Jen Karsten has served as Executive Director of Pendle Hill since 2012. She has been at Pendle Hill since 2010. She and her family are members of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting).
What faith did you grow up in?
Jen: There was a pretty clear path through the Friends schools for my family to come into Quakerism. I grew up a member of Doylestown Monthly Meeting, and then took a long time, actually, in my late teens and early 20s, away from Quakerism. Then my family and I–my nuclear family now– joined Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting.
What is important to you now about Quakerism?
Jen: Trying to unify the inner life, the inner landscape, with outer action, and how those two layers sometimes find a friction-but in that friction or tension is the life of the Spirit, for me. I wouldn’t want to be purely inward, and I wouldn’t want to be purely outward, but in marrying the two, and noticing what happens when they become decoupled, and trying to bring them back together, I find myself really joined and held in Quakerism. I value the ongoing prompts of Quakerism to re-evaluate, look again, continuing revelation. The coming-back as a sort of group aspiration really draws me. And being in silent worship is a real draw and special feature of this faith community for me.
You talked about having left in your late teens and 20s. Can you tell me about that, and what you learned from that experience in terms of your faith and spiritual life, and then coming back to Quakerism?
Jen: As a young child, I didn’t experience a conscious need for religion, and was feeling almost a rejection of anything that seemed to have an institutional frame that I didn’t feel like trying to fit into. I had to be dragged to Meeting. I didn’t often want to attend. By the time I went off to college, I really would only go to Meeting one or two times a year. One habit my mom had that I really valued, actually, was that she likes to explore smaller, low-attendance meetinghouses. It was a fun adventure for my mom and me to take together-so that felt special. That was the thin thread that kept me connected. I was traveling, living in different cities, and swept up into a life where there was a lot of activism and a lot of exploration of different practices. It wasn’t really a rejection of Quakerism as much as a rejection of anybody telling me what to do. Then I had a cancer diagnosis in my late 20s. You asked about the spiritual piece of return and separation–you know, when you get really really sick like that, and you wonder if your mortality is at stake, there comes a sort of questioning and bargaining. I was drawn back into a strong desire to be reassured, and to connect with something greater than myself. That, coupled with getting married and deciding as a pair that we wanted to raise our child as a Quaker and within a faith community, led us back into checking out different Meetings.
What feeds your spiritual life?
Jen: Crisis feeds my spiritual life. It spurs me to seek, with a fervent dedication, and pushes me to remain grounded and rooted so that I can’t fall into despair or have my impact minimized by despair. Nature feeds my spiritual life too. I’ve had some of my most transcendent spiritual experiences at dawn on the beaches of India. It’s one of the most satisfying and inspiring things to see something unusual in the natural world. There’s something called a “glory,” (I think?) when you see a rainbow as a border around objects. I remember kayaking one day with friends, and getting out for a stretch– they hiked up onto a sandy ridge, holding their arms up for a photo, and there was a rainbow around them like a hazy colorful border, with long shadows. I’d never seen anything like that and this was in the age before the internet, so we didn’t have an easy way to quickly identify what that was. We talked to some naturalists, and it was fascinating to learn about. In those moments, you understand how prior cultures would have of course found their spiritualities through these amazing natural phenomena, right?
Do you attend a worship service on a regular basis? What is powerful for you about that worship?
Jen:I have a love/guilt relationship with my meeting attendance. Living here at Pendle Hill, I’m so lucky to get to start every day with worship if I opt in. I don’t start every single day with worship, but probably 3-4 times a week. I get to begin my day grounded in stillness, which is incredible. But I feel guilty, sometimes because my monthly meeting attendance has been so sparse, and that’s largely due to wanting to balance my work life with family time on weekends. On First Day mornings we typically like to just get up and make pancakes and hang out together, and it’s rare that we decide to head into meeting. I don’t feel like I have too few opportunities for worship, but I do recognize that being part of a monthly meeting includes showing up and being part of the community. I feel well nested in the Pendle Hill community, and a little bit negligent in my longer worship opportunities.
