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Reader’s opinions: “A call to reform the PC(USA) ordination process”

Readers respond to David Wigger's "A call to reform the PC(USA) ordination process.”

These letters are responses to “A call to reform the PC(USA) ordination process” by David Wigger, an opinion piece published by the Outlook. 

As a psychiatrist and ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I concur with Rev. David Wigger’s reflections in his article “A call to reform the PC(USA) ordination process.” Not only does our current process reflect a decades-old approach, it also fails to adequately address the mental health needs of those entering ordained ministry.

The struggles inherent in seminary, ordination exams, and the Preparation for Ministry process are fresh in my mind. Having served on the Committee for Preparation for Ministry, I am aware of the challenges inherent in the preparation process and the stresses facing our pastors and impacting their ability to take care of their own emotional and spiritual needs, and those of their families.

Statistics show that most candidates for ordination come from large congregations but are experiencing calls to small rural communities.  With fewer students interested in parish ministry, seminaries are shifting their focus to social-justice curriculums. As congregations diminish in size, so do their staffing patterns — along with an increase in a congregation’s expectations of their pastor. The result: increasing stress and risk of burn-out for our new and experienced pastors.

As we look to address ways of improving the preparation for ministry process, we must also intentionally acknowledge and address the emotional, spiritual, social, and physical needs of those preparing for ministry as well as those currently serving in an ever-changing and unpredictable environment. — Rev. Dr. Jane Holtzclaw, Lincoln, Nebraska

Having read David Wigger’s Voices essay about an upcoming overture to reform the candidacy process left me with more questions than assurances about positive change in the system. There was a lot of language about diversity and variety but very little about what actual problems in the candidacy process they want to fix. He made bold assertions about preparing for the “church of the past” but did not present any evidence to support this assertion.

The current process works from this premise: those who are ordained in our denomination must be individuals who can apply what they have learned in seminary and in their own walk with God to the common tasks of ministry. When someone walks up to you in spiritual crisis, you do not have the option of saying “I have terrible test anxiety. Email your question to me and give me adequate time to quietly process it and I’ll get back to you when I am feeling confident.” The ordination exams attempt to simulate real-world situations to which you may well be called to respond in your ministry.

The infamous Judges 19 question is a case in point. Would anyone say to their congregation, “I will only accept questions about the Bible which do not trigger negative feelings or recall traumatic experiences in me. If you have questions about these passages, please contact someone else.” Questions about gender, sexuality, domestic violence, politics, cultural issues, issues of war and peace, poverty and anything else you can think of can and will be asked of any pastor on any given day. The ability to step back and think critically about these questions is what seminary training is supposed to be about.

I have served many terms on our Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM), and the main thing we do is prepare individuals to assume the responsibilities for ordered ministry as teaching elders in the PC(USA). We mentor individuals, help them through tough times, assist them in finding accommodations in extreme circumstances, but the individuals are not the point for a CPM — preparation for ministry is. It is there in the name.

Moreover, we have no idea what sort of ministry may be in the future for any candidate. What they want to do on the day of their ordination may (and often does) change with life situation, location, age and opportunity. That is why ordination exams focus on areas that are essential for any and all PC(USA) pastors: knowledge of the Biblical text and how to exegete it and use it in building sermons, using theological reasoning informed by Scripture and our theological documents and traditions, hearing and responding to needs for the cure of souls and using our complex and particular way of ordering the church to respond to situations that arise in their midst.

If what the Rev. Mr. Wigger wants to do is put the candidates at the center of the process, this is the exact wrong path. Exceptional candidates are envisioned and provided for in the present system. Making the exception the rule will force attention from preparation for what we know is, and will continue to be true, for ministry: certain skills and abilities are non-negotiable. I hope the General Assembly recognizes this in the discussion of this overture and is not moved by emotional appeal. — Robert Johnson, Ashland, Virginia