The Academy for Spiritual Formation offers sacred time and space for spiritual growth

January 22, 2024 by Rev. Carol Gullatt
Photograph by Joscelyne Cutchens

One year ago this week, I was displaced due to the disaffiliation of the church I served for five and a half years. I had a beautiful relationship with the church and community, but my keeping covenant meant leaving behind this community and church in order to continue serving faithfully as an elder in the United Methodist Church. This transition brought about a move into an unknown area of service, dependence on others for housing, complicated financial changes, and a loss of social and personal relationships. I was undone!

For decades, I have longed to participate in The Academy for Spiritual Formation. I learned about The Academy through many of the clergy and lay people in this conference whose lives of ministry have impacted mine. In these persons who have served as mentors and role models, I witnessed a depth of spirituality that caused them to live lives of embodied love, quiet strength, and deep passion.

After my ordination in 2019, I enjoyed picking up hobbies and listening to books and podcasts for my own entertainment. I took a break from intentional study and found ways to broaden my personal development outside of the life of the church. During that time, I became aware of my need for a new vision or direction to guide me into fruitfulness in life and ministry.

I took some time apart in intentional solitude for a retreat at the parsonage as my way of celebrating the 2020 New Year! During my retreat days, I journaled and reflected on my journey. I got back in touch with my own sense of call to the discipline of spiritual formation and my love for formative theology. I used a variation on the question from Gary Keller that many of us have been coached to ask in leadership and new church development in recent years, “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it…” and added my own spin to the reflective inquiry.

The outcome of this time of discernment was a sense of groundedness in my desire to be a spiritual leader with those qualities I witnessed in others who have been attentive to their continuing spiritual growth as participants in The Academy. I sensed the leadership of the Holy Spirit as I set my heart and mind on what steps I needed to take to make myself available to live into this new sense of clarity of purpose. The hope I journaled was that within 5 years I would have the opportunity to participate in a Two-Year Academy in Alabama.

I began to make my preparations, as the events of 2020 unfolded. So much happened that I lost track of my timeline and was distracted by many things. When I was taken off guard by the church I served entering into the Discernment Process in order to disaffiliate, I witnessed the impact of outward chaos on the inner workings of the church and of my own soul.

In this season of my own professional, emotional, and spiritual crisis moments, registration opened for the next Two-Year Academy to begin in November 2022. During that month, I finished my season of service at the church, moved from the parsonage into storage and limbo, and began in my new role as District Developer. The starting date for Academy #42 was pushed back an additional quarter to January 2023, a relief to me in this time of transition. This was the extra dose of grace I needed to be able to join into this new experience of covenant community.

Participation in Academy #42 during this time of transition and new beginnings has been life-giving and stabilizing. I have been nurtured and held accountable for my health as a whole person in ways that have enabled me to minister to others who have also experienced the pain and disorientation of loss and change. While my life was disrupted by the circumstances of disaffiliation, I was being held in prayer by the leadership of The Academy. I received the support of covenant community from people who I had not even met in person yet.

This time of transition in the United Methodist Church created space for a season of deep change in my own heart and life. Crisis moments opened space for learning and growth. The flexibility and freedom that came from leaving church life as I knew it have become the fertile soil for growing as a whole person and a spiritual leader. As Session 4 wrapped up in October, we reached the midpoint in our journey together as a covenant community. During that week particularly, I experienced a greater sense of joy and freedom than I have had in all my years of ministry. I look forward to continuing to be challenged by the learning experiences and depth of discipleship that await me in 2024 as we continue in Academy #42.

Rev. Carol Gullatt is a pastor in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. This article originally appeared on the North Alabama Conference website.

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