A Dream Realized Academy of Spiritual Formation still offers life-changing retreats

Joan Labarr

Joan LaBarr

In 2013 The Academy for Spiritual Formation will mark 30 years of nurturing laity and clergy in the experiences of disciplined Christian community.

The Academy, a program ministry of The Upper Room, the ecumenical Division of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship, began as a dream of longtime GBOD staff member, the Rev. Danny Morris. In the midst of ever-changing programming trends, Dr. Morris believed there was a place for the daily rhythms of the classical spiritual disciplines.

The Academy launched in 1983 following five years of research and preparation led by Dr. Morris, Bishop Rueben Job, who was then Upper Room publisher, and Episcopalian theologian John Mogabgab.

After almost 30 years, The Academy continues to attract a strong ecumenical following. More than 1,400 laity and clergy have completed the program, which meets at a retreat center for eight sessions over the two-year period. Another 8,000 people have participated in short-term adaptations, including the popular regional Five-Day Academies.

Many regard the experience as life-changing. One of these is the present Academy Director, Johnny Sears.

PHOTO BY JOAN G. LA BARR --- North Texas area Academy graduates listen to a Feb. 9 presentation by former director, the Rev. Jerry Haas.

He first encountered The Academy as a part-time youth pastor in a Baptist church. As a young layperson with a background in engineering, Mr. Sears was struggling with God’s call and his own future. He enrolled in seminary, but felt something was missing in his search for a deeper and more authentic faith and spirituality.

“I discovered spiritual formation, through providence, I suppose,” Mr. Sears said. “It was all new language to me.”

One of Mr. Sears’ mentors was Baptist historian and ecumenist E. Glenn Hinson, who had been involved with The Academy from the beginning and encouraged him to enroll. The holistic approach proved to be more of what Mr. Sears sought.

He dropped out of seminary and committed himself to the two-year experience as a path to clarity about his vocational calling.

Rev. Don Saliers, left, and the Rev. Thomas Thangaraj

PHOTO BY DAR BERKENPAS --- The Rev. Don Saliers, left, and the Rev. Thomas Thangaraj are both retired professors from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, who serve as Academy faculty.

“By the time I completed The Academy, I knew my call was as a layperson,” Mr. Sears said.

He continued working at his secular job while becoming more and more involved in the life of The Academy and Upper Room Ministries. When the former director, the Rev. Jerry Haas, was preparing to move to a new position in GBOD, he suggested Mr. Sears apply for the director’s position.

Mr. Sears acknowledged that he was surprised at the idea, but after consulting with his wife, he applied.

“It’s all been a grace-filled journey of being opened and connected with people who saw something in me, encouraged me, and challenged me. I never planned on being in this position, but I love doing it. I believe in what this ministry represents and what it is doing and will do,” he said.

PHOTO BY LUCY WRAY The Rev. Tercio Junker (center), Academy 32 Liturgy and Spirituality teacher, along with team member the Rev. Cathy Thacker (left) and participant the Rev. Lydia Munoz, enjoy the rhythm of the drums.

Mr. Haas, who followed Dr. Morris as director, served in that capacity for 12 years and continues to promote Academy work as part of his present responsibilities. He was at a regional gathering of Academy graduates in the Dallas area on Feb. 9. In his remarks, Mr. Haas referenced The Academy logo, based on 2 Kings, chapter 2 in which the mantle of God’s spirit passes from Elijah to Elisha.

“Passing the mantle doesn’t happen quickly. . . . Many things can keep us from being present to the Holy in our lives,” he said.

He lifted up what he termed simple spiritual practices learned at The Academy which offer the holy space for God to be at work in individual lives in a very personal way.

Mr. Haas also is an Academy graduate. He described himself as a clergyperson who came out of the Presbyterian tradition, then became United Methodist, who was successful, but felt exhausted and at times, unable to pray.


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 of Academy 32, the Spanish-English bilingual experience.

“Experiencing the joy of being in prayer, in a community of prayer, and falling in love with God was a totally different experience for me,” he told the Dallas group.


Positive difference


One of the most lauded aspects of The Academy is the way in which laity and clergy participate on an equal plane and learn to become more open, trusting and appreciative of each other. In 2003 a Lilly Foundation grant allowed an exhaustive study by Doble Research Associates on the impact of The Academy on clergy participants and led to a program called “Companions in Ministry” for clergypersons. A remarkable 91 percent of the pastors responding indicated that the experience had been an extremely valuable part of their lives.

PHOTO BY DAR BERKENPAS • • • The Rev. Victor Perez pours wine for the Eucharist. Dr. Perez, former spiritual director for the Upper Room's Walk to Emmaus program, was retreat leader for Academy Number 32, the first Spanish-English bilingual academy.

“We received data that support our claims that participation in The Academy makes a positive difference for clergy,” Mr. Sears said.

Faculty members are key elements to The Academy’s success. Mr. Sears indicated faculty are selected based on knowledge, credibility, use of inclusive language, capacity to serve as spiritual guides to the participants, ability to function as part of the team, and commitment to compassion and justice. Many are well-known names in the field of spiritual formation and have a long history of Academy participation.

Mr. Sears added that participants come from all walks of life and a wide variety of denominations. In a typical two-year experience, one-third to one-half of the group is clergy. Laypersons have included a wide range of professions, from physicians to musicians, from lawyers to film producers, with a number of retired persons and men and women whose work life is in the home.

Johnny Sears

PHOTO BY BECKY SEARS • • • Present director Johnny Sears is a layperson who first became active in the Academy as he struggled with God’s call and his own future.

Participants are immersed in Scripture and serious devotional and theological reading, including Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Spirituality in a Global Context. Each day includes a time for silence and solitude and for worship, prayer and reflection.

Academy sessions are held at the same retreat center throughout the experience. Current and future scheduled two-year programs (numbered 31-35) are in Texas, Florida, Indiana, Alabama, California and back to Texas. Academy #32, begun in July 2011 in Florida, is Spanish/English bilingual. The short-term Academy experiences are also offered in Spanish in Florida and Puerto Rico, and in Korean in the United States and Korea.

Escalating costs, particularly for retreat centers, are a challenge. There is some scholarship aid available. Dealing with costs and other barriers to accessibility are important factors in Academy leaders’ vision for the future, which is to enable participants to incarnate the Christian spiritual life effectively in the multi-cultural, interfaith world of the 21st century for the transformation of the church.

Individuals interested in further information or in participating in an Academy experience can obtain a 20-page prospectus, including an application, on the website www.upperroom.org/academy, or email academy@upperroom.com.

The Rev. Joan La Barr is the former director of communications for the North Texas Conference.


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