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A call to reform the PC(USA) ordination process

David B. Wigger, who sits on the Presbytery of the Western Reserve's Committee on Preparation for Ministry, supports an upcoming General Assembly overture.

The Presbytery of the Western Reserve concurs with the Presbytery of the Highlands overture to the 226th General Assembly (2024) to appoint a committee to review the overall Preparation for Ministry process, and to make recommendations for relevant and appropriate changes to the 227th General Assembly (2026).

Samuel, on the Lord’s behalf, travels to Jesse’s home to anoint the king the Lord has ordained.

As a man named Eliab walks by, Samuel is sure he will be the anointed one. And then he receives a word from the Lord: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

I joined my presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry shortly after I completed the ordination process. This is my sixth and final year on the committee. In one way or another, I have spent more than a decade entangled in how the PC(USA) prepares our future Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

There is an elegance, a beauty and a sacredness in our process. It has been my absolute honor to walk alongside those who have sensed a call, sometimes a whisper, as they prepare for a life of ministry. But over the years, it has become increasingly evident that our system for preparation needs re-evaluation. Amid the process’ beauty, there is room for reform.

Amid the process’ beauty, there is room for reform.

Our system of preparation works fine for many. For those of us who were born into the Presbyterian church, raised by Presbyterian leaders and educated in Presbyterian institutions, the path is long but relatively easy. For those of us who heard a call when we were young, started the ordination process at least three years before we were ready to be ordained, and excel at test-taking, writing and recall, our system works neatly. In other words, if we “look the part” as Eliab did, as I do, the process can work.

But there are many paths to ordained ministry, and our current system does not fully recognize the variety of gifts and callings found in the church.

We anoint Eliabs to minister in large homogenous churches, but we struggle to see and support those with different backgrounds and different desires for ministry. Some of the very processes created to nurture ministers have become roadblocks for the variety of gifts found in our church.

Some of the very processes created to nurture ministers have become roadblocks for the variety of gifts found in our church.

During the six years I have sat on this committee, our conversations about the system have increased in frequency and intensity. The infamous Judges 19 exegesis exam last year was, from our perspective, a mere symptom of greater root issues. The choice of such a text, with its potential for re-traumatization, exposed the failures of a secretive process to create and administer exams. The exam and the lack of forethought for how it would be received demonstrated that our ordination examinations, a step in our ordination process, have not kept pace with evolving pedagogical theories, and best practices.

The church and the world have changed since the denominational examination process was first formed in the 1960s, and little modification has been enacted since. The exams I sat through eight years ago were essentially the same as the ones my parents took a generation earlier. Our process prepares individuals for a theoretical church of the past rather than the actual ministry context of the present, and even less so for the church of the future. Our system is focused on finding and preparing Eliabs among a congregation of Davids, Miriams, Ishmaels, Mary Magdalenes, Zacchaeuses, Ethiopian court officials, and many more called by the Spirit into ministry.

Our process prepares individuals for a theoretical church of the past rather than the actual ministry context of the present, and even less so for the church of the future.

In the Belhar Confession, we declare that “the one visible people of God” are made up of a “variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as … various languages and cultures” (Book of Confessions). Our antiquated preparation fails to nurture the holy diversity we claim in the Presbyterian church.

Like Samuel, the church is tasked with shepherding inquirers and candidates through the ordination process. Like Samuel, we are mortals, too often seeing with antiquated eyes. Like Samuel, we are called to adjust our vision, to see as the Lord sees. Like Samuel, there are moments when we are called by the Spirit to re-evaluate the way we look for, guide and prepare God’s anointed.

So when the Presbytery of the Highlands reached out in search of concurrence for their overture to the 226th General Assembly (2024) to appoint a committee to review the overall Preparation for Ministry process, and to make recommendations for relevant and appropriate changes to the 227th General Assembly (2026), we, in the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, heard the music the Spirit was playing, and felt moved to join the dance.

Our denomination moves slowly. I am not overly optimistic that this overture will bring about the kind of reform long overdue. But I am hopeful this is part of the dialogue that will bring about ordered progress in the PC(USA). May we learn to dance with what the Spirit of the Lord is already doing in our midst.


The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here

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