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Five days to better spiritual health

Five days to better spiritual health

Early registration is now available for the Florida Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation to be held March 6-11, 2016, at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. Keynote presenters will be Rev. Dr. Steven Harper and Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Canham. 

Harper, of Winter Springs, is a renowned speaker and author, having written 16 books and coauthored 13 others. A United Methodist elder, he also is a retired professor and vice president of the Florida Dunnam Campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando.

Steve Harper headshot
Dr. Steve Harper

His role for the upcoming academy will be as a faculty member, but he sees himself more as a spiritual leader for attendees who come for renewal, growth and personal reflection. 

“It’s more heart to heart, at least for me, where you want to engage in conversations rather than make presentations,” Harper said. “People are there to grow in their faith, and I see my role as a spiritual guide more than an academic expert.” 

As a program director for The Upper Room in the late 1990s, Harper had oversight for the Two Year Academy, which meets four times a year as a cohort group. He said The Upper Room developed the five-day academies so attendees could “dip their toes into it” without making a two-year commitment.

Marilyn Swanson, who is serving as the 2016 program director, has attended the Florida Five Day Academy every year except for two since it began in March 2001. 

“The academy is a place to learn and explore,” said Swanson, who is from Temple Terrace. “It deepens relationships with the Holy Spirit. We come away with a deeper understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.” 

Attendance has ranged between 45 and 60 in recent years, and most people attend as individuals, not as a church group. Repeat attendance is the norm, not the exception.

“Over the years, I’d say 60 percent are returnees,” said Lucy Wray of Trinity. “A lot of people come and have a very good experience, so they decide to come back every year. Some, because of expense, return every other year.”

Wray has attended every Florida Five Day Academy since its inception. She said the experience changes lives. 

People enjoying prayer labyrinth at Life Enrichment Center
The living prayer labyrinth overlooking Lake Griffin is a spot where many Life Enrichment Center guests find spiritual renewal. Photo above and home page feature from the Life Enrichment Center Facebook page.

“The academy has really helped people to understand how living in a true community of believers is healthy,” she explained. “Some have experienced reconciliation. … Some received a calling, maybe to attend a Two Year Academy [program] or into positions of service in the church itself.”

Wray also believes the Benedictine rhythm of the day followed at the academy teaches people a discipline they can practice in their everyday lives.

Attendees begin and end each day with morning and evening prayers. Faculty members present their topics in morning and afternoon sessions, followed by silence for individual reflection. Small gatherings, typically six to eight people who have formed covenant groups, occur in the evening for response and sharing time. The program includes time for rest and recreation throughout the day as well. 

“This model always has good results because it’s balanced,” Wray said. “The academy is a great place to revisit your relationship with God and the Holy Spirit because there are no distractions that week.”

Swanson agreed that the five-day program changes lives. 

“You come away with an understanding of looking through God’s eyes,” she said. “You see people with different eyes than before.” 

Harper, whose topic will be “Walking in Love,” compares the academy experience to the Vacation Bible School song “Deep and Wide.”

“The take-away is a deepening of faith that people already have and a widening of awareness about things they don’t know,” he says. “They will be exposed to things they have never heard or have only heard about briefly.”

The Florida Conference and The Upper Room sponsor the Florida Five Day Academy, but both Wray and Harper emphasized that the event is ecumenical and open to other denominations and religions. 

Florida Five Day Spiritual Formation Academy guests 2015
Participants in the Florida Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation enjoy fellowship at the 2015 event. Photo from Marilyn Swanson.

“The academy is more than just about Protestants,” explained Harper. “The widening of spiritual awareness often comes through learning about other religions.” 

Harper describes his presentation as a “walk through the Bible,” beginning with the Old Testament and including church history. He plans to focus on the early church from about 100 to 600 A.D., with emphasis on God’s love and how that plays out in other religions.

“My final session will be about how we put all this into practice into our lives,” he said. 

Canham, the other speaker for the Florida event, will address the topic “Praying with God’s Two Books: Creation and the Bible.” An Episcopal priest, Canham founded Stillpoint Ministries, a North Carolina-based training program for retreat leaders, and has served parishes in London, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina.

Attendance for the Florida Five Day Academy for Spiritual Formation is limited to 65 people, and early registration is encouraged. 

“It helps not to wait until the last minute,” Swanson said. “I’d like to see people register so they can start reading the recommended books. You can sink into the materials prior to arrival and have a clearer understanding.”

The cost for the academy is $625, single, or $525, double, which includes tuition, meals, lodging and all linens provided. Discounts are available for registration before Jan. 15. 

For more information and to register, click here.

– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.