Fran Taber, Kathryn Damiano and Sandra (“Sonnie”) Cronk.
Together they were the first teaching team for the
On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program.
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 This call to prayer is not a privatized or withdrawn life, but a life lived with God and shared with others.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