Our ordination debacle


Sorry about the Presbyterian shoptalk, but it’s got to be said….

I failed my Polity Exam in seminary. Many times. I failed it the first time, and then I failed it the second time. I may have I failed it a third time, but the jury’s still out.

I asked our polity professor to tutor me, one-on-one. And she did. She spent hours with me, examining me. I wrote papers, I answered questions, I took practice tests, I practically memorized the Book of Order. All of which I got gold stars for. But, no matter what sort of preparation I endured, when the test was sent off to another state, I kept failing.

It was odd, because I did well in seminary. I was a teaching assistant for Greek, Hebrew, Theology, and Church History. I was the research assistant for a professor and the president of the seminary. I had been through the psych evaluations and my IQ was in the 99th percentile of the nation (which… feels as embarrassing to admit as the failure). I had a good GPA.

But I kept failing the Polity exam.

The Presbytery committee, who was in charge of my care, was perplexed. They had seen my grades, my psych evaluations, and they couldn’t figure out what was happening.

I took my last failed exam to the polity professor to find out what I had done wrong. She looked it over and said that I had done nothing wrong. So, I took it to my committee to find out why I failed. They couldn’t figure it out either. They sent the exam back to appeal the decision.

I don’t think the appeal process is working, because it’s been ten years and I still haven’t heard if they granted the appeal.

By this time, I had a church who was also waiting on the decision, but we weren’t hearing anything. Finally, the Synod and Presbytery set up a six-hour written and oral examination, in front of a dozen committee members, a synod staff member, and the executive presbyter. I passed with ease.

When the committee told me I passed, one of the clergywomen said emphatically, “You’ve passed. Now, NEVER TELL ANYONE THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED.”

And I didn’t. I’m pretty sure she wanted to protect me. I was, of course, incredibly embarrassed, so it wasn’t too hard to not talk about it.

But now, ten years into the ministry, as I watch other bright, interesting students struggle through examinations, I’m not sure that it was a failure on my part. I’m not sure these years of silence protected me or protected a defective system.

When I look back on who passed and who failed, it was completely random. Usually, people who grew up in the Presbyterian Church passed. I know an incredibly intelligent and talented pastor who couldn’t pass because she had a learning disability. I know a pastor who failed an exam because he misspelled some words, and made a grammatical error. And, I have spoken to ordination exam graders who proudly bragged that they failed 8 out of 10 of the examinations that they were scoring.

It’s broken, my friends. The ord exam process is not working. I don’t know how long it’s been in disrepair, but I know that it is. And it probably stays busted because of embarrassed people like me who never tell anyone what happened.

It seems obvious what’s wrong. We have open-ended essay questions, which aren’t graded by professors, they’re graded by elders and pastors who have answer sheets. So, we have open-ended questions, but a close-ended number of possibilities for answers. We have graders who may not be able to discern if an alternative or a creative (gasp!) answer might still be correct. Students are failing, not because they give wrong answers, but because they present different answers.

The testing process makes no sense. And, from my experience, there really is no way to appeal. When I was in seminary, nationally, there was a 25 percent failure rate for each essay exam. We had to pass all four exams. Which means… each student had a 100% chance of failing.

How is that fair?

photo’s by truds09

24 thoughts on “Our ordination debacle

  1. As my own trial gets closer (most likely August this year) I’m awaiting all the replies to this post. Although — maybe I shouldn’t read them? eek…

  2. Great post, and I agree the system is flawed.

    However, your numbers are off in your last paragraph, simply because 100% of the people *don’t* fail at least one. Some people pass them all. I don’t think you can claim 100% unless it is a certainty. Your statistic would be correct if everyone was guaranteed to fail one and only one test. But some people fail more than one exam.

    However, your larger point is right on. My issue with the ord exams is that the schedule is not pastoral at all. Many presbyteries will not certify you ready to receive a call until after you’ve passed them all. But you can’t take them until after you’ve finished two years of seminary. So I had friends who took them in September of senior year and found out in November that they’d failed one. So they took them again in February. Even assuming they passed everything on the second try, they didn’t find out until April, which left about 6 weeks to look for a call before they got kicked out of seminary housing.

    That’s terrible. It puts enormous stress on individuals and families, for no good reason that I can see.

