“We offer our apology. We are sorry. We ask for your forgiveness.” These words were part of a larger statement approved Tuesday by the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) during its annual meeting at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville. The statement is in response to strong reaction from across the denomination on the selection of scripture for the Winter 2023 Bible Exegesis Exam. The use of Judges 19:1-30 as the basis for the exam created a lot of conversation on social media last month with several saying the passage generated strong emotions or traumatic responses. The passage focuses on the story of the Levite’s concubine, which details sexual violence and murder.
During Tuesday’s meeting, committee member Kimberly Briggs proposed a statement that she says addresses the pain that many felt.
“I want any pastor to be prepared to deal with a text like Judges 19 because we never know when someone in a community will come in and ask what this text is doing in the Bible,” she said. “It is a choice that caused harm to our candidates, readers of our exam, and reached into every corner of our denomination and caused harm for many in our denomination. It is our responsibility not only to acknowledge it, but to offer an apology and commit to learn and do better next time.”
In the statement, the committee says the choice of Judges 19 was not intended to make candidates and others feel fearful, traumatized or victimized. The group says it believes the decision was defensible, but acknowledged it caused harm.
“We also acknowledge that for many, our choice of Judges 19 was a breach of the trust granted to us,” it reads. “In partnership with others across the church and led by the Spirit, it is now our responsibility to take steps forward that move us from this place of anger, pain, and frustration into a grace-filled space, where greater wisdom may guide our future words and deeds.”
During the three-hour livestream of the meeting, the committee said it is committed to learning from the experience and discerning how to do things differently in the future.
Recently the PCC invited individuals across the denomination to submit their opinions by video or written statement.
“Ministry is not done in isolation, but this exam is. You are required to eat, sleep, and breathe whatever text it is that you are exegeting. Simply doing the work of that for any text is intense but if we are requiring our candidates to write about such intense passages of scripture, we are not doing them a service for their future ministry,” said the Rev. Kathleen Henrion, pastor of Glendale Presbyterian Church in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.
The Denver Presbytery Committee on Preparation for Ministry also weighed in.
“An ordination exam does not provide a trustworthy collaborative process of exegesis. No text of terror should ever be used on an ordination exam because it does not meet the requirements for trauma-informed collaborative exegesis,” the letter reads. “Indeed, your exam format replicates features of violence that are often the hardest to bear: the absence of spiritual and social support in the aftermath of violence that isolates survivors, increases shame, and makes them feel condemned by God, the church, and those who are supposed to protect them.”
The Rev. Jean Southard wrote that she hoped the committee would not be intimidated by the criticism.
“I am entirely sympathetic toward women and men who have been abused. It is for this very reason that I feel the passage is a good one. Pastors must be able to sit with parishioners and both hear and feel their pain without allowing themselves to be triggered by what the parishioner is telling them,” she said. “Anyone who aspires to be a pastor must first deal with his or her own emotional needs, by therapy, if necessary, in such a way that the pastor is able to deal with the pain of others in a mature and helpful way.”
The committee’s deliberations and final vote reflected this range of views from across the church. The committee as a whole expressed pastoral concern and deep prayers for any who were harmed. The challenge the committee and the church face is how to balance care for those who carry deep wounds with the “work of crafting exams that integrate critical thinking in the life and work of a pastor, while also partnering with our presbyteries to ensure equitable standards and a uniform basis for preparation,” as expressed in the committee’s statement.
The PCC will consider other measures on Thursday to ensure that candidates are aware that they can avail themselves of systems of care and support when taking exams. The meeting will be livestreamed beginning at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time.