An interesting thing about worshipping here at Pendle Hill for half an hour is that when I go to monthly meetings, and I sink into that hour, I have this mid-worship “coming out of the depths” experience about half-way in, like I’m being pulled up into my head and my thoughts because I’m so used to half-hour worship. I try to dive back down-and, when I’m able to do so, it’s in that second dive where there’s richer depth and noticing the inner teacher. I appreciate both types of worship, for different reasons. The ministry from around the world here at Pendle Hill, it teaches me so much. It’s funny how there are days when there’s no spoken ministry at all, and other days where it’ll be bubbling with words. Either way, I get to experience the ministry and the seeking of others, and I like that. Here, it’s a continually renewing cast of ministers, you might hear words that move your thinking for a week by someone you’ll never see again. It’s a gift-half an hour daily, compared to weekly hour-long worship, or extended worship once in awhile. I’ve noticed, for myself at least, what a really different experience half an hour is.
What struggles do you have with being faithful, generally? Where do you find renewal?
Jen: When I think of faith, I think of trust in an ability to believe beyond evidence, and to rely on that during times where there’s confusion, or the path or the end-state is not known. The nature of faith work is to be in the confusion and reliance at the same time. I’m not a master of that. I also have long felt like, when it comes to faith, I’m “doing it wrong,” because I’ve always assumed that my conceptions of Spirit or relationship to holy traditions are not conforming to set orthodox practices. It’s taken me a long while to come to feel self-acceptance as well as comfort in talking about my own spirituality with others. As someone who has a job in a center defined by its religious tradition and commitments, I’ve never wanted to feel inadequate to that work. Also, realizing that I’ll never be able to be everybody’s conception of what Quakerism is, and so the decision to simply be one’s own, and make peace with knowing that that won’t be something that certain people relate to, has been really helpful and good work for me. It’s hard to know what it means to be faithful-and I think some people use that word with a definition that feels clear to them and unclear to me. When I need renewal, it’s helpful to remind myself that all things change.
When you were 15, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Jen: It was always challenging to me that you were supposed to pick one thing. I always wanted to be able to be everything. When I was 15, I wanted to be free of others’ expectations of me, and at liberty to travel, explore, experiment, get into mischief. I really, frankly, as a teenager, wanted to hit the road and just explore and travel, and I did a lot of that in my teens and early 20s. I didn’t have a “this is what I want to be.” I wanted to be everywhere and see everything and taste everything and leave no stone unturned.
Where did you attend college, and what was your major when you were there?
Jen: I went to Elon College, in North Carolina. I majored in journalism and electronic communications, and I minored in psychology. I really wanted to be a journalist who would travel, and embed with rebel factions and community groups, and see the real story of what was happening beyond what is shown through normal news channels. I have a sense of heroism for what I’ll call “true journalists” that are led to follow that path and reveal the real pan and beauty of the world. I never really lost my wanderlust.
If you did graduate work, what degree(s) did you pursue and what were their topics?
Jen: I did master’s work in environmental education with a focus on community-building. I did doctoral studies in the Bioresource Engineering department of McGill University, but my topic was related to education, and how what’s known from the field of complexity thinking has relevance for education, culture, and how we conceive of ourselves as a part of a web, an ecosystem. My academic career, sort of similar to my vocational career, has been less a matter of deciding at an early age what the final chapter would be and writing the book to get there; it’s been more like swinging on a vine in the jungle and grabbing the next interesting vine that comes by, because it’s interesting.
How would you describe your career path?
Jen: Unfolding. I don’t feel like I’ve known where I’m headed far in advance, but I like to be tested and I really want to be well used. I never want to have a job that just has me doing functions to perpetuate status quo. I want to be doing something that leads to the kind of change that I value and feels important to me. If I’m not feeling as though my contributions are leading to that on different levels, then I will be stagnant and poorly used. I like what I do with others when there’s excitement and a big goal to accomplish. I feel like there’s “unstoppability” when excited, creative, talented groups get together. One of the best mindsets that I’ve ever enjoyed is loving the mystery of what’s coming next. If you can’t retain a sense of mystery around vocation, where you spend the bulk of your waking hours every day and every week, that’s sad! I don’t want that! I don’t want to know what I’m doing next.
