Passing the standard ordination exams is a major milestone for candidates seeking to become teaching elders (ministers) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Until recently, the exam system depended on a cumbersome process involving mountains of paper, hefty fees, travel to test sites, and waits of several months for results.

Today, a streamlined online exam system, now in its fifth year, is saving candidates time and money and has already eliminated more than $1 million in expenses for the denomination.

Much of the savings is in travel costs, says the Reverend Tim Cargal, Assistant Stated Clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, whose office oversees Preparation for Ministry. Before moving the exams online, he explains, “We would have to bring exam readers to centralized locations (in six regions of the country) and provide their room and board for three-to-four days.”

Now the readers—a mix of teaching and ruling elders chosen by their presbyteries to evaluate the exams—can do all the work on their computers at home in 10 to 12 hours, plus some time for preparation and training.

The cost savings have enabled exam fees for candidates (typically seminary students) to be reduced by a third—from $100 to $65 per exam.

The online exams also are offered more frequently than the previous paper ones. The senior ordination exams—four essay-type exams (Bible Exegesis, Church Polity, Reformed Theology, Worship and Sacraments), which used to be offered only twice a year—are now offered four times a year. The Bible Content Examination, in machine-scorable format, is now offered twice a year instead of annually.

The Reverend Ken Broman-Fulks, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in High Point, North Carolina, served on a team of exam readers for his region shortly before the system migrated online. He is now moderator of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC), the 24-member group responsible for writing the ordination exams.

“The transition to online exams has gone very well,” he says. While doubling the frequency of exams has increased the work of his committee, Broman-Fulks says it “offers a lot more convenience and flexibility for students.” Those who don’t pass or who are unable to take one of the senior exams only have to wait three months until the next time exams are offered, he explains.

Another benefit of the new system is that candidates get their exam results much faster, Cargal says. “They get results immediately” for the Bible Content Examination—as soon as they push the key to submit their final answers. Results for the essay exams are released 10 days after the final deadline for submitting the exams.

“Because all this is online, the presbyteries can access the exams and readers’ evaluations online,” Cargal says. “It’s a part of the candidate’s permanent record. Both candidates and presbyteries have found this very helpful to their work.” 

For exam readers, the old system required “setting aside five days and being away from jobs and family,” says Broman-Fulks. This often made it hard for presbyteries to find enough readers. A large percentage of the readers, particularly the ruling elders, ended up being retirees. 

Because the online system offers much more convenience and flexibility, it has brought more diversity to the pool of readers, Cargal says. “It has really opened up the range of people who can participate.”

Regarding downsides to the new system, Cargal acknowledges that “there are some folks for whom technical issues have become a barrier.” But a number of online resources have been created to make the process as easy and accessible as possible. There are training videos, practice websites, and live webinars that allow test-takers and test-readers to get answers to their questions.

Some candidates have said they miss the collegiality of gathering in one place to take the exams. Similar comments have come from exam readers.

Broman-Fulks says he “enjoyed the camaraderie and friendships” that developed when he and the other readers from his region would meet together face-to-face. “That sense of community is more difficult to create online.”

The PCC is addressing these challenges by continuing to work on the training process “to make sure our readers are as prepared as possible,” Broman-Fulks says. “We’ve tried to use different approaches to create a sense of personal connection with readers, so they feel like they’re being supported.” 

Feedback on the examination system is always welcome, Cargal adds.

In fine-tuning the system, it’s important to keep in mind the purpose of the standard ordination exams, Broman-Fulks believes.

“This is part of the Presbyterian process—to partner with congregations and candidates to make sure that candidates are well-prepared and that congregations have competent leadership.”