These days, theological colleges offer spiritual formation as a matter of course and with enthusiasm, but when Sheila planned to study spiritual formation and spiritual direction at a Jesuit retreat centre in North Wales, she felt she had let loose a furore in her college.

Sheila’s father, Reverend John Pritchard, earlier the Minister at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in London, brought the family to New Zealand in 1952—Kate and children Peter, Merrie (seven years older than the next child), Sheila (then six years old) and Andrew. Sheila recalls that the children got on well, except that the seven-year gap influenced their interaction. Peter, later a Baptist pastor, left home after reaching New Zealand.

Sheila's family soon after arriving in New Zealand

Sheila is deeply grateful for her parents and her upbringing. She wrote later, 

I was fortunate to be brought up in a Christian home where prayer was an integral part of life. We had family devotions every day. Reading the Bible with the aid of Scripture Union notes was part of my daily routine from childhood. My earliest memories are of knowing that God loved me, that Jesus was my friend and that I could talk to God whenever I wanted to. I’m grateful for such a wonderful foundation for life.[1] 

Sheila’s father, John, became the minister at Auckland Baptist Tabernacle. The family moved into the manse in Mt Eden with the able mothering of Kate, who did a beautiful job as a minister’s wife in her women’s meetings, parenting and hospitality. Sheila attended Mt Eden Primary School, Normal Intermediate and Epsom Girls Grammar School. She was close to her mother and needed her enormously as Sheila was unwell with chronic bronchitis frequently throughout her childhood. Repeatedly, her mother or father needed to sit up with her in the night, and she missed many days of school. Wonderfully, Les Rushbrook, manager of the BTI bookshop next door to The Baptist Tabernacle, knew that Sheila loved reading and allowed her to borrow books from the shop if she covered them with a brown paper cover and returned them as new. Sheila thrived on missionary biographies, even if not thriving physically, but saw a change when she outgrew bronchitis at 14.

Teaching was Sheila’s dream, and she enrolled for teacher training to start in 1960, in the days when students were paidto train. In another huge benefit, Sheila was selected in her second year into an experimental group of 18 who could develop their own curriculum for their final year of training. ‘That set me up for primary school teaching,’ says Sheila. ‘I could be creative. I adored that teaching.’ She taught for three years at Henderson Intermediate School and one year at Ranui Primary School, deciding at the end of that time that Bible Training was the next step.

Spiritual Journey

Right back in England, when she was five or six, Sheila asked her sister to help her invite Jesus into her heart. That was quiet and easy, given her blessed family environment. She was baptised at age 12 at the Baptist Tabernacle and loved all the Christian books she had been able to read.

When Sheila’s father, John, moved to full-time faculty teaching at the Bible College of New Zealand[2] (BCNZ), the family moved from the manse to Glen Eden and joined Glen Eden Baptist Church. The youth group Sheila joined became, as she now recognises, truly formative for the rather introverted girl. There, she socialised increasingly with Christian friends at church and Girls’ Brigade, friends she felt were on the same page. It was an encouraging time, and Sheila started to plan to study at BCNZ. It seemed a natural step, given her environment. Her father taught there, she already knew students who visited their home, and her mother was a BCNZ prayer lady (praying for students). She relished the opportunity, not just because it was in the family, but because she wanted it for herself. She started in 1970 and loved the new friends she made, the community lifestyle and the freedom to devote time to study. She graduated in 1972 with a Diploma in Theology and a Diploma in Religious Education.  

One special memory remains written into the flyleaf of a book. Visiting Australian Professor Morling taught theology and gave an assignment on the Trinity. He gave Sheila a copy of Thomas Kelly’s book, A Testament of Devotion, in which he had written words specifically for her: ‘From an appreciative teacher to a responsive student. GH Morling, 2/3/72’ 

All the same, Sheila had an overhanging question during her three years. ‘These lectures are great, but where are we encouraged to focus on our own spiritual growth?’ Her classmates wondered the same. It was a puzzle without an answer. 

