Of the General Ordination Exam

GBEC logoThis week, all across the country, people who hope to be ordained in the Episcopal Church are taking the General Ordination Exam. It’s a week of writing essays on areas of knowledge thought to be important to the life and work of priests. If you look at the Facebook pages of clergy this week, you’ll see that most clergy (at least most of my priest friends) seem to think the GOE is a pointless hazing ritual, that it has little value.

I disagree. But before I tell you why I think the GOE is good, I’d like to ask one question. Why must so many things in the Episcopal Church have the word “General” in the title? General Ordination Examination. General Convention. General Board of Examining Chaplains. The General Seminary. The General Thanksgiving. The General Confession. I’m surprised we aren’t required to buy things from General Electric. I think we should go one of two ways. Let’s either go whole hog and name everything with General in the title (“Could you hand me the General Flagon so I can pour some General Wine into the General Chalice? Yes, General”) or let’s maybe be just a wee bit more creative. As usual, I have digressed. Back to the GOE.

There are three reasons why I think the GOE is still a good, if imperfect, idea. First, it requires potential priests to write lots of material quickly. That’s an essential skill for a priest. If you can’t write quickly, you certainly are not going to do well in parish ministry. There are sermons, newsletter articles, notes for vestries, leaflets for the church school, newspaper bits, and on and on. Fr. Matthew covers this topic nicely. Sure, the content won’t be the same as a GOE, but the skill is similar.

Second, the GOE encourages potential priests to synthesize an enormous amount of material. Almost three years of seminary education are expected, and students have to prepare to show knowledge on the whole of the Bible, not just on a series of particular classes. Again, this is useful in parish ministry. When someone initiates a conversation at coffee hour — or in the market — you can’t put them on hold while you consult class notes. No one expects priests to be walking encyclopias, but the level of knowledge required for a GOE is about right for day-to-day parochial work.

Third, the GOE can be stressful. I personally do not think the GOE approaches the level of stress of a real hazing ritual, but I do think it gives a good “crunch” that one can learn from. If the GOE is unbearable, your first Holy Week is not going to go well. The GOE is a cakewalk compared to preparing for an annual meeting as rector. Learning to get through GOE week (self care, relying on the good will of friends) is outstanding preparation for plenty of stressful times to come.

Now, I do think the GOE could be better. I’d like to see a return to “coffee hour questions” — brief answers to questions or situations that one might encounter in parish ministry. The timing of the exam might be improved. Is the first week in January really the best time? There have been some attempts to modernize the test. The whole test is now administered electronically. You get the question from the GBEC website, write your answer in your favorite word processor, and then submit your answer on the same place you collected the question. No need to use a printer at all. In fact, proctors are necessary now only as backups in case the interwebs get clogged.

Still, there’s probably room for further improvement. One of the most outrageous (in a good way) priests of the Anglican Communion has some ideas. If you haven’t visited his blog before now, you’re in for a treat. Have a look at the suggestions of Fr. Oscar Late over at Acknowledge & Bewail. Late might be partisan, but that would certainly be a fun exam to take!

In any case, I encourage you to join me in praying for all those who are taking the GOE this week. If you like, you can pray especially for Sherilyn, my partner, who is encamped in Cambridge as we speak, getting ready for another day of concentrated writing.

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17 Responses

  1. Peter Carey says:

    Scott, you make some good points – clearly some kind of an assessment is needed, and some aspects of the GOE do work well. However, there are some issues which need to be addressed. For example, you did not address the wide divergence of opinion from Bishops and Standing Committees about their utility. In a growing number of dioceses, seminarians are already ordained transitional deacons and have been told that they “just need to take the GOEs” in order to fulfill the next step of the ordination process.

    You failed to address the actual questions of the exam and some of the strange and ad hominem comments which come from some of the examiners. I know many folks who read and grade the GOEs and I am surprised that these (quite crazy and unprofessional) comments occur, but I have seen many of them (a PhD in theology is failed in the theology area and told that s/he doesn’t know theology; a candiate whose parent is a bishop is told that s/he doesn’t have any idea of the life of a clergyperson; an African American candidate is told they don’t have any awareness of cross-cultural experiences; a former military chaplain who ministered at the Pentagon after 911 is told that s/he doesn’t have a clue about how to minister after tragedy)….

