Ords again

Sorry about the Presbyterian shoptalk, but I just heard something quite distressing.

Is it true that only forty percent of students who take all four ordination exams actually pass? It’s so hard to get the pass/fail rate on these. And why is that?

Aren’t seminarians supposed to be taking their ords in their senior year? Does that mean sixty percent of our graduates are not supposed to be looking for jobs? Does that mean that many of them gave up their careers, their homes, their lives in order to go to seminary, and over half of them are not going to be able to look for churches? We all know how long it takes to find a call. Many of these people have families depending on them. And even if they don’t… we have churches that need pastors.

What are we doing? Saying goodbye to our seminarians, letting them work at Starbucks, while forty percent of our congregations flounder, without pastors? These are people who have Masters’ degrees. They have worked very, very hard. Isn’t this a huge waste of our resources? Can’t we be a little smarter about all of this?

Now… I’ll admit, there may have been one or two people in our seminary class who were not really fit to be pastors, but the ord exams didn’t weed them out. And there is no way that I would say over half of my class was not fit.

Why do we bother with recruitment? Why do we even encourage people to enter the process if they only have a forty percent chance of making it?

Really now. If only 40 percent are passing, how can that possibly be fair? This hazing process has gone way too far. Is anyone willing to consider that it just might be the Ordination exams themselves that are failing? 

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34 thoughts on “Ords again

  1. Funny, just last night I found the a recent PCC report that sites the stats. Go here and look at the pdf called “Self-Study Report for PCCEC”. http://www.pcusa.org/exams/index.htm

    A quick scan suggests 50% of students pass all four the first time, and 15% pass the next January. So yeah, I think that means 35% of graduates haven’t passed and are stuck in terms of looking for calls, getting kicked out of housing, and paying the bills.

    (Check that, actually, in 2006 it was 63% of individuals taking all four exams in August passed by January.)

    I’ve heard from the horse’s mouth that these rates are on par with other professional exam rates (medical, bar exam, etc), so folks aren’t too worried. When churches are without pastors and students without housing or money to pay for gas, I’m not sure that’s the best comparison.

    But….though I do think it’s important to get all the info out there, I’d be more interested in ways to bring about change. How and who do we lobby for changes? Why aren’t they more open? Who gives them that power?

  2. Thanks for the link. I’m glad to read that my stats are off a little. Last year, 49.8 percent passed in August.

    You’re right, Adam. There are obvious rewards for becoming a doctor or a lawyer. There are ways to pay the debt back once they pass the exams. Not so much for pastors.

    If a person passes the ords by January, does five months give them enough time to find an adequate call? I’ve always been told to allow 18 months to find the right church… I know that’s not possible… but are we allowing our new pastors enough time to find a fit? Could this be the reason why those who get through the ords tend to burn out so quickly in the pastorate?

  3. The whole process is flawed. It begins with the Committees on Preparation. When I was in seminary I met several people who I wondered how they got to seminary in the first place. One in particular frustrated me . . . after she graduated her CPM said she couldn’t circulate her PIF, probably a good thing . . . this even though she had passed the ordination exams. This was fair to her. Then I have experieinced CPM’s that pass on candidates who they have questioins about hoping the COM takes care of them.

    I was “fortunate,” and I use this word purposely, to have passed all of my ords on the first go around, but was SHOCKED by those that didn’t . . . some of our best students!

    I understand the spiritual concept of call, but it is a process not an event and one that we don’t take serioulsy. Pehaps if we took the whole process of call serioulsy we would better serve the denomination.

    I do value the ordination exams, but believe that they are too subjective. On my Worship exam the MOWS grading me gave me a 5 saying it was the best discussion of baptism he had read in years. On the other hand, the laity reading my exam graded my response 2 saying I didn’t understand baptism from a Reformed tradition. Huh? The only thing I can figure out is that I didn’t use the exact phrase “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” the way they wanted to hear it. It was there — all over the place and in fact it guided how I structured my entire answer. In the name of the Father — discussion, in the name of the Son — discussion, in the name of the Holy Spirit — discussion.

    As we move forward as a denomination we have much to look at if we are going to fulfill our mission.

    Lydia

  4. A solid point, but I’m afraid the answer to that last question is “no.” That the system doesn’t reflect the reality of human lives or the actual needs of the church appears to be immaterial.

