Ordination exams: “The time for review is now.”

Rob Lowry, the chair of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee for the Examination of Candidates, writes about revamping the PC(USA) ordination process.

“We need to strike while the iron is hot.” That was the comment of a member of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee for the Examination of Candidates (PCC) when the issue of exam structure came up at our annual meeting in Louisville. We were discussing the opportunity to revise the standard ordination exams. If the last 15 months have taught us anything, there is energy in the church to take a substantive look at how we assess readiness for ministry through the exams. The iron is indeed hot.

If the last 15 months have taught us anything, there is energy in the church to take a substantive look at how we assess readiness for ministry through the exams.

The controversial and regrettable decision to use Judges as the book for the 2023 winter exegesis exam opened a larger conversation in the church about the composition, value and role of ordination exams in the contemporary church. This is an urgent conversation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and one we are committed to continue.

In October 2023, the PCC hosted a consultation with representatives of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Advocacy Committee for Women and Gender Justice, the Association of Mid Council Leaders, the Committee on Theological Education, and the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee. Following a day of discussion addressing many of the concerns raised following the winter 2023 Judges exam, as well as questions about the role of the exams in the contemporary church, the PCC executive committee put in place several steps to address concerns raised and act on suggestions to strengthen the exam process. Those steps include:

  • Engaging the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to understand better how we perceive and respond to cultural differences and commonalities as individuals and as a group.
  • Hosting a real-time webinar with commissions on preparation for ministry (CPM) before each exam cycle to ensure that CPMs understand both the exam process and the role the commissions play in supporting candidates during the exam period.
  • Initiating a conversation within each subject area concerning how the exams might be revised to better meet the needs of the contemporary church and the changing landscape of theological education.
  • Working to formulate exams with greater attention to potential emotional and spiritual triggers that, though important in an individual’s formation for ministry, may not be productive subjects in the context of the exams.

Each of these steps was important in moving forward the larger conversation about the shape and nature of the exams during the March 2024 annual meeting of the PCC in Louisville. At that meeting, exams for the Fall 2024–Spring 2025 cycle were approved, some minor policy changes were made in the exam manual, and each exam group began working on future exams. That work being completed, one question remained …

Where do we go from here?

Both our consultation in October and the input from the wider church over the past 15 months make clear that the answer to that question requires more than a cursory review of the ordination exams. They also made clear that the time for that review is now.

Any revision to the exams will require attention to three essential factors: meeting the constitutional requirements of the exams, responsiveness to the needs of the contemporary church, and fairness to our candidates for ministry who sit for the exams.

The constitutional requirements as interpreted by the General Assembly are straightforward. They include the required areas of examination (Bible, theology, polity, and worship/sacraments), and what competencies in each area are being assessed. That guidance comes from the General Assembly and provides guidance to the PCC in our work. Any changes in this area would require an action of the GA. Nonetheless, there is room within those directives for the exams to undergo creative revision.

The central question facing us today is whether the exams as they currently exist are meeting the needs and realities of the contemporary church and the changing nature of theological education. The current exam structure for the three “synoptic exams” (theology, polity, worship/sacraments) follows a classical theological education pattern of historical-constructive-applied theology. For many of us, this was the pattern of seminary education. That is not always the case today. Today’s pastors are being formed in a more creative educational environment and asked to serve in an often rapidly changing church. What does an exam look like that is shaped by those realities? What changes may help make the exams a more adaptive and useful part of the preparation for the ministry process?

We do not yet know the answer to those questions; however, we are convinced they are the right questions to ask at this moment in the life of the church. Over the next year in preparation for our 2025 annual meeting and in addition to preparing exams under the current structure, each exam area working group will focus their work on answering these questions and discerning how we compose exams that match the needs of the church today.

Finally, any exam changes must take into consideration the candidates who sit for the exams. Any changes in the format and expectations of the exam must be introduced well in advance so candidates and seminaries can prepare.

If ordination exams are merely a hurdle for candidates to clear, they have failed in their purpose.

If ordination exams are merely a hurdle for candidates to clear, they have failed in their purpose. If, however, they are a vehicle for demonstrating readiness for ministry and provide an unbiased means for all candidates to be assessed on a level playing field, the church will continue to benefit from well-trained and well-prepared pastoral leaders.

Any revisions to the exams will take time. The PCC has initiated this conversation in the hope that we can work expeditiously yet cautiously so the standard ordination exams may continue to serve the church as one part of the larger whole of preparation for ministry.

Although the content of the exams is necessarily confidential, the work of the PCC is the work of the whole church and we are committed to doing that work with openness living into our shared promise to serve the people of God with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”

Editor’s note: The exegesis exam alone is not a specific overture for GA’s consideration. However, exam development is part of an overture requesting a committee to review the overall ministry preparation.

The Presbytery of the Highlands overtures 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). (See ORD-06 on PC-Biz.)

The Committee will be responsible for the following:

  • An overall review of the Preparation for Ministry process including an assessment, evaluation, and recommendations for changes to the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCCEC)
  • revision of the handbook, including the process
  • development of ordination exams
  • selection/nomination of the team responsible for
  • overseeing exam writers.

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