Students and faculty at United Theological Seminary in Ohio are expressing disappointment in a decision by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry to discontinue a hybrid Course of Study at the seminary on Dec. 31.
The hybrid program, a blend of traditional classrooms and online education, allowed students to complete their course work online without spending two weeks on campus, said the Rev. Kent Millard, interim president of United, one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries.
Background on COS programs
The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry is charged with administering the Course of Study program for the connection, said the Rev. Shannon Conklin-Miller. The regional, extension, satellite and online programs together offer 34 separate Course of Study programs across the country in a variety of formats, including hybrid. The board administers the program and collaborates with the UM seminaries, but only eight of the 13, as the COS is organized regionally.
The North Central Jurisdiction, where United is located, contains two regional Course of Study Schools administered on behalf of Higher Education and Ministry. These regional schools in turn partner with four extension schools: Upper Midwest, Illinois Great Rivers, Indiana, and the Native American COS. In addition, pastors in the North Central Jurisdiction can access one regional school and three additional extension schools along its borders (in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Buffalo.) Our policies and structures exist to ensure that each Course of Study provides theological education that meets the needs of annual conferences and is good stewardship of the United Methodist Church’s resources, Conklin-Miller said.
The program began in 2009 as a two-year pilot program with a grant from the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
“After years of ambiguity the Board of Advisors of the Course of Study School in Ohio, the Council of Regional COS directors and former president of United, Wendy Deichmann, asked for a ruling regarding the status of the pilot COS program,” said the Rev. Shannon Conklin-Miller, director for clergy formation at Higher Education and Ministry.
“Based upon this thorough review, we conclude that the hybrid COS at UTS was not properly evaluated and not properly continued, and that the initial goals of that program can be met through the regional COS schools and their satellites and extensions,” she said in an e-mail.
Conklin-Miller said the board acknowledged that it erred in allowing the program to continue without clarification.
Millard said “one student after another has strongly objected to this decision.”
“We pointed out that The United Methodist Church is relying on more licensed local pastors to serve our congregations,” Millard said, adding that United’s leadership has objected to the decision to end the program and asked the staff at Higher Education and Ministry for reconsideration “to no avail.”
Conklin-Miller said staff from the board traveled to Ohio to meet with presidents of United Theological Seminary and Methodist Theological of Ohio in 2015 and has had conference calls since.
“During this process, it became clear that in the context of the Course of Study School, the North Central Jurisdiction and of the entire Course of Study network, the pilot program is not financially sustainable,” she said.
“The Course of Study program must address the same realities that are found throughout the connection: an increase in part-time local pastors as churches shrink; decreasing financial resources; access to and use of technology; and an increasingly diverse population,” Conklin-Miller said. She said the higher education and ministry agency “is aware of the challenges and opportunities that these realities bring to bear on the Course of Study, and we are working to address them.”
A ten-part series by United Methodist News Service on local pastors found that though the denomination was shrinking in the United States, local pastors appointed to churches climbed from 6,193 to 7,569 from 2010 to 2015. Both full-time and part-time local pastor numbers grew, with the latter growing faster.
The Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, has long followed United Methodist clergy trends. He notes that in 1990, elders outnumbered local pastors 5 to 1. That ratio is roughly 2 to 1 now, and drops further when looking just at those in church appointments.
Flexibility key to program
Dawn Houser, a full-time local pastor of two United Methodist churches in Minnesota, was in the process of finishing her first year of the hybrid Course of Study at United Theological Seminary when notice came the program would be discontinued.
Houser said for someone like her discontinuing this program "just made being in ministry nearly impossible."
Houser wrote a letter Conklin-Miller.
“I would love to be able to tell you that I will just switch from COS to a Masters of Divinity program. I can assure you that this will not happen. I am 49 years old with a bachelor’s degree in business and an associate degree in accounting. I will not incur the debt necessary nor invest the time to obtain a master’s degree.
“The biggest reason the hybrid COS worked so well for me is that I am the lead pastor of two growing churches in northern Minnesota. I do not have the liberty of taking three to four weeks consecutively away from my ministry setting. This would cause a huge hardship to the churches I serve. I will not hurt them in any way,” Houser wrote.
Houser said if she had known of an opportunity to respond to the decision, “I would have been happy to share my very positive experience.
Keith Brown, a bi-vocational, part-time local pastor enrolled in the program, said not having to be away from home, church and work was also a big consideration in his choice of United’s hybrid program.
“Now, there will be double the cost of hotels, travel time and time (away) from work and church. Much of the financial cost is not covered by our local churches,” he said.
“The professors remained in contact with us throughout the class online. I have my master’s in educational media design and technology and I'm a full-time high school teacher in technology and broadcasting and this hybrid course was a terrific blend of delivering content and forming relationships,” Brown said.
Conklin-Miller said she has received emails from United students and is working to respond to each one.
“I am happy to point them to their options,” she said.
Millard said that 381 students have participated in United’s Course of Study in the past seven years. He said 140 COS students attended the recent course, March 11-12, and will complete their course work online over the next six weeks.
“Students came from 20 different conferences because our schedule doesn't require them to spend two weeks on our campus.”
Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].