    “But, I do appreciate your fulsome and robust answer, though it is clear you don’t have a clue about either the GOE or parish ministry”



  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Peter, thanks for posting your comment here (and on Facebook).

    I would say “touché” to your excellent critique, except that you haven’t kept up with the times. Apparently, the highest score is “4” now.

    I agree that Bishops & SCs differ in their take on the GOE. That’s a separate, but related, iss…ue which should be addressed.

    It would be interesting to try to measure, quantitatively, the number of GOE assessments which are felt to be problematic. I don’t deny there are problems, but is it 5% or 40%? The aim should be for a completely fair take on things, but of course that will never happen. I really don’t have a sense of the scale of the problem. One could also point out that one’s critics in preaching are not always fair. 🙂

    Lastly, for the record, I don’t hate General Convention. I just think it needs to move out of the 1950s. And I don’t think you’re a hater.

  3. Peter says:

    Good to know your thoughts on this. While I agree that quick thinking, synthesis of information and stress tests are plausible reasons to keep this foolishness around, it’s like the dentist asking you if you’ve been brushing your teeth. First of all, priests are called to do all sorts of work in all sorts of churches. There are some who do not feel called to a parish ministry setting where they’d have to answer coffee hour questions, but rather deal with unsavory parishioners. No test can prepare for that. Peter’s comments on the examiners is also spot on: the whole thing is very arbitrary. So many of us heard that the year before was so much harder than our years…the questions were outrageous, the examiners ruthless, etc.
    As our seminaries are unwillingly dragged into the 19th century, surely there is a better way to prepare our clerical leaders for parish life and ministry. More field ed, perhaps? More hands-on instruction with better oversight? Writing five days of exams isn’t much prep for anything, unless you want to write the best blog in the Episcopal Church.

  4. Peter Carey says:

    I think we should broaden the GOEs and make folks answer one question a day for 500 days…this would prepare everyone well for blogging…but then we wouldn’t have time to actually read anyone’s blogs (to say nothing of reading the Bible or theology or the newspaper or Rolling Stone magazine…)

  5. Tim Schenck says:

    If Confirmation is (and I agree) a “rite in search of a theology,” the GOE is a test in search of a purpose. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard of someone not getting ordained because they failed to sustain all the canonical areas. There’s usually some hand wringing, tears, embarassment, and a remedial diocesan requirement. But it’s not like the Bar Exam where if you fail you won’t become an attorney. There is often a degree of wiggle room and episcopal discretion at work.

    So if it’s a general benchmark rather than a true requirement, let’s just name it as such.

    In the meantime, I can only assume you’ve dropped off some General Tso’s chicken to Sherilyn. Prayers for her!

  6. Carlene says:

    I hope Sherilyn is feeling better… What a bad time to get sick. I pray for her….how long does it take to get the results from the GOE’s?

  7. Kira says:

    As a senior seminarian currently involved in her ordination exams, I find this conversation interesting. My diocese (Texas) has moved away from the GOE for the first year, and we are at the mercy of the examining chaplains. Instead of 4 days of writing on 7 canonical areas, we have both written and oral exams on 6 of the areas and just an oral exam on pastoral ministry & theology. We are also being asked to lead and preach at morning or evening worship. I’ve only completed one part of this exercise, but from what I’ve heard about the GOE, this is a MUCH better situation. There are definitely more questions like you’ve mentioned, as well as more practical application being tested. So far, this is working well, though I don’t know if it would be practical for all diocese and you lose the centralization of most seminarians taking the same exam.

  8. Laura says:

    A friend of mine opined that the great thing about the GOEs was that it taught her how much you could get done in three hours. Plan Holy Week? Prepare an Adult Education series? Develop a theology of ministry? All do-able if you just gut it out. And that’s no bad thing to learn.

