When word broke that the PCUSA ordination translation exam in Hebrew would be on the rape located in Judges 19.* I like most of my colleagues had to go and reread the passage to familiarize myself as to just how triggering it might be. (This is a passage on abuse, rape and violence, all the trigger warnings)
This passage is not included in any of the lectionary (cycles that are regularly preached upon) in the Bible, for good reason, and thus is not at my fingertips in meaning. I just remember it is bad. Upon rereading, it’s really, really terrible and should only be studied in certain settings and with care and understanding.
Ordination exams in the PCUSA are, in my opinion, similar to Doctoral exams and lawyer bars because they harken back to the days when pastors, doctors and lawyers were the most educated and well paid individuals in the community. Let me say succinctly that although pastors positions have changed, the tests in the PCUSA have not changed much, in fact what used to be referred to as the Baby Bible: a quiz on Bible knowledge, has become more difficult.
To put to task someone, five days alone, translating a triggering and traumatic text is the opposite of pastoral. Especially when we require all of our candidates for ministry to undergo psychological assessments before they go into ministry. A good and just practice for everyone involved.
Let me first break down the responses I have seen to those who have objected to the test and then take a big picture view of the entire situation.
First, the responses are completely insufficient. First the committee said that they had someone did raise objections that the Judges 19* might be triggering but they met and prayed on it and proceeded anyway.
Then they said that the fact that this is a 3 year process to set up tests and readers means that at this juncture they consider it too late to do anything more.
Now the committee is stating they will let people take the next round of tests without charge, which will still delay ordinations, jobs and not be that helpful. Also the committee are responding individually and have not yet made a public statement meaning some students will be left in the dark.
To take a more broad view, let me just say that there is a huge pastoral shortage, seminaries are in flux about how to educate people, finding readers is a huge task and most Presbyteries, Synods, etc. are also understaffed. In short the denomination has hit the wall. The last gathering I went to with a bunch of PCUSA attendees I heard more than once people voice that they were uncertain that the denomination would last more than ten years.
Additionally, in light of Covid-19 et. al, I want to say that I can understand that the committee probably, was in survival mode, and missed what they should have seen. However, it’s not too late to change course.
I also want to say that, probably why it is so hard to change course is because I believe that it is not just Judges 19* that is on the line. The entire ordination exam program is not working. The reason why the committee feels like they have to go forward, is because everything will crumble if they do not keep going as is–maybe it’s time to let things crumble.
The ordination system is not working anymore, the seminary system has the fewest number of students ever, I and my parents were shocked to hear of the handful of attendees that are now in the seminary we attended instead of the couple of hundred that attended when I was there a mere twelve years ago.
Change is upon us. The programs that are succeeding, like my doctorate of ministry in creative writing at Pittsburgh Seminary, are so different that they seem to come out of left field and surprise everyone. Even the successful things seem to be overwhelming at such a time as this.
Sometimes I think all the church people are walking around saying to each other “Do you mean we have to change everything?” and the Holy Spirit just keeps coaxing us along in the best possible ways. I think there are faithful and joyful ways for it to all happen, if we have the ears to hear it all–however the signs of change have been around us for a while and we are reaching the point of no return where it will only get harder, not easier.
I am a revitalization minister. My specialty is to take a ministry that has hit rock bottom, and know it has to change, and to work with the strengths it already has towards the new thing God has already planted within us. It is different than interim work, it’s not just shaking things up or holding the position for the new person, it is planting a million seeds, building trust and doing the work of transformation.
I believe that God can revitalize the PCUSA, but it would take a lot of change, a lot of money, and a lot of new things. It would be very scary. It would mean admitting that the old ways are not working, and seeing those things that signal to bigger problems.
It takes a lot of good hard work, but then Presbyterians are not afraid of work.
Also, I believe in resurrection. In order for us to be a resurrection people, some things have to die. This is the harsh truth of who we are and how we live. I believe in the resurrection and the life everlasting and the Kin(g)dom–this is part and parcel of why I am a revitalization minister. It’s not all about heaven for me.
I think we all need to look at the Judges 19* conversation again as a broader one of what we mean by ordination, church, seminary and our denomination in general.
And yes, we need to change the test too, immediately.
*I am not inviting you to read Judges 19 if you are a victim of abuse or sexual violence. Please take care of yourself.
Also People who are writing about the inherent sexism and privilege intrinsic in this decision, which is true and harrowing. I myself am thankfully not a victim of violence. Here is a good place to start Traci Smith
Petition to sign here https://chng.it/SSJQZN7JcK?fbclid=IwAR21DsfFx36ObHSke2kzijvbpgW4mtTsJqE9WdOjrsGVFGZYyk6wV7DiazQ&mibextid=Zxz2cZ
Addendum: Here is a response from the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney who is a renowned Womanist scholar and Creator of A Women’s Lectionary for the whole church https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid02VjrkApc64FrjTaRBas8ZqgBbdv6L86iKrczckSSf8u9sSZpddnwhj6TK8a6sqgwDl&id=1244593681
This Outlook article gives another good perspective https://pres-outlook.org/2023/02/pcusa-administrators-respond-to-public-outcry-after-text-of-terror-is-selected-for-hebrew-exegesis-exam/
Here is a link about how Jesus might do self care in light of the exams: https://katyandtheword.com/2023/02/03/self-care/
Katy Stenta is a writer, Student of Creative Writing as Public Theology at Pittsburgh Seminary, and creator of liturgy.