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FINDLAY—Winebrenner Theological seminary holds its annual graduation ceremony today, and one person receiving the doctor of ministry degree is in an unusual position: the Rev. Joel Cocklin, 66, is a new graduate who is also the academic dean, vice president of academic advancement, and assistant professor of practical theology at the school of ministry.
He said that during the commencement ceremony he'll serve as dean, but then he'll let the assistant academic dean, the Rev. Kathryn Helleman, step in “and she will basically cover the presentation to the [seminary] president of the three of us [doctors of ministry],” he said. “It kind of reminds me of walking my two daughters down the aisle and turning around and performing the wedding ceremonies.”
A 27-year Army chaplain who retired at the rank of colonel, Chaplain Cocklin began his work at Winebrenner in a newly created position, director of leadership formation, in June 2009. He had received his master of divinity degree from Winebrenner in 1972 and was ordained by the Church of God General Conference, after getting a B.A. from then-Findlay College (now University of Findlay) in 1969. The Church of God General Conference founded the two Findlay institutions.
After Chaplain Findlay arrived at the school in 2009, two things happened. First, the academic dean/vice president of academic advancement resigned, and Chaplain Cocklin was asked to serve in an interim position in that role then was offered the job permanently. Second, he said, “Within a month of being here, individuals are saying, 'When are you going to work on your doctorate?'” Chaplain Cocklin said that in the Army, there was no need or demand for chaplains to have a doctorate.
So in addition to serving on the faculty at Winebrenner, he used tuition available to him from the post-9/11 GI Bill and started studying full-time for a doctorate. In his dual role as a student who was also the dean, he said, “I didn't feel that they were cutting me any breaks. I mean, I worked my butt off.”
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His doctoral project is on pastoral resilience. Chaplain Cocklin says he had done a lot of work on resilience “in the Army context,” but with “pastors leaving ministry and the amount of clergy fallout,” pastoral resilience needed to be examined to find "what can we do about” burnout. So he formed an advisory committee of a clinical psychologist who works in a Christian context; a fellow retired Army chaplain who is now a professor at another university; and a colleague at Winebrenner, Mrs. Jeannine Grimm, the student services coordinator, in part because of “her ability to pay attention to detail, and I knew that she would be a pretty good taskmaster,” and he conducted research.
Rather than choose another school to avoid potential conflicts of interest as dean and student, Chaplain Cocklin decided to study at Winebrenner for several reasons. The University of Findlay, with Winebrenner, is “the only school in our denomination.” There's a family tie—his late father also went to Findlay and Winebrenner. And then there's his ministerial career span. “I got the master of divinity at one end, and here's this bookend. I got to do a lot of things between. Here at the end, it really seems appropriate to be supportive of my own institution.”
After receiving his master of divinity, Chaplain Cocklin spent 10 years as minister of a Church of God in New Cumberland, Pa. “We had the American dream [in New Cumberland], you might as well say, but just the way I'm put together in my theological perspective, when we were really comfortable and not placed with difficulties, I looked around where I might be able to serve the church in a more challenging context.” He chose the Army.
In his career he served in major Army installations in the U.S. and was also stationed in Germany. The Army sent him to Kansas State University for a master's in family therapy, and a board selected him for study in the U.S. Army War College. And he attempted to serve all soldiers.
“Army chaplains, from day one, are reminded over and over again of the environment that you are in, and the only reason you are there, constitutionally--and this had been repeated several times--you are there to ensure the free exercise [of religion], not there to proselytize [or] to endorse your own denomination. I never conducted a denomination specific service in 27 years. I always conducted a Protestant service.”
Now that he is back at Winebrenner, with his doctorate and his deanship, Chaplain Cocklin can settle back into his Church of God General Conference and help to train future ministers and chaplains.
One master of divinity graduate, Christopher Biggins of Bowling Green, plans to enter the Army chaplaincy.
At the 10:30 a.m. service today at the TLB Convocation Center at Winebrenner, 950 N. Main St., emeritus professor the Rev. George Fry is the speaker, Chaplain Cocklin and two others will receive doctor of ministry degrees, seven people will be granted master's of divinity, six earned other master's degrees, and three graduates will get diplomas in pastoral training.
The graduates come from Church of God General Conference churches in Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania; Gateway Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Findlay; Parkview Christian Church in Findlay; Quarry Ridge Community Church in Sylvania; Pathway Community Church in Toledo; Timberlake Community Church in Holland; Warren African Methodist Episcopal Church in Toledo; and Word of Truth Christian Center in Bowling Green.
The commencement ceremony and reception are open to the public.