Transcending Geography

Reinventing Pendle Hill’s Morning Worship

Online worship hosted from the Pendle Hill Barn meetingroom. On a typical day, about 140 participants are logged in remotely via Zoom. Photos courtesy Pendle Hill.
Pendle Hill conference and retreat center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, has held morning worship every day since its founding almost 90 years ago. Many residents and visitors have cherished their time in Pendle Hill’s meetingroom, affectionately called “the Barn.” In mid-March, this long tradition was disrupted by the social distancing restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early April, we interviewed Pendle Hill’s Francisco Burgos and Traci Hjelt Sullivan about their transition to a new kind of online worship.

Martin Kelley, for Friends Journal: Tell us a little about Pendle Hill’s history of worship. It’s not tied to a monthly meeting. How has it developed over the decades?

Francisco Burgos: Pendle Hill opened its door as an organization on September 24, 1930. Since the first day, meeting for worship has been an integral element of what defined this organization.

We don’t have the same structure of a monthly meeting. But the element that we share with a monthly meeting or any Friends church or worship group is that we create the space for worship as a community. We welcome anybody who wants to join us. For almost 90 years, that has been a distinctive experience of the welcoming that Pendle Hill showed to people.

FJ: How has it operated without the typical structures of ministry and counsel?

Traci Hjelt Sullivan: Until at least the end of the aughts, every Pendle Hill resident student has had an assigned spiritual nurturer. For many years, there was a person on staff who had responsibility for the spiritual nurture of the staff. There was also a worship committee that cared for worship.

The Worship Committee has continued as a practice. Its primary responsibility is opening and closing worship and welcoming newcomers. It’s that place where Pendle Hill’s hospitality and spirituality intersect most intimately. We have had a very strong ethic that everyone is welcome.

We weren’t there to teach about Quakerism; we were there to share the experience of worship with people. And so sometimes worship changed quite a bit depending on who was in the room. And it always felt like this great treat when all of a sudden prayer was suddenly different one day because people from other traditions were with us,  praying in their own way.

So we don’t have ministry and counsel. But we did have structures of community support and, to some extent, accountability.

FJ: It’s always nice to be there in the worship. And when I’ve visited for conferences, just a couple days, I’ve sensed a real worshipful experience throughout the day too, not just in the morning.

Traci: Theologically, Friends believe there’s no such thing as holy places. And yet that’s actually not my experience. There’s something about worshiping in a space where I know there has been daily worship for 90 years that I think helps deepen the quality of the worship and the stillness. And it’s been quite an extraordinary experience for me.

FJ: You’re now hosting daily worship, available to anyone in the world. How has that grown?

Traci: I’m quite clear it is now the largest daily unprogrammed Quaker worship in the world. The first day we opened it to the public, we were at 80 people. We’ve been over 100 almost every day since.

When the Pennsylvania governor closed non-essential businesses in our county on March 15, we were preparing for on-campus interviews of executive director finalist candidates. Monday was the last day that our non-residential staff were on campus. We wanted to include staff in morning worship the next day, along with the candidates. So we set up our first experiment. It was just staff, our board, and the candidates. We had a lovely experience and immediately realized we should be doing this for everyone. By Thursday, we had sent out a notice to our mailing list to invite people to worship with us.

I had hoped that it might be especially meaningful for people who had worshiped in the Barn to have the visual reminder to pull them into that place of extra groundedness. It’s not just that we’ve created a worship experience. It feels like we’ve invited people to come worship at Pendle Hill.

Worship in the Barn last summer.

FJ: It feels very place-specific and community-specific too. I’ve scrolled through the faces and have been delighted to see lots of people I know from various Quaker venues.

Traci: We’ve also had people join us who say, “I’ve never worshiped with Friends before.” Or: “My girlfriend invited me to come worship with you. She’s a Quaker. This is my first chance to worship with Quakers.”

So it’s interesting. It feels a little like the Pendle Hill clique, but also like a big downtown meeting when you never know what newcomer or stranger is going to walk in the door.

Francisco: It’s been an interesting opportunity to provide people with more spaces for recreating our hope, for recreating spaces for renewal.

I believe that we are so terrified about silence that when we find a great experience of connecting with silence and the powerful message that we can find within silence, we don’t want to abandon that.

For many people, just having this opportunity of knowing that 140 other people will be connected with the same purpose of finding meaning over this silent experience is just something that they need to continue exploring.

FJ: Online worship can be much more accessible to many people. It’s common for someone to post online that they’ve discovered Quakers but the nearest meeting is three hours away. During the worship, I’ve seen people in beds, propped up with pillows. And most mornings, pre-coronavirus I’d be on the subway zoning out to podcasts. Now we can all log in to Pendle Hill’s 8:30 a.m. worship from our living rooms.

Francisco: For us, it’s 8:30. But we have had Friends from Australia, South Korea, England, and Hawaii. People have been joining us from around the globe.