    I also had a brilliant friend who failed theology twice. She was in my study group and during our review sessions she would fly off in a million creative directions with her answers and we had to practically beat that out of her. Don’t! Be! Creative! was our mantra. Just give them what they want.

    Isn’t that sad?

  3. Oh yeah. Right. According to my mathematical logic, a person would have a 300% chance of passing!

    But what is the percentage? What percent of students passes all four and what percentage fails at least one?

    I heard the don’t be creative mantra a thousand times. I could just never figure out what they wanted…

  4. I was one of the few who got them all on the first try! It was a miracle. On one of my papers (don’t remember which one) one grader gave me a high pass and the other a low fail and that averaged out as a pass… the system is broken, at least this part of it. These are professional exams and therefore need to graded by professionals, it would make no more sense for me to be grading MBA papers than for these folks to be grading ordination exams.

    It’s just plain stupid and it needs to change.

  5. I’m not officially Presbyterian, though I’ve worked in the system for more than 25 years. (I was employed by a Presbyterian Church for five years and Special Gathering has a Covenant relationship with Central Florida Presbytery.) I thoroughly enjoyed your critique of the ordination process.

    I saw several worthy and gifted candidates suffer through the ordination process. It seems to be brutal system.

  6. My presbytery COPM allowed me to take my ords during my middler year–bless them–which took the pressure off of the schedule issues noted above by reverendmother. I figured I would try for all of them, since I was taking them early, I would still have time to take them a the “regularly scheduled time.” I passed all four, including polity, even though I had never taken the Polity class, though I did study with others who had. I don’t mention this to brag, rather to underscore the point that the system IS broken. People who deserve to pass fail, and people, like me, miraculously pass.

    Also, one way to at least minimze some of the problem is to encourage COPMs to allow candidates to take the ords during the middler year. What’s the worst that can happen? (Other than people like me becoming pastors! HA)

  7. Surely there must be a better way. That said, a few points that haven’t been mentioned.

    First, all the graders I know–maybe a half dozen–are fantastic people and do their job conscientiously, competently, and well. I think this is more an issue of institutional sin than grader sin. (By the way, graders that fail over a certain percentage of exams are taken out of the process without them knowing themselves. There’s checks and balances during the grading that insure, if a grader is failing 80%, he’s only given exams that have already been graded three times and are done.) I encourage anyone who has huge issues with them to ask your Presbytery to be sent as a grader. Seeing things firsthand really opens folks eyes.

    Second, Ords aren’t “professional exams;” they’re ministry exams. That’s why elders and ministers grade them. That’s also why the system is broken, because real ministry can’t be effectively judged in an essay. If the church were to decide for seminary profs to grade them, that’d be cool, but I would still want some other sort of ministry exam in the process.

    Third, I hear there’s already something in the works (part of this re-write of the Book of Order) but if we collected all the time seminarians (myself included) complained about ords and put that time into changing the system then we’d chatting right now about something else. The beautiful thing about polity is it’s ours, and we can change it.

    I repeat, however, I hate ords. They suck. The system is surely broken.

  8. I failed by Biblical Exegesis exam, which was on the book of Ruth. Funny thing, I’ve always been partial to the book of Ruth for obvious reasons. I knew that stuff. I used the Hebrew. A sermon I wrote from similar materials, and preached, was one of my first well-received sermons. I talked a little bit about the dynamics between daughters and mothers-in-laws, in the sermon portion, and I think that irritated the graders. One failed me, and one gave me a “medium” and that was a fail. For the retake it was the book of James. I put a bridle in my mouth and passed. I haven’t thoughth about those exams in 20 years, Carol, they are like somebody else’s life. No bearing to my actual profession.

  9. “they are like somebody else’s life. No bearing to my actual profession.”

    You’re right, Ruth. Unlike seminary students, we don’t talk, or even think, about them. Once we’re through the hoop, it’s over. I wonder if that’s why they don’t get changed.

    I’m glad to hear that they might be soon!

