Pendle Hill: The Experiment Continues

Eighty years ago, Pendle Hill opened its doors as an experiment in Quaker educational community. It was experimental in at least three ways. First, it was a joint venture of Orthodox and Hicksite Friends to create a community of dialogue and shared learning that might eventually help rejoin the two branches of Friends. Indeed, Pendle Hill contributed to that process, and it hosted some of the meetings to negotiate formal reunion between the two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings in the early 1950s.

Second, it was an experiment in Quaker leadership development. In preceding decades, summer schools in Britain and the United States had helped liberal Friends modernize their message for a new century. Pendle Hill built on that beginning by creating a year-round program for concerned Friends to go further in study and personal renewal. Consequently, Pendle Hill has served as an important center for nurturing new generations of Quaker leadership.

Finally, Pendle Hill was founded out of a more general concern. Many graduating from colleges and universities were struggling to live out their faith in an industrial, bureaucratic society. With that concern in mind, Pendle Hill was also an experiment in a new level of Quaker education: non-academic, community-based learning for adult Friends and others to retreat, refresh their spirits, refocus their sense of vocation, and re-enter the world with new resources for faithful living. To that end, Pendle Hill was from the beginning experimental in placing teachers and students together in a joint venture of learning. Examinations, grades, credits, and degrees were set aside for the sake of answering the higher callings of Truth. Pendle Hill’s founding took inspiration variously from Woodbrooke (the Quaker study center in Birmingham, England, founded in 1903), from Gandhian ashrams, from the monastic tradition, and from the progressive education movement. But as Howard Brinton emphasized many times in his years as director of studies, Pendle Hill has never fit within any existing model. It is a unique, ongoing experiment.

Education for the whole person has been a recurring theme over Pendle Hill’s 80 years. Founding director Henry Hodgkin borrowed from the Benedictine monastic rule in instituting a regimen of work, study, and worship to engage the body, mind, and spirit in a communal learning process. The daily shared manual labor, worship, and group and personal study interact powerfully in the experience of each participant to refocus energies, understandings, and sense of purpose. The name "Pendle Hill" was chosen with that process in mind. Evoking the story of George Fox’s climbing England’s Pendle Hill in 1652, Hodgkin proposed that the community itself would be a mutually created "hill of vision." Each participant’s personal vision is raised to another level, and they then go out and raise the vision of the Religious Society of Friends more generally.

As such, the Pendle Hill experiment is a distinct sub-species of Quaker faith and practice. Its daily communal practices of work, study, and worship allow a special intensity of experience and renewal. By contrast, the local Friends meeting typically worships together only once or twice a week. Its members pursue their personal vocations, concerns, and interests in the wider world, and group study has to fit in with many other demands on members’ time. This is not to say that Pendle Hill is a superior form of Quakerism, but it does offer a special opportunity for Friends and other seekers, and serves the continuing renewal of the Religious Society of Friends.

Pendle Hill was founded on the conviction that individual persons are realized in community. Communities raise personal insights, talents, and gifts to a new level. For example, in a Quaker meeting for business, each individual’s contribution is offered in faith that a higher Truth, a higher leading, will be discerned together by the group. The learning process at Pendle Hill proceeds in a similar manner. The "meeting for learning," as Parker J. Palmer called it, places teachers and students together in the search for and service to a Truth that transcends any individual’s expertise or insight.

Not only does this communal process nurture individuals to pursue greater lives of service; communities themselves become change-agents in the wider society. They form a crucial mediating element between individual and society. For example, Parker Palmer—first a student, then dean and teacher at Pendle Hill from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s—went on to become a well-known spiritual writer and workshop leader, working with teachers and organizations. His writings credit Pendle Hill with forming and focusing his subsequent vocation in the world. Many others have similarly found renewed strength, conviction, and direction from briefer stays at Pendle Hill.

Meanwhile, the community itself has had a prophetic role over the years. In partnership with American Friends Service Committee, Pendle Hill trained directors for Civilian Public Service camps and equipped hundreds more for relief and reconstruction work in Europe and Asia after World War II. In the 1960s, Pendle Hill trained volunteers for AFSC’s VISA program, which served as a model for the Peace Corps. In the early 1950s, Pendle Hill hosted the team who wrote Speak Truth to Power, a powerful, prophetic critique of the Cold War. These are just a few of the many ways Pendle Hill has been a mediating agent between concerned individuals and the wider social order. In any given instance, individuals and communities can be faithful only where they are and with what they are given to do. They make their witness "toward undiscovered ends," as Anna Brinton (Pendle Hill’s director, 1936-1949) wrote. Occasionally, a contribution is recognized, as in the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Friends for Quaker relief and reconstruction work. More often, it is not.

