I’ve been catching up with some friends recently thanks to social media. Some of them haven’t heard I’m in seminary and planning to become a pastor. Those are the most fun conversations laced with interesting questions. Several times people have asked me what I’m doing right now, whether I’m in classes or whatever, and I’ve told them that I’m studying for and taking the Ordination Exams this Friday and Saturday. This doesn’t lead to people asking what these exams are but instead:
Why do you have to take Ordination Exams?
Short Version: blame John Calvin
The exams feel like a Kobayashi Maru–
meaning they’re designed to test potential pastors’ reactions in strategic situations, some of which might be termed as “no-win situations.” Last August the theological competence exam asked students to describe the Reformed understanding of the relationship between church and civil governments. In the context described, the pastor is going to offend someone no matter what they say; however, the test did not ask the student to respond directly to the context. Kobayashi Maru-like indeed
There are lots of good, practical reasons to make people who want to get ordained take 5 standardized exams. However, in my opinion the “why” question goes to the heart of being Reformed. Do you remember in history class learning all the reasons why Martin Luther and Company left the Roman Catholic Church? Indulgences, yeah that was a big one. Salvation by faith alone, sure. They didn’t want to be celibate, probably. Sacraments, of course. But one of the big reasons: the Medieval church wasn’t doing a good job of training their priests.
John Calvin was part of the second generation of Reformers. Calvin identified four ministries or roles of church leaders: deacon (one who sees to the social welfare of members of the community), elder (one who assists in church government and church discipline), pastor (one who preaches, presides over sacraments, and oversees spiritual development), and doctor (one who holds and teaches correct theology and biblical interpretation). Over the years the roles of pastor and doctor merged together. Calvin himself took on both roles. He was also a humanist, and he spent a lot of time working in the original biblical languages which greatly influenced how he preached and taught. One of the main similarities between the pastor and doctor roles is the individual is educated specifically to educate others through preaching, lecturing, and applying what they have learned in everyday life.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ -John 21:15
The balance between pastor and doctor seems to be one of the main issues in the Ordination Exams. The old exams often ask for people to pull out theological issues in a pastoral situation and respond to the issues with pastoral sensitivity and good theology. We’re expected to understand Reformed theology and be able to apply it?! (No pressure.) The issues of the Reformed tradition we’re asked to respond to in the exams include church government, worship, and biblical interpretation–all applied to specific contexts, such as a church adrift in the “neutral zone” between dissolving a pastoral relationship and calling a new pastor.
There a big difference between the Kobayashi Maru and the Ordination Exams, though. There’s no way to reprogram this exam so the Klingons have no shields. (I’m not even sure what the equivalent to Kirk’s cheating would be in the Ordination Exams… perhaps hacking into the denomination office’s database and changing the exam questions. This conversation never happened.) Honestly, being a minister does have some similarities to being a Star Fleet officer, but the Reformed tradition is way more complex than trying to figure out how the Prime Directive applies to a given situation. Also, pastors have better wardrobe choices.
I’m wandering off mentally. I need to get back to studying. For fun, watch this YouTube video entitled “Stuff Presbyterian Seminarians Say.” It’s quite accurate.