    Another thing worth wondering about is how this whole convoluted, bureaucratic, test-and-accreditation-based process reflects the actuality of God’s calling.

    We’ve set up a system that seems best suited for preparing people for civil or foreign service. Nothing wrong with that, in the abstract, at least. But discernment of God’s ferocious urging in a candidate’s life is not really..um..something the ords do well.

  5. Having just finished my ords I have nothing much to say except — after I was done I felt like I’d been beaten and left by the side of the road. The time frame is what got me. Three questions, three hours, NO break at all, spit out all this stuff, no time to reflect at all. No time even to re-read what we’d written. And I’m not sure if we would ever, as a pastor, be called upon to produce a theological essay and “conversation” with a church member about that topic in one hour. I know there are many times a pastor needs to be with someone on a moment’s notice. (I’ve done a year as a hospital chaplain, so I have had some experience there..) — but usually the “moment’s notice” stuff is a pastoral crisis, and we should be listening, not giving the “Reformed understanding of the doctrine of resurrection”. — I wish there was more emphasis put on a candidate’s whole life — look at seminary grades, talk to professors talk to field ed supervisors. Don’t just judge us on our ability to spit out essays on Reformed theology under such a time pressure. — Also, I found it very difficult to “respond pastorally” to someone on paper, without the give-and-take of face to face conversation. So, we will see. I did my best for whatever it’s worth. Now to keep calm until Oct. 27th.

  6. I agree with Lydia.

    The problem begins with the local churches and the presbyteries that sponsor inquirers and advance candidates who should be discouraged from continuing in the process in the first place. It is false kindness to encourage someone in the beginning instead of speaking the truth in love. I’ve seen a church sponsor an inquirer in order to get that person to leave the staff rather than fire that person!

    The call process is supposed to involve the community in assisting the individual to discern whether or not they are being called to ministry of word and sacrament. When the community fails the individual, then the whole process becomes unfair.

    And as for the difficulty of the exams–try the bar exam, as I did. You write non-stop for eight hours over three days.

  7. A brief and tangential comment but on an issue I have seen raised here before.

    “while forty percent of our congregations flounder,
    without pastors?”

    It is not because we are short of pastors that these congregations are without leadership. Our own denomination’s website very clearly lists the number of people searching for a call and the number of positions available. As of this moment there are 1964 clergy persons seeking positions and 701 positions available. http://clc.pcusa.org/aspx/reports/ApplicantsAndPositions.aspx

    I work for a Presbytery, one that has on occasion had difficulty filling positions. It’s not because there aren’t pastors looking for positions. It’s because the churches with empty pulpits are what we loosely refer to as unsustainable. That is, that can’t afford an installed pastor at presbytery minimum – sometimes they can’t even afford an installed half-time pastor.

    For years we’ve been told that we’re going to run out of pastors as the boomers retire. And, as Carol has written before, newer seminary grads have different financial needs than pastors who graduated a generation or two ago making it necessary for them to pursue bigger, more financially stable churches. What we’re really running out of is people who are willing to live in rural places and live on very little. So then we fill those positions with Commissioned Lay Pastors (who by the way don’t take our official ordination exams) who are by in large, at least in our region, committed, faithful, competent folks who feel called to ministry and come cheaper than ordained pastors.

    It’s a dilemma – and I think the ord exam and CLP questions may go hand in hand. It’s clear that something has to give (unless this years crop of seminarians is satisfied to make $18K a year and live in a manse in the middle of Iowa – no disrespect to Iowa – I’m an Midwesterner too).

    Just my two cents.

  8. I wouldn’t mind so much if the MDiv was able to get me some kind of work that wasn’t ordained. As it stands, it seems like I’ve wasted my money.

  9. Andy,
    my presbytery simply allowed me to take my ords my middler year. problem solved.

    Actually, I consider something akin to this to be my single greatest mistake.

