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PC(USA) leadership apologizes for harm caused by exam, believed it was defensible

In their annual meeting, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations acknowledges the impact of using Judges 19 for the January 2023 exegesis exam. 

An earlier version of this story misquoted the PCC statement as saying “We believe that our decision was defensible.” The correct language is “We believed that our decision was defensible.”

The Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) issued an apology on Tuesday morning for the harm caused by their choice of Scripture for the 2023 winter exegesis exam and asserted that their decision was defensible. 

A public outcry in early February brought wide attention to the selection of Judges 19:1-30 for the exegesis exam, which is one step in a series used to determine a candidate’s readiness for ministry. The story in Judges 19, often called Levite’s Concubine, is known for its sexual violence and trauma.

In the statement, the PCC said, “We believed that our decision was defensible; however, we acknowledge that it caused harm. Therefore, we offer our apology. We are sorry. We ask for your forgiveness.” 

PCC moderator Robert Lowry (right) and Associate Director for Ministry Leadership Development with the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Timothy Cargal (left). Screenshot by Lucinda Isaacs.

PCC moderator Robert Lowry first presented a statement of apology drafted by the executive committee which confessed that the “exam became a stumbling block for some of our candidates and exam readers” and offered prayer to those injured by the text.

In response, PCC member Kimberly Briggs quickly called for a “full and unreserved apology,” making a substitute motion to rewrite the proposed statement.

In the resulting apology, the committee acknowledged that the choice of Judges 19 was “for many” a “breach of trust.” The revised statement committed to partnering with the church to move from “this place of anger, pain, and frustration into a grace-filled space.”

Additionally, the revised statement acknowledged that their choice of Scripture left candidates and exam readers “feeling fearful, traumatized, and perhaps even victimized.”

The PCC spent the majority of its time discussing the language of the revised apology, which precluded debating the substance of the motion. Once the language was perfected, the substitute motion became the main motion by a vote of 12-11 and was subsequently approved by a voice vote – implying that there was enough support for the statement without counting votes. For the full statement, see here.

The total amount of time spent crafting and approving the statement of apology was over 90 minutes. This prevented the PCC from addressing the executive committee’s proposal to add language to the registration process to include a statement that would offer guidance if an exam question elicits a trauma response from a candidate. 

This action will be considered during the Thursday afternoon public plenary. Prior to their meeting this week, the PCC solicited public comment on the proposed statement and committed to listening to the testimony. The testimony is available to the public as video recordings on PC(USA) Equip. Eight of the submitted comments are opposed to the motion, and one is in favor.

Additionally, the PCC received written correspondence from various organizations and individuals regarding their Scripture selection for the exam. 

The Advocacy Committee for Women and Gender Justice wrote, “The reality is, this situation has inadvertently caused spiritual and emotional violence to test takers, survivors, those following along, and subsequently test readers. It has increased the potential for discrimination within the test tasking process, particularly with the traditionally marginalized groups.”

The Officers of the Association of Mid Council Leaders submitted a letter to the PCC stating: “Some have maintained that the decision to use Judges 19 was right because we are now more able to talk about difficult things, and that it is important for this passage to be ‘put before the church.’ This passage was not, however, put before the church; it was put before individual theological students who wrestled with it over and over through the course of several days, and who thought that it was against the exam honor code to reach out for emotional support.”

Victor Aloyo, Jr., president of Columbia Theological Seminary, offered the committee a “spirit of collaboration” to help students who were, or were at risk, of being traumatized by the exam. In his letter, he wrote, “Together, we desire to ensure that these impacts may be avoided in the future and to consider what recourse may be offered to students negatively affected by this incident. We offer to host a more extensive conversation between denominational leaders, seminary Presidents, students, and faculty about the complexities of nurturing and educating students who are journeying to be leaders for the church and the world.”

Written correspondence also came from organizations such as the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, the Association of Mid Council Leaders and Committees on the Preparation of Ministry from multiple presbyteries.

That correspondence was made public for the March 14 meeting but has not yet been explicitly and publicly discussed by the PCC. During the meeting on Tuesday, Lowry suggested that there was consensus to have a “robust conversation” throughout the church about issues related to the exam, some of which fall outside of the PCC’s purview. The executive committee will make recommendations later in the week for engaging in that conversation.

Because they were not able to get through all of their agenda for Tuesday, the PCC added an additional public plenary on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EST that will be live streamed.

Stay tuned for Outlook’s coverage of the PCC’s public meeting on Thursday.