Although seminary is a challenging experience in and of itself, something more formidable (at least in terms of stress) awaits most students. The dreaded ordination exam.
This is the time when a candidate stands up in front of the presbytery (perhaps with 50 -75 elders in attendance) and is publicly examined, probed, prodded, and picked at for several hours on a variety of topics ranging from church history to sacraments to eschatology to the famed Book of Church Order.
And from candidate’s perspective, it is easy to feel like you are looking into the eyes of a hungry cat. And you are the mouse.
So, needless to say, I have often been asked about whether I have any pieces of advice for students entering into this process. Although this is by no means exhaustive, here are a few thoughts that I hope are helpful:
1. Humbly submit to the process. In the midst of ordination exams, it is all too easy for the candidate to disparage the entire affair as a needless waste of time. It is often viewed as merely an occasion for presbyters to unfairly and tediously badger a candidate over nitpicky and irrelevant theological minutia.
Thus, the exam is seen more as a hazing ritual than a serious duty of the church. It is just a bureaucracy that must be endured. It is an irritant.
Candidates who think this way can be spotted a mile away by presbyteries. Nothing will sink your candidacy quicker than the perception that you think you are above it all, or that the process doesn’t really apply to you.
Instead, take the low, humble road. Acknowledge that the process (even with its flaws) exists for a very good reason, namely to protect the purity and faithfulness of the church. And be ready to submit to the outcome as from the Lord–even if it doesn’t go your way.
2. Anticipate problem areas. One of the best ways to prepare for an exam is to know what’s coming. Know the issues that are flash points in your presbytery (and your denomination). If you are in the PCA, for example, you are going to be asked about issues like the historical Adam, views of creation days, women deacons, New Perspective on Paul, Federal Vision, paedo-communion, sanctification, and more. So, be ready for them.
You also need to anticipate any concerns that might arise from the exceptions you take to the Confession. That is always a point of discussion and you must be ready with answers. And this is especially the case if it is an unusual or rare exception.
3. Don’t assume a view is acceptable just because “famous” people hold it. Over the years I have seen a number of candidates defend a controversial doctrinal position simply by citing some other famous individual, whether historical or modern, that holds that same view. They think to themselves, “If famous pastor X holds this view, and he is ordained in the PCA, then I will be fine.”
But candidates quickly learn that this is not a sufficient defense or explanation. Every presbytery is different–what is allowed in one might not be allowed in another. Moreover, presbyters don’t want to see you hold views just because other (famous) people hold them. Your candidacy is not helped by being part of a cult of personality. They want to see that you can defend and explain these issues yourself.
4. More matters than just your view of an issue. Candidates regularly assume that if they simply hold the orthodox position on some issue, then the presbytery will ask no more follow up questions. In other words, having the right view keeps you “safe” in the presbytery exam. But this is not the case.
There are two additional issues that presbyteries want to know beyond the position you take:
(a) Can you ably explain and defend that position? Can you carefully and competently articulate why you hold your view and why the opposing views are not as compelling? In other words, presbyteries also want to evaluate how much you know, not just what your position is.
(b) How important or critical is the view you hold? Are you willing to accept others into the presbytery who don’t share it? These are questions that are rarely considered by candidates. As an example: you may hold the cessationist view of tongues and miraculous gifts, but will you accept others in the presbytery that have a different view? You need to have answers to such questions.
5. Don’t assume that an aggressive person asking questions represents the whole presbytery. Candidates regularly get flustered when a presbyter stands up for 15 minutes and grills them over some theological issue. The candidate thinks they have taken a public drubbing and the whole presbytery is about to vote him down.
What the candidate misses is that the presbyter who stood up may be an anomaly in his own presbytery. In other words, 90% of the presbytery may have been silently disagreeing with this person throughout his whole monologue. There are always certain presbyters who have “pet peeve” issues that they feel obligated to defend when they are examining candidates–it is just their chance to give their regular speech.
So, don’t assume one aggressive line of questing necessarily means you had a bad exam.
6. Beware of talking too little or too much. I know this sounds vague or arbitrary (what counts as too little or too much?) but let me explain. Sometimes I hear people give advice that a candidate should talk as little as possible lest they say something they might regret. But, this advice can backfire. Answers that are too truncated or too abrupt can come across like a candidate is either hiding something or that they don’t know very much. So ironically, answers that are too brief can actually lead to more questions.
On the flip side, I have seen some candidates that just don’t know when to stop. Presbyteries are looking for succinct answers and some candidates just ramble on and on. This also can hurt you because it shows (a) lack of discretion and awareness, and (b) it does increase your chances of exposing your ignorance or saying something you wished you hadn’t said.
The middle ground is to answer the question with enough explanation and color commentary so that the presbytery can understand your reasoning (and can see that you know what you are talking about), without trying to give a seminar-length answer to each question.
7. Be an observer of presbytery exams. As a final tip, one of the best way to prepare for presbyter exams is to watch others go through them, learning from their successes and their mistakes. So attendance at each presbytery really does help! You don’t want your presbytery exam to be the first time you have set foot in a presbytery meeting.
There is much more that can be said than just these seven suggestions. But my hope is that these suggestions will be helpful as you prepare for that important moment when you have to stand in front of a presbytery.
And once you are able to stand in front of a presbytery (successfully), then you are ready for the even harder job. Standing in front of a church.