    Is the GOE effective? I don’t know. Does anyone? As far as I know, there really isn’t much objective data to gauge the GOE’s effectiveness, which makes the GOEs a great target for general sniping and anecdotal reports.

    It would be interesting to see how a control group would do on the exam; perhaps a group made up of lay people, clergy in other denominations, and Episcopal clergy (if they would be willing to submit to the ordeal again). I’d be curious what this revealed.

  9. Scott Gunn says:

    Laura, good points. I’d take it again, but I’m in a small minority who enjoyed it (probably because I took it several years after finishing seminary).

    I think Kira’s experience might suggest an alternative worth trying. My concern about a diocesan model is that local people might be reluctant to negatively evaluate people they know. The scale and anonymity of the current system protects readers and test-takers.

    Carlene — thanks, Sherilyn is much better, and she’ll be even better tomorrow, I think. Nothing to add “fun” to the GOE like having hospital-worthy flu right before the test!

  10. Mike says:

    I currently serve on the Examining Chaplains of our diocese. Historically we used oral canonical exams and not the GOEs. A few years ago we revised the entire process. We have begun to focus on formation rather than a simple pass fail exam. We now have the seminarians take the GOEs but they are also read and evaluated by the Examining Chaplains. We have an annual seminarian retreat for every year of seminary. It is an opportunity for us to get to know our future priests and for them to begin to establish collegial relationships with us even before they are ordained. Over the course of three days we have small group conversations about the canonical subjects, establishing a life of prayer, family and self-care, as well as the practice of parish ministry. This gives us some indication of how the seminarian is progressing year to year not only academically but also in their life of prayer and priestly formation. Our conversations are very practice oriented. We want to learn how the seminarian is integrating what he or she is learning with actual practice and application. We use this, in part, to learn where people are struggling personally, spiritually, and academically. We can then offer mentoring or guidance in overcoming the struggles. We want to grow competent, academically qualified priests who pray. The GOEs are one part of the overall process not the sole determinant. The seminarian feedback on this process has been very positive.


  11. Bosco Peters says:

    Don’t toss out your GOE or residential seminaries too quickly.

    Where can I see examples of the GOE? – links please.

    The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is intent on keeping no statistics, but estimates are that about 7% of those being ordained have been to residential formation. Ie. 93% of those being ordained have no residential formation. We have no threshold for ordination. At some ordinations there are 23 or so ordained to the priesthood – some wonder about the value of the laity! The amateurisation, hobyisation of Christianity, liturgy, church is constantly evident.

    Here are some of the results:

  12. MadPriest says:

    First, it requires potential priests to write lots of material quickly. That’s an essential skill for a priest.

    I disagree. It’s a useful skill but I think we are straying a long way from any orthodox understandings of priesthood if we claim it is essential to the office. That someone might be rejected because they are crap at exams seems very “worldly” to me.

  13. David Knight says:

    Mixed reviews from me. The experience is challenging, although I wouldn’t call it “hazing”. But challenging is ok and good practice. It was much more pressure packed for those whose dioceses put greater weight on the results, but those are becoming few and far between.
    I like the “idea” of some kind of standard way of checking academic formation. This is even more important as seminaries close and more non-traditional methods of Theological Education are rolled out.
    I really appreciate Mike’s description of the approach from his diocese. The danger in that method is for the examining chaplains to become what many COM’s are, rubber stampers who are too nice to ask the hard questions.

  14. Thanks Scott for a thoughtful article. I think my problems with the GOE’s are addressed by you and the comments already here.

    I just addressed one problem I have with the GOE’s in a recent sermon called “The Pink Candle” (linked to my name), slightly edited below, that you mentioned:

    There used to be a section of the exam referred to as the “Coffee Hour Questions”: they were random questions, potentially on anything, that a parishioner might come up and ask you. Most of these questions, however, were not seeking a pastoral response, but a factual response: who is so and so, and what does such and such mean. Oh yeah, no notes or sources were allowed on this section. You were supposed to be ready for what people might ask you “after church”: in an unknown parish, potentially anywhere in the Episcopal Church, and at any time of the year.

