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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 14, 2016

PCC Responds to September 2016 BCE

At a previously scheduled meeting on September 8-9, 2016, the Executive Committee of the Presbyteries' Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) had extended discussion about the results of the most recent Bible Content Examination (BCE). The following is their response to concerns about the exam from across the church, issued with the concurrence of the full PCC:

As part of its regularly scheduled fall meeting, members of the Executive Committee of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) gave extended time and discussion to reviewing the results of the September 2, 2016, Bible Content Examination (BCE) along with concerns about recent changes to the test expressed both formally and informally from across the church.

Foremost among the comments being received is a request to return to the practice prior to 2009 of publicly releasing all questions utilized in BCE administrations. The reasons for this request are many and varied, and the members of the PCC have given them serious consideration. The Executive Committee after this deliberation has decided to maintain its current policy of not releasing questions, a policy which has been in place for the past seven years.

In reaching this decision, the Executive Committee believes it is important to recall that criticism of the BCE did not begin with the dramatic change in results when publicly available questions from pre-2009 exams were “retired” from inclusion in BCE administrations beginning in the summer of 2015. For many years, the BCE had been criticized as being an exercise in memorizing “Bible trivia” rather than a useful tool in assessing biblical literacy among inquirers in the preparation for ministry process with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There was wide agreement that a major contributor to this perception of the BCE was a broad consensus that the way to prepare for the exam was to memorize as many questions from past exams as possible in the hopes that one would encounter a sufficient number of repeated questions in taking the test to receive the 70% score necessary to satisfy the requirement. Neither inquirers nor the presbytery committees overseeing their preparation tended to focus on anything except that result, since considerable effort would have been required to review the questions returned to test takers along with their answer sheets to discern any patterns among missed questions.

For these reasons, when the PCC moved to online administration of the BCE in the fall of 2009 and other options for reporting results became possible, the committee ended the practice of releasing all the questions and instead provides a report to the inquirers and their respective presbyteries and seminaries that identifies the portions of the canon and specific biblical passages for questions that they answered incorrectly. The point is to focus on the pattern showing which portions of scripture and to a degree which books within those canonical divisions were less familiar to the inquirer so as to identify areas which would benefit from more focused study, both for those who scored high enough to satisfy the requirement and for those whose scores would require repeating the test.

So why not release the question text itself rather than just the biblical passages? Well, as already mentioned, that practice had created the conditions where the primary focus of preparation was not the Bible itself and resources that help a person gain proficiency in its stories, themes, and key passages (the areas of assessment as established by the General Assembly), but rather on the questions from previous exams. Editors of each BCE administration utilize questions from earlier exams with levels of difficulty established by how many test takers answered them correctly. The goal is to achieve some balance in overall difficulty from one BCE to the next. As long as questions that will be re-used are released, people will focus on those questions rather than the scriptures from which those questions were drawn.

It is also important to note that in adopting this approach the PCC is following evolving practice among other professional associations that give tests to assess competency in core areas of knowledge within their fields. A current member of the PCC reported to the committee that a similar situation in the Pathology Board Exam required reworking of that testing system. The Board routinely reused 50% of the exam from the previous cycle with new questions for the remainder of the exam. Over time, the common practice was to recall as many of the questions as possible, compile them, and then make them available to the residents taking the exams in the following years.  Test takers are now required to affirm that they will not compile such question troves, with penalties if they have been found to do so. In similar fashion, those taking the BCE are now required to affirm an honor statement that they also will not disclose the content of questions in the test.

The PCC does all of its work, including administration of the BCE, on behalf of the broader church. It regularly participates in self-study for and review by the General Assembly, most recently just this summer by the 222nd (2016) General Assembly. There have been, however, some calls in response to the results on the last three BCE administrations for a more focused review of those exams. Because the PCC is deeply invested in creating the best possible examinations that measure what they are supposed to measure, we are more than willing to have the previous exams reviewed.  To that end, the Executive Committee approved a motion at our meeting this past week asking the Committee on Theological Education to assist in performing an independent, confidential review of the recent exams in order to provide feedback to the PCC on the suitability of the questions in relation to the stated goals and purposes of the exam. The Executive Committee of COTE will be asked at their meeting later this month to nominate up to four persons to form a task group to review the past three BCE’s, as well as two exams from the time period when exam questions were publicly available.  Michelle Bartel, Coordinator for Theological Education and Seminary Relations for COTE will convene and chair this task group; Tim Cargal, Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry and PC(USA) staff resource for the PCC will resource the task group; and, Kathy Riley, Bible Task Group Moderator, and Ken Broman-Fulks, PCC moderator, will be present to observe the process and report its feedback to the PCC.  We look forward to hearing from this task group and considering their feedback on the exams.

Specific strategies for preparing to take the BCE are available in the Exams Handbook (http://www.pcusa.org/exams ) and in a brief video entitled “Understanding and Preparing for the Bible Content Examination” available on the denominational website (go to http://www.pcusa.org/prep4min and click “Online Training Opportunities” in the left-column menu options). 

