“Any process with the word ‘examination’ in it is going to create some anxiety,” said the Rev. Tim Cargal. “What PCCEC is trying to do is lessen those anxieties.”
PCCEC is the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, a permanent committee that manages the exams process for candidates for Ministry in Word and Sacrament, also known as teaching elders.
Cargal — Assistant Stated Clerk, Ministry Preparation and Support, in the Mid Council Ministries area of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) — has served as primary staff support person for the committee since 2009. A former PCC member, he knows the committee’s work like few others.
Along with his colleague Jake Souder, OGA Program Assistant, and the current and previous chairs of PCCEC, the Rev. Susan Takis and the Rev. Ken Broman-Fulks, Cargal talked with the news service about the full candidate journey toward becoming a teaching elder. Understanding the steps along that path is a big part of lessening the stress candidates feel about an individual exam, each of which can be retaken.
Takis said she often thinks of words from a mentor pastor about the differing experiences candidates have with exams: “‘If you don’t pass one you go back in the oven to cook a little more.’”
Making it easier for candidates to access exam prep materials and working closely with presbytery committees on preparation for ministry (CPMs) are big parts of lowering stress levels. A recent self-study by PCCEC has turned up additional ideas for maintaining standards for ordination while bringing more people into the process, including future members of PCCEC.
PCCEC composes candidate examinations, oversees their administration, trains exam readers and releases exam results to presbyteries and seminaries. Ruling and teaching elders sit on PCCEC.
Candidates and inquirers for ministry must complete the five standard examinations shown in the graphic, whether they are following the PC(USA)’s preparation for ministry process or being received from another denomination.
Souder described PCCEC as group that “cares for the people who are on the journey to being ordained.” It includes persons elected by the General Assembly with expertise in the areas of examination along with exam readers from across six regions of the church.
He added that the ordination exam process is a good example of “the whole church working together — presbyteries, congregations, OGA and PCCEC. It’s a remarkable collaboration that isn’t always noticed because the work is constant throughout the year.”
According to PCCEC’s yearly updated handbook, the committee’s work dates back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when a need for standardized exams grew out of the perception that “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.”
Some candidates were “being treated more stringently in presbyteries’ examination procedures” than others. “Women and racial-ethnic candidates were not being treated equitably with their white male peers.”
Today’s PCCEC has created more ways for candidates to take examinations, including a move to fully online testing in 2012. In some cases, exam takers can request inclusion of an oral component with the written exams; writing exam responses in languages other than English, Korean and Spanish; and extra time. The committee designs questions to be standard (not standardized) and relatable to different ministry contexts and candidates with different backgrounds.
The primary placement of “Presbyteries” in the committee’s name shows the emphasis PCCEC places on working closely with mid councils. Presbyteries determine when candidates have the academic preparation and supervised practice of ministry experience necessary for taking the exams. Presbyteries also elect ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament to evaluate the exams.
The current PCCEC chair, Susan Takis, began working with PCCEC as a reader. She is pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Green Cove Springs, Florida, and has been committee chair for four years.
She called her time with PCCEC “some of the most gratifying work I’ve done in ministry.”
“Once I joined I was amazed how carefully crafted and inclusive the questions on exams are,” she said, “with scenarios people will come into contact with during their ministry.”
Takis, who sits on the committee’s theology task group, called PCCEC’s commitment “very time-consuming,” including “the three times each year when exams are being administered and at other times when the committee is busy creating exam questions, responding to exam results, training exam administrators and readers or updating the reader handbook.
“Each task group trains readers and writes resource papers for each exam.”
Like Cargal, Takis is mindful of exam candidate anxiety.
She said that sometimes seminarians, who constitute the majority of exam takers, “can look at the exam as the be-all and end-all.”
Takis noted that examinations are meant to show a candidate’s “readiness for ministry” in the moment they take an exam, as opposed to comparing candidates against one another.
The Rev. Ken Broman-Fulks, former PCCEC chair, led the committee’s recent self-study, a process the standing committee completes every six years.
A resident of High Point, North Carolina, where he is a retired pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Broman-Fulks said the study included survey information where “various groups in the church provided feedback on the effectiveness of exams and the overall exams process. The study team went through the surveys and identified things that are being done well and things we want to improve on.”
The self-study urged working more with the General Assembly Nominating Committee on diversifying committee membership, with a special emphasis on bringing in younger members, and working with presbytery CPMs to encourage candidates for ministry to use preparatory materials before the exams.
Regarding increased communications with presbyteries, Broman-Fulks said that turnover in presbytery leadership sometimes makes it hard to communicate the importance of readers to the exam process.
“When I was on PCCEC we tried to meet with presbytery CPMs in person, and to be present at presbytery meetings when possible, to have a personal link instead of just email connections. Being there puts a face on the issue.”
Broman-Fulks said that increasing the number of young people on PCCEC and on connected presbytery preparation committees is another key finding of the self-study.
“Those of us who have been out of seminary for years — 40 in my case — can lose connection with the cutting edge of church now,” he said.
One cutting edge the committee embraced back in 2012: digital test-taking. That move away from pen-and-paper helped PCCEC continue administering exams when COVID-19 arrived.
Broman-Fulks described moving exams online — something Cargal was brought into OGA to oversee — as being “a big plus to the church overall. We can offer examinations more often,” and share results much sooner, “so candidates don’t have to wait six months to take an exam again if they need to.”
The costs involved with testing and reading have also decreased. Broman-Fulks said, “It is a bigger challenge to train readers online than in person, but the pass-fail rates of exam takers are about the same.”
Exam prep is now available online as well. Presbytery CPMs and exam candidates can access OGA’s “Equip” website (http://equip.pcusa.org) for a course specifically on the Bible Content Exam and another for the remaining four essay or “senior” exams. Resources are also available to both presbytery committees on preparation and candidates at www.pcusa.org/prep4min.
Cargal has prepared a series of video tutorials available at those sites to help test takers understand the structure of the Bible Content Exam and the senior ordination exams.
“Tim is a gift to the PC(USA),” Takis said, citing Cargal’s tech know-how, biblical understanding and dedication to everyone seeking a call in ministry. Broman-Fulks echoed her praise for Cargal, other OGA staff involved with preparation for ministry and the PCCEC.
“The committee members are talented and well trained — a diverse group of professors, test makers and administrators. They give hours and hours a month to come up with questions that take three years to finalize.”
Find out more
Preparation for Ministry: www.pcusa.org/prep4min
PCCEC’s self-study via PC-Biz: https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000915
Teaching or Ruling Elders interested in becoming an exam reader: email your presbytery directly or Tim Cargal