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Monday, February 11, 2013

No dumb dogs!

If you travel in circles Episcopalian and say the letters G.O.E. (for General Ordination Exam) you will get some very interesting, usually very strong reactions. 

Some will say, "they are a waste of time, energy and money." Others will describe them as a throw-back from the "Old Boys Network" and describe them as "rite of passage" or a form of "hazing". Still others will point out that the GOEs came into being in 1972 - some say, in anticipation of the advent of the Ordination of Women (in 1974). 

According to the General Board of Examining Chaplain's  web site:
People are ordained in their particular dioceses, but they are ordained on behalf of, and for service throughout, the whole church. Before 1972, each diocese had its own process of examination, and testing varied widely from place to place. The exams' contents depended upon the interests and concerns of individual dioceses and people within them. Some Candidates had lenient examiners and easy questions while others suffered with quirky examiners and inappropriate exams. The GOE is the same for all Candidates no matter where they come from. Evaluators do not know Candidates' identities and have no connection with their Commissions on Ministry, their seminaries or their bishops. The GBEC executive director/GOE administrator and his staff, Readers, the Board, and Editors, as well as diocesan officials, carefully review evaluations, so Candidates have the benefit of a series of independent evaluations.
Sound reasonable? I think it does. Then again, I took the GOEs in 1986 and, for the last two years, I have had the privilege of being a Reader for GOEs.  

Did I like the GOEs when I took them? Absolutely not. Who would? Back in those days - you know, when dinosaurs roamed the earth - they were held over five days, with Sunday off.  There were "closed book" questions which we took in our study carrel and "open book" questions, which we took either in our carrel or at home. 

We were handed the "open book" questions at 9 AM and expected to return them at 9 AM the next morning, only to be handed the next question, which was to be returned at 9 AM the next morning....and so on for five days, with a day off in between. That would have been Sunday. When we were expected to return to and be fully present at our Field Ed Sites (Churches). 

Some of us finished our questions at a reasonable hour and slept soundly through the night.

Others of us well, didn't. 

Back in the day...... few of us had computers but most of us had typewriters and hired typists who acted as our editors. They made certain our sentence structure was correct and there were no typo's. Nowadays, there's "spell check" and "grammar check". Back then, we paid someone to do it. 

It was difficult, but then, as a former nurse, I was used to having to take an exam in order to be licensed to function in that capacity. Let me rush to add that GOEs are no a licensing exam, but a standardized test that helps Bishops and Standing Committees make decisions about a candidate's proficiency for ordination.

And, that's the thing that makes GOEs different from other qualifying, licensing exams for nurses or doctors or lawyers. GOEs are not a licensing exam. They are a diagnostic tool to help those who have had a minimum of a 3-5 year relationship with the candidate determine if the person - who, after all, has canonical status as a candidate - is academically 'proficient' for ordination. 

That group includes the members and Vestry of the candidate's sponsoring congregation, the Commission on Ministry, the Dean and faculty of the seminary (if the candidate has been to seminary - not a canonical requirement), the C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education) Supervisor's report (also not a canonical requirement but more and more dioceses require it), and a statement from the Field Education Supervisor.

All of these things, together with the GOEs, provide different aspects of the candidate's readiness and proficiency for ordination. It is the bishop who has the authority to ordain - well, with the concurrence of the Standing Committee.

On the whole, the majority of the responses to the exam questions I read demonstrated proficiency. My reading partner and I read seven sets of seven questions. That's 49 essays of approximately 1,500 words each. We read them - each one - at least five times. Each. One. 

Of the 49 essays we read, we found several that were not proficient. There were at least a few more that were boarder line but we tried to err on the side of generosity.

For the most part, what each question looked for was three things: knowledge, analysis, and application. The question looked to see what the candidate knows, how the candidate is able to analyze and integrate the information into a personal theology and demonstrate that the candidate can apply the knowledge to circumstances every day life.

That's what a priest does. Every day. Six times before breakfast.  More on Sunday.

You can read the questions to this year's exam here. When the question was not proficient, the biggest problem, more often than not, was that the candidate didn't answer the question. Or, didn't answer it fully. If the question asked for the "theological, historical and practical aspects" of an area, then, that's what should have been answered. Not just one or two areas. All three. 

Please do remember that the exams are completely anonymous. All the readers have is a number. We don't know the candidates name, diocese, bishop, seminary or COM members. Which is a good thing. I might have been tempted to search for that candidate just to smack some sense into him/her.

