Gretchen Castle has been the General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation since 2013. She is a member of Doylestown Monthly Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting), and attends meetings in London, England.
What faith did you grow up in?
Gretchen: I was born a Quaker, in a Quaker household, and grew up in Friends United Meeting. My dad was a pastor of two programmed meetings or churches – Valley Mills Friends Church and then College Avenue Friends Church in Iowa. Mostly I grew up in Iowa, Iowa Yearly Meeting.
Have you stayed in this tradition?
Gretchen: That’s a good question, because my siblings haven’t. I’ve definitely stayed in it and I really treasure it: the Quaker faith, Quaker life, Quaker work. I’ve worked almost all of my professional life in Quaker settings. I’m very committed to it; it’s very important to me.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Gretchen: I love the whole Quaker idea of waiting on God and listening to God’s voice. It’s like Quakerism gives us permission to be more intuitive-and when I haven’t listened to that, it’s always been disastrous. I don’t have energy, and I’m not motivated. My personal motivation has always come out of that spiritual place, for all things. I just love worship. In London we go to evensong in cathedrals, and I hear Quakers say, “What a waste of space, what a waste of money.” But I cry every time I enter because it’s just… all of that to the glory of God. It’s amazing to me: no matter how simple, no matter how grand, it’s all the same to worship God. I’ve often thought what I would do if I wasn’t a Quaker, how would that be to have a different perspective? Because Quakerism offers a perspective of how to be in the world.
Have you ever left (formally or informally) for a period of time and then come back to it? Tell me a bit about one of those times. What did you learn from that experience in terms of your faith and spiritual life?
Gretchen: When I was first out of college, I went to Montana for a year. It was a wonderful place to be and the meeting was very tiny- it was 6 people in a living room, which was lovely for a time. I felt like I needed more, so for a while I went to this really remarkable church that was of a Catholic nature, but very radical. I did volunteer work with one of the priests and served on the board for his organization that helped people with disabilities. It was through that connection with him and our conversations about spiritual life that I found it was good for me to be in that energy. It felt a little bit odd to not continue to engage with Quaker meeting, but on the other hand, that experience helps me appreciate today how very different every meeting is, big or small. When I moved again I did find another Quaker meeting. I think that’s the only time I’ve really ever left it.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Gretchen: Worship for me is the heart of it. It is sort of ironic, because in my current work at Friends World Committee for Consultation I have the opportunity to worship with all kinds of Friends, and I find myself increasingly drawn more to programmed worship then unprogrammed worship. In Britain, where I live, the culture is becoming increasingly secular, so all the mainline churches in the UK are losing membership. I think Quakers are doing fairly well because there’s just so much activity with their social action, they are very active group in that way. I have sometimes prayed outloud in a meeting for worship and then had people come to me afterwards and tell me “I haven’t heard a prayer in two years in this meeting house.” For me I think, “Goodness, how could that be?” Because for me, prayer is everything.
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Gretchen: I get to worship with all kinds of groups. I think it is important to be grounded in a meeting, and I still feel grounded in my meeting in Doylestown. When I’m back I try to go there, because I was in that meeting for 30 years. I find it hard to get into the nitty-gritty of the meeting as much as I did in the the one I was in for 30 years: leading the young people, teaching First Day School, being clerk. It’s hard to be in at that same level, so then worship becomes the crux more than the activity of community building.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Gretchen: I worked at Pendle Hill for a year, which was really amazing-but before, that I had been unemployed. I had been working for a large non-profit 350 employees and part of my job as chief organization development officer was to reduce the staff by 30%. I was flying all over the country telling people they were losing their jobs. It was a difficult job at best, and people often appreciated my thoughtfulness. I lost my job after I did all that letting go. All my life, jobs always fell in my lap and it was easy. I don’t think there was ever a time before that when I had ever had a heavy discernment, other than, “Should I go to graduate school or have a baby?” kind of questions. I was unemployed for a couple of years, and it was a really long time of wondering, Gretchen: “Oh God, what is next for me?” and “Can you help me?” I often think our prayers are either prayers of thanks or prayers of “help me,” and during that time there were a lot of “help me” prayers. It’s hard when we have an idea of what should happen and God’s time is just so different. I didn’t get either of those jobs, and I was really struggling, thinking maybe I just shouldn’t just work for Quakers, maybe my time with that had run its course. Then I remembered that I had met my predecessor at a fundraising meeting in New York about a year before, and she had said “I’m leaving the job, just so you know.” I really believe that God put that idea in my head, because it was the day before the