Teaching in Nigeria

And then, surprisingly, as she never wanted to be a missionary, Sheila applied to Serving in Mission (SIM) to teach in Nigeria. She felt God called her to this despite her misgivings. Hillcrest was a school for both expatriate and Nigerian children, American in style, organised as inter-mission and inter-denominational. Sheila settled in and enjoyed the work, the children, and the other staff.

Sheila in Hillcrest classroom

Furlough was due after three years, and Sheila had a strange admixture of circumstances upon arrival in New Zealand. She flew into Auckland airport, meeting her parents, who had come up from Raumati. They had time together in the car on the way to her brother Peter’s place to stay. John Pritchard took the chance to return to the city to attend an SIM Council meeting. Police found him passed away, sitting in the driver’s seat after the meeting, still in the parking lot. That was a hard time, but at least Sheila was with her family. 

Teaching at the school in Nigeria was her expected career now, and Sheila returned to Hillcrest. She was happy there, although she sometimes thought, ‘I wonder what it is like to teach adults. I’d like to try that someday.’ The thought commenced a loosening of her tie to Hillcrest. In her third year back, a letter came out of the blue from BCNZ from David Stewart, who had been the principal during her earlier study. She was surprised but surprisingly comfortable with his request. They were commencing degree programmes. Would Sheila return and build on her Diploma with a Bachelor of Theology (BTh) and then a Master of Theology (MTh)? She could tutor to pay towards her studies. Sheila was part of the school in Nigeria, yet the invitation spurred much thinking and praying. The request matched who she was, and her friends were delighted for her. This felt like God at work. She accepted and returned to BCNZ in 1980.

Bible College Teaching

So Sheila began full-time lecturing in the Certificate programme in Biblical Studies, English, Christian education and Christian doctrine. The odd thing was that Sheila might be standing lecturing, and then ‘the pips would go, and she would walk around the lectern and sit down and become a student.’[3] She worked concurrently towards a BTh, gaining the Felix Arnott prize and the David Garnsey Scholarship for advanced theological study, which helped financially as she continued her MTh study. Soon she was doing MTh thesis work, studying Christian education of young adults based on the educational theory of Carl Rogers. She wanted to explore how she could best help her adult students.  

Sheila was formally recognised as a qualified full-time lecturer in 1983 and taught Christian doctrine, Christian Education and Biblical Studies, and Pastoral Care. Again, she was aware the students had no subject specifically focused on spiritual growth. Students asked about this too. The nearest thing was her colleague Ian Kemp offering her his class, The Spiritual Life of the Missionary, saying, ‘This is the sort of class you would like to teach.’ It was a start. 

Spiritual Formation

Sheila explored the issue of spiritual formation in her own time, finding one thing after another, like the pieces of a jigsaw. She learned that ‘meditative prayer is more about listening than talking. It’s more about taking in what God is saying than making sure he hears what I’m saying.’[4] She heard the message of Andrew and Margaret Dunne, who returned from Papua New Guinea and were well-respected on the missionary scene, yet spoke of being dry, needy and needing nurture, which was answered by exploring contemplative retreats. She attended a contemplative retreat, received spiritual direction herself from a Catholic and read Catholic authors. ‘Oh, these people are on the same page as me!’ Sheila thought, ‘though I’m Baptist. How does that fit?’

By this time, Sheila was fielding questions from her students that seemed to find an answer in the contemplative tradition. She felt called by God to step in that direction; she met people delighting in spiritual retreats and began teaching spirituality to her students. It was thoroughly meaningful and increasingly her own practice. Her pilgrimage in prayer became a passion she wanted to share, and it answered the question felt earlier by her and her students, ‘Where do we find direction and encouragement for our own spiritual growth?’

