Faculty & Leaders
Strong leadership and faculty are key to the Academy experience. Below is a directory of Academy for Spiritual Formation® staff, a sampling of faculty that are currently presenting at various Two-Year and Five-Day Academies, and the leadership teams for current and upcoming Two-Year Academies.
The Academy staff are employees of Upper Room Ministries®. They work together to oversee the Two-Year and Five-Day Academies around the world; offer coordination and consultation to leadership teams and participants; and provide ongoing development and guidance for the overall Academy movement.
Prior to coming to The Upper Room in July of 2010, Johnny spent 12 years at Lexmark International. While his professional life was in the corporate world,his personal search for a deeper connection to God carried him on a pilgrimage into the world of prayer and spiritual formation. One of the significant gifts of that journey was attending Academy 25 in Alabama in 2006-2007. He continued to be a part of the Academy ministry by serving on the leadership teams for the 25th Anniversary celebration in Alabama and the River Deep Wide conference in 2009. He currently leads occasional retreats near the Abbey of Gethsemani for the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living. Before moving to Nashville, he served as an ordained Deacon, staff youth minister, Sunday School teacher, retreat leader, and spiritual director in his local Baptist church. Johnny and his lovely wife Becky are proud parents of two sons that bring them great joy. ... more
Claire hails from the dry plains of West Texas, and though she’s lived in Washington, D.C., Austin, TX, Louisiana, and now Nashville since 2013, she still claims West Texas as her home. A graduate of Baylor University with a degree in English and Professional Writing, Claire began her career working at Sojourners magazine on Jim Wallis’ New York Times bestselling book tour for God’s Politics. From there, Claire worked in the nonprofit sustainable food world in Austin, Texas, and then made her way to Vanderbilt Divinity School where she earned a Master of Divinity degree and was ordained Alliance of Baptists clergy in 2011. Claire first experienced The Academy model through a Writing as Spiritual Practice clergy program in 2012 — an offshoot of The Academy, funded by a grant given to The Upper Room from the Lilly Endowment —and knew her soul had found a place to call home. In 2013, Claire began working with The Academy in the areas of interpretation, development, and communications, learning more deeply its mission of helping people connect with God, self, others, and creation for the sake of the world. As a pastor, spiritual leader, writer, teacher, poet, mother, spouse, certified yoga, dance, and movement instructor, and birth and postpartum doula, Claire turns to The Academy’s model of listening, learning, worshiping, and praying daily and is thankful for the sacred space it offers for rest and renewal, listening and love. ... more
Since April 2008, Donna has filled an administrative role of the Academy office, assisting applicants and leadership teams for Two-Year and Five-Day Academies with the tools and information they need. A native Nashvillian, she offers a gracious welcome to everyone she encounters. Donna and her husband Randy have two daughters, son-in-law, four granddaughters and a grandson, all living locally. ... more
Featured Academy Faculty
Academy faculty presenters come from a variety of contexts: pastoral ministry, theological seminary, spiritual direction practice, monastic vocation, writing and speaking ministry. Some are noted authors, with articles published in Weavings or other periodicals; others may be known primarily through their gift of teaching and spiritual direction.
Luther E. Smith, Jr. is professor of Church and Community at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia), where he has served on the faculty since 1979. The title of his teaching position reflects his life's commitment to social transformation as an expression of religious conviction. While at Emory University, Dr. Smith has served as president of the university senate, president of the faculty council, and associate dean for faculty development. Smith holds a Ph. D in American Studies from St. Louis University, a Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor of Science in sociology from Washington University (St. Louis, MO). Luther Smith is the author of Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet; Intimacy and Mission; and editor of Howard Thurman: Essential Writings. He serves as senior consulting editor for the Howard Thurman Papers Project. He is active in advocacy for children, persons with intellectual disabilities, and interfaith collaboration. Smith is an ordained minister in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He is married to Helen Pearson Smith and lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia. They have four children and five grandchildren. ... more
Rev. Elizabeth Canham is a priest in the Episcopal Church, writer, spiritual director, retreat and workshop leader and former seminary professor. Her love for Scripture was nurtured in an Evangelical church and broadened through her studies at the University of London and through her students. Through her ministry Hospites Mundi, she offers pilgrimages and workshops in the USA and overseas. Liz spent 5 years as program director in a Benedictine monastery, where she learned the wisdom of support and structure for the Christian journey. Passionate about caring for the earth, she lives in the North Carolina mountains with two cats and frequent bear visitors. Liz is the author of A Table of Delight: Feasting with God in the Wilderness and Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today. ... more
