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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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September 4, 2015

Bible Content Exam Results

The Bible Content Examination (BCE) was administered today, and the results both in terms of the average score on the exams and the percentage of inquirers and candidates who met the minimum score (70%) required to “Satisfy” this requirement in the preparation for ministry process were below historical averages.

A total of 127 individuals took the BCE, and the average score was 63.5%, which is about 10-15% lower than historical trends. However, since that average score fell below the minimum requirement, only 36 people (28.3%) scored high enough to receive a “Satisfactory” evaluation on the exam. By way of comparison, for the 12 previous BCE administrations since the exam was moved online in Fall 2009 the average percentage of individuals who scored 70% or higher in a testing cycle was 81.7%.

So, what might explain such dramatically different results?

Prior to online BCE testing in 2009, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) had released all BCE questions after each testing cycle just as they do with the other exam areas. Unlike the other exam areas, however, the PCC also continued to use the questions even after they had been released. Historically about 80% of the questions in each test were repeated from previous exams, in part to gauge relative difficulty of the overall exam based on how difficult questions had proven to be in the past. The PCC has long been concerned that these practices, though necessary in the period of “paper testing” to provide useful information about the subject of missed questions, were creating a situation where inquirers and candidates were spending more preparation time with old tests than with the Bible itself and study aids that deal with the “form and content of the Bible” in terms of its “stories, themes and key passages” (as the purpose of the test has been set by the General Assembly).

A different form of results reporting from the online tests made it possible to provide useful information about areas that would benefit from further study without having to release the actual questions. So in 2009 the PCC announced (1) it would no longer release questions from the exams and (2) that it was working toward discontinuing the use of questions that had been publicly released prior to 2009. Following the BCE administration in February of this year, the PCC communicated to CPMs and seminaries that it was preparing to end the use of questions that had appeared on paper-based exams and were publicly available. The PCC also announced that it would be bringing back some “matching” and “ordering” format questions to augment “multiple choice” questions in the exam (a practice that had also been used in the early years of BCE administration).

What, then, was different about today’s BCE as compared to the previous 12 online tests:

Preparation materials related to the BCE have for the past several years advised inquirers and candidates to use publicly available exams from previous years (including the “practice BCE” that the PCC makes available in the same testing system used for the “official” exam) to help them identify portions of the scriptural canon with which they are less familiar so as to know on what parts of the Bible to focus their study. They advised against trying to memorize past questions in hopes of seeing “familiar questions” on the BCE. That approach to preparation is even more important now that all publicly available questions have been retired.

(This post was originally sent as an email message to all CPM moderators and theological institution contact persons.)

Categories: Ordination Exams, Ordination Process


  1. In response to Greg's comment below, it needs to be stressed that what the PCC retired where the specific questions used in the past, not the passages of scripture from which they were drawn. Every BCE is free to develop questions from any portion of scripture. The only restriction is that editors cannot use the specific questions that were publicly released prior to 2010.

    by Tim Cargal

    May 1, 2016

  2. To the committee in charge of crafting the Bible Content Exam, I urge you to consider Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul writes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” I am a seminary student who has yet to take the bible content exam, however I have talked to many students who have, and after reading these online comments, I am very concerned that this new format does not help us “to discern what is best and may be pure” when it comes to reading scripture (Phil 1:10). There is a problem with abandoning all old exam questions for the sake of abandoning all old exam questions, for the old exams were crafted, as the new exams surely were, for the sake of ensuring that ministers know whatever is just, pure, pleasing, and commendable when it comes to the bible. If a question asks something fundamental and important to one’s understanding of the bible, why dismiss it? If students, by studying the questions, are simultaneously studying that which is pure and pleasing, that which remains at the core of the Christian faith, what is the problem? Having taken several practice exams, I can assure you there are countless questions that communicate something vital as well as questions that appear to be trivial. Why get rid of the vital and the trivial alike, and replace them with questions that, from what I’ve gathered, are equally vital and trivial? The old exams contain important questions, questions that need to be asked and answered. There’s nothing wrong with an easy exam if it truly tests “stories, themes and key passages.” A test that hides its questions for the sake of sending students back to their bibles is a noble endeavor; however, I believe over the course of seminary education and during their walk with God, students are reading and studying their bibles diligently. I believe the test is not designed to trick students or send them back to their bibles with anxiety, but rather to affirm what they already know in Christ and reveal aspects of biblical education that are lacking. The best way to do this, it seems to me, is to go back to basics and include both familiar and new questions that get to the heart of biblical “stories, themes, and key passages.”