Have you had trying times in your work (struggling to find work or discern what career path you should be on?), and how did you work your way through those?
Jen: Yes. By talking to people who’ve had similar experiences. By talking to people with different life experience than I have. And not giving up. Persistence is a key quality in moving through life changes, be they career or otherwise. It’s natural, for me at least, to want to escape at times or give up. You can usually find a way to move or shift, to no longer be in an unsatisfying situation. But I find that “standing in it” has been a huge teacher to me, when I’m really challenged. I’ve experienced a range of tests here at Pendle Hill. Sometimes when I don’t know what to do, just knowing that someone does, or that a group coming together and sitting with the question will, is all I need. Knowing that I can ask, and that the wisdom is out there, is what makes it possible to stand there not knowing what’s coming.
How would you describe your current position?
Jen: My job description’s spot-on for administration in this setting. If we wanted to boil it all down, it’s about being a good listener to the needs of the community, including not just the staff, but board and wider associates, alumni, formerly deeply-involved people. And listening for Spirit’s nudge, so that we don’t do things only because it’s tradition or because we did it last year. If it’s something we’re called to do because it’s going to effectively lead to beloved community, then let’s do that. Let’s be responsible stewards. Listening to where there’s a loss of energy on any level is important. Listening for the voice of those who aren’t yet here, and the ghosts or the presence of those who were here a long long time ago, but need for someone else to recognize their cautionary tales about equity. Because if you look far enough back, there are always marginalized and oppressed people. So listening for Truth, listening for the hints that there’s always more to do, and any gains achieved in that regard are fragile and precarious. They need vigilance and constant re-working. I’m still learning to do this well.
How did you come to apply for this job?
Jen: My predecessor, who was very inspirational to me, who hired me and taught me a lot, suffered a car accident six months into my tenure. So, due to the nature of my then-role as Dean, being technically considered the “second in charge,” I sort of de facto became acting Executive Director. After several months, and a transition to being interim director, the Board opened up a search for a new permanent director. I met with a range of people whom I trust, to get clear to make the application, and when I did, it was with a disposition to say, “I’ve been doing this work for close to a year now, so I feel quite familiar with what’s needed, and what the routines are. If there’s somebody who can come in and do it better, that’s the person I want to work for! I will throw the weight of my support and any training I can pass over to them. Meanwhile, if they really do a wide search and become clear to hire me, then I’ll feel as though I earned it and it didn’t just fall to me through these circumstances.” It was a really testing process. I felt vulnerable, because I knew that the staff knew that I’d applied. I knew that the process would be long. I felt sort of “out there,” not knowing what would come. But I felt so honored to have been selected, in the end. I definitely made a clear decision to apply, and would have been happy for Pendle Hill in any event. I also knew that it was a size too big for me. I knew that I would be trying on practices and skills that I had experimented with, but never frequently used in combination, and that there would be some things, like providing leadership during a capital campaign, as a staff person, that would be new to my experience and would help me grow. I’ve felt honored and excited, all of these years, to be able to keep learning through a position, but also being of service while I’m learning.
How much, if any, influence did your faith have in how you responded to applying for it?
Jen: Mostly, I suppose, in the process of seeking clarity to proceed. Also knowing that because I was applying to a Quaker center, I needed to ask myself, “Am I ready to be a voice of Quakerism for people unfamiliar with the religion and coming to visit?”
What influences does your faith have in your job today?