The PCC remains committed to fulfilling the General Assembly’s mandate to provide a standard ordination exam assessing inquirers’ knowledge of the stories, themes, and key passages of the scriptures and to supporting the preparation by those taking that test. We are convinced that a solid foundation in the biblical tradition is essential for those who engage in ministry within the context of the Reformed tradition, and we are certain that view is shared by all those who are concerned about the Bible Content Exam.


  1. I realize I am a little late in participating in this discussion that I just stumbled on this morning. Like Heather, I am not a pastor. In the 1980's I stumbled across an (obviously) earlier version of this test, took it for fun and passed it. I was then in my 30's. Missed some questions, but by and large it was the sort of test that anyone who spent a certain amount of time reading the Bible would pass. Assuming they read a little about the Bible, and not just the Bible itself. Probably helped that I spent my grade school years as a Baptist. Assuming the test is no harder now, this blog entry and the comments tell me that we are in some sort of return to a pre-Reformation version of Christianity. I have to assume that any Presbyterian pastor I encounter is likely to know a great deal less about the Bible than I do. Why would that be the case? Because God speaks more efficiently through the Church, and a wide and casual reading of the Bible is beside the point? A Baptist pastor once told me he asked people considering going into the ministry "Why did Barnabas and Paul have a falling out?" A trivia question to be sure, but his quick way to discover if they should go to seminary.

    by Carl Van Valkenburg

    January 21, 2017

  2. I'm not a pastor, but I do teach Sunday school. My experience has been that it's often helpful to be able to find scripture that I want to cite or refer to reasonably quickly - at least to get in the right book, and close enough to be able to find it to bring it up in discussion. ("you know, 'One Lord, one faith, one baptism and ... ' as one is flipping to Ephesians) It's often helpful in that context to be able to think of where else something is in scripture that you want to compare to the text you're studying. And in class, we don't always have Google on tap (my class is older). It was my experience that it was sufficient to pass the exam simply to have read the Bible a lot. By a lot, I mean, a little every morning for the past 15 years or so.

    by Heather Thiessen

    October 31, 2016

  3. I agree with KBS's September 14 comment. I'd like to add a more basic question. Is there a raft of pastors currently serving the PC(USA) who have proven themselves to be biblically illiterate? Do the people currently preaching in our 11,000 congregations not know the Bible? If so, how did we come to that determination? And if not, then what was wrong with the current method of examination? It seems that the committee has solved the wrong problem. "The BCE was a bit of a joke," while true, is not a good enough reason to make the specific changes that have been made.

    by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

    September 15, 2016

  4. How is scripture used in the ministry? In what circumstances does a pastor need quick recall of bible names and events? What does a pastor need quick facility? The order of the books for finding ones way around, the broad themes of each book, and probably knowing the themes of psalms for pastoral care would be a baseline. Trivia not so much. Measure what matters.

    by Kyle Walker

    September 15, 2016

  5. "Official communication of results of the last three exams yields the following data: Scores 2015SU 2016WI 2016SU Average 63.5 64.8 67.4 Median 63 66 70 Minimum 37 28 32 Maximum 96 94 94 % "S" 28% 38% 51% Although there is an obvious positive trend in these results from summer 2015 to summer 2016, the dismal pass rate remains remarkable and dismaying. Many theological students and candidates for ministry are unable, after repeated attempts and the associated costs, to pass the exam, in some cases after completing their entire theological curriculum and otherwise being ready to receive a call. At the present time, we understand, the BCE includes no questions from (the many generations of) previously published exams that are now publicly available. Questions on the exam, now administered online, are not available to anyone outside those who superintend the exam process. Even seminary Bible professors’ requests to review the exams confidentially have been denied." From a letter many sent to the PCC. See the full letter here: https://www.facebook.com/johntcarroll/posts/10211183787409831

    by Adam Bowling

    September 15, 2016

  6. First, my experience of the exam is that about half of the questions fall into "key passages" area, which seems excessive. Second, I wonder what percentage of the exam questions cite passages included in the revised common lectionary? Third, with three examinations done, is it possible to provide more detailed information for preparation? THANK YOU for performing this review.

    by Debra Davies

    September 14, 2016

  7. For the last three BCE administrations (since publicly available questions were removed from the tests), the results have been as follows: Average Score: 63.5 2015SU, 64.8 2016WI, 67.4 2016SU Median Score: 63 2015SU, 66 2016WI, 70 2016SU Maximum Score: 96 2015SU, 94 2016WI, 94 2016SU % "Satisfactory" (>70): 28% 2015SU, 38% 2016WI, 51% 2016SU

    by Tim Cargal

    PC(USA) Staff

    September 14, 2016

  8. Ok, I hear what you're saying. A biblical content exam is absolutely important. The problem is not having an exam, it's THIS PARTICULAR exam. Because it is still trivia, and not important information. I would support moving to an essay test that actually explores events and themes but this is getting ridiculous. You should not have a fail rate that is this high. Why are College Biblical Studies majors only scoring 30% despite rigorous preparation. Furthermore, if this particular information that the test is currently "testing" is what's important then I would implore the committee to have serious discussions with seminaries and divinity schools about their current curriculum.

    by K.B.S.

    September 14, 2016

  9. What was the pass rate?

    by Brenda Crespo

    September 14, 2016

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