    I took the class designed to prepare one for the Theological Competence exam a full year before I was eligible to take it. I was therefore rustier than I might have been by the time the exam came around. (I still remembered most things, but since I was passing with two 2s and a 3 each time–I took the written exam 4 times and an oral exam besides–any little bit might have made all the difference in the world)

  10. interesting post, Carol…. after taking the ords this past week, I can tell ya that I don’t necessarily feel as though they really demonstrate my ability to be an effective pastor… the demonstrate I am thinking (or can think) in the appropriate “reformed” perspective and am familiar with our tradition and what it says on various topics, that I know how to work a BoO and I am competent in the Confessions…. does that make me a good pastor? Probably not, but I guess there has to be SOME place where they test you on the basics. I always assumed that going before presbytery and actual ordination would be the places where I sorted out whether I was pastoral to those who have the power to decide.

  11. Couple of things: First, my understanding (having worked in the admissions department of a PCUSA seminary) is that admissions numbers are up across the denomination’s seminaries. Seminaries are growing to meet the need, real or imagined, for ministers in the PCUSA. Additional seminarians means less selectivity and that shows up to a degree in the Ord fail rate. There is at least a correlation between higher admission numbers and lower pass rates. The tests and graders have remain pretty much unchanged through the years, so this might be the variable. Second many people do it to themselves. You had a discussion on this blog a week or so ago about “playing the game” when taking the ords. Right or wrong, it is repeated SO much in preparation for ords that I am dumbfounded when I hear some of the things people write. This is not a test of how smart or cute you can be with theology, it is a test of basic skills often set in the context of congregation where many of our “seminary answers” would be inappropriate or inadequate. You may love Lacugna and Levinas, but your future congregation probably needs Guthrie and Calvin and your readers definitely want it. And if you know this and do the opposite there is a certain kind of independence, arrogance, or stupidity that enters the ‘why you failed’ equation. Third, the most common reason for failure of a ord is not answering the question asked. Seriously, graduate level students fail the most because they do answer the question asked of them. The questions are long, usually three parts with three answers each, but often that is not the problem. Test takers ‘think’ they know what the question is asking, as if searching for a hidden meaning, and answer that question. Thinking and ordination exams do not mix. Fourth, some people do just fail. They are having a bad day. They are bad at the format. There English skills are less than others. The three hours get to them. I have always wondered if the fail rate is higher for the afternoon ord or Saturday morning ord because of all the work already put in. Finally, let me say that every critique that is made of the ords probably carries some weight. To me though, that is what makes the fail rate so outstanding. We know all the shortcomings of the system and yet we often still do the same things that we know will produce a failed test. But yeh, I would change the system.

  12. sarah,

    Great points. I’m so glad you went on the tangent. As a pastor in South Louisiana, I became very aware of the need for CLPs. Now that I’m in National Capital, I realize that a lot of our denomination doesn’t realize how much we depend upon them.

    There are 1964 pastors searching for jobs, but I assume that many of them have positions right now, or they’re already retired and looking for a supplement to their retirement income. As a pastor, I’ve been advised many times to keep my PIF in circulation, even when I’m happily employed.

    So, can we begin to think strategically about these developments?

    Forty percent of pulpits are empty. Most can’t afford pastors.

    There are currently about 700 new retirees each year and about 700 retirees die each year. With 64% of our active members [members of the Board of Pensions] having been born between 1946 and 1964, the number of new retirees each year will double.

    We know that churches don’t usually thrive without pastoral leadership.

    So, as a denomination, shouldn’t we be thinking about what’s ahead? I hope that the increase in seminary admissions will cover it… but I’m not sure that it will.

    I would hope that we would

    (1) Find sources of adequate monetary support for pastors willing to go to rural pastorates or small churches.
    (2) Close the churches that are ready to be closed and make as much money from the property as possible.
    (3) Put the resources into New Church Developments.
    (4) Come up with some creative ways to employ clergy who may be geographically bound by a spouse’s job.
    (5) Keep recruiting new, bright pastors.

  13. Carol, I appreciate your list. As my earlier post would suggest I would also include looking at the entire process of call.

    Frankly, I cringe slightly when I hear the word “job” used and cringe further when I sense an underlying assumption that if one graduates from seminary and passes the ords they deserve a “job”. Granted,there is a lot wrong with our call process but it begins with remembering it is a call system. Churches need to be reminded that it is a process of discernment not employment and that sometimes God will lead churches to call a person that they would never expect to call.

    I have often wondered why larger membership churches who are missionally minded don’t partner with smaller membership churches to provide them seminary-trained pastoral leadership as a mission of the larger membership church? This was done in a presbytery I was a member of and it was a remarkable partnership in many ways; it also was a vivid way to live out our connectionalism.

