Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Quaker Leadership in times of crisis

This is a guest post by John Gray, Zélie Gross and Wess Daniels. Together they are currently co-tutoring an online Woodbrooke course, Leadership Amongst Friends.

Leadership in a Quaker sense can often be compared to servant leadership – the gathering and promotion of the group as a whole, relying always on spirit-led decision-making rather than quick fixes, valuing people, showing authenticity, and modelling good leadership and good followership. In the phrase of George Lakey, leadership is ‘taking initiative in relationship’: the offering of ideas or inspiration whilst also relying on and building on the deep connection we have with the people around us. 
What might leadership by and amongst Quakers look like in a time of global crisis such as we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic? What can we offer when overwhelming external conditions wrench the helm of the boat out of our hands?

In parts of the world, an increase in violence is one of the many terrible consequences of the virus and community/economic lock-down – violence on streets or within communities, and behind closed doors. Children and other vulnerable people are being denied support which they may have had access to in the past. Quakers around the world, and their worshipping communities, are being challenged in how they respond, and facing stark dilemmas between acting to contain the virus and speaking up for the rights and protections of the vulnerable.

This article is not a call for heroic one-person “command and control” form of leadership. It is rather a wondering about how those in formal roles within our Quaker communities and organisations, and those who have informal influence within them, can ensure that effective worship and witness continue and that our communities flourish. The call on leadership at this time is neither to lose sight of the current realities, nor to neglect established Quaker principles and practices, nor to ignore possibilities in a changed future. There is a lot to take care of in all of that; Friends are called to express their leadership in the practical business of taking care in a range of necessary ways:

Taking care of others

Be an enabler – of community, of connections, of relationship, of mutual support.

Be a mediator: everyone is under pressure; before asking yourself which side you are on in a conflict, ask yourself how you can mediate.

Be a listener: do more listening than telling or explaining; you won’t be heard if you don’t listen. And be patient – listen for the stress, anxiety, fear and dismay behind anger, impatience or criticism.

Be alert to the fact that everyone is having to do things differently, and some will be much less comfortable or familiar with change (and with electronic platforms!) than others. Be prepared to teach or handhold to help people learn.

Taking care of yourself

You will be ahead of some in your community in responding to the crisis, and for others you will not be responding quickly enough. Both groups may criticise you (though for different reasons). Thick skins and personal support-networks really help.

Pay attention to your own spiritual and physical well-being! - you can't walk the path without caring for yourself as well as for others. What daily practices can you commit to, to support your own wellbeing and to refill the well of spiritual nurture? What are your support networks that you can draw on?

Some mindsets can help too: accepting we're all perfectly imperfect; good enough may in fact what’s required; and, "This too will pass...".

You should not feel as though you’re alone in all this; but if your community is unable to respond effectively to the crisis, it's unlikely that you on your own can pull everyone else through.

Taking care of the task

The core Quaker testimonies – to truth, peace, simplicity, equality – always remain as essential foundations for why we act, and the way we act.

The challenge of decision-making amidst volatile, unstable, complex and ambiguous events makes it even more essential to ensure our own communications are clear and unambiguous. New ways of working and communicating verbally may lead to power vacuums; and they may result in decision-making structures and allocations of responsibilities which don’t fit current realities.

The number and frequency of communications increases exponentially; you won't hear everything or notice everything which is demanding your attention. Be ready to re-prioritise, to call for focus on specific things, and re-negotiate about what's essential. Regular “Covid catch-ups” might be helpful, to keep key conversations going amongst convenors and clerks.

Other people's sense of urgency can trick you into reacting rather than responding. It's OK to ask for time, to consult, to discern.

Be a learner – this is new for all of us, and some things may never be the same again.

Navigation through and beyond the crisis

Often three stages can be seen in responding to a crisis: dealing with the immediate challenge; then keeping the overall community or organisation going; and then readying ourselves for the return of ‘normality’ - or as in this case, the likelihood of a new different normal. What might these phases look like in a Quaker community or a Quaker-led organisation within a lockdown area?

The immediate challenge: This phase may already be coming to an end for some: the safe closure of meeting houses and offices; the arrangements made for staff and committees; the shifting of worship into a virtual setting. Many Friends have made huge strides in these areas, strides which may not have been imaginable even a few weeks ago, and we are finding that for many of us virtual meetings for worship can still have depth and intimacy. As a community, these crisis moments show us our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

Keeping going: Once things have begun to settle a little, what else needs to be sorted or resolved after the urgency of the first few weeks? Elders and Overseers will be considering what a Quaker community in lockdown can look like: in the face of physical distancing, how can social and spiritual connecting be promoted? Trustees, treasurers and premises committees will need to remember the legal responsibilities still impinging on us. For those meeting houses and organisations relying on income to continue, what are the cash flow forecasts, and where can legitimate postponement or ending of expenditure take place? What contingency plans can be made? It’s worth remembering that most organisations go bust not because they are making losses, but because they run out of cash. Is this a potential risk in your context?

Being ready for the new future: It is natural to want times like this, times of uncertainty, to come to an end quickly so we can get back to normal. The reality is that we will not go back to the way things were, there will be a new future, a new normal. This is a time of great change – much of it is deeply scary and painful, much loss and grief has occurred already. But we can leverage this moment as Friends for positive change, for regeneration in our meetings and Quaker institutions. This can be a moment to recalibrate or reprioritize: how are we caring for the poor and most vulnerable in our communities? As so much of our lives, including our work and worship, have moved online, are there lessons from the things we see working well and which translate into this new context, about what is most important? Are we noting and learning from what is hard, lost in translation, or feels futile? Have you had time to think through how your personal life, your meeting life, and your work life will be like after lockdown? What changes can we already anticipate within our own Quaker communities? What needs are likely to be present in the local communities beyond our meeting house doors, and how should we respond? What will love require of us?

Wess Daniels is lives in Greensboro, North Carolina (USA). He is the Director of the Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

John Gray is an attender at York's (UK) Friargate Quaker Meeting. He works as an organisational coach, supervisor and consultant.

Zélie Gross lives in Penarth in South Wales (UK). She is the author of With a tender hand: A resource book for eldership and oversight (Quaker Books, 2015).


  1. Thanks for this, Craig. I have shared on Ben Dandelion's current Quaker course 'Radical Spirituality' (FutureLearn, n.d.). Over 2000 online students at present and still open for free enrolment - remarkable!

    Chris Loten

    FutureLearn (n.d.) Radical Spirituality - Online Course. Available at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/quakers (Accessed: 29 April 2020).

    1. Many thanks for sharing it even more widely, Chris, much appreciated.
      I hope you're enjoying Ben's course.
      With best wishes, John

  2. Thanks, John and colleagues, for straightforward sensible advice with a Quaker flavour. Will pass it round others concerned with eldership and oversight in Lewes Meeting.
    Best wishes,


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)