One of the highlights of summer at Wesley Theological Seminary is the Course of Study School graduation, which took place this year August 3 at Washington’s Metropolitan Memorial UMC, a short distance from the seminary. This year’s celebration had an added dimension, as the Course of Study itself celebrates its 200 anniversary of forming licensed local pastors for ministry.
Since its inception 200 years ago, the Course of Study program has enjoyed a continuous evolution, making it one of the pillars of education in The United Methodist Church. Recently on campus during Wesley’s Course of Study School, Shannon Conklin-Miller, Assistant General Secretary for Clergy Formation for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, reflected on that evolution back to one of Methodism’s most important figures.
“Francis Asbury had very little schooling,” she said of the pioneering bishop of American Methodism. “He didn’t go to college but he was an avid reader throughout his life. He expected that of his preachers as well.”
Asbury’s expectations inspired a study program that is required of licensed pastors, and that offers a meaningful alternative for those not pursuing a Masters of Divinity and ordination as an elder or deacon.
The program takes it name from a decision made by the General Conference of 1816.
“They identified a need to support traveling itinerant preachers who simply didn’t know scripture and theology as well as they should,” Conklin-Miller said. “One of the recommendations was that preachers should have an established ‘course of study’ to be examined upon.”
For a complete picture of the program’s roots, Conklin-Miller recommends Russell E. Ritchie’s “Formation for Ministry in American Methodism.”
“Course of Study really started as a list of books that preachers were responsible for reading and then discussing with an elder mentor,” she said. Gradually, that list was expanded and refined, and formal classes were added. As the availability of a college education increased, the program strengthened in response. It now includes a mixture of in-person classes and independent assignments spread over the span of five years.
Recently, participant demographics have begun to shift.
“It used to be that the stereotypical licensed pastor was a white male in his mid-50s,” Conklin-Miller said. “That’s changing. Many people still do this as a second career but they’re starting much younger — and extending their ministries in different ways. They’re interested in urban ministry, or hospice chaplaincy, or prison ministry.”
Wesley’s history is intertwined with that of the Course of Study. Sara Sheppard has overseen Course of Study at Wesley Theological Seminary for 14 years, and notes the program’s evolution over the past years.
“When I first came here, students were in community once they arrived on campus in the summer,” Sheppard said. “Now they’re in community throughout the year. There’s social media and Facebook pages. They’re sending each other emails and pictures and prayer requests. There’s been a real shift.”
That sense of community is key to the Course of Study experience. At Wesley, it’s especially evident in daily chapel services, which are shaped by the students and which reflect the program’s emphasis on creativity and innovation. Community, though, also reaches well beyond the walls of the sanctuary.
Doug Olson, who travels to Wesley from Kansas, is following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“He completed Course of Study 80 years ago,” Olson said. “He’s one of the reasons I’m here.” The other reason is fellowship. “The community is the most powerful thing about this experience,” he said. “There’s a group feeling, even a group identity. That’s built by the Holy Spirit, obviously, but it’s also because of a common sense of purpose.”
Zina Seldon, of Maryland, agrees.
“It’s the gathering of people, but also the classes we’re taking,” she said. “With the food I’ve been given — and I do call it food — I can go back to my parish and put things into place, get things going.”
Laura Marie Kincaid, of Pennsylvania, relishes the intellectual challenge.
“Studying scripture is what we do,” she said of being a pastor. “But classes here are taking us deeper.”
In Professor Rebecca Wright’s Bible class, Kincaid found an experience that was both intellectually challenging and practical in its application.
“Her insights have enriched my knowledge so much,” she said of Dr. Wright. “I wish I could take her home and have her there as a sermon resource when I’m writing each week.”
The dovetailing of the practical and the intellectual is a hallmark of Course of Study. “Our students are people already in ministry,” Conklin-Miller noted. “They come to class wanting to know how the work will inform their ministry. They want to see the connection.”
The emphasis on practical application is an inspiration to faculty as well. “The reason they keep coming back over 20 or 30 years is that their students are hungry for this knowledge,” Conklin-Miller said. “They also talk about how much they learn from their students, because they have to answer questions like ‘How is this relevant?’ and ‘What does it mean for us as Christians?’”
With the program celebrating its bicentennial, Conklin-Miller highlighted its adaptability as a core strength.
“Course of Study takes the best of the academy and asks ‘What does the church need today?’” she said. “And we can be very reactive to the answer. We adapt and change to what the church needs. There are new technologies, new ways of learning. It’s an exciting time.”