    by Greg

    April 30, 2016

  3. I am one who passed in February with an 87. We may debate whether or not this test accurately captures biblical literacy. But I want to weigh in on another issue. The trouble with the "ordering" questions is that it is quite easy to lose 4 or 5 points by having only one mistake. In my test, I was wrong about the timeline of one event. It should have been first; I placed it fourth. Therefore, the rest of my ordering, which was correct, was marked wrong and I lost 4 points instead of 1. Can an algorithm be written that takes this into account? Or perhaps this particular question format should be reconsidered.

    by Katie

    April 13, 2016

  4. The "Satisfactory"-rate on the February 2016 BCE was 39%. Individual scores ranged from a low of 28 to a high of 94, with a median score of 66 and an average of 64.8. The Presbyteries' Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) shares what will no doubt be continued serious concern about performance on the Bible Content Exam since publicly-released questions were discontinued from use in the test last summer. Following the exam in February, one person emailed to tell the story of how having received an "Unsatisfactory" score in September they spent two months reading through the Bible from beginning to end. Not only did they receive a "Satisfactory" score on this most recent test, they also believed it had strengthened both their personal spiritual life and their readiness for ministry. The PCC's prayer is that engagement with the breadth of the Bible will have a similar effect upon all our inquirers and candidates.

    by Tim Cargal

    March 2, 2016

  5. Has there been any update on the pass rate for the February exam?

    by Brenna

    March 2, 2016

  6. I would echo sentiments expressed by Darren Summer and Cynthia Jarvis and say again that this was a particularly hard exam to pass. My colleague didn't pass but just barely. I myself passed but by a very narrow margin. I prepared in the ways suggested by the PCC as well as by taking old exams. I consider my biblical literacy to be high. I have three degrees in theology including an Mdiv and PhD. I have taught intro scripture classes and published a book dealing with scriptural interpretation, among other things. I found this to be a hard exam with many incredibly specific questions that went well beyond a firm understanding of "key themes, stories, and passages." I'm not at all convinced that someone's failure to pass this particular BCE exam indicates that they do not have the needed commitment to and familiarity with Scripture as desired by the PCC and CPMs.

    by Shannon Smythe

    October 26, 2015

  7. If the exam is flawed, fix it. And if we are giving these tests on computers, especially the Bible exam one, let there be a rotating set available which can be taken anytime with some period (a month?) in between. To punish test takers who fail by making them wait a full year (our process already being complex and long enough) seems unduely rigid.

    by Steven Fleming

    October 25, 2015

  8. I'm wondering what percentage of the people who passed were taking the exam for the first time. Could you please release that information? Also, if the number of those passing included people who were repeating the test, it would be interesting to see a breakdown on how many times they attempted the test before passing this one.

    by Molly Hatchell

    September 15, 2015

  9. Could you provide us with the statistics of how many of those who passed were first time takers?

    by Mollyl Hatchell

    September 15, 2015

  10. I took (and passed) the exam last week, and found it surprisingly difficult based on what I had heard about the BCE of previous years. I consider my biblical literacy high -- I've been studying for 25+ years and hold four degrees in religion and theology (including an MDiv and PhD). My pass margin was not high -- not so much because I was weak on any book or area of Scripture, but because many questions are incredibly precise in their demands. That's to be expected when the test calls out the major themes or better-known aspects of a book (e.g. what most Christians know about Micah is in verse 6:8). But in many cases the questions require having bits of more obscure minutia close to mind, and those aren't questions that even a well-informed test taker will get right without guessing. I agree with the sentiment that the church should maintain high standards for biblical knowledge among its ordained ministers. I don't mind a hard test, and I don't mind having to study hard for a B or C grade. But the test questions do need to be scrutinized by testing professionals. A pass rate of 28 percent seems to say more about the failure of the exam than those taking it. Better resources for studying will bring up the pass rate in the future -- but not by a lot. The top of the bell curve ought to be in the 70-80 range -- not failing. For the record: I was never informed that the test question selection policy had changed -- nor was I aware that past years' exam questions were even available for study. In hindsight that's probably a good thing, as I ended up binge studying the Old Testament rather than convincing myself that studying past test questions might suffice.