In Quakerism there’s an allowance for slowness that’s not mainstream. I can take a pause and choose to act with greater thoughtfulness over time than I might be able to in another workplace setting. That’s been hugely valuable on personnel issues, or issues regarding fairness at the individual level, but also at the structural level. There are some things for which being able to make a quick executive decision is needed and valuable, and being able to trust in your leadership to make a decision that through the lens of time you’ll feel glad about. To be in a place where I can speak of Love as that which should inspire and bind our work here. It’s really magical to have to ask myself, “Do I pass that test? Am I coming from a place of love right now? How much of this is ego? How much of this is about crafting a sense of reputation for the staff that I need or want to have, rather than being of service and doing what’s best for the greater good?” Getting to play with those questions openly in the workplace is an incredible gift. It’s tempting for me to want to give the right answer, or to reply with clarity, when often, the true answer is, “I don’t know.” Even if you don’t utter those words, just to say, “I’d like some time to think about that,” or “Can I get back to you Monday?”-what a gift, to feel okay asking for that!
How would you describe your leadership style?
Jen: Collaborative. Open to change. Relationship-oriented. My leadership style tries to say as many possible “yeses” so that on those occasions when I have to say “no,” it does not feel arbitrary. I don’t feel like I have a permissive leadership style, but I have an accepting style; accepting of what is, accepting of style differences. I have a desire to maximize the range of gifts and differences of personality and work style among the many people that contribute to the organization, while minimizing anything that comes up as a roadblock that doesn’t have to be there. I think it’s my job to help the community set strategy and vision, make sure all these talented staff people are clear on their roles, then just rove the landscape, scan for detritus, and get prohibitive factors out of the way so that everyone can make good use of their gifts and achieve shared goals.
How did you learn leadership skills?
Jen: No one source. Lots of life and job experience. And with dedication, pursuing my own growth over life. I think that’s a characteristic that I bring to this. I think that every outcome of that is due to the good graces of other people sharing their stories and cautionary tales, and making their witness known so that I could be inspired and have a template for myself in human others, not just fiction. Repeat exposure to amazing people. And keeping eyes open to that which is broken all around, so that I felt compelled to apply myself, and whatever skills I didn’t have to bring to it, going and finding them.
Do you feel that your work brings you closer, or further away, to your faith and faithfulness?
Jen: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to separate the fact that I live and exist here from the work that I do in and for the place. They’re all so bound up together in my worshipful seeking. I take workshops here, just like other people do, and I learn and grow. I seek here. I don’t know how to find a dividing line between those two things, so I guess they’re joined.
How well do you feel your work is understood and supported by your Meeting?
Jen: I’m a member of a large meeting, Central Philadelphia, and membership in that meeting for a long time has included people who are working in various Quaker organizations, and leaders of those. So I feel like there’s a culture of understanding for that, and forgiveness for my low attendance that can be partly attributed to my involvement in this work. I would say that if there’s been any disjointedness between myself and the meeting, it’s on me for not drawing on its many support resources or participating as much as I might like. My meeting’s pretty incredible.
Do you have a support committee, elder, or other structure for support and accountability in your meeting?
Jen: I don’t have a formal one. I’m currently participating in an anchor committee for a dear Friend, and I’m finding that even as we seek to support her, it’s as affirming and nourishing for me to be part of it. I understand the value of those, because so many people have recommended that for me since I took this position. The truth is that, due to the nature of the position, my time is limited, and what I find nourishing is time with my family, time with my daughter and husband, and frankly, as an introvert, to be alone. When I need support, I call a particular individual or two–often outside the Quaker world, sometimes in. I also know that if I needed something more, it would be a short turnaround to create that for myself. That’s one thing I love about our community-knowing that there are so many different ways you can seek out deep listening and supportive engagement from others.
Who have your mentors been? Could be generally, or spiritually, or work-related; etc.
Jen: I think of people who’ve provided excellent counsel or helped me a lot. Clerks of the Pendle Hill Board. My friends and my mom. My husband is somebody whose counsel I rely on on a regular basis, and who I really look up to. Sarah Willie-LeBreton, one of our board members, is somebody who I knew prior to being on the board. I lift her up because I’m thinking about how many Quakers I know have personal/professional overlap, thus in the Quaker world where many of us are known to each other, we must learn to wear various hats (f/Friendship). So many people have been generous and helpful, role models and nurturers, too many to count!
