New ordination standards in the Presbyterian Church (USA): the Bible or …

ordinationThis is not about a change in constitutional questions nor sexual practice. This article is about the way the Presbyterian Church (USA) qualifies candidates for pastoral ministry through the ordination examination process.

  • Did you know that the denomination’s ordination exams are now 100 percent open book?
  • Did you know that the exams are administered exclusively online unless special arrangements are made for alternate method?
  • Did you know that the Bible is no longer a required resource to be used on questions two and three of the theology exam? (You choose two of three listed resources, but the Bible need not be one of the two)
  • Did you know that there is an active General Assembly committee reviewing ordination exams, and they are scheduled to report to the 2014 GA?

The 220th General Assembly (2012) responded to an overture from Cascades Presbytery by calling for a special committee to study the process of preparation for ministry, paying particular attention to ordination examine failure rate of particular populations and whether or not exams themselves might be culturally biased.  That committee is due to bring its recommendations to the 2014 General Assembly in Detroit.

The Presbyterian News Service reported that “the Big Tent participants attending an Aug. 3 workshop titled ‘Preparing Leaders for Tomorrow’s Ministry’ were given a first opportunity to ask questions and give feedback to members of the General Assembly Special Committee for Review of the Preparation for Ministry Process and Ordination Exams.”

“The workshop … was led by Diana Barber, associate synod executive for leadership for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, the committee’s moderator, and Timothy Cargal, interim coordinator for preparation for ministry/exams for Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly, who serves as staff support.”

“Among several possible types of recommendations that are being considered by the committee are a non-written assessment as an alternative to the customary written standard exams, encouragement to presbyteries to take advantage of the flexibility within the current Book of Order, and consideration of a proposal for a form of licensure.”

Concern has been raised that the scope of the special committee was to include a comprehensive look at church leadership issues related to changes in the vocation of “pastor” as the majority of PCUSA congregations cannot afford full-time installed clergy. It appears that the committee is focusing on the ordination examination component of its charge.

In September 2011, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on the Examination of Candidates (PCCEC) announced sweeping changes to the content and delivery of ordination exams.

At this point, all ordination exams are taken online, exam readers do their work online and candidates receive exam results and readers’ comments online.  According to the PCCEC this is designed to “streamline the evaluation process and administration costs, while maintaining the integrity of the examination process.”

The new process is now almost fully implemented and includes:

The January 2013 exams are now available for public perusal.

Open book examination on Biblical exegesis

Theological Competence Examination

Worship and Sacraments


The theology exam includes three parts.

Section one requires the candidate to “write an essay articulating the concept of eternal life in Christ as evidenced in The Book of Confessions. Use and discuss at least one (1) citation (e.g., 0.000), from each of three (3) different documents in The Book of Confessions, including: at least one (1) from the Reformation-era documents, and at least one (1) from the twentieth-century documents.”

Section two says, “Write an essay on a Reformed understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of the Church. As part of the essay, identify and discuss at least two (2) theological issues raised by the class. Base your essay on your knowledge of Reformed theology, using at least two (2) of these resources: the Scriptures, classical theology, contemporary theology. If you use Acts 2:1-4 for the essay, you must use at least two (2) additional resources.”

Reading carefully, one notes that the Bible need not be one of the resources used by the candidate to articulate his or her Reformed understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of the Church.  And, if you choose to use the Acts 2 passage, two additional sources must be used.

Section three offers two options on which to write, but in either case the instructions include: “Base your essay on your knowledge of Reformed theology, using at least one (1) of these resources: the Scriptures, classical theology, contemporary theology.” Again, the Bible need not be the chosen source.

It would seem that PCUSA ordination exams have moved beyond the Reformation essential tenet of “Sola Scriptura” and have now accelerated past the Bible plus something else. Now theology may be based completely outside the Scriptures.

No longer the Bible alone and no longer the Bible and something else. We’ve arrived at “the Bible or …” your choice.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge