Send us preachers!

There is currently a "dust-up" in my denomination. And while I want to speak to it, I also want to speak to a larger and, frankly, more troubling issue behind it.

A brief history for my non-Presby friends reading this: the Presbyterian Church (USA) requires ordination exams - read "big hairy finals" - that students must pass in their final year of seminary (or later) to be eligible for ordination. They are in expected areas: worship and sacraments, polity (church government), theology, Bible content, and exegesis (one's ability to draw out of scripture the Word of God in the context of teaching and especially preaching). Exegesis is the one in question right now. 

There is a committee - we ARE Presbyterians, after all - who oversee the administration of these exams and the content which goes into them. They are most deliberate in their work; the exams are developed over a period of years. I'm grateful for the thought that goes into them, and the broad swath of our denomination represented in their membership. 

The dust-up du jour is because of the scripture passage selected for this year's exegesis exam. The book of Judges, chapter 19, describes the brutal rape and murder of a married woman. (One of my arguments with the passage is that she is never referred to as "wife," but as "concubine," "girl," and finally, after the series of rapes, "woman." The man to whom she is married is always referred to as "husband." But I'll save this argument for later.) I will confess that this is not a passage with which I was deeply familiar. I suspect many are not. But I suggest you not read it before bedtime tonight. 

This is a passage that scholar Phyllis Trible addressed in her classic book Texts of Terror about forty years ago. Indeed it is that. Admittedly and regrettably, we see terrifying situations in our lives, on social media, and in the news. Ministers need to be able to address terrifying situations with a pastoral response because such situations did not cease with the compiling of the Old Testament. The objections to the choice of this passage range from "Is this a passage that a brand new pastor would preach for a congregation?" to "Students who have survived similar circumstances will be so triggered by being required to deal with this passage that they will be unable to complete the exam." While I do not disagree with these objections, I can also see good reason for a theological student to come to terms with such passages in the Bible (there are more than one of them). I disagree completely with asking a student to come to terms with it in the context of a high-pressure ordination exam. 

The problem for me, however, is larger. 

First, please know that I write in this forum as "Citizen Sallie," not in my role as General Presbyter of Mission Presbytery and not in my role as either a graduate or a Trustee of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Those roles are parts of what goes into making "Citizen Sallie," so I cannot totally ignore them. But I make these remarks on my own and not as a representative of those fine and beloved-to-me institutions. 

As a member of the Board of Austin Seminary, one of my responsibilities is awarding diplomas to graduates. We vote each spring on the roster of students recommended by the faculty as having successfully completed their studies.

As General Presbyter for Mission Presbytery, one of my responsibilities is helping 122 congregations in the southern fifth of Texas identify men and women to serve as their pastors. I know these congregations well, and I love them. I sometimes cajole candidates to consider a certain congregation, and sometimes cajole committees to consider a certain candidate. I use all the contacts and connections at my disposal to find suitable candidates, approve some to go forward, and, sometimes, disapprove candidates who are not a fit for a particular congregation. 

In this current situation regarding the choice of Judges 19 for the exam, I am told that the exam was not framed for the student in the context of preaching. The writers were to imagine they were the Associate Pastor of a congregation preparing a Bible study for a college group on the passage. Therein lies the problem.

Okay, so, do those who prepare the exams realize that "associate pastor" positions are drying up across the country? Today, in my 122 congregations, we have at most eight in this role. At least half a dozen congregations have done away with their associate positions in the 6+ years I have served in Mission Presbytery because of dwindling membership and finances. I'm not sure it's helpful for new graduates to be tested on something intended for an associate pastor role when chances are slim that they would serve in that capacity. 

More troubling to me, however, is that this exam disregards testing new graduates on their ability to preach pastorally to a congregation. Asking them to write for a "bible study" is quite different. I'm especially troubled that, at least at Austin Seminary, a student may spend three years in the institution and graduate without preaching one sermon outside of a classroom setting. While they may choose to do so, they are not required to preach a Senior Sermon in the campus chapel for community worship or to go out and preach on the circuit of small local congregations that depend on the seminary for preachers. I can approve those students as Austin Seminary graduates for completing the required coursework. But can I recommend them to one of my beloved congregations if they have no experience preaching? 

I am well aware that the days are gone when seminaries would partner with presbyteries to ensure that students were also enrolled in the parallel candidacy process that would move them toward ordination. I know that today, seminaries argue that they are primarily academic institutions responsible for educating students who can pass the coursework. And I am well aware that many students who attend seminary today to obtain a Master of Divinity degree have no intention of serving in parish ministry; instead, they are heading for chaplaincy positions (which may or may not require any preaching) or positions in social work. 

What am I to say to 122 beloved congregations when they are not able to find individuals who want to come preach to them and pastor them? 

A beautiful new residence hall on the Austin Seminary Campus, Anderson Hall, is named for John

Anderson (of blessed memory). Anderson was a giant of the faith, a longtime pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, and a former Moderator for the Presbyterian Church nationally. As part of the effort to raise funds for the building, the seminary recorded an interview with Dr. Anderson. His charge to the seminary: "Send us preachers who are not boring." We on the Board at that time were so taken with Dr. Anderson's words that today, on the doorway over the entrance to Anderson Hall, a phrase is inscribed in Latin which says exactly that. Students walk under that arched doorway every day, reminded of the fact that they are not only to be preachers but also not to be boring. Now, I would settle for knowing that we are being sent preachers. 

I am a little dismayed about the choice of scripture for this year's Exegesis exam. But this issue will pass. I am more dismayed that the exam is not even framed in the context of preaching, whether boring or not. And I am very dismayed that the partnership between seminaries and presbyteries seems to be less and less integral in preparing students for ministry. What to do about this? I'm not sure. But I don't intend to let this larger issue drop in my work on the Board and in the Presbytery. 


  1. One of the things that great songwriters do is to put words to what many people already know, yet do not have the ability to say. You cut to the heart of the matter. The quesiton, for PCC and for the church at large, is to have pastors who can faithfully delve into a text and move it two or three millenium in time so it might become God's Word in and to new generations. In our ordination vows, we pledge to take seriously the words of our scriptures, be they appealing to modern sensativities, or not. In terms of PTSD or related issues, I have had parishiners come in heart break and panic after a reading of the "red letter" words on divorce (which are included in the lectionary cycles.) I will admit that when I first heard this issue raised this week, my immediate thought was to say to the PCC: "How could you!" After reflection, a case can be made on both sides of the issue. However, your (Sallie) reframing the issue in the context of "no focus on preaching" is brilliant. Thank you.


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