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In 2013 The Academy for Spiritual Formationwill mark 30 years of nurturing laity and clergyin the experiences of disciplined Christian com-munity.
The Academy, a program ministry of TheUpper Room, the ecumenical Division of theUnited Methodist General Board of Discipleship,began as a dream of longtime GBOD staff mem-ber, the Rev. Danny Morris. In the midst of ever-changing programming trends, Dr. Morrisbelieved there was a place for the daily rhythmsof the classical spiritual disciplines.
The Academy launched in 1983 following fiveyears of research and preparation led by Dr. Mor-ris, Bishop Rueben Job, who was then UpperRoom publisher, and Episcopalian theologianJohn Mogabgab.
After almost 30 years, The Academy contin-ues to attract a strong ecumenical following.More than 1,400 laity and clergy have completedthe program, which meets at a retreat center foreight sessions over the two-year period. Another8,000 people have participated in short-termadaptations, including the popular regional Five-Day Academies.
Many regard the experience as life-changing.One of these is the present Academy Director,Johnny Sears.
He first encountered The Academy as a part-time youth pastor in a Baptist church. As a younglayperson with a background in engineering, Mr.Sears was struggling with Gods call and his ownfuture. He enrolled in seminary, but felt some-thing was missing in his search for a deeper andmore authentic faith and spirituality.
I discovered spiritual formation, throughprovidence, I suppose, Mr. Sears said. It was allnew language to me.
One of Mr. Sears mentors was Baptist histo-rian and ecumenist E. Glenn Hinson, who hadbeen involved with The Academy from the begin-ning and encouraged him to enroll. The holisticapproach proved to be more of what Mr. Searssought.
He dropped out of seminary and committedhimself to the two-year experience as a path toclarity about his vocational calling.
By the time I completed The Academy, Iknew my call was as a layper-son, Mr. Sears said.
He continued working at hissecular job while becomingmore and more involved in thelife of The Academy and UpperRoom Ministries. When the for-mer director, the Rev. JerryHaas, was preparing to move toa new position in GBOD, hesuggested Mr. Sears apply forthe directors position.
Mr. Sears acknowledged that he was sur-prised at the idea, but after consulting with hiswife, he applied.
Its all been a grace-filled journey of beingopened and connected with people who sawsomething in me, encouraged me, and challengedme. I never planned on being in this position, butI love doing it. I believe in what this ministry rep-resents and what it is doing and will do, he said.
Mr. Haas, who followed Dr. Morris as director,served in that capacity for 12 years and continuesto promote Academy work as part of his presentresponsibilities. He was at a regional gathering ofAcademy graduates in the Dallas area on Feb. 9.In his remarks, Mr. Haas referenced The Acad-emy logo, based on 2 Kings, chapter 2 in whichthe mantle of Gods spirit passes from Elijah toElisha.
Passing the mantle doesnt happen quickly. . . . Many things can keep us from being presentto the Holy in our lives, he said.
He lifted up what he termed simple spiritualpractices learned at The Academy which offer theholy space for God to be at work in individuallives in a very personal way.
Mr. Haas also is an Academy graduate. He de-scribed himself as a clergyperson who came outof the Presbyterian tradition, then becameUnited Methodist, who was successful, but feltexhausted and at times, unable to pray.
Experiencing the joy of being in prayer, in acommunity of prayer, and falling in love withGod was a totally different experience for me, hetold the Dallas group.
Positive differenceOne of the most lauded aspects of The Acad-
emy is the way in which laity and clergy partici-pate on an equal plane and learn to become moreopen, trusting and appreciative of each other. In
2003 a Lilly Foundation grant allowed an exhaus-tive study by Doble Research Associates on theimpact of The Academy on clergy participantsand led to a program called Companions inMinistry for clergypersons. A remarkable 91percent of the pastors responding indicated thatthe experience had been an extremely valuablepart of their lives.
We received data that support our claimsthat participation in The Academy makes a posi-tive difference for clergy, Mr. Sears said.