    by Darren Sumner

    September 10, 2015

  11. You mentioned knowledge was needed in things including nuclear engineering. But, knowledge and the ability to memorize are two vastly different things. After almost 3 years of graduate classes I took the "preliminary"** examination in physics. It included the full width of physics on a graduate level. For the exam, I had to memorize one equation. Thinking, not memorizing is though to be key to ability in sciences. People who emphasize memorization, knowing geographical details that have nothing to do with salvation, are not aiding ministry. If I'm wrong, I'd love to be proven so by having the exam shown to me. But, I know that previous exams were like tests for Jeopardy candidates. A lot of trivia, next to no meaning. **Preliminary in the sense that it was required before finishing classwork and spending full time on one's PhD dissertation.

    by Dr. Daniel C. Minette

    September 10, 2015

  12. Studying the stories, themes and key passages provided very little help for me in preparation for this version of BCE. The practice test which was a version of a 2008 BCE was also of little help.The format and design of the items were very complex in this exam, for any items I could not decipher what was being asked of me. ( even though) the answer was right before me). I too spent adequate time in preparation(several weeks) Perhaps more guidance for inquirers and candidates on exam prep would be helpful as well as using more current formatting/ design for the practice test. Also are items field tested for this exam? I'd be interested to know what exam prep ideas the persons with "satisfactory" score on this administration could offer the PCC for consideration.

    by Pat Reid

    September 9, 2015

  13. The optimal approach going forward is for all stakeholders to take a measure of responsibility on this issue. We demand mastery learning in many trades: nuclear engineering and builders, plumbers and aviation mechanics. No one tolerates a leaky roof or planes that fall out of the sky. Mastering the basics promotes the art and science of any profession. Ballet begins with five basic positions. The fundamentals of football include blocking and tackling. Seminary education is founded on mastering basic Bible information: Law, History, Poetry, Major and Minor Prophets; Gospels, Acts, Pauline and General Epistles. Everyone in the process needs to step up. Local Sessions and Presbyteries must vet and identify ministry candidates who do not know their Bibles. Seminaries would serve us better if they required all students to master basic Bible information no later than the end of the first year, preferably by the beginning of the first day of class. The PCC at a minimum must hold the line if not raise the standard to 90%. If the BCE exam is broken (which I doubt), they can fix it. Let’s face REALITY: the next generation of Teaching Elders MUST be grounded in Bible basics if they are to be effective in apologetics and evangelism, required future skills in a society in which nearly 30% do not self-identify as Christian according to Pew Research (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). The 2016 General Assembly is a perfect forum to discuss future requirements (http://www.layman.org/evangelism-overture-approved-for-ga-consideration-concurring-presbytery-needed-2/) for emerging Teaching Elders.

    by Carl R. Lammers, Knox Fellowship

    September 9, 2015

  14. Pat, I know many people who have Bible passages memorized, but know nothing about the content of the Bible. Remember, even the devil can quote scripture. There is much more to it than just being able to spurt out scritpture by memory. Isn't that what the other Ords are really testing?

    by Paul Davidson

    September 8, 2015

  15. A pastor having a "gift for ministry" without knowing the Bible is like giving a present with nothing inside. What is the content and springboard for Christian ministry? If it is only one's own ideas you might as well go into social work.

