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Ordination overhaul

Yesterday, I heard some dismal new student recruitment statistics for a Presbyterian (USA) seminary. They weren't the first ones that I've heard. Admissions are low. Really low. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering we are in the midst of a recession. God’s call on my life to go to seminary became loud and clear when I was in a horrible job. Shouldn’t there be more people looking at seminary?

But then, if someone does any investigating in my denomination (PCUSA), they will know the obstacles. (Sorry for the denominational shop talk. I’d love to know if other denominations face similar issues.) I certainly let people know what they are in for when they tell me that they want to go. Many people have gone to seminary from churches I’ve served. I think that being a pastor is the best job in the world. But I do want people to be aware of what they’re getting in to.

The truth is that it is very likely that you will go to seminary and never be able to get through the ordination process. I usually tell them my story. I graduated with great grades. I had been a Teacher’s Aid, Tutor and Research Assistant in Systematic Theology, Church History, Greek, Hebrew, and Practical Theology. My internship went well. The church hired me when the internship was over, because they wanted me to continue in the position. I had wonderful recommendations. But I couldn’t pass one of my Ordination Exams, so I couldn’t look for a job.

People coached me. Professors couldn’t find anything wrong with my exam. My Presbytery sent one of the exams back, arguing that I had actually passed it. My coaches kept saying, “Don’t be smart. Don’t be creative. Pretend like you’re a retired Presbyterian elder. And don’t be creative!”

I moved to Louisiana. My husband began serving a congregation. A small church, where I would make $18K wanted me to be their pastor. I felt called there. A lay minister had served the congregation for 15 years, but they couldn’t call me because I was stuck in the ordination system.

So, after $40k of debt, three years of academic achievements, healthy psychological exams, and solid service to the church, I couldn’t serve my denomination. I started looking at the UCC ordination system. 

Finally, I made it through, but it entailed me being unemployed for about a year. My story is a common one. A very common one. And along with the shortage of job opportunities at the moment, I think these stories are having a devastating effect on seminary admissions.

The ordination exams are graded by pastors and lay people who don’t know the candidate. The graders are rarely experts in the subject. Probably half of the graders wouldn't be able to pass the exams that they're grading. And they fail a lot of people. People from underrepresented racial ethnic communities are much more likely to fail the tests than white students.

This system may have made sense in a time when seminary debt was not so high, but we simply cannot expect people to go into horrendous debt and not be able to look for a call at the end of it.

“But, Carol, we care about who serves our congregations! We have high expectations,” you might be thinking. But you would be wrong. About half of our churches are being served by lay people. Sometimes they’re Commissioned Ruling Elders. Sometimes it’s someone’s Baptist uncle who’s itching to steal the church out of our denomination.

We turn away qualified, educated candidates, based on blind tests by people who don’t know them or the subject matter and allow our churches to be led by… just about anyone.

So what can we do, as churches, to help this situation? My wise friend, Katie Mulligan, had a good suggestion. Why not front-load the process? Why not have students go through a psychological assessment before they go into seminary? Then, once they’re in, they’re in. If a major red flag comes up, then we should reconsider, but otherwise, we should help them through the process.

One more thing. I know that we have a shortage of positions available right now. But that won't be a long-term issue. I often refer to this chart, which is about five years old. It shows us that only 25% of pastors will be serving in a few years. We have a glut of ministers now. But we need to think about preparing people for the future.  

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ordination and calls

All of the exams and career development psychological assessments have only done a "fair" job of keeping potentially harmful pastors out of pulpits. And then someone like Carol can't get through. The situation is more dire once the hurdles are passed: In the PCUSA right now there are 1165 ministers playing musical chairs with 401 open positions, and a number of those positions are small churches dreaming of fulltime pastors they cannot afford. When I worked in the Vocation Agency in Louisville (1994-1997) there were 1600 ministers vying for as many as 1400 positions. Knowing these figures I am not surprised that there are fewer wanting into the system. And the demographics of those in the pews do not make a brighter future, at least for the continuation of the congregation and leadership system we have known.

I can't argue with Carol's

I can't argue with Carol's personal experience but I can say that in 30 years, 4 presbyteries, 3 stints on CPM's, --I actually haven't seen candidates fail exams repeatedly without a pretty clear reason; ie, a persistant learning disability, exam-taking issue, that sort of thing. That doesn't mean I'm doubting Carol's experience, I just haven't seen it. I'd like to hear actual numbers, and I'd like to hear from seminary professors who are surprised by the number of their students who do not pass ordination exams.  But I would say there is and there should be a mechanism to override the system. Problems happen in any system, and Carol's story illustrates this.

What the exam preparation did for me was invaluable. It forced me to think about the material I had learned in a classroom and written academic papers about in a far different way. How would I explain baptism to a family in crisis? It bothers me when I hear people denigrate academic achievement in ministry -- there is a smart young person lurking in every  church --no matter how small --who needs an informed leader who can speak to her questions. That is not the only qualification for pastoral leadership but it is an important one.

I would like to hear what seminary professors think about the relationship between the material they teach and test and the ordination exams. Do they see both these things as important data points for a denomination seeking to identify appropriate candidates for ministry, or do they believe their own teach and testing should suffice?

 

 

 

 

Terrym, that would be an

Terrym, that would be an interesting perspective. I'll see if a prof would be willing to take it up...

Ord exams

I so appreciate your article as a person more than 2/3 of the way through seminary and facing all these dilemmas. I have heard so many nightmare stories, it is daunting. I think since we value having educated clergy so, (which is a good thing), why don't we administer these exams as part of the seminary experience? I had to take a polity class and for our final, we had to take a mock ord exam, which was in fact, an actual exam from a couple of years ago. This way we can all still feel comfortable that everyone is coming out with equivalent knowledge and the people evaluating whether that knowledge is at an acceptable level are professors proficient in those specific subjects and skills. It is a far smarter system than to have a variety of unknowns as graders with skill levels and biases all over the map and all completely unknown to the one being examined.

Ordination exama

When I went to Holy Cross Geek Orthodox School of Theology  36 years ago, we were screened while we were at seminary, not after we graduated. The seminary put us through their own exams and screening process and used another exam called "Readiness for Ministry," long before we graduated to weed out those not qualified for one reason or another for the Priesthood. In addition to the screening process of the seminary, the Archdiocse sent a clinical psychologists to give each seminarian a complete battery of psychological exams, ink blots, the The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and another test where we looked at pictures and made up a story. That way, the Archdiocese and the Seminary weeded out those not proper for the Eastern Orthodox Priesthood long before they finished seminary.

Fr. John W. Morris

 

Ordination exama

When I went to Holy Cross Geek Orthodox School of Theology  36 years ago, we were screened while we were at seminary, not after we graduated. The seminary put us through their own exams and screening process and used another exam called "Readiness for Ministry," long before we graduated to weed out those not qualified for one reason or another for the Priesthood. In addition to the screening process of the seminary, the Archdiocse sent a clinical psychologists to give each seminarian a complete battery of psychological exams, ink blots, the The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and another test where we looked at pictures and made up a story. That way, the Archdiocese and the Seminary weeded out those not proper for the Eastern Orthodox Priesthood long before they finished seminary.

Fr. John W. Morris

 

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