    Now, in real life, when someone asks me a Church question I don’t know, I respond “I’m not really sure, but I know how to find out. Why don’t we meet in the office sometime this week and we can talk about it?” Or, since we’re wireless here at All Saints’, I can respond: “give me a moment to Google it…” That’s a reasonable response: after all, very few people really expect a priest to be a walking church encyclopedia (which is a really, really good thing…)

    Answers like these, however, do not earn any credit on the GOE’s. So, on this exam, you’d have to fake your way though answers you didn’t completely know, hoping you’d get enough stuff right (and sound confident enough) to get some credit.

    It’s my experience that clergy, even when they’re not sure, sometimes still give GOE answers to people, perhaps thinking something like: “I’m not sure, I think it might be this, but I’m going to tell you in a way that makes it sound like I really know, since you must be thinking that I should know…”

  15. Melody says:

    I will chime in to say I am another priest who thinks that the GOE has some very good things to offer and could, in fact, be better utilized. I would agree with Scott on his points about writing things in short amounts of time, synthesizing information relatively quickly, and learning to handle stress.

    While I will certainly admit Peter’s point that there are some readers of the GOE who make outrageous and occasionally out of line remarks, I think the anonymity of the GOE is actually nice. Too many COMs and SC’s end up being “rubber stamp” committees, unwilling to ask the hard questions or push seminarians on their answers. Sometimes the readers of the GOE have the opportunity to do that. I know that after I got over some of my self-defensiveness when reading the comments on my answers, I began to hear some helpful and good comments.

    I would further say that I think some of the backlash against the GOE, by both individuals and dioceses, is nothing short of anti-intellectualism. The truth is, not all seminaries teach the same things. And we ought to be able to expect Episcopal clergy to have a working knowledge of the seven areas tested in the GOE. I have encountered too many priests who don’t, and who flaunt that fact. I rather wish that bishops and diocese would take the test a little more seriously, and continue to expect excellence from our clergy, rather than blithely ordaining people who didn’t come even close to passing.

  16. MK says:

    I finished cum laude with a 3.9 and in the top 5 of my rather large seminary class at VTS…and passed with average to below average scores on the GOE’s. As as assessment of the academic/pastoral qualifications of graduating priests, the GOE fails miserably. As an opportunity to subject graduating seminarians to the subjective assessments of “chaplains” who may or may not be qualified to make them…it’s great.

  17. David says:

    I’m a senior in seminary and am actually taking the GOE’s
    this week. Just finished question 7/8, in fact, around 4:00 pm.
    Classmates for years have been talking about the scourge of the
    GOE, so much so that the very word inspires fear in the hearts of
    many a seminarian. But having taken them this week, I daresay I’ve
    actually enjoyed myself. Of all the questions so far, 6/7 are
    things you could reasonably be expected to hear about from a
    parishioner. The Theology question was challenging, and much more
    academic, but still, valuable for seeing how a person’s theological
    brain works. I have found the schedule – one whole week, with two
    three-hour exams per day, and a midweek break – exhausting, but not
    the intellectual content of the exam. Granted, I don’t have my
    scores back. The readers may not like my answers to a given
    question, but I’m not sure the scores aren’t the final point –
    using all the areas of your theological and practical mind to
    synthesize a coherent, logical answer is. Even if the grading is
    erratic (and all signs seem to say it is), an ordinand’s Bishop
    should be able to look over their responses to a question and get
    an idea where a person stands after 2.5 years of seminary –
    especially when they put those answers side-by-side with the essays
    that are inevitably required before you enter the process. More
    importantly, I’d be confident standing before my Bishop to defend
    any answer I’ve given on the exam thus far, backing them with my
    knowledge of theology, scripture, history, etc, much more so than I
    would for any of those essays I wrote. I think it often gets
    forgotten that when we’re put into a parish, we’re not just the
    pastor, we’re also the Theologian-in-Residence. And while the GOE
    may not judge aptitude for pastoral ability, I think it is a fair
    metric of the ability to think theologically. My $0.02, which would
    no doubt inspire the wrath of my classmates. If they read this
    comment, they’ll know who I am.

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