  10. I have mixed feelings about them. I took them in the days when taking them any time other than November of your senior year (February was retakes for failures) was the only option, and you had to take them all at once. Fortunately, I didn’t attend a Presby seminary, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into—there was no lore surrounding them (there were only 3 of us in my class taking the exams, and then a few others who had failed them at other seminaries but lived near us showed up). I wasn’t too worried about them–because I didn’t know to be. (TBTG) I did well. And I’m NOT 99% smart.

    Now it seems like there’s this huge hype surrounding them. I blame the internet. And dinosaurs. Both are probably responsible. Our students get so stressed out about them, stretch them out over 4 or more semesters, so as to get perfect scores….

    When I took them, what we were told (other than receiving a real snotty letter/prayer about separating the worthy from the unworthy) was that it was supposed to be practical. In a given week, you’d write a sermon, plan a worship service, moderate a session and get stuck in some sort of thorny pastoral care type of theological question. What have you learned that would get you through that stuff? Don’t tell us everything you know—just what do you know about that particular situation.

    I’ve seen bright students struggle with an exam or two–it always seems to be one exam that gets a student—and it’s often something they care about TOO much, and over-think. They aren’t really worth that amount of stress, and YET….

    I like that we have national exams. I like that I know that I have the same basic level of knowledge as a person from a fancy Manhattan presbytery, and a sleepy Iowa town. I like that coast to coast, Presbyterians are held to a similar standard, and it’s not diagnostic (like the Episcopal ordination exams–bishops can choose to ignore, or even to not require), it means something. I especially like it because I didn’t go to a PCUSA school, and yet I know that I have passed the same exam as those who did. I know, I know,throw tomatoes at me now!

    I agree that the grading is a challenge. I was my presbytery’s alternate grader one year. I didn’t end up grading, but got all the instruction ahead of time in case I would have to, and found it utterly confusing. I think it’s utterly stupid that an exam written in pencil automatically fails. It is not in the grading standards to mark down for spelling or grammar.

    If it were up to me, the following would happen:
    a) offer them 4 times a year.
    b) have a “re-read” committee already set up for each exam. So every theology exam that fails automatically goes to the same re-read committee–they re-read before it even gets back to the student. So you only fail if both groups fail you.
    c) get rid of the worship exam. It overlaps with polity and with theology, so just cover worship essentials in with the polity and theology exams and call it a day.
    d) offer the dang things on the internet for pete’s sake. I think it’s stupid to be hand-writing such long exams. And if you type, you have to bring your own printer–it’s stupid, and ends up penalizing students that don’t write clearly and/or misspell often. Surely, most seminaries have computer labs that could be set up for these things. Or a local college could be borrowed.
    e) have the committee that writes the questions include at least 25% people who took the exams in the last 5 years, and another 25% current professors. I think the questions are sometimes written with no idea as to what is learned in theological school and what is borne out of on-the-job experience.

  11. Internet’s good. It could help us speed up the timeline, which would be great.

    The stress is so high because it can truly ruin a person’s life. As Reverendmother pointed out, the timing is disastrous. I mean, there are people, decent qualified people, who are really suffering, because they gave different answers.

    Add to that, we have no appeal process.

    All you graders out there, are the people who are grading these things told that many seminarians and their families will be homeless for several months when they fail? Are the graders reminded of the full implications of a low score? Do they get it? And can anyone tell me the pass/fail rate for students? This would be important information for any ministry/professional exam….

  12. The exams seem like another way to control the power of the Holy Spirit. I have failed all of the exams I have taken. I feel a deep shame in this. Thank you for this space to talk about this issue.

    There are measures in place that allow for alternative examination. You just have to subject yourself to the exams and its hazing a few times before you can be offered them. If you are called to ministry in the PC(USA) then you will be willing to do anything to answer that call.

    Why is it that a broken system demands its leaders to subject themselves to injustice and denies your call if you will not play along?

    We wonder why the pews are bare…

  13. Are we still making students parrot the Historical/Critical method? If so then maybe a 19th century model of Biblical interpretation might not be the best template for passing or failing someone on their preaching exam. I passed this exam, but only because I did what I was told and used the method that even then I found antiquated. I have burned my hermeneutical bridges since then.