application was due. So I just started cranking away on the computer, and sent it in at 2am. Then heard that I was invited to London for an interview. The other job interviews were hard. I had to work hard at them. This one-even though I had to fly to London, the interview was two days with five people that were from all parts of the world, I had to give a talk, I had to meet with staff, I did some email responses, all of that. It wasn’t an easy interview by most standards. But it was easy. For me, the lesson was: what God calls you to do may come easy to you, even though it’s not easy work, because we walk with God. When it’s discerned well, when I feel that God has a hand on it, the decision becomes an easy one. I got the job, I sold my three-story house and moved into a two-bedroom flat in London, sold my car. It was all of the stuff that most people would say, “Why in the world, Gretchen, would you want to do this?” But it was not a question. It was clear that God was calling me to it, and I continue to feel that way. I feel really blessed to be doing this work. I feel very clear about its purpose, and feel very excited about it. It’s big work, with a tiny little staff, but it’s absolutely thrilling. I love it; everyday I feel very blessed to be doing this work.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Gretchen: When I was 15, I lived in Iowa, on a farm. I remember sitting on this hill that was my favorite spot – my thinking spot, my meditation spot. I was sitting there, and I remember thinking, “If I died tomorrow I would feel like I’ve already lived a good life.” At that age, it was remarkable because you know, I hadn’t lived much at all. I think I’ve always sort of filled my days and my life with things that I love doing. I’ve always had sort of an enthusiasm for life.
I never really had a clear direction. I’ve always loved people, and had social skills that have taken me to certain places. My college degree was in human development and social relations. It was an integration of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and human biology. I love that sort of integration of things. My masters degree was psychoeducational processes, which was basically social psychology. What I like to do is bring people together, get clear about what they want to do, and help them do that. It’s really about gathering people and their energy, and using what they have. When I was at Earlham, I had the idea that I might work internationally on behalf of the Planned Parenthood movement. I didn’t do that, but now I get to do international work in what I love doing, which is gathering Quakers, which is another thing that I love doing. That’s probably why I’m so enthusiastic about what I’m doing-it brings together those elements from a younger time of gathering people, working internationally, and gathering Quakers.
How would you describe your career path?
Gretchen: Out of college, I was doing social work in Chicago, in the projects. I think that I learned lot of empathy and what the reality of life for many people is. It only begins to scratch the surface, when you think of the millions of people who have lived in poverty and are displaced. Then I went to graduate school and came out doing training and group work, which I’ve always loved. I went on to do board development: gathering a board who has great passion and expectations for an organization, helping them move into where they want the organization to be in a way that is effective, appropriate, and collaborative. Then I worked for Quaker organizations. When I had kids, I was committed to being at home with them, which was lovely-but I could continue with some of the consulting work. Then I worked for Friends General Conference and I worked for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
One of my big leadership experiences was being the presiding clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. As a young person I remember a particular moment when I was aware that I was happy to step in and provide leadership if the group needed it. But I’ve never really felt like I have to be the leader of this or that. Leadership is always in service to the group or the organization. So when I say now that I’d like to work for FWCC until I retire-that’s only if God continues to call me to it and it continues to be useful to the organization. We’ve all had experiences of people who push being the leader, and that’s very different from serving.
How would you describe your current position?
Gretchen: My job description is funny. I have done a good bit of discovering what it is. There are five or so areas. One is administrative, keeping the office open and staffed, reviewing staff performance, and all that. Then there is the element of working at FWCC where we work to connect the four Sections and see where there can be collaborations. It’s really supporting those other four Sections’ secretaries. I view myself as a peer, but bringing those ideas together, since every section has different Quaker traditions of worship, and every section has multiple languages.
How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for it?
Gretchen: It continues to affirm the work I’m doing, that I’m in the right place, and that God helps me through it. It is a tough job, because I’m the only full time person in the office and I’m traveling around a good bit of the time. I intend to be in it for the long haul. In order to do that, I really do take off the weekend. I am committed to doing a good, hard, working day every day that I’m there, and going home at six or so. I don’t work long hours, but I work hard when I’m there, and that’s my survival strategy. God’s presence every day is where I gain my strength and my optimism. It’s really important to me to rely on that.
How would you describe your leadership skills?
