Do away with blind readers for PC(USA) ordination exams

Looking at the Book of Order, Paul Hooker argues that the PC(USA) over-emphasizes written ordination exams. His solution? Localize and personalize the grading.

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I watched with interest the social media conversation about the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations’ (PCC) choice of Judges 19, the Levite’s Concubine, as the text for January’s biblical exegesis ordination exam. Numerous commenters have protested that the text is deeply disturbing and may trigger painful psychological reactions in victims of violence, particularly sexual violence. They argue that, given the supposed necessity of passing this exam before ordination, the use of such a controversial text places candidates in a bind: deal with this potentially psychologically harmful text or delay taking the exam, and therefore your call to ordained ministry.

For me, the choice of Judges 19 and the reaction to it illustrate the need for a larger conversation about the relevance of ordination examinations in assessing a candidate’s readiness for ministry.

Too much weight is being placed on satisfactory grades on ordination examinations as the defining documentation needed for ordination.

Let me say this directly: the problem is not the inflammatory nature of Judges 19. The problem is the assumption that the exams themselves constitute a bar to ordination. Too much weight is being placed on satisfactory grades on ordination examinations as the defining documentation needed for ordination.

The Book of Order reads:

A candidate may not enter into negotiation for his or her service as a minister of the Word and Sacrament without approval of the presbytery of care. The presbytery shall record when it has certified a candidate ready for examination by the presbytery for ordination, pending a call. Evidence of readiness to begin ordered ministry as a minister of the Word and Sacrament shall include: …

d. examination materials, together with evaluations that declare those materials satisfactory in the areas covered by the standard ordination examinations approved by the General Assembly. Such examinations shall be prepared and administered by a body created by the presbyteries (G-2.0607).

Many if not most presbyteries, and many if not most candidates, assume this means that ordination depends on passing the exams. And, indeed, G-2.0607d does require “evaluations that declare those materials satisfactory.” Note, however, that the constitution nowhere says that the PCC or its grading system must be the agent of that declaration. Presbyteries are choosing to assume that declarations of satisfaction must come from the PCC-led process; they are nowhere mandated to do so. The constitution mandates only that, “examinations shall be prepared and administered” by PCC. Nothing prohibits presbyteries from making their own determinations of satisfaction and using those determinations as basis for evaluating readiness for ministry.

The Book of Order suggests other ways to access a candidate’s readiness for ministry including wisdom, maturity and leadership skills, a college degree, and a theological education (see G-2.0607 a-c). However, most presbyteries often refuse to assess readiness for ministry by these other standards until all the exams have been successfully completed which results in undue stress for candidates.

The aim in creating the standard ordination exams was to simplify the process and reduce candidate anxiety. The standard ordination exams date back to 1967 in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA and to 1977 in the Presbyterian Church in the US — antecedent bodies of the PC(USA). Prior to that, candidates seeking to accept a call endured an oral floor examination before the presbyteries within which that call was to be offered. Such exams often lasted an hour or more, and they were routinely characterized by harassing and inquisitorial questioning. The idea of the standard ordination exams was to pre-certify the theological and biblical preparedness of any candidate seeking ordination and thus to diminish the field of questions that were appropriate on the floor. Exams would be written by a body theoretically created and administered by the presbyteries (the PCC), and the evaluation of the exams would be done by presbytery-elected readers trained and supervised by the PCC. In reality, the PCC is only minimally “administered” by the presbyteries; it is funded by the cost-assessed students for taking the exams, and half its membership is nominated and elected by the General Assembly rather than the presbyteries. It represents the only incursion of a General Assembly-level entity into the process of ordination.

While the procedure has undergone some change with the advent of modern technology, it is still essentially the same as when it was created. The PCC writes the exams and provides resources for exam readers. The Office of Examination Services (OES) publishes the exams and registers candidates to take them. Candidates submit their written examinations and are specifically instructed to avoid identifying themselves in any way in their writing. Exams are then sent to the OES, which distributes them to readers in different presbyteries. Those readers, who know nothing about the candidates whose materials they read, assign a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and return the results to the candidate through OES. It is designed as a “blind” evaluation procedure.

At present, the blind evaluation procedure places responsibility for evaluating readiness on a faceless group of readers. Knowing nothing about the ethnic or cultural background of candidates, nor anything about their personal experience that might factor into their way of answering questions, readers are forced to rely on a resource paper written by the membership of PCC as the sole standard against which an exam is read. Resource papers are often the work of very fine writers and scholars, but they inevitably represent only one angle of interpretation of a text or theological question, when in fact multiple interpretive approaches and insights are possible. More significantly, even the best resource papers are not enough to provide the average reader an adequate foundation for reading and grading any individual exam. The problem is especially critical for the reader who is ill-prepared (or not prepared at all) in biblical exegesis, systematic or liturgical theology or the church’s polity. It is not infrequently the case that a student writing an ordination exam is better qualified in the theological discipline being examined than is the reader evaluating that exam. Something is askew here.

The solution is simple. Do away with the blind evaluation procedure altogether. Completed exams could be sent to the candidate’s own presbytery of care, where the presbytery’s elected readers (presbyteries already elect such readers; see G-3.0302b) would read and grade them. This ensures that the reading of ordination exams is done by persons who know and are sensitive to the individual character and experience of a particular candidate, and who can take that knowledge into account when reading the exam.

The solution is simple. Do away with the blind evaluation procedure altogether.

This will accomplish two other important changes. First, it will restore the ordination exams to the true purpose for which they were created: to be one measure among several by which the candidate’s readiness for ministry is assessed. If a candidate is struggling in a particular exam area, the presbytery can act to shore up that weakness by mandating additional coursework or private tutoring. If the candidate has personal issues that hamper the satisfactory completion of an exam, it can consider using the alternate means process outlined in G-2.0610. If a candidate writes an exam in a manner demonstrating appropriate knowledge but in a non-standard or unusual form, the presbytery’s readers could take their knowledge of the candidate into account in evaluating the candidate’s readiness for ministry. In either case, the exam becomes one indicator among others of readiness.

Second, it will restore the presbytery to its rightful place as the determining entity of readiness for ministry. The Book of Order is explicit that the presbytery of the candidate’s care is responsible for that candidate’s preparation and certification of readiness for ordination (G-3.0301a and G-2.0601). It is an individualized process in which the candidate, over time, demonstrates intellectual and spiritual growth that the presbytery can assess through both written work and personal interviews. It is a process that attends to the individual candidate as a person. The church at the General Assembly level should not have any role in determining readiness other than to establish the standards for ordination. Whether a particular candidate meets those standards, and how a candidate’s readiness for ministry is determined, should be the responsibility of the presbytery. In allowing its judgment to be supplanted by the exam process, a presbytery or its committee on preparation for ministry (CPM) is abdicating that responsibility. In reasserting its right of assessment, the presbytery resumes its constitutionally mandated place in the ordination process.

Had the procedure I am suggesting been in place when the Judges 19 passage was published, candidates could have chosen to notify their presbytery readers that this text was potentially harmful as a result of their own lived experience, giving presbytery’s CPM the opportunity to provide pastoral support. The CPM might have counseled its candidates either to delay taking this exam until the next offering or to initiate the G-2.0610 process for alternate means. Or, if a candidate chose to write the exam anyway and then did poorly, the presbytery’s readers might have taken their knowledge of the candidate’s life experience into consideration in its evaluation of the exam. In any case, the decision about a candidate’s readiness would be made by those charged by the constitution with doing so, and on a basis more reflective of the panoply of indicators of readiness in G-2.0607.