    I think we, as presbyteriees, need to be brave enough to serioulsy look at the viability of churches especially if we believe that chruches are organic with a life cycle. I was recently in a Synod gathering where I was in a small group where this was discussed. The consensus is, ‘we are too kind’. However, I think it goes further than that, we are forgetting the mission of the church . . . to make disciples.
    Many, not all, but many of the smaller membership churches are interested in just taking care of their own.

    The church where I was a charter member less than 20 years ago is down to 4 members. They have a young p/t pastor in a yoked situation where the other church has 20 in Worship attendance. His salary is being paid by an outside source. It expites at the end of the year. This young pastor has a wonderful idea — sale the property, which is worth alot, and start a “church without walls.” Will that presbytery be brave enough to accept a new way to do ministry?

    We need to be having these kinds of conversations in presbyteries, synods and in Louisville, even in our churches. The question is, are we willing to risk stepping out of our comfort zones?

    Lydia

  14. Agreed. We should definitely look at the entire process of call.

    In a recent conversation with my very conservative brother-in-law, he pointed out that many of the people he talks to do not trust our educational institutions. He says the general view of his friends is that our seminaries ruin pastors, and they see ords as a way of making sure that candidates are beholden to people outside of our seminaries.

    If this is the case, then our candidates are caught in between these political tensions. They are taught one thing in seminary, and then told that these views and thoughts are not acceptable for ord exams.

    Are these sort of tensions in all professional exams? The bar exams or med exams? Are they healthy?

  15. I have just finished taking the Ords and am as angry as I have ever been in my life. We wrote non-stop for 9 hours over 2 days, then completed a 15 page paper. NO time to reflect. I’m sorry but to say that if you don’t pass in August you pass in January won’t cut it with me. The issue isn’t whether or not I pass. The issue is that as seminarians we are called to serve God so why should we be put throught the mill and end up, as Lorraine said, like we have been chewed up and spit out. By the way, I am a 2nd career person so I have a few years and much demanding education under my belt.I tend to gravitate to the hardest classes and hardest professors. I took comprehensive exams as an undergraduate and as a graduate student the 1st time through (neither in education for those who read my next sentence). As an educator there are so many ways to change a flawed systemr so that it provides rigor withour causing rigermortis in either seminarians or PC(USA). Those who might feel called but, in the judgment of Sessions and CPM’s should not even get far enough to take Ords. Ords should not be used to weed out the unqualified. That is not the way to treat those who are qualified.

  16. Carol, I think your brother-in-law points to a tension that the PCUSA hasn’t dealt with head-on . . . when I was in seminary this was how it was phrased, “is the seminary a place to prepare/train pastors or academia?”

    I have come to believe that it should be both/and; however, I think many folks in the pew think it has become too much academia. And there are a slew of recent graduates who are making the same suggestions.

    This is one of the reasons that I appauld the most recent group of seminary presidents who have served in the parish immediately before being called as presidents.

    Lydia

  17. I considered ordination in your denomination. I admit, one of the things that dissuaded me was the length of time from beginning of seminary studies to the start of a paying position that dissuaded me. It was not worth it, and there was not enough financial support available…there is a problem here. Thanks for mentioning it.

  18. I do think some attention should be given to what to do with people who have been affirmed in a call (I mean this in a fairly broad sense) by their churches, earn a seminary degree, but for whatever reason (not passing ords is just one), are not eligible for ordination to the position of Minister of Word and Sacrament.

    Surely people who have earned their MDivs have talents and skills to offer in the church, even if not as pastors?

  19. My mom told me if I had nothing nice to say that I should say nothing at all.

    With that said, I am relived that the ords no longer apply to me. I am sad that they are there at all. I will always be a presby at heart. When all and stop being the riot police I may come back. Until then I will lead elsewhere and encourage the troops in the trenches. It is all for God, right?

  20. We have always had a problem with the “exalted” sense of call in the Presbyterian Church. Or is it a self generated call. A call to what? A professional career as a Minister of Word and Sacrament with a compensation package including salary, tax-free housing alliance, medical and pension benefits, expense accounts, two-week study leave and four-weeks of vacation. All above the minimum requirements set by the Presbytery. Proficiency exams much life doctors, lawyers. Accountants. Ordination is the prize.

