Cohort Learning Expands Western’s Reach

Apr 12, 2018


About Western Theological Seminary

Located in Holland, Michigan, WTS offers 16 graduate programs online, in residence, in English, and Spanish for women and men preparing for faithful Christian ministry. WTS was founded in 1866 when seven of the eight members of Hope College’s inaugural graduating class wished to become ministers and petitioned their denomination to allow them to complete their education in Holland. Since that time, WTS has been preparing women and men for a lifetime of ministry all around the world in many ministry and denominational contexts.

By Western Theological Seminary

Cohort Based Learning Comes to Western

The word cohort can mean both a group of people banded together or each individual in that group. What could be better than having supportive companions cheering you on in an educational journey you are taking together?

As Western Theological Seminary seeks ways to reach more men and women with quality theological education, we are implementing cohort models of learning in the Doctor of Ministry and Hispanic Ministry Programs.

These programs are the result of work initiated by Academic Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs Alvin Padilla. Dr. Padilla is using the cohort approach to reach students who want theological training but haven’t had access to it in the past. This is also the first time WTS is educating students who speak little or no English.

Doctor of Ministry Cohort

This year, Dr. Padilla and his long-time friend, Dr. Mário da Silva, made a 5-year dream come true. WTS has partnered with Dr. da Silva’s school, Filadelfia University (or UniFil) in Londrina, Brazil, to provide a Doctor of Ministry program for a group of 19 students.

Dr. da Silva and Dr. Padilla were colleagues at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and had been working for years on a way to get doctoral level theological education to Brazil. When Dr. Padilla moved to Western, the plans finally took shape.

“We have a partnership in the real sense of the word,” says Dr. da Silva. “I’m very happy to find this atmosphere of openness at Western.”

The UniFil group uses a new model of cohort-based learning for their D.Min. program. The 3-year cohort is organized around a single theme and facilitated by Dr. da Silva. Plans are being made for WTS faculty members to teach this cohort in future sessions.

Students identify a barrier in their ministry and read broadly in the area of the theme of their cohort. The UniFil cohort is studying spiritual formation and church planting. Students will research their particular barrier using the facilities at Filadelfia University and address the barrier within the context of spiritual formation and church planting.

The cohort is made up of key leaders in the country of Brazil, most of them pastors of churches with 1,000+ members. One student leads a church of 30,000.

Among the group there are professors at the university, scholars with Ph.D.s, and even a student who is the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Angola (an African nation that is a former Portuguese colony, like Brazil). Some students are Reformed, others are Pentecostal, and some are non-denominational.

As cohort members discuss the barriers within their own ministries, they learn from each other and serve as “research assistants” when they come across something helpful for a fellow student. The model works well cross-culturally where a strong group dynamic is valued, as in Brazil.

When Doctor of Ministry Director Mark Poppen visited the cohort in Brazil last November, he was greeted by a familiar face—Master of Theology graduate Enio Pinto ‘04. Enio acted as Mark’s translator for the week and shared with the group what it was like to be a student at WTS.

Despite these students not being geographically linked to WTS, they feel a strong bond and pride in being part of the Western community.

In 2019 the UniFil cohort will travel to Holland for an on-campus intensive at WTS.

Graduate Certificate in Urban Pastoral Ministry Cohorts

The Graduate Certificate in Urban Pastoral Ministry launched three cohorts this year under the leadership of Hispanic Ministries Program Director Joseph Ocasio. The program now has its highest enrollment—71 students.

The first cohort began in Delaware in June of 2017 and is made up of students from the Church of God in Prophecy. The second cohort launched last fall in Southern California and consists of RCA students. The third cohort, which met in Holland, MI for the first time in January, is comprised of students from five local churches, representing RCA, Church of God, and Wesleyan denominations.

What these groups have in common is a desire for bilingual theological education. Some students are English-dominant and others are Spanish-dominant, so courses are designed in both languages. The students may choose to read and submit assignments in Spanish or English.

“As part of the courses, I’d like them to work on their non-dominant language,” says Ocasio. “Hispanic pastors need to be proficient in both languages. That is our goal.”

Students participate in a distance-learning format, meeting face-to-face a few times a year. They take one class per semester, three semesters per year. The program consists of seven general courses and one elective reflecting the interests of the cohort.

“The benefit of cohorts is that each group starts and finishes together,” Ocasio explains. “It creates community and builds relationships. That in turn helps improve peer learning, and that support structure will help them persist.”

Some students are challenged by the technology and distance learning format, and it is not easy for them to find time to learn in the midst of busy schedules. However, the Delaware cohort has been through two classes already, and students are helping and encouraging each other to continue.

“I am hearing incredible stories of how these classes are impacting their ministries and theological understanding,” Ocasio shares. “These students have been growing, and they’re very thankful.”

Many students who are Spanish-dominant have had limited opportunities to study theology in the past. One such student in the Holland cohort shared this:

My family and I arrived in Holland seven months ago at The House of My Father church, led by Pastor José Durán and Pastor Gonzalo Venegas. The first weeks [in Holland], my husband and I drove by Western Theological Seminary and I said out loud: “Lord, let us study there, I would like to study there.” To which my husband corresponded with “Yes, Lord.”

In my heart I knew I would continue my studies here in the United States, but I confess that I never thought it would be so soon. My first goal was and is to master the language, and only then, I thought it would be possible to opt for these studies. So, you can imagine my surprise and excitement when one morning my husband gave me the news that he had made the request to study at Western and we were accepted. This experience is an opportunity from God for my life.

The faculty and staff of Western Theological Seminary are pleased with the progress of our new cohort-based education model. We are honored to provide these opportunities for men and women who otherwise would not have had access to quality theological education. We look forward to continued growth as students encourage each other onward as cohorts in learning.

Published April 2018

Revised January 2024

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