What is something that you wish you had known at X, Y, or Z points in your spiritual path or career?
Jen: I’ve certainly had struggles in those areas–personal life, work life, and career life–so the things I might have wished to have known would probably be different in each of those arenas. But one general message I’d send back to younger me would be that whatever fear, confusion, destabilization you’re experiencing is natural, and that all of your heroes and role models feel equally fearful and destabilized, but that it need not paralyze you. This too shall pass. Courage–coeur, from the heart–is to go towards or be with that which gives you fear, and then when you’re tempered by that fire, you’re stronger for next time. So–persist. Listen for the opportunity or invitation to change you. Understand that you can’t change others, but that you can play a role in their change, and persist. When I’ve been heartbroken, or terrified of hurting others, or of doing something which might seem to be for the greater good but which will cause some people to feel angry or disappointed, I made it, through the grace of others who’ve made such moves letting me know that on the other side, there’s joy again, and stability, and a better way.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about spiritual/ faith journeys?
Jen: There are many Pendle Hill pamphlets that I’ve had the good fortune to read, more frequently than probably anyone else because they’re all right outside my door. I think what’s been most helpful is that, as a collection, I’m able to see the range of voices. What I’m getting at is the multiplicity of viewpoints within Quakerism and within society. I’ve learned to seek them out.
A favorite passage that I turn to sometimes is by Elizabeth Watson. The piece in which she says, “I will not ask for good fortune. I am good fortune.” I love that passage. Though we’ve never touched hands or locked eyes, we meet across time and space. Elise Boulding’s work does the same thing for me.
What is your favorite piece of advice you like to give others about spirituality/ faithfulness?
Jen: Be yourself. Be in this moment. Let me know if I can help. Know that you’re held. I don’t think I find myself giving spiritual advice often, but I’d like to test that with people who spend a lot of time with me who might say something very different.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about your career/ work path?
Jen: Don’t settle into something that’s not fulfilling for you. Don’t hesitate to pursue an opportunity, even if it seems beyond your grasp. There’s a lot to be gained from the asking. Sometimes trying on a fit too big can reveal growth opportunities, and most anything can be worked on and practiced through, until it becomes a skill. There are some innate characteristics that might not sound like leadership skills, but that executives would name as leading to their successes, and which can be really helpful to have in your bag of tricks. I’ve mentioned a few times the value of learning from other people’s life experiences, but I don’t mean that to imply that only people who’ve had longer lives than mine are wonderful resources. They often are, but I think it’s helpful to have a social life with people who are like me and dissimilar to me, so that I don’t fall too much into a self-affirming groove of friends. Being around my daughter and her friends, and the older students at her school, and high school and college students, and grad students, and people and leaders from different camps around the country, I’m reminded of the potency and relevancy of different stages of life.
What is your favorite advice to give to other people who seem to be or are already on similar trajectories as you are on?
Jen: Do your best to know yourself. Not just the self that you were five years ago, or yesterday-but knowing yourself in this moment, and knowing yourself in general is a responsibility that we have if we want to be in leadership. Knowing myself prepares me to share my stories and make my requests for support, pass on the benefits of things that have come easily or been granted to me, so that that could be shared by the community, as well as the places where I’m deficient or limited. When I know that, it makes it easy for me to specify what I could use in order to be strengthened. When I’m with others who are doing the work of knowing themselves, I can respond with tenderness and gladness to their requests, because part of knowing myself is knowing the struggle of being human, the emotionality, and where my different reactions and responses are coming from. That’s something that makes us all so able to relate to one to another, that emotional experience. So, how to join with that connection? Find those people who, like you, are waving the flag of self-discovery pointed towards beloved community building, and when you find those others, join with them and dedicate yourself to doing good work with them.