By Bob Allen
Thirty participants from various denominations convened in November for the first Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation ever held in Cuba. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Florida CBF helped sponsor the enrichment event, which is a ministry of the Upper Room, ecumenical division of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.
“There are two kinds of pastors in Cuba, those who are burned out and those who are burning out,” said Carlos Peralta, director of Encuentro Ministries, a Christian-based nonprofit in Florida and liaison to Hispanic churches for Florida CBF.
Both Peralta and current Florida CBF moderator Ruben Ortiz, pastor at La Primera Iglesia Bautista de Deltona in Deltona, Fla., were instructors for the event, sponsored with funding and planning support from the national CBF office in Decatur, Ga., and the Florida CBF statewide missions offering called “Above and Beyond.”
Academy director Johnny Sears said in the beginning many of the Cuban pastors and church leaders were skeptical of the academy’s use of the classical spiritual disciplines with periods of silence and solitude set aside for worship, prayer and reflection.
“By the end of the week, I watched tremendous transformation happen, and these people began to embrace us,” said Sears, a former part-time youth minister at Midway Baptist Church in Midway, Ky., whose own introduction to the classical spiritual disciplines came at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky under the tutelage of Professor Glenn Hinson. “They were all asking for us to come back.”
Sears said one of the major new frontiers for the Academy for Spiritual Formation — started as a two-year covenant-learning environment combining academic training and experience in spiritual disciplines by Upper Room Ministries in 1983 — is in international growth. “Next year we’ll be offering the academy in Singapore and in Russia, and there are more invitations coming in all the time,” he said in a recent fundraising video.
Sears, a layman with a background in engineering, first learned about contemplative spirituality practiced by individuals like Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk in Kentucky who wrote 70 books, when he attended CBF-aligned Baptist Seminary of Kentucky part time while working in product design with Lexmark International in Lexington, Ky.
He left seminary to enroll in the two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation in Alabama in 2006-2007. He fully expected to return to seminary, but his calling shifted and to his surprise he wound up being hired as the ministry director in July 2010.
Bo Prosser, coordinator of organizational relationships, said since then CBF has sponsored several of the five-day versions of the workshop, including an abbreviated event in Chile. Prosser said both international events were a great success.
Sears said no specific dates have been set for the next Five-Day Academy, but conversations have already begun about a regularly scheduled event in Cuba in hopes “that more Cuban pastors and church leaders will experience the power and presence of God through the academy model.”