If Presbyterians are excellent at anything, it is the creation of protracted committee structures and processes that would wow even the most skilled parliamentarians. We Presbyterians, after all, puff out our chests and say that it is our historic church government structure that was the blueprint for the U.S. constitutional government following our 1776 revolution that many British, even King George III, called “The Presbyterian Revolt.”
Robert Lowry, chair of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC), and Tim Cargal, associate director for ministry leadership development with the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), joined a meeting of the Association of Mid Council Leaders on February 8 to answer questions about the exegesis ordination exam on Judges 19, a passage that includes terror, murder and rape. This meeting was a regularly scheduled check-in of presbyters and stated clerks, but we asked members of the PCC to attend and help us understand all of what we were seeing and hearing in response to the selection of Judges 19. On the whole, the ordination process is overseen by presbyteries. Therefore, the Association of Mid Council Leaders has a vested interest in understanding what happened.
It struck me that the Presbyterian organizational structure – what we take pride in as a denomination – may have created what sociologists call a “diffusion of responsibility” or a bystander effect.
I attended this meeting as the stated clerk of Grace Presbytery. While we discussed the selection of Judges 19 as the examination text and the public response, it struck me that the Presbyterian organizational structure – what we take pride in as a denomination – may have created what sociologists call a “diffusion of responsibility” or a bystander effect. The PCC is made up of leadership that rotates off after three years. This conveyor belt of production means that the originators of an idea for an exegesis examination text are not necessarily the ones to see it through to the examinees. I think one leader on the Zoom call rightly compared it to the “Schoolhouse Rock!” version of a bill becoming a law. In short, those representing the PCC in this meeting were not necessarily the same as those who picked this text.
Add to this the dysfunction of social media responses – both in support of and objecting to using the text – removing any kind of real room for nuance or full encounter with the humanity of those in opposition to each other. You then have a recipe for a meltdown where the healthiest remedy for coming together for true justice for women who have suffered trauma at the hands of an abuser – and now potentially reliving the trauma through text – is lost in a frenzy of who can get the most likes — and who can avoid being the last to touch their noses when asked to take responsibility.
Robert Lowry has apologized for any hurt caused by this exam and has committed to working toward whatever improvements can be made. The PCC meets in full from March 13-18. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has an open meetings policy, and this meeting of the PCC will be open. At the Association of Mid Council Leaders meeting last week, we discussed being ready for all who want to come in person or online. As a denomination, we have work to do, and hopefully, the open meeting will prevent suspicion, build renewed trust and avoid any group thinking that may have happened previously.
True justice … is lost in a frenzy of who can get the most likes — and who can avoid being the last to touch their noses when asked to take responsibility.
In the meantime, I’ve made sure the Grace Presbytery candidate seeking to become a PC(USA) pastor who took the January exegesis exam has been cared for, and I have asked to identify any readers of the exam among us. (For more on the process of grading exams, read here.) I think between now and the March meeting, all of us committing to the care of those traumatized by this scriptural choice is most important.
But by all means, please put that March meeting on your calendars, both for input and for the opportunity for transparency from and to the larger church. If you have an opinion that you want the PCC to hear, this will be the place to show up. It has been promised that the meeting will be open in person and virtually.