The School of the Spirit Ministry (SotS) is dedicated to helping all who wish to be more faithful listeners and responders to the inward work of Christ.
Within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the traditional meetings of ministers and elders were sometimes referred to as a “school of the Spirit.” In gathered worship Friends learned to discern the movement of the Inward Teacher and test their discernment with one another. This practiced listening–this unceasing prayer–extended into every aspect of their lives.
This Ministry seeks to experience the living Word as it arises out of the precious and eternal silence. In the daily work of this Ministry we have the opportunity to reflect upon the presence of God in our lives and willingness to deepen our commitment to God’s comfort and guidance. Nurturing and practicing our capacity for compassion is essential for our inward preparation for ministry.
Our Core Characteristics define how we conduct our life as a ministry, whether it be around the table of the Board, within the teams of teachers and retreat facilitators, or among the community of each program’s participants. In all these venues, the Ministry:
- Is rooted, grounded, and lived out in prayer and expectant waiting upon the Divine, which seeks to heal, grow, and sustain us, and upon its guidance, which we experience as transformative. Is willing to struggle through respectful and authentic conflict, when necessary, to birth new Life when it is opened to us by Spirit.
- Strengthens understanding and appreciation of the Christ-centered roots of Quakerism, its theology, practices, and traditions.
- Explores our Christian grounding while listening to and recognizing spiritual openings and committed journeys in whatever form they appear. This rare combination leads to deeper spiritual understanding and brings forth a greater tenderness with each other.
- Fosters a deeper appreciation of the rhythms of the contemplative life as lived out within a faith community.
- Offers opportunities for deeper learning that can ground our spiritual life in the Eternal and move us to love ourselves and our community in new ways.
- Deepens appreciation of how a covenant community is called to name and develop its members’ gifts and to be faithful to its collective call to heal the world in partnership with the Creator.
- Labors under a concern that this ministry has been too centered around the experiences of individuals with white privilege. We are called to build the fullness of the Kingdom of God in our board, faculty, staff, and program participants.
The SotS Board serves as stewards of the School of the Spirit Ministry, a ministry of prayer and teaching devoted to the “school of the spirit”, as understood by early Friends. Its role is to uphold the Core Characteristics, essential features of the ministry which are made manifest in its programming.
The Board is a community of prayer, its members having discerned a call to the Ministry. It serves in the role of elders to the ministers, the staff who carry the responsibility of administering and teaching the programs offered by the Ministry.
The Board is responsible for the management and oversight of the Ministry’s finances. It secures funding (beyond program fees) for the Ministry through such means as annual appeals and grants.
For the first 25 years, The School of the Spirit Ministry was under the care of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Worship and Care Standing Committee, the nature of the relationship articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding between Worship and Care Standing Committee and the School of the Spirit Ministry. In 2015 SotS and PYM amicably agreed to separate, given PYM’s restructuring and focus within the yearly meeting. In 2016 SotS adopted its bylaws, incorporated in the state of Michigan, and received its determination from the IRS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Meetings of the Board are undergirded in prayer, and business is conducted in the spirit of worship. Discernment of programming and curricula, and the names of teachers and board members arise from worship. Also out of worship, past teachers and Board members may be invited to serve as elders to the Board. Ministers attend and participate fully in the prayer and work of Board meetings, with the possible exception of times when the Board can consider more forthrightly, in their absence, matters of business pertaining directly to them.
The Board currently meets monthly on Zoom, with in-person retreats once or twice yearly.
Committees of the Board include:
Development – oversees the long-term sustainability of the Ministry
Finance – prepare budgets and periodic financial statements for review and approval by the Board
Other ad hoc committees, such as Admissions, Spiritual Renewal Retreat, and Scholarships, are appointed as needed.
Officers of the Board include:
Two Co-Clerks – prepare agenda and preside at Board meetings; liaison with staff; facilitate Board and Committee communication between meeting times;
Recording Clerk – takes minutes at Board meetings; distribute minutes to Board members;
Treasurer – working closely with Ministry staff responsible for administrative aspects; submits Ministry budget; assures compliance with State and Federal requirements.
The Board carries the responsibility of putting out the call for new ministers, for affirming and supporting the ministers in their work, and for discerning the need for release from the Ministry (Memorandum of Commitment – SOTS Board and Core Staff). The Board, through prayerful listening and discernment with the ministers, carries the responsibility for the ongoing discernment of God’s call to the Ministry. This responsibility may include discerning when it is be time to lay the Ministry down. The day-to-day running of SotS and the implementation of its vision and goals are overseen by its Administrator, who also serves ex officio on the SotS Board. The Administrator works closely with the Board, its committees, and guides the engagement of those who volunteer their time with the Ministry.
The School of the Spirit was founded by Fran Taber, Kathryn Damiano and Sandra (“Sonnie”) Cronk.Together they were the first teaching team for the On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program.
The founding teachers stated clearly: This is a ministry of prayer AND learning. We hope to experience the quickening of the Inward Teacher and also out of that experience to reflect, to understand, and to become more aware of the nature of the divine-human relationship.