    by Pat

    September 8, 2015

  16. My biggest gripe is that I studied more for this exam than I did for any other exam. I missed events with my family in leu of studying for this exam. I have read the Bible at least twice in my adult life. Granted, I was not raised going to church. I never attended Sunday School as a child, and I tend to struggle with memorization, but I still walked into the BCE feeling confident, for I was able to pass all the practice exams that were made available. I followed what advice I received from friends who have passed the exam in the past and from the PCUSA's exam site. I feel like I did my part in preparing for the BCE. It cost my family more than $300 for me to travel and take this exam. Now because others feel those of us who have been called to ministry don't have a great enough knowledge or ability to quote scripture and be able to identify the location in the Bible of quoted scripture, I have to spend more time and money, resources readying myself to try again to pass an exam that I don't think I can pass given the changes made to said exam. Having given exams in the corporate world, and being married to a professional, certified teacher, I know that a test must be tested before it is administered. It seems clear that this exam was not tested. Therefore, under these circumstances, not only did I fail the exam, but the PCC has failed those who earnestly prepared for the exam. I will again study for the next exam, again putting my family and our financial resources aside. Ordination remains out of reach that much longer. God's call for me means that much to me. What I'd like to know though is what about those of us in the 72% who failed yet made every effort to pass and came so close. Was it us who truly failed or was it the PCC who failed us? Given the results of this exam, could it be graded on a curve to bring some fairness to this situation? Remember Matthew 5:7, "Happy are people who show mercy, for they shall receive mercy."

    by Paul Davidson

    September 7, 2015

  17. Thank you for this post. I would like to ask if there will be more robust study guides coming to aid test-takers before February. If the past way that the majority of test takers used to study for the exam is no longer adequate, can the denomination provide a list of especially relevant passages, stories, or characters? I understand that the test is meant to test familiarity with "stories, themes, and key passages," but this description is vague and can be interpreted very broadly. Will the denomination provide something more specific and concrete to aid future test takers?

    by Richard Coble

    September 7, 2015

  18. Having served on our CPM and Examinations of COM for the past 5 years, the students know more about the Bible than the Bible itself. Without Bible "cram school" in seminary, it is hard to defeat years of minimal emphasis on knowing the Scriptures in our church CE programs. As our students have drifted, more and more, into Moralistc Therapeutic Deism (K C Dean) the Bible has been relativized into just an interesting historical book. Are we reaping the harvest of what we have sown for years in seminaries and Christian Ed. Programs?

    by Robert Johnson

    September 7, 2015

  19. As one of the students who took the BCE this Friday, I am most interested in the disparity between the passing rate of this exam (28.3%) and the passing rate of the twelve previous exams (81.7%). What are the reasons for this? Were the previous exams too easy? Was this exam too difficult? Are there testing errors within the exam itself (I can attest to at least one spelling error)? Was the exam properly field tested? Or, as Stephen Gutridge suggests, maybe we "simply do not know the Bible" as well as we should? The only appropriate way to gauge the effectiveness and fairness of this exam is to privately release it to CPM's and others involved in the education of seminarian students. A private release should alleviate PCC's concerns regarding exam security.

    by Robert Drake

    September 6, 2015

  20. I am a tad surprised the PCUSA didn't lower the score required to pass.

    by Chip

    September 6, 2015

  21. Just to clarify, knowing Scripture has everything to do with our gifts for ministry. Scripture is the air I breathe. God's address in Scripture calls the church into being. The question is what this year's exam, in particular, had to do with our knowing Scripture and hearing God's address in its words. Tim is the only person in this conversation who has seen the exam so I can only trust what he tells me. I was responding as someone who has served on Philadelphia's CPM for 14 years and who knows a handful of serious students of Scripture who failed this one. Designing a test that the majority of students fail does not necessary lead to the conclusion that we finally have hit on the right test.

    by Cynthia Jarvis

    September 6, 2015

  22. Cynthia Jarvis is right. Since when did knowing the Bible have anything to do with a Presbyterian pastor's "gifts for ministry"?

    by Al

    September 6, 2015

  23. There is much to commend having read the whole Bible a few times. When I took the exam in 1986 cold turkey, no prep in fall of my first year of seminary, I scored 90+% because I had. How can a preacher preach without grounding in the whole context of the texts? On the other hand, that is no guarantee of spiritual integrity or pastoral ability.