    OK, call me jaded. I’m just an elder.

  21. Carol, I agree with much of what you say but I would argue at least these two points (maybe more if I’d had more coffee this morning!)

    While you may have been given the advice to keep your PIF in circulation I do not believe that’s the norm. Yes, of the 1964 pastors looking, many are employed but not all and at more than a 2 to 1 ratio the numbers don’t work out. Even if all the pulpits were full, we’d still have unemployed pastors. And we add about 300 to that every year.

    BoP numbers do not include pastors who serve as chaplains in non parish settings (hospitals, boy scouts, university etc… ) as those folks are generally insured by their institution thereby skewing the number of ‘active pastors’. Additionally, those in non parish, non traditional settings tend to be younger (and tend to be women) because those settings often allow more flexibility.

    Finally, I’m not totally up to date on the retirement statistics but based on my experience here, pastors are working passed the age when they can retire because they need to bulk up retirement savings.

    So from my vantage point we currently have twice as many pastors as calls, who aren’t retiring as quickly as expected (and a whole subset of non parish pastors who aren’t counted in the active membership numbers), and at least in some regions, fewer and fewer positions available as small churches are closed or served by CLPs.

    Is it really fair, to keep recruiting?

    Okay – so a few more than two points…. : )

  22. I would say yes, but I’m a hopeless optimist!

    You’re right, not many of the retirees can actually retire. But (not to be morbid…) no one’s immortal.

    We know that the pastor shortage for small churches is real, while churches over 200 members, in urban/more desirable areas do not have shortages. This is an interesting report.

    Taking my personal experience into account, I was at a small church in a rural area. Within a couple of years, the church doubled in size. I had to leave when the Presbytery put in a minimum that was 10k above my salary.

    Would I have left, even if we found some way to come up with the extra cash? Maybe. But I don’t know…. The bottom line is, if we would have had a few more years, then the church might be more healthy now.

    So… what if we put more money into our small, healthy church positions? Would they become sustainable? Would they become more attractive?

    As it stands, our salaries are set up (like most salaries in our country) so that we need an employed spouse to sustain a household. Therefore, most of us have to live in urban areas. But what if we changed that? What if it became the norm that a pastor who went to a rural area would be paid more? Or what if we put more money into new church development pastors? Of course, that would take outside funding…

    I don’t know of many churches that become vital without pastoral leadership. As it stands, as a denomination, we are basically standing back while 40% (!) of our churches die without pastors, and a huge number of pastors can’t find a call.

    What if we put the money from closing churches back into pastors’ salaries so that they can plant churches or go to small congregations?

  23. Carol, interesting observation about the CLP’s . . . it would be fasinating to look at what is actually behind this. On the surface one could relate this to $ and to location, but I really wonder if there aren’t deeper issues. Maybe even the fact that for many of the folks in our pews that they see a “disconnect” between themselves and seminary-trained pastors.

    In the presbytery where I serve I am on a task force looking at changing how our CLP’s are trained. I have suggested that they take the Bible Content Exam as a first step. I couldn’t belive the response from the CLP on the task force!

    We have been reminded over and over again that the CLP option was never meant to take the place of a seminary trained pastor, but I fear we are beginning to see more and more of this.

    Grace and peace,

    Lisa

  24. I would have gladly not gone to seminary to answer my call.
    There lies the absurdatity of it all. In order to serve as a minister of the Word and Sacrament one must obtain a masters degree. When you get the degree not many can afford to pay a salary that is enough for the minister to serve the congregation. This makes it a class system. Those that can afford a pastor do and those that cannot afford to be served by a trained, denominationally required/approved minister die.

    It is not productive to the Ken-dom being served. We must look to new ways of being church in our communities and that requires our denomination to re-look at its ordination and training requirements.

    The church has always redefined itself. This is not the first time we are faced with a transition in relationship to the surrounding culture. What fools believe that they are the first to deal with any situation. Sisters and brothers arise from the sleep and live those dreams of communities full of hope, passion, and vigor for service to the Lord. We are here . They are here. We are here. All we got to do is move. Where is our faith?