That’s the power of creating this space: the time doesn’t matter. People will join us in this effort whenever and wherever they are.

FJ: What learning curves have there been? What has been different having it online rather than physically there in the Barn?

Francisco: This is an ongoing learning experience. At any monthly meeting, you will have First Days in which the worship experience is like a popcorn meeting, with a lot of ministry. Other times, it is completely silent. The online experience will be similar to that.

We are working to find out what resources and support structure we can make available to people. Some people realize that they have a stage with 140 people and feel the need to speak not just long, but very often. How can we encourage Friends to season the message that they are receiving?

So the pastoral care or the eldering experience that we need to figure out around this is not crystallized yet.

Traci: We’ve been experimenting. We’ve decided to provide worship sharing opportunities twice a week. Last Saturday, we did that. And of about the 135 people who had connected online, 35 stayed for worship sharing. That’s pretty good attendance for a “second hour,” if you will.

We’ve tried to see if we can recreate the parking lot experience, which today I framed as the coffee hour experience: anyone could stay on for informal talking. About 30 people stayed.

We’ve asked a group of Friends to gather and really imagine, what does a worship care committee look like in this environment? I don’t say worship and ministry because I think worship and ministry starts to have a pastoral care component. And I’m pretty clear that we’re not in an environment to provide pastoral care.

But we are in an environment to care for the community experience of worship. And we need to be ready to step into that. And so as Francisco said, we’re going to put some things on the website and let this group of four imagine what that committee would do.

FJ: It seems like there’s an irony that, at the same time Pendle Hill has had to close a lot of its programs and figure out what it’s doing, it’s also become highly visible to a lot of Friends. How is that helping? And what is happening with Pendle Hill? Is there anything you want to share about how you all are adapting to these strange times, as we say?

Traci: I have the sense that although our campus is closed, Pendle Hill the institution isn’t closed at all. God has work for us to do. And we know some of that. We know that this meeting is part of what our ministry is. We know that some of that is moving some of our existing programs onto Zoom platforms.

But I have a really strong sense that we’re not just being asked to adapt what we were already doing to new times—that we’re in a unique time. The spiritual needs of Friends and non-Friends are different now than they were. And we are really in a process of active discernment.

We are in a place of knowing that guidance will come to reveal important ministry during this time. Financially, it’s a risky time for us. We’re very dependent upon the income that comes from people who visit campus. And the board is very determined that we will continue to offer ministry. And we’re confident that Friends will step up to support us in doing that until the campus can reopen.

Francisco: Ninety years ago when Pendle Hill was founded, it was the Great Depression. Pendle Hill was an institution created in the middle of an economic and moral depression.

More than ever, we will need the support of Friends and seekers. Our budget is based on the income that we are able to generate from program participants and from groups that rent Pendle Hill as a conference center. The facilities are closed for that purpose.

That means that we will need to be looking very carefully to how we can continue supporting our physical facility, continue paying our bills, continue maintaining, as much as we can, our staff. At the same time, we foresee spending time reinventing ourselves and re-adapting our offerings to keep them available. Yes, Pendle Hill is a place in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Yes. But we know it reaches beyond that physical and very geographical location. People are already saying, “When the crisis is through, we hope the online worship will continue.”

Learn more:

An interview with Francisco Burgos and Traci Hjelt Sullivan

Francisco Burgos is the incoming executive director of Pendle Hill. Traci Hjelt Sullivan is the interim executive director of Pendle Hill. They were interviewed by Friends Journal’s senior editor, Martin Kelley.

8 thoughts on “Transcending Geography

  1. What an uplifting exchange of questions and perspectives. I will make a point of being part of this unfolding experiment tomorrow morning! Thanks to all who are faithfully holding PH when so much feels uncertain. Your care and trust is inspiring.

  2. Lovely to read this. I have joined the online worship at Woodbrooke (UK) from time to time, and we have been holding online worship at our local Quaker meeting in South London with very deep worship and nurturing ministry. Some Friends have joined by telephone if their IT wasn’t up to it.

    We are now considering what happens when we are able to return to the Meeting House but are still social distancing. There will be space for less than half our usual number, and many will need to socially isolate so it is clear that online Meeting will need to continue.

    We hope there is a way that the meeting gathered physically is able to join with the virtual meeting, so we too will be interested in the experience of others. We are aready getting a hearing loop that can connect to the internet, but there is more to be sorted.

  3. Any chance that those of us who are on EST but can’t join you at 8:30am could experience the same meeting later the same day or on another day? I am new to Zoom, so I don’t know if the meeting could be saved and watched at a different time/day?

  4. I don’t find a link for the worship. It’s not my time of day, but I would like to try once in a while. Please help.

  5. If meetings are still held at 8:30 then I’ll definitely will have to wake up earlier to join given my time zone, but since my tiny local Meeting cancelled altogether and told us to join other services this might help with my desire to do worship and prayer first thing in the morning, thank you for the article!

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