For a sabbatical due in 1988, Sheila longed to train as a spiritual director and bring the resources for spiritual formation back to BCNZ, but that thinking was in few Protestant institutions at the time. Sheila planned a three-month course at a Jesuit college, St Beuno’s Spirituality Centre in North Wales. That set the cat among the pigeons, as Sheila says. It was off the course for BCNZ thinking. A Catholic college? Was she going off the rails theologically? One lecturer even posed the question of whether she really fit at BCNZ. Would she be accepted when she returned? 

‘Not accepted!’ Sheila felt devastated. She cried for three days. She could not take her lectures. Some of the people she was closest to doubted her spiritual integrity! She questioned herself. ‘But, if it means I can’t belong here anymore, so be it. I cannot undo who I am and who God is calling me to be. I know I have to do it.’ In the end, the college left the question open. It would be up to her to discern whether to return. That felt okay.

Figuratively shaking inside, Sheila went and wrote later: ‘It was a life-changing experience. Looking back, I am amazed at how God opened the way for me.’[5] At St Beuno’s, Sheila studied the life of Ignatius of Loyola, his prayer life, and the spiritual disciplines he used to set up the trainees within the Jesuit organisation. She was also formally trained as a Spiritual Director.

Then what? Would she return to BCNZ? God seemed to say, ‘Go back and see if this teaching is welcome.’ So, Sheila returned and found the new principal, John Hitchen, waiting with an invitation to Sheila to set up a Department of Spiritual Formation within the college. She stood amazed. And so, God used Sheila to bring the subject of Spiritual Formation to a New Zealand protestant college in 1989, and BCNZ has taught the subject ever since.

Spiritual Formation Courses

Sheila was excited. She was 44 and had the ball in her court. She designed Year 1: Personal Spirituality. Year 2: Spiritual Formation for Ministry. Year 3: Contemporary Trends in Spirituality. She taught for 15 more years at BCNZ, accompanying many on their spiritual journey. She also joined nationally with others and helped set up the Association of Christian Spiritual Directors of Aotearoa, New Zealand. There was also writing, notably On the Journey (a compilation of articles from Reality magazine) and The Lost Art of Meditation: Deepening your Spiritual Life, published in 2003.

Health became an issue for a while with a cerebral aneurysm in 1996 when Sheila collapsed in the corridor outside her office. She used the recovery time to write the TEE Spiritual Formation material for distance learning in Spiritual Formation. Over the next few years, Sheila continued working at BCNZ half-time while increasing her private practice in spiritual direction. She fully resigned from BCNZ at the end of 1999. 

Sheila and her friend Anthea had prayed about working together to set up a small retreat house. This did not eventuate as they had imagined, but they bought a house together in Torbay and later moved to another house in Orewa. They both offered spiritual direction and supervision from their home (or later an office in Orewa). 

They currently live in an Orewa retirement village. Sheila continues to offer spiritual direction online to a few people. She says she is grateful to be able to ‘retire gradually’! Since 1989, Sheila has been a member of Ponsonby Baptist Church, a community she values highly and continues to attend.

When asked for her favourite Bible passage, Sheila has no hesitation: Romans 8:36-39, which includes, ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’


Endnotes

[1] Sheila Pritchard, The Lost Art of Meditation, p. 11 

[2] Explanation—Bible Training Institute, BTI, became Bible College of New Zealand, BCNZ, and is now Laidlaw College

[3] Jenny Mackie, Profile on Sheila Pritchard, BCNZ Lecturer

[4] The Lost Art, p. 19

[5] The Lost Art, p. 43

Sources

Sheila Pritchard, The Lost Art of Meditation: Deepening your Prayer Life, SAIACS, Bangalore, 2005. First published Scripture Union, 207-209 Queensway, Bletchley, MK2 2EB, England, 2003  

Jenny Mackie, Profile on Sheila Pritchard, BCNZ Lecturer, 1980-2001. Laidlaw College Alumni News, June 2015, article

Personal Interview: 20 May 2024


Photos: Supplied by Beulah Wood

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