  14. Here is some quick background about me prior to my comments:

    Seminary grad ’03, passed 3 ords first time, passed the final the second time, chair of cpm, struggling to figure out what the process could become.

    i appreciate many of the comments above. i reiterate a comment from above that the process, or system, of exams does have built into it checks and balances (which is deliberate and good), and that many eyes and minds see those exams (including cpms and liaisons) so as to ensure the most fair and impartial reading. this is certainly not a reading by one person who can make or break you just based on whether they had their coffee or had a fight with their partner, or whatever, that morning. i also appreciate the comment above about readers being committed, faithful, and bright people (with a few exceptions).

    but i do want to say that there is an appeal process (call Leslie Davies at the Presbyterian Center to talk about it), one that we’ve had to use with our cpm a couple of times recently. it exists and it is another part of that checks and balances. if you feel like your exam is competent and you’ve had a good and honest discussion with your cpm (also comprised of pastors and elders) and they support you in that appeal, then by all means make the appeal. what is needed, in my opinion, is better communication post-exam between candidates and their cpms, an intentional time of reflection both on the process and the outcomes.

    i wish that there was a different (better?) way to do the exams, but maybe time and changes made to the form of government will allow greater flexibility and creativity in that regard. my initial thought on how to do them differently would be to lodge the exam within the presbytery of care as an oral/written combo format since presbyteries are the ordaining bodies of the church, but two problems present themselves — hometown “favoritism” (i.e. easier grading for some, possibly), and subjection of candidates to the theological/political emphases (and sometimes errancies) of a particular presbytery, rather than having freedom to express their own constructive theology (also a complaint against the exams as they currently are).

    sorry — i was trying for brevity…

  15. Thanks, John. I wonder why the appeal process broke down for me… I’m glad that it doesn’t for everyone.

    It does seem that we want to use a flat testing method (written exams) for judging ministry, when ministry is rich, and complex, and very much about physical presence.

    Thanks for reading and thinking about all of this.

  16. I hear that it seems flat, but the exams are not the only method of evaluating a candidate–they are just the last of many, many things. When I was on COPM (for 10 years in 2 presbyteries), we had read field ed evaluations, read psych evals, read CPE evals, met with the candidate 3 or 4 times, seen grades—all before the exams were given.

    I think the pass/fail rate should be readily available through national office. I have no idea what it might be.

  17. I’m late to this, but we don’t have exams. We have a battery of interviews instead. which takes care of SOME problems, but creates others. some students have been given a hard time because they went to the “wrong” seminary (you know, there ARE different pieties in the ELCA).

  18. I think that the whole system is broken, from Inquirer status to first call. If nothing else, we have 50% burnout in the first 5 years of ministry (and it is much higher for women than for men – another awful fact). That is unbelievable. So not only is it failing, it is failing catastrophically. It is burning out those who are called into ministry at a rate that is not matched by any other occupation, including things like air traffic controller.

    It isn’t just the ordination exams, which are a bad idea. Its an institutional thing. As far as I can tell, the PCUSA has no idea how to raise up pastors. The ones who actually make it are a combination of luck and other factors having little to do with their official preparation as far as I can tell.

    I could go on and on at length, so I’ll just leave that brief rant.

    I also want to be very clear – I am not attacking individuals who are part of the process. They are doing the best they can with what they have. They are trying to do the right thing. Its a broken system, though, so even the best intentions won’t make it right.

    I complain about this a lot because it affects my life right now (I’m going to name my first ulcer after SFTS) and because I can’t do anything about it. But once I’m ordained, if I’m one of the lucky few who actually make it past their first few years, I hope to put a lot of effort into changing the ordination process.

    I only wonder how many Presbyterians will be left, by then, to help me do it. I’ll miss having 50% of my colleagues around.

    Or maybe they’ll miss me.

  19. Pingback: TribalChurch.org

  20. Well, since you redirected us back here, I’m going to respond to your response which I missed. I’m not in favor of the exams because I’m the man. I’m in favor of them because I attended and now work in a multi-denominational seminary, and I’ve seen the alternative. And from where I sit, denominations with no national standards run the risk of becoming a theological beauty pagaent where candidates a) don’t know what’s expected of them in terms of examination and b) get bounced for reasons that make no sense and have no avenue for recourse.

    I know the system isn’t perfect, but from observing 5 or 6 other mainlines, it’s MUCH better than that.

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