Dr. M. Thomas Thangaraj is the D. W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity Emeritus at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Before joining the Emory faculty, Thangaraj taught at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai, India (1971-1988) and serves as a minister in the Church of South India in the Tirunelveli area. Thangaraj was educated at St. Johns College, Palayamkottai; Madras Christian College, Madras; Serampore College, Serampore, W. Bengal; United Theological College, Bangalore at the graduate and postgraduate levels. He earned his Doctor of Theology degree from Harvard University, U. S. A. His area of research during his doctoral studies was in the area of relation between Saiva Siddhanta (South Indian Hindu philosophical tradition) and Christianity, especially around the concept of guru. Thangaraj is the author of The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission, Relating to People of Other Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know, and The Crucified Guru: An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Christology. He has served and continues to serve as a faculty person for both two-year and 5-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation addressing the topic of Christian Spirituality in a Global Context. Apart from his academic interests, Professor Thangaraj is keenly interested in South Indian music, both classical and popular, and also in the art of hymnody in Tamil. Twenty of his hymns appear in the official hymnbook of the churches in Tamilnadu. A few of his hymns in English are published in the United States, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark. ... more
The Rev. Jane E. Vennard is Louise Warren Iliff Senior Adjunct Faculty in prayer and spirituality at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She earned her B.A. from Wellesley College, her M.A. from Stanford University, and her M.Div. from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Jane was called to a special ministry of teaching and spiritual direction and ordained in the United Church of Christ. She is a spiritual director in private practice and is a longtime member of Spiritual Directors International. In addition to Iliff, Jane has taught at the Pacific School of Religion, Vancouver School of Theology, Columbia Seminary, and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.She is also a regular faculty presenter with The Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation and teaches classes in a variety of ecumenical settings, leads retreats internationally, and is the author of numerous articles and six books: Praying for Friends and Enemies (1995); Praying with Body and Soul (l998); Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats (2000); Embracing the World: Praying for Justice and Peace (2003), winner of the Colorado Book Award; A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice (2005); and The Way of Prayer (2007). Jane lives in Denver with her husband Jim Laurie, a retired Presbyterian minister. ... more
Marjorie J. Thompson, an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is a widely recognized spiritual formation teacher, retreat leader, and writer. Over the past 25 years, Reverend Thompson has served as adjunct faculty for several seminaries, including McCormick, Auburn, Wesley, San Francisco, Columbia, and Vanderbilt. For several years she directed the foundations program for Nashville Stillpoint (programs in spiritual direction and contemplative prayer). For 12 years Marjorie worked on the staff of Upper Room Ministries as director of the Pathways Center for Spiritual Leadership, later called Pathways in Congregational Spirituality. She was chief architect of Companions in Christ, the highly acclaimed line of spiritual formation resources for small groups. Marjorie authored chapters for several volumes in the Companions in Christ series, including The Way of Forgiveness, The Way of Blessedness, and Exploring the Way, as well as many of the Leaders Guides in this series. Marjorie received a B.A. in religious studies from Swarthmore College and an M. Div. from McCormick Seminary, where she focused on church history and ecumenical studies. She was a research fellow at Yale Divinity School, where she studied Christian spirituality with Henri Nouwen and did independent research in ecumenical traditions of prayer. In addition to her extensive writing for the Companions in Christ series, Marjorie is the author of Family, the Forming Center (Upper Room Books) and Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual (Westminster John Knox Press). Her writings have also appeared in several books and journals, including Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Recently she contributed a chapter to A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers (Westminster John Knox Press), where she writes of her own spiritual practice. ... more
Wendy M. Wright holds a PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara and is currently professor of theology at Creighton University, where she holds the Kenefick Chair in the Humanities. She also teaches regularly in several graduate ministerial programs. Wendy's first Academy experience was in 1987 at a Five-Day Academy in South Dakota. She has continued to enjoy the Academy as a frequent Two-Year faculty presenter and as a member of the Advisory Board. Wendy has expertise in the areas of history of spirituality, family spirituality, spiritual direction, and the Catholic devotional tradition. She is the author of 15 books and is a frequent contributor to Weavings. She and her husband, Roger Bergman, are the parents of three young adults and the grandparents of one. ... more
Two-Year Academy Leadership Teams
Academy Leadership Teams are made up of five or six men and women (lay and clergy), who have completed the Two-Year Academy and who exemplify gifts in spiritual guidance. These individuals are selected by the Academy Director for their servant leadership and capacity to work as part of a team. They are called to shepherd the experience for participants and model community for those they serve.
L-R: Kathy Norberg (Hospitality Leader), David Brownlee (Theologian), Irene Brownlee (Worship Leader), Pat Luna (Retreat Leader), Linda Beasley (Spiritual Director), Blake Kendrick (Covenant Group Leader)
L-R: Ben Yosua-Davis (Worship Leader), Jenny Smith-Walz (Theologian), Ginger Thomas (Retreat Leader), Lora Moore (Hospitality Leader), Victor Perez-Silvestry (Covenant Groups Leader)