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Academy for Spiritual Formation marks 25 years

By Jeanette Pinkston*
June 9, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Twenty-five years ago, the Rev. Danny Morris was on a quest––but found that what he was seeking did not exist.

In 1978, Morris took a sabbatical from his position at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship to create a place where people could meet God.

The Rev. Danny Morris

It was an academy of sorts—not one made by hands, but one shaped and created by others seeking to share in a journey of faith. What Morris helped to build is now known as the Academy for Spiritual Formation, a program of The Upper Room.

Launched in 1983, the academy is a setting that is spiritually shaped around teaching, fellowship, communion and prayer. Nearly 1,200 people have attended the two-year academy, and another 10,000 have participated in its five-day experience.

"The idea of [the academy] was a spiritual gift," said Morris, former director of developing ministries at the Board of Discipleship. "I received it that way and I honored it that way all the way through. The fact that it would attract this many people over this length of time is not because it was cleverly organized; it was a spiritually anointed program from the very beginning and still is."

Refresher course

What Morris initially sought was an immediate refresher course focusing on spirituality and prayer. He was advised by Morton Kelsey, a well-known author in the field of spiritual formation, to find a spiritual guide who would help him design a study and guide him through it. That is what Morris did.

During a three-month period, Morris talked with a cross-section of people in houses of prayer, monastic communities and churches. He found that there were many seeking a comprehensive program of spiritual formation that would be biblically based, theologically strong and ecumenical in its underpinning and also in its appeal to people.

John Mogabgab

"Danny was a receptive soul to the movement of the Spirit," said John Mogabgab, editor of the Weavings journal, a publication of Upper Room Ministries. "This vision was a gift, and Danny was primed to receive it. Danny took the vision and shaped it into a program."

Intended for both clergy and laity, the academy communicates knowledge about Christian spiritual formation and offers a context to experience first-hand diverse dimensions of spirituality.

"The word 'academy' means learning experience itself. It suggests comprehensiveness in terms of depth and breadth. The term 'academy' was with me almost from the beginning and it has turned out to be a good word," Morris said.

He designed an academy experience for people wanting to move into their spiritual journey in a rather dramatic way. It was a two-year program where people came together quarterly for two years, read 28-30 books, engaged in small covenant groups, spent time alone in prayer and developed personal ministry plans to implement when they returned home.

The emphasis was on body, mind and spirit and contained dimensions of physical and nutritional fitness, Morris said.

"I felt a sense that there ought to be spiritual 'feeder pens' in the life of the church that people could come to … those specific places … to get spiritual nourishment and to grow into the likeness of Christ in their own way and on their own time," he said.

Others on the journey

Prior to joining The Upper Room, Mogabgab was instrumental in shaping and directing the academy. Some participants consisted of hand-picked potential leadership teams from annual (regional) conferences with the idea that they would replicate the academy in various parts of the United States.

"This was thought to be a wonderful way to resource the church," said Mogagab, who views the Weavings journal as a print expression and sibling of the academy.

Today, the academy targets clergy and lay leaders who are serious seekers and desiring to grow in relation to God, and it provides them with a small group of spiritual friends to make the journey.

Many participants, including a Catholic nun, have gone on to become bishops, district superintendents, spiritual directors and writers.

"This is a wonderful gift to the church. The academy’s greatest impact has been in identifying the importance of spiritual formation in the central consciousness of the church," Mogabgab said.

"The Academy has become an oasis of God’s sustaining grace for all who, through its, ministry, have sought a better, more faithful, and fulfilling way of living," wrote Bishop Rueben Job in the foreword to Rhythm & Fire: Experiencing the Holy in Community and Solitude.

The book will be presented at the academy's 25th anniversary finale event in June. The Upper Room Ministries’ Academy for Spiritual Formation is sponsoring a gathering of academy participants at June 23-26 at Camp Sumatanga in Gallant, Ala. Celebrations already have occurred in Texas, Wisconsin and California.

The academy is led by an advisory board that offers guidance but is not involved in any one specific academy.

"The wisdom of the design, curriculum, worship, rhythm of daily life, emphasis on holy and holistic living, and the selection of the leadership was no accident," Job said. "Rather, it resulted from a several-years-long experiment in disciplined discernment, carefully and prayerfully designed and directed by Danny Morris. He gathered around him faithful seekers with a rich variety of backgrounds, skills and experiences."

The academy

The Rev. Jerry Haas

According to Mogabgab, the academy has been a formative experience rather than one shaped by the desires of any single individual along the way.

Thousands of people have participated in either two-year or five-day academies. Many call it a "seminal experience" to help them assimilate and proclaim their faith.

"As we look to the future, the model is so well regarded it will be continued in its same form. At the same time we know the context we live in is changing. Because of this we are challenged to work on new frontiers," said the Rev. Jerry Haas, the current director who completed the academy in 1992-93.

While participants strongly affirm the academy, the experience leaves people with what Haas calls a "kingdom itch," a restless feeling that the church and the world can be different.

"This restlessness has led to a sense of 'generativity'––a desire to create and adapt. There is a sense of the academy being very fertile and very rich and it is something people want to share," he said.

*Pinkston is director of media relations at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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The Academy of Spiritual Formation

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The Upper Room


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