Faculty members are key elements to TheAcademys success. Mr. Sears indicated facultyare selected based on knowledge, credibility, useof inclusive language, capacity to serve as spiri-tual guides to the participants, ability to functionas part of the team, and commitment to compas-sion and justice. Many are well-known names inthe field of spiritual formation and have a longhistory of Academy participation.
Mr. Sears added that participants come fromall walks of life and a wide variety of denomina-tions. In a typical two-year experience, one-thirdto one-half of the group is clergy. Laypersonshave included a wide range of professions, fromphysicians to musicians, from lawyers to filmproducers, with a number of retired persons andmen and women whose work life is in the home.
Participants are immersed in Scripture andserious devotional and theological reading, in-cluding Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant
and Spirituality in a Global Context. Each day in-cludes a time for silence and solitude and forworship, prayer and reflection.
Academy sessions are held at the same retreatcenter throughout the experience. Current andfuture scheduled two-year programs (numbered31-35) are in Texas, Florida, Indiana, Alabama,California and back to Texas. Academy #32,begun in July 2011 in Florida, is Spanish/Englishbilingual. The short-term Academy experiencesare also offered in Spanish in Florida and PuertoRico, and in Korean in the United States andKorea.
Escalating costs, particularly for retreat cen-ters, are a challenge. There is some scholarshipaid available. Dealing with costs and other barri-ers to accessibility are important factors in Acad-emy leaders vision for the future, which is toenable participants to incarnate the Christianspiritual life effectively in the multi-cultural, in-terfaith world of the 21st century for the trans-formation of the church.
Individuals interested in further informationor in participating in an Academy experience canobtain a 20-page prospectus, including an appli-cation, on the website www.upperroom.org/acad-emy, or email [email protected]
The Rev. La Barr is the former director ofcommunications for the North TexasConference.
A Dream Realized
Academy of Spiritual Formation still offers life-changing retreats
PHOTO BY CATHY THACKER
The labyrinth at the Life Enrichment Center in Leesburg, Fla., offers a place for serenity and meditation. The Center is the site ofAcademy 32, the Spanish-English bilingual experience.
B Y J OA N G . L A BA R RSpecial Contributor
The Academy forSpiritual Formationoffers the full UpperRoom experienceprayer, worship, deepcommunity, Sabbath.Its the one place inthe church that Imaware of where bothclergy and laity cancome together as spiritualcompanions for an extended time.The participants share a commonneed for engaging in intellectualdiscussion and spiritual disciplineswhile living in a covenantcommunity. It is a formative andacademic experience that is hard to
find in the Protestant tradition,including in our seminaries.
Regardless of whether we areclergy or lay, everyone needs timeapart for spiritual retreat andrenewal. A weekend away, now andthen, can be helpful but it cannotprovide us with the spiritualwellbeing needed to lead and servewell in our vocations. The 30-yearsuccess of the Academy is a result ofpeople recognizing and addressingthis deep need for prayer, study,structure and community.
Sarah WilkeGeneral Board of DiscipleshipAssociate General Secretary/
Publisher, Upper Room
Academy responds to deep need
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PHOTOS BY DAR BERKENPAS
LEFT: The Rev. Victor Perez pours wine for the Eucharist. Dr. Perez, former spiritual director for the Upper Rooms Walk to Emmaus program, is retreat leader for AcademyNumber 32, the first Spanish-English bilingual academy. RIGHT: The Rev. Don Saliers, left, and the Rev. Thomas Thangaraj are both retired professors from Candler School ofTheology, EmoryUniversity, who serve as Academy faculty.
PHOTO BY JOAN G. LA BARR
Academy graduate Debi Moses, who helped organize the February gathering ofAcademy graduates in Dallas, addresses the group at Lovers Lane UMC.
ABOVE: The Rev. TercioJunker (center),
Academy 32Liturgy andSpirituality teacher,
along with teammember the Rev. Cathy
Thacker (left) andparticipant the Rev.
Lydia Munoz, enjoy therhythm of the drums.
RIGHT: The Rev. JerryHass, who served 12
years as director of theAcademy, addresses agathering of graduatesat Lovers Lane UMC in
PHOTO BY LUCY WRAY
PHOTO BY JOAN G. LA BARR
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