs, projects and initiatives, is dedicated to helping people experience it.

5.    How would you describe your calling to serve Friends as the next General Secretary of FGC?

I accepted this position because I believe in the reality of something greater than ourselves in the Quaker message, in our capacity to hold those who seek communion with the Divine and to hold those who are inspired by the Quaker witness in the world.  

Several years ago Spirit shared a message with me, “Quakerism is a doorway through which many will walk.”  I believe that.  I believe the Quaker way is one of many profound and important gateways to God, the Sacred Mystery, or whatever you might want to call your experience and understanding of That Which Is.  My call is to help Quaker communities of all kinds: yearly meetings, monthly meetings, worship groups, study groups, spiritual peer groups, and others develop the tools, grounding, and experience they need to be vital and grounded in the Spirit.  I am convinced that we can change the world when we act from our deepest truths and offer opportunities for commitment, growth, and renewal.  In particular, I’ve run into many young adults who want to live a deeply committed life.  I hope, as a religious society, that we challenge them to live into their full brilliance and capacity.  I hope by choosing to walk a Quaker path, young adults will feel inspired to be faces of God in the world and to use their unique gifts in the arts, sciences, business, teaching, direct religious service, and other professions so they can serve the greater good and be faithful to the seed of God that lives in their heart.

6.    What opportunities lay ahead for the organization, for the Society of Friends?

In terms of FGC, we have an enormous opportunity to build on the solid successesof the past ten or so years.  My hope is that over time we will work closely with many Quaker organizations to create significant tools for religious education—many of these online.  I want to see programs that can be scaled.  If someone hears about Quaker faith and practice, I want them to have easy access to meetings, study groups, religious education classes, peer groups, books, and other communities and tools that give them a clear, direct route into our practices.  From this, I hope they will quickly learn if Quaker faith and practice can help them have life-affirming and life-changing experiences.

7.    What challenges lay ahead?

One challenge is to find the financial resources to do the work.  FGC is fortunate.  We have vision.  We have a board of governance that’s grounded in the Spirit.  We have programs that are strong and vital.  Our donors are amazing and loyal people and we have an excellent development team that understands the spirituality of philanthropy.  My hope is that as our vision continues to strengthen way will open so additional resources can be applied and more people can experience the Divine through Quaker practice.

8.    What do you do when you are not wrapped up with work?

If it involves a mountain, the wind rustling in the leaves, and hiking boots, I’m happy.  I’m even happier to share an evening over dinner with my family and friends.

9.    Is there anything else you would like Friends to know about you?

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to serve.  I’m grateful for all the people who have held and nurtured this tradition for the past 350 years so we can ground and deepen our experience of the Divine.  I’m excited by the adventure that is laid out before us to use Quaker experiences, tools, processes and beliefs to empower us and to bring into being a more just, compassionate, and inspiring world.

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