As a continuing Quaker experiment in educational community, Pendle Hill is also a continuing paradox. It is both a community and an institution. It is both an organism and an organization. As Catholic theologian Raimundo Pannikar notes, the former circulates life while the latter circulates money. It is in the nature of a paradox that it is difficult to hold its two truths in balance. We see only one side of the coin at any given time.

On the community side, many come to Pendle Hill frustrated and enervated by secular society’s individualism, hungering for community—and find it there, in powerful, transforming ways. But as I heard a Pendle Hill Board member say once, "Pendle Hill is not a community; it is an experience in community." When I first heard that, I thought it was a wry joke. But his remark captures something of the paradox of Pendle Hill. In a community in the fullest sense, such as a monastic order or the Bruderhof, participants stake all that they are, and intend to stay the rest of their lives. In the case of Pendle Hill, people do make sacrifices to come as students or to serve as staff—it costs money and it often disrupts a career path, but it is not the same level of commitment one makes to a true, intentional community. It is a profound experience of community, and it can alter the course of one’s life. Pendle Hillers often innovate and experiment with various kinds of community forming when they move on to new work in new places. Moreover, by participating even for a weekend, one contributes to the ongoing experiment of Pendle Hill as an educational community.

Meanwhile, on the institutional side of the paradox, Pendle Hill was constituted from its founding as a nonprofit organization, which by law is governed by an external board. The Pendle Hill Board typically includes former students and staff, along with other concerned Friends who understand the unique gift Pendle Hill offers to the world. Their sense of trusteeship for this experiment inspires sacrificial sharing of their time and expertise in advising and guiding staff in forming budgets, raising funds, evolving programs, and nurturing Pendle Hill’s short-term and longterm students and sojourners. With 19 buildings, 23 acres to maintain, and nearly 31 fulltime- equivalent staff to house and pay, the Board carries a weighty responsibility. Pendle Hill is an expensive experiment.

The paradox of community versus institution is a matter of perennial struggle at Pendle Hill. The vibrant life of the community exists in dynamic tension with the programs, finances, and staffing arrangements of the institution. For example, many who come to Pendle Hill as staff have never worked for a nonprofit organization before and find the final authority of an external board hard to accept. They recognize that the Pendle Hill Board means well, but it convenes only occasionally. Its members do not partake of the ongoing joys and struggles of the community. Likewise, many students arrive assuming that Pendle Hill operates much as their local Friends meeting, where the members themselves set the institutional arrangements of the meeting. So misunderstandings and disappointments easily arise.

Board members have distance from the community’s intensity at any given time. They feel responsible to take the long-term view of Pendle Hill’s life and wellbeing. Indeed, concerns that become acute at community meetings one year may not arise at all in the next year’s community. Nevertheless, Board members need to stay in touch and be responsive to the life of the community and the concerns that arise. The relationship between institution and community needs to be mutual. This follows the wisdom of Robert Greenleaf’s guidance in "servant trusteeship."

Meanwhile, the community of staff and students must respond to Board members with generosity and gratitude for the service they render to the institution of Pendle Hill. Administrative staff bear a particular weight of responsibility in making both Board and community transparent to one another. Without good faith and patient attention from all involved, the paradox of Pendle Hill can fall into mere contradiction, inviting paternalism on one side and regressive resentment on the other.

When the paradox is healthy, the institution and the community strengthen one another. The institution’s Quaker identity and fundraising imperatives keep it responsive to the concerns and resources of Pendle Hill’s wider constituency. Meanwhile, the community serves as a laboratory for an intensive exploration of those concerns and experiments, producing new insights and initiatives. In the process, the financial and labor capital invested in Pendle Hill bear fruit in renewing the social capital of faithful relationship, both among Friends and in wider networks.

A revealing moment in this relationship came in the 2005-06 year, as Pendle Hill struggled in the face of a major financial crisis and staff departures. In her 2006 annual report, Dean Niyonu Spann described the year as one of:

grieving, prayer, healing, and re-forming. Much of the visioning and strategic planning of my first year as dean was put on hold as our staff team worked to find our way. Yet, in the midst of this period of intense change, Pendle Hill was once again sent an amazing class of adult students. They seemed to be handpicked for these times, for they came ready to co-create the experience they sought. They brought vision, faithfulness, hard work, community, and an ever-growing love for Pendle Hill.

The community refreshed and encouraged the staff and Board to renew the experiment. Since then, with the leadership of Director Lauri Perman, a reconstituted Board, a resourceful and self-giving staff, and a continuing stream of inspired short-term and longterm students, Pendle Hill is regaining strength and refocusing its vision. There is enduring power at the center of the paradox that is Pendle Hill. The experiment continues.

Douglas Gwyn

Douglas Gwyn is a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Ind., and a minister recorded in Western Yearly Meeting. He has served among Friends as a pastor, teacher, and author of books on early Friends. He is currently finishing a history of Pendle Hill.