It started off as a comment made on Twitter about the ordination exams in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Followed by a few reply ‘tweets’ later, it eventually turned into a two-day conversation between PC(USA) pastors, seminary students and those in the ordination process from all over the country. And it was done all using 140 characters or less.
While I don’t use social media as passionately as many of my friends, I did find myself recently glued to my computer screen as this Twitter conversation about the difficulties many face with taking the ordination exams in the PC(USA) unfolded. Like many others, I find Twitter to be a great tool to connect, share ideas and occasionally share my opinions when it comes to issues in the church. However, learning about the hurt and frustrations many have in relation to the ordination exams led me feel the shared sense of disappointment many have about one of the most crucial hurdles we all will face – or have faced – on the road to being ordained.
Some of the individuals on Twitter talked about taking a particular exam four or five times and continually not being able to pass. Others shared stories about not being able to afford the exams and having to further delay their ordination process. As I read, the virtual conversation led me to not only feel anxious about the exams that I will take in January, but more importantly, the conversation made me feel disappointed about how many people feel discouraged in their calls to do ministry simply because they had difficulty passing a particular test.
It’s no secret that extensive theological training has been a requirement of pride for Presbyterian pastors. As a Presbyterian and a recent graduate from San Francisco Theological Seminary, I find a lot of pride in what I learned in seminary and the affirmation I have received from my seminary professors and commission on preparation of ministry (CPM) who saw me grow over the course of four years. Yet, while I understand and support the need for the denomination to have ways to examine what those in the ordination process have learned, I still wonder if a written test only given twice a year – and which many applicants finding themselves having to re-take again and again – is the best tool for evaluation.
One issue that brings me discouragement is how the exams are offered. For someone like myself who has a learning disability similar to dyslexia, I worry about how my disability will affect me since I have always struggled with written exams. For others, struggles with English as a second language or being forced to remember the answers on old Bible content exams are poor methods of evaluation for ministry. To me, they seem to dishonor the comprehensiveness and wealth of academic and vocational learning we as candidates gained in seminary.
There are also concerns about the ordination exams in terms of ethnicity and diversity. On Twitter, Presbyterian pastor and writer Rev. Carol Howard Merritt expressed not only concern about the ethnic makeup of those who are grading the exams, but concerns about the lack of diversity in those who are passing them. According to the New Vision for National Ordination Exams published by the PC(USA), the pass rates of white candidates in recent years on each examination have ranged between 65% and 77% while pass rates of other candidates have averaged between 27-54%.
While the denomination is making efforts to make the ordination exams less expensive, offered more frequently, and finding more diverse graders in gender and ethnicity, I still think there are other steps that can be taken to improve the process. From presbyteries mentoring candidates who are repeatedly failing exams, to seeking more racial-ethnic participation in the examinations and examination process and making alternative exams more easily offered to those who would benefit from being evaluated in alternative ways, we still have a long way to go.
As someone in the ordination process with this denomination, I don’t argue the reasoning behind making sure those of us are prepared to do ministry in the larger church nor do I object to being examined. However, I believe years of extensive seminary study, enriched vocational experiences in churches and in chaplaincies, and affirmed calls by committees and professors shouldn’t be discounted because someone failed a particular exam that was graded by a complete stranger. In a time when the denomination is trying to be a 21st century church and wants diverse people to engaging in different ministries, the PC(USA) should also offer diverse and different ways to examine these candidates as well.
Christopher Schilling is a resident chaplain at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is originally from Hookstown, Pennsylvania and is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting and cars.