Preparing candidates for ministry–the role of GOEs

One of the things that raised my eyebrows the highest when reading through early episodes of the budget fiasco, was the proposal to defund General Ordination Exams. These are the exams taken by candidates for ordination to test their competency in certain areas of theological and pastoral study. Such demonstration of competency is a canonical requirement.

I have been involved on various levels of this process. As a faculty member at an Episcopal Seminary, I sat in the faculty meeting where faculty were to vote on recommending students for candidacy, and heard them complain that bishops didn’t take their decision seriously.

I sat for GOEs myself in a year when one of the questions had an egregious typo that made answering it nonsensical. I served as “formation faculty” in a diocese where we received results and explored areas of strength and weakness with ordinands. And in that same capacity, we had to come up with some means of determining competency for candidates to the vocational diaconate.

It may be that as a church, we don’t think demonstrating competency is particularly important. In that case, we should change the canons. It may be that the process could be improved, that changes be made to reflect the realities of ministry in the twenty-first century (but I still think that a firm grounding in the traditional theological disciplines will be necessary in any changed environment: there will still be scripture, and the historical tradition, et al).

What I do know from my experience is that if a diocese takes seriously the requirement to demonstrate competency, it requires enormous amounts of energy, time, and creativity, especially when working with candidates who haven’t had a traditional theological education. Here’s what happened in my former diocese when we had several candidates for the vocational diaconate.

Those of us involved in the process sent a flurry of emails in which we talked about format, what we would require, what sorts of questions we might ask. After several weeks of work, we established the format, vetted the questions with the group, asked the candidates to submit papers. We read the papers, followed up with another flurry of emails to discuss how we thought the candidates did and how we might approach an oral conversation. Then the conversation itself. How long did all that take? I have no idea. Now that was in a relatively large diocese where there were multiple candidates. A single candidate would require almost as much time, energy, and creativity from those involved in establishing competency. How much of a small diocese’s resources would be devoted to assessing a single candidate?

I suppose someone might say, the situation I’ve disagreed shows the inadequacy of GOEs. Perhaps it does, but if the process is broken, let’s fix it. Let’s not eliminate it.

I’m one of those people, perhaps a member of a dying breed, who believes that a learned clergy is one of the things we have to offer the wider church. Yes, it requires, time, money, and other valuable resources, but in a culture where “dumbing-down” seems to be the norm, even the “dumbing down” of Christianity, it’s one more way we set ourselves apart and are counter cultural.

One of the issues in the budget debate is the question what is best done on a national level and what is best done on the diocesan or local level. It seems to me that GOEs provide an excellent test for exploring as a church how we might coordinate national and diocesan efforts. But to do that, we need a conversation that involves all of those perspectives, not simply an executive fiat from above, suddenly telling the dioceses to take over tasks for which they are not prepared and for which they may not have adequate resources. Such a conversation might develop templates, models, or roadmaps for dioceses to follow that would prevent everyone from having to design their own processes. (I wish the same thing were done with other elements of the ordination process–the whole design of the process, for example, or the development of diocesan training programs).

In the meantime, let’s not defund GOEs, let’s keep them going with an eye to revision, improvement, and perhaps complete transformation.

There’s an interesting article at the Cafe in which Raewynne J. Whiteley asks some very pertinent questions.

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