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Summer Institute Shapes Lives

by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Jan Steckley
Jan Steckley (New Hamburg, Ont, Canada) leads evening prayers, part of the daily ritual for this year Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation.

Harrisonburg, Va.--- Although from different denominations, backgrounds and even countries, Jan Steckley and Tom Bowman both found themselves studying spiritual direction in Harrisonburg, Va. at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation (SISF).

Jan Steckley, a Mennonite pastor from New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada found out about SISF through a colleague.

“Something about how she described the Institute drew me,” said Steckley, “I decided it would take me into a place that I had been going anyway.” For Steckley, that place was one of contemplative prayer, spiritual formation and soul care both for herself and for her congregation.

Tom Bowman, an Episcopal layperson from Charlottesville, Va. , who is retired from public school mental health, came to SISF for his own personal spiritual development.

“I had been participating in ways to deepen my beliefs and my way of living a spiritual life in a number of ways outside of the seminary, time in a monastery, retreats, working actively with Contemplative Outreach, a contemplative organization in Charlottesville, and work at the Episcopal parish at St Paul’s in Charlottesville ,” said Bowman. “I felt like the Summer Institute was the next step in my journey.”

Both Steckley and Bowman are completing their final year of SISF, a three-year program to train spiritual directors and others interested in the ministry of spiritual formation. The program runs for two weeks in June each summer. Students from across North America participate in the classes, worship, retreat and community that form a part of the two -week course of study.

Emphasis on Formation Changes People

Marvin Lorenzana
Wendy Miller shares coffee and insights with SISF students Bill Huffman (Stuarts Draft, Va) and Terry Rediger (Ritzville, Wa) during break time.

The emphasis on formation makes this course of study different from some other seminary courses.

“I’ve learned a lot about my own journey with God,” Steckley said. “You can’t work with the concepts without appropriating it for yourself. What is unique about this program is the aspect of learning within the framework of soul care. It’s formation versus information.”

“This has been the single most formative experience of my life,” said Bowman. “Spiritual formation relies heavily on knowing yourself. Within the institute there has been this tremendous opportunity to be accompanied by others who’ve had a broad and deep experience in both offering spiritual direction and teaching a broad-based formative curriculum that is tempered by a very heartfelt and sensitive approach to the individual place along the path of the person who is participating.”

Prayer, spiritual guidance are a way of life at SISF

The courses focus on prayer, giving and receiving spiritual guidance, and teaching a broad-based formative curriculum that is tempered by a very heartfelt and sensitive approach to the individual place along the path of the participant.” Steckley commented, “There is a deep sense of community that emerges because we share deeply about our journeys personally and in ministry.”

The courses focus on prayer, giving and receiving spiritual guidance and spiritual formation within and beyond congregational ministry. “There is a deep sense of community that emerges because we share deeply about our journeys personally and in ministry,” Steckley commented.

“Within the holistic approach to the institute we’re actually living and breathing the community that we are in turn seeking to take to others in our companionship,” Bowman added.

Practicum helps students see formation in the lives of others

SISF offers three levels of courses in formation and spiritual direction. Spiritual directors help others pay attention to their spiritual journey and the call of God in their lives. This can be done in either a one-on-one setting or in a small group setting. Students practice these skills with each other and during a practicum experience.

Each year participants can take one credit hour of home-based practicum, in which they choose an area of ministry in which they will to spiritual formation during the year. Some participants choose to give spiritual direction ; others attend to the spiritual formative nature of ministry within the church, or in mission.

Bowman, who did his practicum work as a spiritual director, said, “I used what I’ve gained at SISF to help other seekers who are in search of something specific about their spiritual nature, or maybe are just drawn to investigate and only have a rudimentary sense of what they require.”

Keaton Shenk
Keaton Shenk (Harrisonburg , Va) reads scripture during evening prayers. Students Tom Bowman (Charlottesville , Va.) and Bill Huffman (Stuarts Draft, Va.), and instructor Kevin Clark pray during the scripture reading.

Steckley found that the concepts informed all of her work as a minister. “These classes change how I think about my work. I tend to see everything that I do within the framework of soul care, which means attending to how we’re being formed as a people of God and looking for the movement of the Spirit,” she said .

Formation and Information create growth

EMS ’ Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation is a special opportunity for ministers and laypersons to not only learn about spiritual formation but to be formed themselves.

“The pace created during the two weeks is not simply academics, although there are academic requirements, but there is also time for retreat, and a cycle of prayer in corporate worship as well prayerful intent within the classroom setting,” Bowman said. “The Institute is not simply a place to be trained but a place to be formed.”

“I’ve learned how to pay attention to the movement of God in the lives of others, and in the life of a community, some of what that looks like, how to recognize it, how to discern what it means, how to create a space for others to see that and understand it and how to move with it ,” Steckley said. “I’ve learned how to be with others in ways that attend to what God is doing.”