Gretchen: The way I manage people is to look at what their gifts are and what they have to offer, and provide them resources or to help them over barriers but let them do their work. Most people are highly motivated. In the office, we have a clear sense of what we’re there for. People love to come into the office; it’s a really lovely environment – a bright space, windows that open, pictures on the wall from around the world, beautiful and colorful. There’s a good energy. I think that’s important, to provide the space to greet people. I love when we have guests and visitors.
What’s important in leadership, especially in Quaker organizations, is to offer some ideas, some structure, some ways to consider things; but it’s not my decision whether any change goes through. I’m just the servant, and do my best to offer what I think would be best for the organization. But then I let it go. It’s about gathering people and giving them a voice.
How did you learn leadership skills – within the Quaker world? Outside of it? In either case, describe some of the ways you’ve learned these skills?
Gretchen: Certainly life experience is a great teacher. I’d say one of my most challenging leadership experiences was being clerk of a yearly meeting. It’s not a paid position and I was very committed while I was working. It’s an important message for me just to not be fearful, don’t be afraid, God will hold us. I think of the Buddhist bowl and there’s all the space in the center that held by the bowl or held by God and then we have lots of choice within those workings. We have to be very fearless and just come out of love, but say what needs to be said and not be overly worried. It’s always that person’s choice how they hear it-it’s an interaction, its relational. If you’re being faithful to our relationship with each other then God gives us the words for that. We can be held to speak truth to power and it’s important to do that as a leader.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your meeting?
Gretchen: Doylestown Meeting has asked me to speak about FWCC; they are very supportive of what I’m doing, to the extent they can in my absence. I recently got a note which the meeting sends to far flung members, and I just cried. It was so sweet, so supportive. I feel their support. The meeting in London-I’ve spoken there about FWCC.
I feel there’s so much that Friends at large don’t understand about FWCC. The farther we get away from our meetings the more challenging it is to describe the value of a Quaker organization. How do we help people understand that when you join the meeting, you join this larger organizational world?
Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Gretchen: As soon as I moved to Britain, the then-clerk of FWCC said, “My last task is to get you a support committee, to be sure you have them.” I really appreciate that I chose the people. There are three people: we meet three times a year, and I have called them when I’ve been struggling. They were so responsive, they were fantastic. We have worship together. I find it very grounding. They are the type of people that send me a card on occasion, or they’ll text or email to ask, “How are you doing? How are things?” It’s more of a personal supportive group. In relation to the job I hold, for accountability, the Central Executive Committee is great.
Who have your mentors been?
Gretchen: My dearest mentor died last year – Warren Witte. I worked with him, for him. He was sort of my Quaker organizational guru. He was just a really wonderful teacher. He and I met years ago when I work for Friends General Conference and he worked at American Friends Service Committee in communications. We were part of a group bringing together Quakers Uniting in Publication – we kind of got that started. I’ve always said to him his middle name is collaboration because he’s really great mentor. He’s my major one.
Larry Miller is a great spiritual mentor. He was my former father-in-law, and he also worked for AFSC. He had a degree in divinity, and yet he was always questioning his spirituality. He’d always say to me, “Gretchen, I don’t know how you’re always so sure of God’s presence.” And I’d say, “I don’t know either, but maybe I came into the world with that.”
What is something you wish you’d known at x, y, z points in your spiritual path and/or career?
Gretchen: I think fearlessness is a really big thing for me, and part of that just comes with age and experience. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not worried about what people think, but really rely on what I know, feel, sense, intuit to feel confident that God is speaking through me, and not worry about outcome.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys?
Gretchen: I’m thinking back to both the people I spoke about, Warren and Larry. What I learned from Warren was probably more about just watching him and seeing him; it’s more kinesthetic than it is cerebral. He really taught me the value of people and learning how to help people collaborate. He was brilliant at that.
What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?
Gretchen: One of the books I really have loved, from a professional standpoint is Good to Great, by Jim Collins. He’s talking from a leadership standpoint about determination and seeing it through. At the same time, he says, be very humble. I’m not aching to get out in front of the masses and wax on. I think it’s just important to keep at it, be consistent, love people through whatever they are going through, and be really loving and tender, and yet decisive and strong.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path?
Gretchen: We only have a few years in which to do what we want to do. So if I’m feeling called to my work, I want to give it my all while I’m here because I’m not sure how long one can sustain it. I want to offer what I can. They hired me in this position in part because of my organizational development experience, and so I want to be effective and useful as best I can to the organization. It’s that servant leadership way of, “How can I best serve your organization?”