Ordination exam controversy raises broader issues

Reporter Erin Dunigan speaks with two ordained women with differing opinions on the selection of Judges 19 for the January exegesis exam.

Recently the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) world was rocked by outrage and what some have termed weeping and gnashing of teeth over the choice of Judges 19 for this year’s Bible exegesis exam. Judges 19 is often considered the most terrifying of the Bible’s ‘texts of terror.’

On the one hand, there was concern that such a text would trigger issues of trauma in those taking the exam, especially in such a high-stakes situation as the exegesis, which is a step that candidates for ministry take to assess their readiness for ministry. On the other side were arguments that the Bible is full of difficult passages and those are not to be ignored, but dealt with.

But as the initial uproar began to settle, the situation raised other more subtle, yet profound, issues relating to the way pastors are prepared for ordained ministry.

The following are some of the underlying assumptions in the ordination process that are being exposed by the controversy.

That those attending seminary and preparing for ordination are headed for traditional parish ministry

At its most basic, the current process of preparation for ministry does little to account for or include those outside of ‘traditional parish ministry.’

Colleen Earp is ordained to and works in Camps and Conference Ministry. “I was never going to be normal,” she said laughing. Earp felt as though she spent a lot of time during the ordination process justifying what she does as ministry in the first place. Earp felt during the ordination process that she was often “slamming her round self into a square hole.”

“There are a lot of people called to ministry who aren’t called to parish ministry,” she continued, “and these people are trying to make it work, but the system is not always very responsive.”

Her hope is that the process might become more flexible and creative.

New pastors coming out of seminary will be ‘junior’ pastors working on a larger staff and will only have to deal with ‘entry level’ situations

Amantha Barbee is pastor of Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a defender of the choice of text. She suggested that there is more to this discussion than ‘it is a bad text and it traumatizes people.’

“One of the comments made is that we are preparing new pastors for ministry and they will be ‘entry level’ when they come out,” Barbee said. “The assumption is that this text would be too difficult for an entry-level person.”

But Barbee questions that assumption. “The reality of our church is that we are not training people to be associates in big steeple churches — we are training people to come out as solo pastors who have to be trained for everything,” she said.

With the average PC(USA) congregation having fewer than 150 members, the assumption of being on a staff with more seasoned pastors to help mentor the new pastor through the most difficult aspects of ministry does not match reality.

“I dealt with more in my first call than I do now because there is more of a cushion in larger churches between the pastor and reality,” said Barbee.

The reality, says Barbee, is that we are sending people out to be solo pastors who will have to deal with anything. “To see it any other way is a Pollyanna view of a 1970s church,” she said.

“If we are avoiding texts that are challenging because it is too much to deal with, then we need to reassess what we are doing with our churches.”

That there is a way to approach a text outside of one’s own context

Perhaps the main outcry from those suggesting Judges 19 was an inappropriate choice for the exam is that those who have been victims of abuse or trauma would find the text triggering.

“Nobody is saying ignore the text. Just don’t make it a surprise when their calling is on the line,” said Earp. Each individual taking the exam brings their own history to the text, and this history impacts their ability to consider the text.

Those from marginalized communities deal with reality every day. It’s far from easy. “We are supposed to operate in truth and grace – part of many people’s truth is trauma, negativity, oppression, strife,” said Barbee.

“In seminary, we handled the tough stuff, we talked about the tough stuff, we dealt with it,” said Barbee. “If we can’t deal with reality on a test, how are we going to deal with it in real life?”

“Of course, this text is a trauma trigger – and we need to deal with trauma,” she continued. “Church is not a country club, it’s a hospital and there is a trauma unit in the hospital.”

That exam readers are sufficiently qualified

Interestingly, those on both “sides” of the recent controversy do seem to find common ground in one area: the preparation and training (or lack thereof) of those reading exams.

“No one is saying that we should ignore these texts,” Earp said, “but we are just saying that an exam, where readers may not be able to appreciate the complexities of the particular text and where the stakes are high, is not the place for them.”

Barbee concurs. “I have a real issue with the readers of the exegesis exams who have not been to seminary – they are simply not qualified,” she said. “There is no way just as a good church person that I could grade that exam.”

This issue would be present regardless of the choice of text, Barbee pointed out. Even if the passage had been Psalm 23, someone who does not know or understand Hebrew on the level that it is encountered in seminary would not be adequately prepared to provide an assessment.

Another thing both pastors agree on is that the situation provides the opportunity – and is making it quite clear of the need – to rethink larger issues within the ordination process.

“Big picture, I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m not seeing anything clear,” Earp said. “But I do think people are hoping for some serious conversations over the ordination process and particularly the exams.”