  25. I SO appreciate this conversation because it needs to happen so… first off… thanks for talking! Here are a few more thoughts in response.

    You said: “So… what if we put more money into our small, healthy church positions? Would they become sustainable? Would they become more attractive?”

    I say: YES – they would and when I meet with small churches that are in a transition I tell them that there are more candidates looking than jobs available and that they need to be creative about how they (the church) present themselves and what they have to offer to the candidate. So I’ll give an example to them – let’s say that they are just barely able to pay presbytery minimum and folks are really worried about money because after all, they have to pay moving expenses and salary and perhaps they are also trying to put a new roof on the building or whatever. What can they do? I suggest offering more vacation or study leave as part of the package. Or perhaps looking for a pastor who loves to write, or is an artist, or a musician or ??? and working in an agreement as part of the package that allows the pastor time pursue those other vocations potentially providing a win-win for everyone. You know how it goes over? Like a ton of bricks (actually that’s when it goes well – when it doesn’t – stand back!) There is a status issue at stake. In our neck of the woods, small rural churches want a full-time, installed pastor living within a few miles of the church if not right next store. In their minds, they are attractive enough and can’t understand why presby minimum with ALL those benefits isn’t enough.

    So the thing is the money. And for better or for worse, our presbytery does not provide salary support for small churches because it tends to create a dependency and also creates an attitude of “oh poor little us, we’re so small and we can’t do anything like the big churches.” (I swear, I never would have believed it before coming here.)

    If presbyteries don’t provide the money and churches believe they can’t provide the money and more than 50% of GAs money is now designated and therefore not available to provide for small churches (and btw, GA cut the rural and small church ministry office in the last round of downsizing) then from whence does it come?

    We have done some of the very things you suggested in your earlier comment. Money from the sale of property has been endowed to support grants for new ministries in our congregations.

    I am quite drawn (and have been for a while) to Ryan’s thoughts above. I’d love to believe that “all we got to do is move.” But I have decided to stay committed to the denomination and that means working within its confines while pushing from the inside.

    But it is slow growth (and perhaps not growth at all – I mean, who really knows?) and in the meantime, I still wonder about requiring three to four years of seminary, ords, debt and the promise of extremely low paying jobs for life for folks to whom we cannot even say, “yes, there IS a viable job for you when finish.”

  26. I’m glad you’re in the denomination and pushing. It’s pretty much a crisis situation right now, at least it seems like that from where I’m sitting. But, I believe that can mean opportunity as much as it means disaster.

    Our Presbytery closes a church a year. They often get millions of dollars from the property. But, they won’t touch the principal. So, now that the market’s bad, we have no money for development this year.

    I respect the people who are making the decisions, but… I wonder what will happen in the future. Will we just keep building up the money? How many millions do we need in the governing body’s account before we can start helping pastors with the outrageous housing costs? How many churches do we need to close before we can start one (our Presbytery doesn’t really plant our churches. They do, partly, but they are mostly funded by a large Evangelical church)? And, I wonder if this is the strategy of most Presbyteries.

    I hate the thought of us being a denomination of big coffers and small vision. Yet, there does not seem to be much big-picture planning going on with all of this. At least none that I’m aware of….

  27. My experience of seminary in relation to the ord exams was of schizophrenia and demoralization. There is a disconnect between what we’re taught in seminary and what people want us to be taught in seminary – not to mention what seminary students feel they actually need. I put huge amounts of work into things I’ll almost never use and barely scratched the surface of what I’ll be doing every day as a pastor. Our ordination process is essentially a Rube-Goldberg device cobbled together by disparate systems and contradictory expectations.

    I’m going to name my first ulcer “SFTS” in memory of the experience.

    There are a lot of good things that have happened for me these past three years, but none of them had anything to do with the official ordination process or, for the most part, the institutional seminary system. The ord process is something I feel like I’ve endured for the sake of what I actually feel called to do – so far, so good, but we’ll see. I’ve still got a year of hospital CPE to grind me to a fine pulp…

    In answer to your questions, Carol – we are wasting time and resources and squandering the gifts that God has given us to build up the Church. We are shooting ourselves in the feet. I don’t think we really have a clear idea of what we’re doing, and I think it really shows.

  28. This is about as constructive a conversation I have seen with a very salient issue here!

    From sarah: “What we’re really running out of is people who are willing to live in rural places and live on very little.”