Sonnie’s early experience of graduate school pointed toward what she desired in SotS:
Education is a very important element in my understanding of my own ministry. It is very hard to grow in the religious life without some serious intellectual searching. Through my experiences of graduate school, I am particualrly aware of how inadequate an exclusively competitive academic approach is to religious learning. It neglects the reasons for intellectual work, i.e. the wish to glorify God and become more faithful, creative, and useful disciples. A competitive approach is also likely to create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity so that students are unable to learn and grow. However, my experiences have also taught me the significance of rigorous, in-depth education. (From A Lasting Gift: The Journal and Selcetd Writings of Sandra L. Cronk, edited by Martha Paxson Grundy, p. xxi)
SotS was to be a place where Friends would have an opportunity for study, prayer, and importantly, transformation. Kathryn wrote of the early vision:
This ministry arises from two concerns. The first is a recognition that God is leading some Friends to a life centered in prayer as an active witness in the world. (This leading parallels the way in which God calls certain Friends to work in such areas as peace and social justice.) This call to prayer is not a privatized or withdrawn life, but a life lived with God and shared with others. Prayer opens us to God’s presence and draws us into Christ’s work of healing the broken and wounded places in our lives and in our world.
The second consideration grows out of the awareness that many people, both inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends, have been yearning for avenues through which they might explore, more intentionally, the role of prayer and contemplation in a life of faith. Many Friends have also expressed a need for doing serious reflections and study on ministry and the call to live in faithful relationship with God. They would like to do this work within the context of a community of prayerful commitment.
Friends have always seen the connection among the the inward life, religious community, and service in the world. Faithful living has entailed a balance of all three of these aspects of our faith. . . . Maintaining a true balance among these three aspects of our commitment is one of the most important and revolutionary witnesses Friends can make in our world today. (From A Lasting Gift, pp. xl-xli)
In the late summer of 1991, Sonnie and Kathryn began the program Contemplative Living and Prayer with a weekend at Pendle Hill. The class continued to meet at Middletown Meeting one Saturday each month for a year. The On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program began as an intensive 10-month course. Fran Taber joined Kathryn and Sonnie as a core teacher along with many other visiting teachers. They decided to expand the program to two years beginning with the third class in 1995. This enabled Friends from a distance to attend.
In 1999, Sonnie was experiencing a distinct diminishment in stamina. At the time, Linda Chidsey was clerk of the SotS Board.
In March of 2000 Sonnie taught the second-to-last session of the Spiritual Nurturer 4 program. Later in the month the SotS Board held its meeting at Sonnie’s home in Princeton, as she was not feeling well enough to travel. Although clearly in great pain, none of us knew just how ill Sonnie was.
At this time the Board was fully under the weight of its role as stewards of the ministry. With each of the founding teachers stepping back from the ministry, the Board felt a strong sense of need to articulate the core characteristics of the ministry. With the guidance and support of Fran Taber who joined us by telephone, this task was accomplished. That day, in a very real way, the Board received Sonnie’s blessing. Although in great discomfort, Sonnie’s joy in knowing that the ministry would continue was apparent to us all.
Sonnie died in April of 2000, before the end of the 4th Spiritual Nurturer class. With Kathryn married and living in Kansas, and Fran retiring with Bill Taber to Barnesville, Ohio, it was left to the Board to listen their way forward.
Later in 2000 the Board put out a call for new teachers. Several Friends responded, including Barbarajene Williams and Michael Green. As they were in the final preparations to lead the 5th Spiritual Nurturer class, Barbarajene had to withdraw through illness. It was with 2 weeks to prepare that Carole Treadway joined Michael in teaching the class. Carole and Michael were then joined by Nancy Bieber for the 6th class and by Patty Levering for the 7th and 8th classes. With Carole’s retirement, Michael and Patty were joined by Beckey Phipps for the 9th class that began in September, 2012. Then, with Michael’s and Patty’s decisions to quit their roles as teachers, the 10th class, that began in 2015, was taught by Beckey, Rita Willet, and Evelyn Jadin. Again in 2017, two teachers (Rita and Beckey) decided not to return and a call for new teachers was put out. We welcomed Erika Fitz and Susan Kight, who joined Evelyn for the On Being A Spiritual Nurturer class number 11, which was shortened to 16 months, beginning September 5, 2018.
In addition to the Spiritual Nurturer program, SotS has continued the tradition of Silent Retreats begun at Sadsbury, PA, in 1962. We maintain this tradition, now called Contemplative Retreats, with annual retreats at Powell House in Old Chatham, NY, and at other locations. We are holding an intention to expand the sites for these retreats in the future as facilitators called to this particular ministry are lifted up. However, with many retreat locations closed because of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the School of the Spirit Ministry has begun to offer online e-Retreats.
SotS continues to offer other programs, as it has done throughout its history. An example was the one-year program The Way of Ministry, led by Laura Melly, Marcelle Martin, and Beckey Phipps. In 2019, a one-year program, Participating in God’s Power, began with Angela York Crane and Christopher Sammond as core teachers. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, the last half of the program has been altered. Although a final in-person residency is planned, the class has moved online.
At this time, there is another program under development.
For the first 25 years, The School of the Spirit Ministry was under the care of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Worship and Care Standing Committee, the nature of the relationship articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding between Worship and Care Standing Committee and the School of the Spirit Ministry. In 2015, PhYM underwent serious restructuring, which did away with the Standing Committees. A governance body of the Yearly Meeting offered to find a new relationship with the SotS. However, after considerable prayerful deliberation, the board of SotS decided to amicably separate from PhYM, with their agreement and blessings. In 2016 the School of the Spirit Ministry adopted bylaws, incorporated in the state of Michigan, and received its determination from the IRS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization