Popular Course of Study at United Theological Seminary Discontinued

Dr. David Watson

Dr. David Watson

By Walter Fenton –

More than 180 students studying to be United Methodist local pastors will need to find a new place to continue their education. The denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) recently announced it will “formally discontinue the pilot Course of Study program … offered through United Theological Seminary [in Dayton, Ohio].”

The United Methodist students were participating in the program from 28 annual conferences across the nation. Good News became aware of the cancellation at United when students contacted our offices to voice their disappointment with the decision.

An increasing number of full and part-time local pastors take the Course of Study [COS] route to secure ministerial licensing rather than pursing a Master of Divinity degree en route to ordained ministry.

As UM membership and average worship attendance continues to decline in the U.S., more local churches are becoming dependent on local pastors who are often paid considerably less than fully ordained clergy.

These are the type of students that were enrolled in the program at United that now have to find a different Course of Study program or abandon the process.

In 1990, elders serving in local churches outnumbered local pastors five to one. It is now two to one, and in some annual conferences local pastors account for nearly half of the appointments.

“Since most established [COS] programs I am aware of still expect full-time pastors to attend during the month of July it appears I may have to be away during that month,” said Pastor William Ellsworth who serves a two-point charge in Kansas and contacted Good News. He has traveled to United four weekends each year for onsite classes, which are combined with online interaction with his instructors.

“July happens to be the month when both of my churches offer vacation Bible school and when our youth group goes on a mission trip,” he said. “The discontinuance of the United program will take me away from important responsibilities and place an increased financial burden upon me and the churches I serve.”

The “hybrid” approach offered at United has become an increasingly popular model in higher education, particularly for second career students trying to complete a degree or, in the case of local pastors, securing a ministerial license while continuing to serve full or part-time appointments in UM churches.

“Student evaluations of our program – the technology department, the professors and staff – are overwhelmingly positive,” said the Rev. Mark Abbott, Director of Non-Degree Programs at United.

In addition to its on campus offerings, United has leveraged its online programs, making it one of the fastest growing UM seminaries in recent years. It is also widely known for its fidelity to the core doctrines of United Methodism.

In a February 2016 report on the decision to discontinue United’s program, the Rev. Shannon Conklin-Miller, Assistant General Secretary for Clergy Formation at GBHEM, acknowledged there was “ambiguity” around the program that was actually created by GBHEM and the Division of Ordained Ministry.

In 2009, the GBHEM approved a two-year pilot program at United and made a $60,000 grant to fund it. However, the board failed to review the program after the two-year period.

“Receiving no direction from GBHEM,” Conklin-Miller wrote, “United simply continued offering courses as it had been.” The program continued functioning for another five years, serving several hundred students from 38 of the 57 annual conferences in the U.S.

Conklin-Miller also wrote that “GBHEM … erred in allowing the United COS Program … to continue without clarification.” However, she also stated it has “now done the work necessary to make such a determination.”

She cited several reasons for the discontinuance of United’s program: “an evaluation” of its “quality and effectiveness” has not been completed; “syllabi and faculty have not been reviewed;” “the North Central Jurisdiction is quite over-saturated with COS courses;” and the program at United “draw[s] students away from other established COS programs in the region and nationally” (to read the report click here).

“We accept the decision of GBHEM, though we do not agree with it,” Dr. David Watson, United’s Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs, said when contacted by Good News. “This decision was not based upon an assessment of the effectiveness of the program that United offered. Higher education generally operates on a process of peer review. We regret that staff members at GBHEM have made this decision without the kinds of evaluation and assessment that are the industry standard in higher education.”

In a two-page letter to Good News, Conklin-Miller stated that she and other representatives of GBHEM and the Regional COS School in Ohio have been in regular contact with United’s administration and faculty over the past several months, and has reached out to them about “creative ways forward.”

Students currently in the program have until the end of the year to make other arrangements for completing the COS program.  Some students, however, are frustrated that they are being forced to move from one they have found valuable.

Local pastor Mark Ryan, who serves two churches in the thumb region of Michigan, and is currently enrolled in the program, said, “I have enjoyed the interpersonal contact with the instructors at United. Most of the instructors have been in parish ministry for decades, and often share experiences that have helped them, and in some cases hurt them. I have found their instruction to be effective, relevant, and timely.”

Conklin-Miller said that GBHEM “Understand[s] that this decision came as unwelcome news to the students, which is why we took care to provide sufficient time for them to explore other options.” She said she is working with students who have contacted her and is “encouraging them to seek assistance from their Boards of Ordained Ministry to identify appropriate options.”

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.


  1. Licensed Local Pastor says

    This is outrageous! Conklin-Miller stating that.. “the North Central Jurisdiction is quite over-saturated with COS courses;” and the program at United “draw[s] students away from other established COS programs in the region and nationally” is disingenuous . The real reason that the UTS on line program was drawing or taking students away from “established COS programs in the region is a nice way of saying, that students at Garrett and Duke are growing tired of the progressive left leaning direction that these seminaries are going and are looking to be part of a more orthodox and Christ centered Wesleyan educational experience for the making of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

    Nice way for the progressive’s to shut down a seminary that taught pastors what it really means to be a pastor.

  2. John Mize says

    “the program at United “draw[s] students away from other established COS programs in the region and nationally” Conklin-Miller gives away the primary reason for this action here. It was a purely political decision made by people with vested interest in those “other established programs”.

  3. Terri Tyson says

    United has gone to hell in a hand basket. Miss this days of Eo Zeiders when education was important. They have caveed to West Ohio Conference. No longer proud to be an alumni.

  4. Kim Ingram says

    The United Methodist Church has, as part of its tradition, a long commitment to educated clergy for service in and through the church. As local pastors have the same responsibility to the local church as elders, a commitment to education and lifelong learning is an expectation of all clergy. The Course of Study (COS) is a primary means by which local pastors receive theological, biblical, and pastoral training. Each jurisdiction offers multiple COS programs through the regional schools and extension programs. The programs are accessible to part-time and full-time local pastors. I have witnessed the sacrifice that education and training sometimes require on the part of the ministers and churches, for ultimate benefit.

    In a changing culture, a need exists for imaginative ways to educate clergy throughout the denomination, while at the same time, maintaining a high quality of education and consistent expectations. The Ministry Study Commission report offers several recommendations for collaboration and creativity found on page 1064 of the Advanced Daily Christian Advocate. Among other things, it encourages collaborative partnerships, deploying technology to increase accessibility to education, and encouraging General Board Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) to continuously improve Course of Study. As a member of the Ministry Study Commission and a board of director of GBHEM, I am confident that the recommendations will be taken seriously by GBHEM and they will encourage collaboration and resources for finding the best alternatives for local pastor education. A creative partnership for COS between UM seminaries, UM colleges, and GBHEM has been recommended by the Ministry Study Commission and legislation proposed by GBHEM to the 2016 General Conference.

    As the Director of Ministerial Services in the Western North Carolina Conference, I have worked with local pastors in Course of Study for the past several years. I have witnessed the benefit of clergy learning together and the collegial relationships that have been formed through Course of Study. I have also heard stories of hardship that participation in COS has caused and the Board of Ordained Ministry and district committees have been able to work with pastors in order to provide alternatives. It is the role of the Board of Ordained Ministry to support local pastors in their educational pursuit and students are encouraged to be in conversation with their board and district committee about their choices. In addition, Ministerial Education Funds are offered by Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry to support COS. Churches are also encouraged to provide financial support.

    The hybrid COS program offered by United Theological Seminary was a pilot venture when it was started in 2009. Limited funding was provided to test a new model for teaching and learning. Neither United nor GBHEM pursued ongoing conversation, evaluation, or continued funding until recently. It was not added as a regional school and was only intended to be for a limited time at its initiation. There was not a need for another COS program in the North Central Jurisdiction (NCJ), nor a funding plan to continue the program long term.

    My hope is that United can work in a collaborative effort with the other COS programs in the NCJ and with GBHEM to meet the needs of the church in this region and to educate local pastors through Course of Study. GBHEM can learn from the hybrid course experience as they add to the current online COS program. Rev. Shannon Conklin-Miller, who now oversees the COS program at GBHEM, has a strong commitment to ensuring the local pastors have access to and experience quality educational programs. She will shepherd conversations and partnerships to ensure that the current and future needs of the church are met.

    It has been my experience that through conversation, collaboration and a culture of creativity, GBHEM and its partners are open to innovative ways of thinking and new ideas. At the same time, there are financial parameters and sustainability issues that must be considered. My hope and prayer is that entities can work together to meet the needs of the church in fresh and vital ways.

    Rev. Kimberly T. Ingram
    Director of Ministerial Services and Conference Secretary
    Western North Carolina Conference


  1. […] program. Walter Fenton first wrote about the decision for Good News (you can read that article here). The COS program at United offers a hybrid model that is flexible to students’ schedule. The […]

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