Gretchen Castle was officially installed as the seventh dean — and first woman dean — of the Earlham School of Religion on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
During a ceremony attended by Earlham community members and dignitaries from other seminaries, Castle marked the occasion by sharing a vision for how ESR will change a divided world. She took inspiration from ESR’s founders and again in the establishment of the seminary’s Quaker Leadership Center, which supports congregational leaders and encourage students to pursue careers in congregational ministry.
“ESR was established out of, or rather in spite of, the differences among Friends,” Castle said at the ceremony held at Nicarry Chapel, located on the campus of Bethany Seminary, ESR’s sister seminary, partner and neighbor.
“Diversity of feeling around training people for ministry, whether from the pastoral system or the unprogrammed tradition, was rife with disagreement,” Castle explained. “This bridging of Quaker traditions continues in our work at ESR and the Quaker Leadership Center today. ESR is in an unusual position to help bridge these theological differences.”
ESR students have a strong appetite for learning and graduate prepared to thrive in the world, Castle said.
“About half of our students are Quaker and half come from other denominations or from those who do not identify with a denomination,” Castle said. “Quaker theological foundations, as well as our commitment to being welcoming and inclusive, draw people to study here. Whether studying Quakerism, writing in the Theopoetics Program, or witnessing in the Peace and Social Transformation Program, ESR encourages the expression of thoughtful change. ESR is building cultures of peace.”
As the Quaker seminary, Castle said ESR will continue to serve a world that needs compassion in the Quaker tradition.
“My vision for ESR is that we carry into the world all these things we do every day,” she said. “That we initiate complex conversations, that we are responsive to the needs of the world, that we bring intellectual and spiritual power to theological considerations, and that we train people in ministry, discerning what they feel called to do.
“And in my still larger vision, and I will say this as clearly as I can, Quakers are needed in the world – today,” she said. “Quakers are needed at Earlham College and ESR. Quaker presence and our way of being in the world continues to draw people into something new. Students leave Earlham College and ESR having been changed.”
“My vision for ESR is that we carry into the world all these things we do every day. That we initiate complex conversations, that we are responsive to the needs of the world, that we bring intellectual and spiritual power to theological considerations, and that we train people in ministry, discerning what they feel called to do.”Gretchen Castle
Prior to the ceremony, ESR dedicated its classroom building as the Perkins-Wildman Community Center in the honor of Jim Perkins and his late wife, Barbara. The Perkins-Wildman family has been one of ESR’s strongest supporters and also a strong advocate for Quaker causes for two generations.
With generosity from the Perkins-Wildman family, ESR will be renovating Quigg Chapel and are preparing to break ground on an outdoor patio and gathering space located between the ESR and Bethany campuses.
Castle was hired as dean of ESR in June 2021 and agreed to delay her installation due to the Covid pandemic.
“This is a pivotal time in the history of both the College and the School of Religion,” Anne Houtman, president of Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion, said during the installation ceremony. “We are blessed to have such an energetic and forward-looking leader at ESR.”
A global leader for Quakers, Castle was previously the General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation in the Quaker World Office in London, traveling extensively to bring greater unity to Quakers worldwide.
In a career spanning more than four decades, Castle has gained broad experience among Friends globally and across different Quaker traditions. She has served at the Quaker United Nations Offices in New York and Geneva, and participates in the Christian World Communions Annual Meeting of the General Secretaries, where she was appointed the first woman chair and the first Quaker chair. As part of the Christian World Communions, she attended the inauguration of Pope Francis in Rome in 2013.
In the United States, she was presiding clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Director of Leadership Development for several Quaker retirement communities, and a board development consultant for over 20 years.
Castle’s appointment as dean has been a homecoming for the Richmond native. The daughter of a pastor at Richmond First Friends Church, Castle attended preschool in Stout Meeting House on Earlham’s campus. She graduated from Earlham with the Class of 1979 with a degree in human development and social relationsbefore earning a master’s in education from Temple University.