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The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.

“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.

For quick announcements about changes or developments in the preparation process, dates related to exams or other key events, discussion boards, surveys, etc., you can follow us on Facebook at “Preparing for Presbyterian Ministry.”

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August 31, 2011

Why Ordination Exams? ... Then

Fountain pen laying on paper with written textAs I write this post, we are in the midst of the fall ordination examinations. The “sit-down” exams were completed last weekend. The “take-home” exegesis exam is due tomorrow. The “online” Bible Content Examination is the next day. Over the next six weeks, we will be preparing readers, convening the groups where exams will be evaluated, and reporting the results. A tremendous amount of human and financial resources will be expended during this period. More than a few folks involved will no doubt at some point say to themselves, “And why are we doing this?” (And, no, it won’t be just those taking the tests that ask.)

In this post and a couple to come, I want to explore the question, “Why ordination exams?” from three vantage points—the past, the present, and the future. Why did we ever start requiring denominational examinations for ordination as teaching elders? Why are we requiring them now—that is, what is their particular purpose in the preparation process? Why would we require them in the future—or more specifically, why conduct the examinations in a certain way?

The issues that gave birth to denominational ordination exams within the Presbyterian Church arose in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Primary among them was a perception that the historic pattern of each presbytery having sole responsibility for examining candidates for ordination was creating a growing disparity between the qualifications and preparedness of persons entering ministry across the church. This disparity expressed itself in two quite distinct ways.

On the one hand, there was a perception that standards were too lax in some places. As one person recalls in a history prepared about the ordination exams, an individual about whom one presbytery had serious concerns might go to another presbytery and be quickly ordained. Seminarians were sharing stories and advice about which presbyteries a person should avoid, and which presbyteries would offer an easy path to ordination. (“The more things change… .”)

But on the other hand, there was also a perception that particular types of persons were routinely being treated much more stringently in the presbyteries’ examination procedures. Even in presbyteries generally considered to have the higher standards, men from the dominant culture navigated the system much more easily than others—especially those who were well connected. Women and minority candidates were not being treated equitably with their white male peers.

It was an overture to the 1964 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America that set in motion the ordination exams. Their purpose, as stated in the overture referred to the presbyteries for study and comment that year, was “to provide a more equitable standard of expectation among all the presbyteries, and to offer candidates a more equitable basis for their preparation for ordination examination.” The constitution was amended in 1966 to require the examinations, which were administered for the first time on February 9-11, 1967 (examinations began in the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1977).

The exams began in a concern for equitable treatment of those seeking ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. There was from the earliest years a realization that “equitable” treatment required taking into consideration differing ministry contexts of racial and cultural groups across the country. The principles formed to achieve this purpose of “equitable” treatment have provided the basis for the exams up to the present day. And those principles will be the topic of the next post in this series.

Categories: Ordination Exams