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PC(USA) leadership approves new language for exam registration

On Thursday, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates added new exam registration language and dedicated a task force to engage a larger conversation about examination questions.

On Thursday afternoon, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) resumed the business that they had postponed at their Tuesday morning plenary session during this week’s annual meeting. The “order of the day” during Tuesday’s public plenary was to address matters related to the public reaction to the winter 2023 bible exegesis exam. Perfecting the language of an apology statement took longer than planned on Tuesday, so the Thursday afternoon plenary session was added to complete unfinished business. 

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 Rose Schrott Taylor.

The winter 2023 Bible exegesis exam, which evaluates ministerial candidates’ competency for interpreting Scripture, used Judges 19:1-30 as the examination text. Popularly referred to as Levite’s Concubine, the Scripture is known for its sexual violence and murder. Public outcry to the selection focused on the choice of a potentially trauma-inducing text for examination and the care for test takers. 

In response to the Scripture selection, 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.”

While the PCC formatted an official apology on Tuesday, the first action of their public plenary on Thursday was to discuss adding language to the examination’s registration process. Previously, everyone who registered for an exegesis exam had to sign an honor code that included a commitment to integrity. They were not allowed to discuss the exam with anyone over the five-day testing period. The PCC executive committee suggested in February that they add an additional statement to the registration process that encourages candidates, Committees on Preparation for Ministry (CPM), pastors and presbyteries to “ensure that systems of support and care are available to candidates who are taking exams and those called to be pastors.”

Additionally, the statement includes clarification that the “honor code does not preclude the candidate from seeking pastoral or mental health support during the exam period provided no material assistance is given in answering the exam’s questions themselves.”

This clarification is important, according to PCC moderator Robert Lowry, so candidates have a firsthand acknowledgment of their rights and to limit misinterpretation of the honor code. 

When the PCC executive committee released its proposed statement in February, it solicited public comment and committed to listening to the testimony. Specifically, they asked for two-minute video statements. In response, they received eight of the submitted comments opposed to the motion and one in favor. This testimony was not directly referenced during the PCC public meetings on Tuesday or Thursday. The video responses are publicly available on PC(USA) Equip

The PCC edits a statement to add to the exegesis exam registration process. This edited statement was ultimately approved by the committee. Screenshot by Rose Schrott Taylor. Schrott Taylor.

Ultimately, the PCC approved adding an additional statement to the registration process with some revisions, including the removal of references to trauma. (See the full, approved statement below. See the initial proposal here.)

During the public plenary on Thursday, the PCC also approved the formation of a task group to engage in formal conversations with other entities of the church regarding the “formulation of exam questions.” This is in response to the amount of correspondence the PCC received regarding the winter exegesis exam. The task group will consist of two executive committee members and at least three additional members.

“On one hand, we need to keep in mind the scope of the authority that our committee has,” said PCC Secretary Peter de Vries. “Much of what was talked about in response to our recent exegesis exam were subjects that go beyond the purview of this committee.” He listed relationships with candidates and their CPMs, the preparation offered by seminaries and the candidates’ systems of support as subjects beyond the PCC’s purview.

The Advocacy Committee for Women and Gender Justice wrote to the PCC that “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 PCC also received written correspondence from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Racial Equity Advisory Committee, Columbia Theological Seminary, the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and Committees on the Preparation of Ministry from multiple presbyteries.

The PCC did not direct the task force on a particular method of engaging in these conversations. They did, however, approve a budget of up to $50,000 to be used for an in-person gathering — if that is the format the task group determines is most fitting for their work. The PCC budget comes from the revenue of exam registration fees. By comparison, the budget for the PCC annual meeting is over $60,000 a year for the next three years.

 Timothy Cargal, associate director for ministry leadership development, explained that they reduced the cost of the exams by a third when the pandemic began because the PCC was no longer meeting in person. Now that the PCC has resumed in-person meetings, that fee would have to be “ratcheted back up” in about two years, and the use of the task groups funds will have an effect on the timing of increases to registration fees.

The PCC will conclude its annual meeting on Saturday.

The following statement will be added to the exegesis exam registration process:

Exam questions include situations and topics often encountered in the practice of validated ministry, some of which may be disturbing. Candidates, pastors, Committees on Preparation for Ministry (CPM), and presbyteries are strongly encouraged to ensure that systems of support and care are available to candidates who are taking exams and those called to be pastors.

The exam honor code does not preclude the candidate from seeking pastoral or mental health support during the exam period provided no material assistance is given in answering the exam questions themselves.  

Should a candidate find it is not possible to complete an exam, the candidate should consult with the CPM to arrange for a future exam or an alternative form of examination.

By registering for the Standard Ordination Exams, I acknowledge receipt of this clarification of the Honor Code and affirm that I have consulted with the CPM to ensure systems of support are available if needed. I further understand that I am entitled to consult with those systems of support during Exams should I need them.