PC(USA) Ordination Exams: Now can we have THE talk?

Recently, many PCUSA seminarians sat for an exegesis ordination exam unlike any other I’ve ever heard about. For many, this exam was one of the last ecclesiastical hurdles to jump. For those of you who don’t know, PC(USA) ordination is a multi-year, multi-leg endurance race of classes, internships, verbal and written examinations, psychological evaluation, and studying…lots of studying. These siblings in Christ, on the threshold of their first call and ordination as Teaching Elders (or Ministers of Word and Sacrament), were asked to interpret a rather infamous passage from Judges 19, a text that describes mob violence, the de facto ownership of women, rape, and dismemberment.

Like others who have already spoken up and out on the selection of this text, I cannot fathom how this “text of terror” was chosen. There are harder passages to translate, so if the goal of choosing this passage was pedagogical in nature, it missed.There are other difficult passages they will need to be able to speak to if they are to effectively care for the church, so if the goal was “relevance,” again, it missed. Quite frankly, the only relevant lesson from the experience for these ordinands, is that they are about to be leaders of a denomination that both waves the flag of , egalitarianism and trauma-informed care and simultaneously is full of individuals and committees that either don’t know or don’t care about the flag-waving. Bottom line: we need to get some real answers how the hell this passage made the final cut and then make sure it NEVER happens again, and at the same care for those hurt by the decision.

I sat for these exams 15 years ago and helped grade exams five years ago, and both times I couldn’t stop wondering about the purpose of these exams. The closest I can come to an explicit answer in the Book of Order is that they are to assess one’s “fitness and readiness for a call to ministry.” But, while I was grading exams five years ago and seeing the questions they were being asked, it became painfully obvious to me that our ordination exams do nothing of the sort. My mind has not changed in the intervening years, and I know I’m not alone. Let me tell you why with a look at the exams.

There’s the Bible content exam which feels like the worst pub trivia ever thought up where everyone is thinking “Who picked these questions???” Additionally, a lot of the material is covered in Intro classes. Then there are the Exegesis and Theology exams, areas EVERY seminarian is tested consistently, often by multiple professors, over the course of three years. Then there’s Worship and Sacraments and the Polity exams. While many seminarians take courses in both of these areas as well, they’re often not consistently assessed on these areas like they are in exegesis and theology. And yet even then, answering exam questions about what to do when grandma wants you to baptize her aggressively atheist grandson or when a Session member gets arrested for immoral behavior, come nowhere close to actually having to live and lead through tough situations.

So, if you’re keeping score at home, the exams either 1) test rote memorization of trivia 2) test material already thoroughly tested in seminary or 3) are such inferior imitations of the real thing, they’re offensive to anyone who has lived the real-life version of the test question. Am I gob-smacked Judges 19 showed up on an exam in 2023? Yes. Am I surprised? Not in the least; it’s just another manifestation of problems that have plagued the exams for decades – exams that do not prepare seminarians in any meaningful way for a lifetime of ministry. Well, a lifetime of ministry for about 75% of them. The other 25% don’t make it past the 10 year mark. I hope after this overview you can begin to understand why those 25% don’t make it to a full pension.

Our exams, really our whole preparation process, largely fails to prepare real people for real ministry. And yet, we keep doing the same thing with the same results because it’s the way we’ve always done it, and Presbyterians would rather have a broken, familiar system than a thriving, innovative process to challenge and fortify its future ministers. At least, that’s what I saw from the inside for almost 15 years. It’s a damn shame, really. It’s a never-ending loop of chewing up our seminarians and by extension our congregations and then freaking out, only to keep pushing our best and brightest through the marathon that is seminary.

It doesn’t take much imagination – the place where knowledge, hope and courage meet – to envision a better way forward. Right now, we need to focus on caring for the seminarians who had trauma-responses to the exam. (If you think that’s belly-aching, I KNOW you don’t know jack about trauma and it’s effects on the brain.) We also need to hold decision-makers accountable and find some meaningful repentance for the implementation of a terrible decision. And when we’ve done our best to rectify this specific situation, we need to take a hard look at how we prepare our seminarians from pre-inquiry through candidacy, providing them the experiences, leadership training, learning and assessment that might actually prepare them for what it’s like to live out their ordained service.

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