    About half of the churches are these small congregations that are about 150 or fewer aging members. This is not to say that new blood does not come into the neighborhood, but nowhere nearly fast enough as old industrial towns and farm towns continue to die off as industry moves away. It’s all over small town PA and elsewhere too. There are histories and traditions in these communities, but if you are behind in giving some 4000 a month in some cases, you can’t even pay the heating bill in the cold winters anymore. Many of these pulpits need to close up and merge with other congregations because the market is just too differentiated to support two mainline churches a few miles apart. While yoked congregations work (meaning that the pastor is the only one who is carrying the yoke) it is not efficient (and commonplace in Europe for the same reasons). These communities are simply not sustainable and before long time members pass on, a hard look in the mirror has to be done which is something that is near impossible to do.

    From Timothy: “There is at least a correlation between higher admission numbers and lower pass rates. The tests and graders have remain pretty much unchanged through the years, so this might be the variable.”

    This is true. Related to other professional exams (I would include the NCLEX as well since there is a shortage of nurses still after the aggressive recruiting programs and numerous insitutions), the problem with these positions is that they have enough financial and benefit incentive to sweeten the pot enough in order to lure people to the profession. The other variable here is that these tests are the common thread that holds all of the educational programs together. In my own Seminary experience I took numerous classes that were extremely helpful for my own theological formation, but useless to the ords. I went back to learn all of the basic doctrines (many of which I still disagree with) that were representative of the Reformed tradition (that apparently has stopped reforming somewhere in the 19th century based on the expected answers I was supposed to give). So there is a definite mismatch between what I thought was useful in my own seminary education with the ordination exams.

    Last point here: I am still not sure and cannot find anywhere how the ordination exam measures a score and the expected outcomes of what one submits. For other standardized professional exams the outcomes are specific and validated every year with hard core statistical analyses and they do change with time as knowledge increases. I have never seen the rubric for how the ords are assessed and that is a HUGE problem. If a student goes into an exam without having a good sense of exactly how they will be assessed, the very validity of the assessment must be questioned. The process of the test remains very ambiguous and hidden where a person taking the exam knows only that a 3 is good and that you have to answer with the best “Reformed” answer you can give. So what does that actually measure other than how well you conform to someone else’s idea of what substantive theological and biblical knowledge is? It requires inter-rater reliability to determine if this is an effective assessment tool and I have never seen any information about that and no one has ever been able to address this question. It just seem that the process is something outdated for bad reasons…

  29. I think it’d be good for the church to step back and say, what skills do we need to test candidates on, and do the exams accomplish that effectively? Just as any teacher needs to ask himself/herself about evaluation methods used in the classroom.

    Currently the exams test whether you can respond to questions about Reformed theology, polity, and worship quickly and accurately, without consulting resources or asking 5 friends. That’s good for the random questions you get while teaching Adult Ed, talking to interested non-Presbyterians on the sidewalk, or hosting new members’ dinners.

    However, most of the time, Presbyterian pastors are using this knowledge to prepare curriculum or coursework or while getting ready for a presbytery meeting. In these situations, you have time and resources and 5 friends and you can respond to questions with “I don’t know, but I can find out and get back to you.”

    I’d definitely be in favor of changing the structure of ords to allow for oral examination by the CPM, exams in small groups of 2-3 people where working together is allowed, take-home exams, or some other method than a closed-book timed individual written exam. Not to mention far more humane timing of exams: why can’t we administer and grade them online year-round? what is this, 1985?

    The problem I see with eliminating ords entirely would be that a lot of seminarians only learn what they’re required to learn, and a lot of them learn maybe 60%-70% of the required stuff but still manage to get a degree. If ords go away, will pastors get through on the strength of their faith and charisma and preaching skill… but never bother to learn about their church’s history or theology? That’s what I wonder about.

    I don’t want to be the bad guy in this conversation, but I do see this knowledge as important for pastors, and I don’t see people learning it unless it’s required for an exam. If the seminaries were full of people who loved learning about the Presbyterian Church and did it out of personal interest, and then became pastors who loved Reformed theology and worship and kept their knowledge sharp out of personal interest, we wouldn’t need ords at all. I wish we were in that situation. I just don’t think we are.

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