Last week I read through the evaluation forms submitted by those who wrote senior ordination exams at the end of January. These exams were only the second to involve online registration and the first that required all test takers (and all readers as well) to use computers for their work on the exams, steps in a continuing process that will—if everything stays on schedule—bring us to the point in the second half of 2012 where the exams are online and “paperless.”
Given these changes to the administration of the exams, I thought there might be a lot of comments about the technological changes. And there were a few, but only a very few. Far and away the most frequent comments by test takers related to the time constraints on the exams. It didn’t matter whether it was one of the areas that employ a three-hour block or the exegesis exam that extends over five days. Numerous candidates reported they just didn’t have enough time.
I will be sharing with the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCCEC) all the information in the evaluations, and will highlight for them the concern that some of the response formats may have more components than may be practical given an average of 60-minutes available for each question. But it is also important for candidates to understand that the time structures are an intentional part of the design of the exams.
Despite some candidates’ comments that they would “always” have opportunity to say, “Let me get back to you about that,” or to make reference to the Book of Order or other resources before responding, the reality of ministry is quite different. Pastors (like most other professionals) are often called upon to respond to complex situations and questions at a moment’s notice. Certainly they will sometimes qualify impromptu responses by saying something to effect, “… but let me double check on these details and follow-up with you.” Yet let’s be honest: If your pastor (or doctor, or professor, or lawyer) qualified every answer to your questions in that way, how much confidence would you have in them?
Similarly, scheduling the Theology, Worship & Sacraments, and Polity exams over the span of a day and half is also by design. Of course it is exhausting and stressful. But pastors must often respond in stressful circumstances when they are exhausted in every way. Of course class work, family responsibilities, work schedules, and many other things can impinge on the days for the exegesis exam. But pastors must always develop their weekly sermons or Bible studies (and very often both—and on different texts) while attending to myriad other responsibilities.
These dimensions of the ordination exams are part of what make them different than the academic writing and exams of seminary. Sure, if given more time and resources every candidate could give a more thoughtful and polished response. But what the readers are looking for is how a candidate uses pastoral imagination to integrate academic training and ministry experience in the moment, even if tired and stressed. Professors assess candidates’ ability to research and develop polished arguments, and seminary transcripts will report their evaluations. Experienced elders and pastors (future colleagues in ministry) assess candidates’ ability to “think on their feet,” and their evaluations are offered mindful of the time constraints under which the exams were written.
When it comes to the senior ordination examinations, what is being tested goes beyond just the subject matter of the questions.