There was one question that caused a buzz throughout the tables where the readers gathered for their meals.
For three years you have been the clergy person in charge at St. Christopher’s Church, a congregation in a populous community. You receive a phone call from a chaplain working with one of the local hospice programs. She shares with you that a 12-year-old girl has been admitted into the hospice facility with a terminal disease. She is being kept as comfortable as possible but is approximately a week from death and is unresponsive.
The family has indicated to the chaplain that they are members of St. Christopher’s. They say they have been inactive at St. Christopher’s for at least five years and do not know the clergy person there, though they still consider it their spiritual home. You do not recall ever meeting the family. The chaplain tells you that she would be willing to continue to minister to the family but also feels it important to at least let you know of the situation.

In an essay of approximately 1,500 words, clearly identify and explain the theological, pastoral and practical issues that inform what you choose to do or choose not to do. Include in the essay any other people or resources you might consult to help you reach your decisions.
I thought this was a great question.  I thought this would be a place where a spiritual leader could shine, demonstrating knowledge, analysis and application in a not-uncommon pastoral situation. 

No, clergy do not get calls every day - or week or month - concerning a 12 year old child who is dying. But, pieces of this story form pieces of the stuff of parochial ministry. This is stuff that ought to have been covered in field education, pastoral ministry courses and/or a CPE experience.

Another question concerned the formulation of a liturgy for a special occasion that had arisen in the community. To my disappointment, most chose to write about Blessing of Animals, but there were some very original situations and wonderful responses to the question.

The question about the Trinity was very tricky - preaching on the Trinity at least once a year is always a chore, often assigned to unsuspecting seminarians - but the answers, for the most part, took seriously the "unity of Being" of the three natures of the Trinity,

If there was ever a case to be made for the importance of GOEs as a diagnostic tool, these  question surfaced it and made it abundantly clear.

For each "not-proficient" score, the readers had to write a 400-600 word response, detailing why the essay was determined to be non-proficient.

In most cases, it was easy to make the case for "non proficiency", simply by quoting from the essay itself. Oh, and by the way, you should know that every essay determined by the reader teams to be either proficient or not proficient had to be read and approved by a Supervising Chaplain, a member of the board.

If any essay was deemed "not proficient", the essay itself and the response from the readers had to be read by a team of three bishops before the 'not proficient' decision held.

I didn't hear of one reversal of a 'not proficient' determination.

Let me hasten to add that there were many, many more responses that were more than adequate. Some were brilliant, actually. And, they clearly "made the heart glad" and gave great hope for the state of the church.

Can the GOEs be a better, more effective diagnostic tool of proficiency for ordination? No doubt. Indeed, the board of the GBEC works hard, every year to make them better. This year was no exception. And, the board is already hard at work on next year's exams.

I know I haven't persuaded those who have had bad experiences with GOEs in the past that they are necessary and important to a process of the formation of spiritual leaders in The Episcopal Church.

That really wasn't what I was trying to do. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I simply wanted to share my experience this year and have you judge for yourself.

Martin Luther, one of the shining lights of The Reformation, was a huge proponent of educated clergy. He was reportedly horrified by the fact that so many priests could not even find the Lord's Prayer in scripture.

"No dumb dogs" he said.

Known for his harsh insults, I don't think the GOEs need to be - or are - that harsh. I think there's always room for improvement and I think the GBEC works to make them more professional and more proficient as a diagnostic tool. Indeed, I think the readers worked very hard to be compassionate and kind and instructive to the candidate as well as those who have canonical authority and responsibility of that candidate's future.

I don't know how you discern if someone has a pastoral heart, I only know that you can tell if they don't have one beating somewhere, pumping the Love of God through veins and arteries to feed the mind the body and the soul.

No dumb dogs, these, but the present and future of our church.

Lord, have mercy on us, one and all.


Lynne J. said...

Wow. As a seminarian who's hope is in becoming a Board Certified Chaplain and not ordination, I am shocked and concerned by this. It makes me wonder if there is a correlation between the seminary education and the hard hearted responses and the student.

Sextant said...

Here is my take on the world's religions. They are all inspired by God, and they are all corrupted by the hand of human beings.

On any action one can ask who does this serve? God, the individual, or the edifice of the religion?

Does God really give a damn about sprinkling water on foreheads?

Is a Divine Soul condemned to hell because it wasn't fully immersed?

Yes religions need to preserve their brand in the spiritual market, but let's not get carried away with the idea that God believes in these rules.

You can minister to the people and serve God or you can minister to the church and serve the church. There may in the end be a need for both, but they are probably not to be found in the same individual.

Great post as always.

maleveque said...

Hi Elizabeth - I'm a little unsettled about your having posted quotations from GOEs. This is supposed to be an anonymous and confidential process.
- Anne LeVeque

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ann, after reflection on your observation, I have removed the direct quotes - even though they weren't attributed to anyone and, in fact, could not be directly attributed to anyone. I think I can make my point without them. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lynne J - I think there is a huge disconnect somewhere along the line.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - The thing of it is that if you are going to expect a level of proficiency for those who are candidates for ordination in a particular denomination before ordination, you've got a right to test for proficiency. It may not be important to Jesus (and probably isn't) but human institutions have to have standards of accountability. In a perfect world......

Matthew said...

I guess what I wonder about are those candidates from dioceses where you don't go to seminary to get ordained -- they don't take formal classes (Except those that are locally taught). Perhaps the GOE's are still useful to the Bishop to determine if s/he thinks its okay to recommend ordination to the standing committee, but I wonder how they are going to get adequate training to complete them when everyone is off doing their own thing.

Sextant said...

I wasn't being critical of the process or the GOE, yes indeed, one needs a method of determining if a candidate is ready for ordination. It was the answers to the GOE that needled me.

It would be like calling 911:

"My husband is having a heart attack. Please send an ambulance."

"Membership number please?"

"Membership? What membership? My husband is going to die, please send someone quickly!"

"I am sorry ma'm, but until we have your membership number, we will not be able to provide that service."

JMB3 said...

Could you give us an idea of what you (or the GOE board) think would consider a good answer to this question? That would be interesting for us lait folk who don't have the benefit of a seminary education.

Thanks again for all the great posts -- they are always enjoyable to read.

John Barton

Marthe said...

Ah, dear E - Not at all surprised...sad, but not surprised. Six years as a church administrator in a demand-i-nation (that's what I called the not Episcopal church I slaved in for a bit)made it quite clear that "love one another" was not on the list of "rules" for either pastoral behavior or congregational intent ... endless checklists of "pedigree" before scheduling any sort of service (weddings, baptisms, funerals, pastoral visits, ad infinitum) ... love one another if, but, except ... if a member in "good standing", but not if it's inconvenient or might ruffle someone's feathers, except when "they" are not likely to "pay back" the favor or, gasp!, not appreciate the prayerfully considered charity ... toss off all indifference to actual human beings with a pithy verse quotation (out of context, of course), walk away with a shrug and blame all on a lack of unlimited resources ... never mind that what was truly radical about Christ's message was that it meant love without bounds, as well as you possibly can, everyone, at all times, without regard for whatever diverse descriptive might apply or administrative process. While I have been fortunate not to have encountered any truly ignorant clergy in my lengthy and multi-denominational church history, I have met far too many indifferent poachers of the Word ... just makes me sad, the self-imposed limitations, the concessions to defeat before even trying to actually follow the One because, well, you know, human error. Indifference in a vestment is not hate, but it sure isn't helping ... not the church, not the people, not the God of love who no doubt wishes we would stop fixating on the reward and get that when we love one another the killing stops and the peace proceeds. Here endeth today's mini-rant.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wait a minute. I seriously doubt Elizabeth has even minutely compromised confidentiality here. She did the equivalent of me showing an unlabled photo of a tumor and saying, "This is an adenocarcinoma of the colon." That's all she did. She didn't even say, "This is an adenocarcinoma of the colon in a 59 year old woman who noticed bloody stools and trouble evacuating x 1 month." I would not be afraid of doing that. The only thing I would do more "protective" is here in Kirksville, I would not show that case immediately b/c there might have only been one person in town who had colon surgery that day and one could deduce it.

So I'm sorry, I respectfully have to assert she's broken no confidentiality in terms of "patient identification." The word for word rules on the GOE I leave up to someone more in the know. But my suspicion is Elizabeth is well versed in those rules herself.

I have to ask if the discomfort is more about the truth revealed in those sorts of comments. I have to admit when I read some of them, I had flashbacks of something an abuser clergy person once said, and that person's way of getting out of doing the work pastors are supposed to do.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Sextant, for that clarification. And yes, that's a good analogy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - Well, I am always horrified when I run into a pastorally inept priest or deacon or lay leader. It's really up to the bishop - with the assistance the COM, Standing Committee and seminary deans - to use the information unearthed by the GOEs to assist them. If they don't, shame on them - and woe to us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Kirke, I suppose there are lots of metaphors for what I tried to do. However, I KNOW - for a natural fact - there are readers who are talking about this with the folks back home. "Confidentiality," I'm convinced, is a lovely concept with little or no basis in reality. As Jack Spong used to say, if one person tells another person a secret, it's no longer a secret. Or, as the law states, unless I've got my stole on and the BCP open, there's no seal of confessional that will not compel me to not report what was said to me directly that might be a crime. I didn't think this was a secret - or confidential (I've read the reader's web page on GBEC and there's nothing there. Anonymous is not the same as confidential) - but someone was made uncomfortable by it, so I put the picture of the tumor away.