    by Helene Loper

    September 6, 2015

  24. I for one congratulate this change in the practice of passing the BCE. As someone who was on CPM in my presbytery, I witnessed that some of the people who passed the exam were in fact quite biblically illiterate upon examining other aspects of their fitness for ministry. I would hope that all the professionals I trust (doctors, lawyers, educators, accountants, etc) are completely efficient at knowing the body of work their respective boards expect them to know. This is a step in the right direction and we will be able to see the direct and indirect variables of this new process at the next testing cycle.

    by Mark Boyd

    September 5, 2015

  25. I too would like to see the exam. I was ordained prior to there being a bible content exam. I later served for several years on CPM's and as an exercise took some of the past exams and in one case proctored a student. In every case I scored 90%+. I then asked members of my bible study class to take one of the exams. Most passed with an 75+ and also offered it to my son who was doing a "read-the-bible-in-90-days" challenge. As far as I remember it was the first time he had read the bible through. He did so while riding on cross country flights airplanes and waiting airports. He scored 75+. Key in my opinion was that he read the bible. Have those tested in bible content actually read the bible let alone studied it? Have those in the Office of Preparation for Ministry tried to find out?

    by Neil Cowling

    September 5, 2015

  26. I took the exam in the mid-1990s. It wasn't much of a challenge. I'd love to take the exam again. Is that possible? I think current Teaching Elders should be required to pass every few years or so. QC is an ongoing task, especially in light of the many challenges surrounding us today.

    by Steve Wright

    September 5, 2015

  27. Let's stop beating around the bush. Candidates simply do not know the Bible. It shows in the decisions made by General Assemblies. Not only do candidates for ordination as Teaching Elders not know their Bibles, neither do Ruling Elders or YADS.

    by Stephen P. Gutridge

    September 5, 2015

  28. To clarify, the PCC does not and has not posted past BCE exams on the web, and it posts only the most recent exams in Exegesis, Polity, Theology, and Worship and Sacraments in order to be sure they reflect as accurately as possible the current structure of those exams. The PCC does (as mentioned in the post) make available one "practice BCE" to registrants in the four week before BCE administrations to familiarize them with the testing process, the types of questions, and to provide them with a tool to focus their preparation. The PCC is aware that other seminaries and institutions do post older exams, but has not asked them to remove publicly released materials from their websites since those materials may be available to others in other formats. What is assessed in the exams, as directed by the General Assembly and explained in the post, is knowledge of the “form and content of the Bible” in terms of its “stories, themes and key passages." Often the form of those questions do require identifying the specific book where a verse is located, but those verses were chosen because they represent key stories, themes, or passages in those books.

    by Tim Cargal

    PC(USA) Staff

    September 5, 2015

  29. I second Ross's request to let CPM committees see the exam. The disparity between the scores since the exams have not been published and this particular exam suggests that this exam (and not the students who took it)was the outlier. Also it seems disingenuous to post previous exams on the website and congratulate students when they pass the practice exams as though that exercise were a way of preparing. If you think this is the wrong way to prepare, remove the old exams. I personally know four of the students who failed the exam and all four are serious students of the Bible. What are we testing? Matching salutations to epistles? Really? What has this test to do with a candidate's gifts for ministry? I have spent forty years as a Presbyterian minister immersed in the biblical narrative. I just finished co-editing a seven volume series on the Gospels, for goodness' sake. I doubt that I could pass the exam as it has been described to me. As a pastor-theologian, I am deeply committed to the life of the mind as the service of God. Whatever this exam is meant to do, it does not promote our Reformed understanding of Scripture.

    by Cynthia Jarvis

    September 5, 2015

  30. As is explained in the post, the PCC stopped releasing BCE exams in 2009 as an exam security measure, and 83 of the 88 questions had been previously used in online BCE tests since 2009.

    by Tim Cargal

    September 5, 2015

  31. Hello, I'm an ordained PC(USA) teaching elder who has been out of seminary for four years. I've heard a lot of talk about how hard this year's exam was. I am very curious to see it. Are there any plans to release the exam (pretty please)? Thanks!

    by Ross Lang

    September 4, 2015

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