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 (D.Min.)

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.

Dr. Mário da Silva with theology professor Suzanne McDonald during his January visit to WTS

“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.

D.Min. Director Mark Poppen breaks bread with Enio Pinto translating (at right).

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 (GCUPM)

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.

The GCUPM cohort in Delaware with Director Joseph Ocasio (on left)

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 a cohort 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.

In February, I informed the Board of Trustees that after much prayer and deliberation, Nancy and I have decided that my time as president is coming to an end. This coming school year of 2018-19 will be my last year as president.

There are many things that I want to get done. This won’t be a victory lap! This will be a very intentionally focused period.

First, I want to bring to completion our new building, fully funding the project. When we asked the Board for permission to start this project, I said to them, “I promise I will stay as president until that building is up, the flags are flying, and every debt is paid.” I’m happy to say we are really close.

I want to continue to support the work of Dean Alvin Padilla and the rest of the faculty as they make enormous strides in our Hispanic Ministries Program. Every population census you can possibly read will tell you that by 2050, the largest cross-section of our population will be Hispanic. It was such a gift to us when Alvin Padilla agreed to come and be our academic dean, and I’m so grateful for that.

I now have permission to say that Eddy Alemán has been nominated to be the new General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Eddy is Latino, a graduate of WTS, and also a member of our Board of Trustees. What great energy and synergy we have to do the work that is coming!

I also want to both bless and help the faculty as we move toward important hires over the next year. Several faculty members have left or will be leaving, and we need new people to join our team. I am eager to keep this stunning record of great young scholars who are Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical.

I will work very hard in the next year continuing to make this a place that helps men and women flourish in ministry. All the hard-fought efforts over the years that have opened the doors to women in ministry have recently met with resistance. We’re not going to allow that. We’re going to keep working hard until we enter in to that vision of the prophet Joel: On that day I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Last but not least, I want to ensure in the midst of our ever-expanding diversity that we have a clearly gracious, generously articulated Reformed Identity. I’m going to ask the Board of Trustees to call forth a task force to help us articulate what we mean when we say Reformed identity, so we can be expansive and welcoming but also clear about who we are and what we intend to do. This is no time to be ashamed of our Reformed identity, but to embrace it and move into the future.

I intend in the name of Jesus to give my best to all of these things, and I will, I promise you, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord our labor is not in vain. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Rev. Joseph Ocasio

On May 4, Rev. Joseph Ocasio arrived in Holland to begin his role as director of Hispanic ministry programs for WTS. Rev. Ocasio comes to us from Phoenixville, PA, where he served as director of admissions for the University of Valley Forge. Along with managing the institution’s enrollment, Joseph participated in developing diversity strategies to promote cultural engagement among faculty, staff, and students.

Previously, Rev. Ocasio launched the Hispanic Leadership Center at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. In that capacity, he organized student leaders to develop many campus events promoting cultural connections, and he built bridges with Latino/a churches to provide a pathway toward completing an associate of ministry degree entirely in Spanish for Hispanic pastors and leaders.

While in Florida, Rev. Ocasio was the pastor of John 3:16 Christian Church, a bilingual church in Lakeland. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God serving within the Spanish language districts.

Joseph and his wife of 27 years, Myra, are proud parents of four children and have three grandchildren. Whenever possible, Joseph enjoys playing golf, road biking, martial arts and hiking. Rev. Ocasio earned a bachelor of science degree in church leadership and an MA in ministerial leadership from Southeastern University. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florida with a specialization in management and marketing. Currently, he is in his second year pursuing a doctorate of education in educational leadership from Gwynedd Mercy University.

Western’s strategic plan calls us to “participate in Latino/a theological education.” Led by Rev. Ocasio, our first initiative contextualizes our current Graduate Certificate in Urban Pastoral Ministry (GCUPM) into a program specifically aimed at preparing and empowering Hispanic women and men to lead the church in mission.

This certificate is comprised of 24 credit hours, including courses in biblical studies, church history, theology, leadership, urban ministry, and the ecclesial concerns of the Hispanic Church.

This summer Western will launch two simultaneous GCUPM cohorts. One will commence in June with nearly 30 Pentecostal pastors and leaders.

The other cohort is launching in partnership with the Reformed Church in America’s Classis of the Americas. The GCUPM will provide the necessary professional, personal, spiritual and academic preparation for individuals seeking an appointment as Commissioned Pastor of the RCA. The educational and formation experiences this program provides will incorporate the ten competencies for ministries championed by the Commissioned Pastors Advisory Team (CPAT) and the Pastoral Formation Coordinating Committee (PFCC).

The seminary community is enthused about these new developments and looks forward to sharing news of other aspects of the Hispanic Ministries Program in the future.