Why the PC(USA) Ordination Process Sucks…

I’m guessing that most people who have gone through the PC(USA) ordination process (and likely, many other mainline processes) can relate, to some degree, with the photos above. Regardless of what anyone says about it, or what it’s supposed to be like, many would agree that it can be a depressing, lonely, frustrating, soul-sucking process. A great journey for folks who are going to be spiritual leaders of communities, right?

Unless you’re new to Pomomusings, you know about my own struggle through a 7 year ordination process. If you’re new to that aspect of my story, you might want to check out these posts:

Now, it’s easy to say when you’re on THIS side of the ordination process, but I think it is in serious need of reform and rethinking. I know there are a lot of people who are rethinking theological education, and that’s a good thing. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a process which people go through to get ordained, as opposed to just going online and doing it. But when the process itself can turn away people who are gifted and talented for the ministry, and when people describe it as an endless series of jumping through hoops…there has to be a better way.

I ran across a post today, “Rethinking the Ordination Process in the PCUSA” by Fuller M.Div. student Laura Terasaki. She begins:

Anyone who has attempted the ordination in a main-line denomination (especially in the PCUSA), knows what an uphill battle the experience can be. One’s call is tested many times and significant financial, relational, professional, and theological challenges abound.

In her post, she offers a few thoughts of her as she was brainstorming what we might be able to do to change the process. These are a few of her suggestions:

  1. I recommend that the PCUSA offer these classes online for a fee several times a year through the PCUSA and not through the seminaries. This will make the classes much more accessible to the students and ensure that all PCUSA candidates are receiving the same training. Or, I recommend that the CPMs (Committee on Preparation for Ministry) offer these courses as weekend retreats or intensives so that students can work them in to their schedules and meet other people going through the process. Additionally, I believe that all presbyteries should have the same requirements in general for MDIV coursework and not have them vary from presbytery to presbytery as transferring is a common practice.
  2. I strongly recommend that seminary internship stipends be regulated and disbursed through individual presbyteries so that poor and wealthy churches are receiving and training seminarians and that seminarians are not indirectly financially punished by serving in a smaller or poorer church. Also, I strongly recommend more flexibility for internship locations so that seminarians are not spending too much time in their cars just to get between internship site, home, school, and home church in  a given week. Let us avoid burning out our seminarians.
  3. I recommend that PCUSA testing be condensed and offered more frequently throughout the year. Additionally, I suggest that testing be available in many more languages so that our ESL/ELL candidates are given a fairer chance at passing the tests and becoming ordained leaders in our generations.

I think these are some great suggestions. Here are a few that I would add:

  1. CPMs should focus on the process as a unique time of spiritual formation and discernment. Each CPM should help connect every inquirer and candidate with a spiritual director, someone who can assist each person in their discernment and journey through the process and/or seminary.
  2. CPMs should take full advantage of today’s technology and do annual consultations over Skype/FaceTime/Google+ Hangouts (there may be some presbyteries that are already doing this). I just remember how much time and money it took to get back to Idaho for an annual meeting when I lived on the east coast, and it didn’t feel like good stewardship of money, resources or time on anyone’s part.
  3. I just want to emphasize part of Laura’s first point. Course requirements should be standardized across presbyteries. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that this hasn’t happened yet. I came from Kendall Presbytery, who didn’t care what I took, or how many courses I took as Pass/Fail (when I attended, most of my professors at Princeton Seminary encouraged us to take as many of our classes as Pass/Fail as we could). I took full advantage of that, but then was penalized and given a very hard time while trying to transfer into the Presbytery of San Francisco because of the amount of Pass/Fail classes on my transcript. This isn’t necessarily a critique on the Presbytery of San Francisco, but on the vastly different requirements presbytery by presbytery.

I think it’s going to take those of us who are younger, and are now on the ordained side of this process, to get into the necessary positions to change this process. Though, I fear that we won’t make the changes. I remember many times talking with friends about the whole process before we were ordained, and all of us said “as soon as we’re ordained – let’s fix this damn thing!” Now, many of us are ordained, and getting caught up in the busy-ness of day-to-day life in ministry…and I fear that we’ll forget there are still so many people still stuck in the process, getting more and more frustrated by the denomination.

Well, what about you? What changes would you make to the PC(USA) ordination process, or the process for your denomination? What do you think will it take to make it a helpful, spiritually-energizing process of discernment?


  1. says

    The thing I have found completely lacking in the ordination process is the human connection. I’ve had friends who were stuck in rooms for days answering theological questions or doctrinal questions, but were never asked the real questions of life. Sure, they were asked how their marriage was, blah, blah, but no one ever dug into their personal life.

    I would add an element of personal discipleship and investment. The ordination process has relied on seminaries to educate future pastors instead of investing in them. They need to be given skills, but also, need to be challenged and affirmed. A lot of people get their ordination and still wonder if they are fit for ministry. This is tragic. They need to be welcomed and accepted as another person willing to give their lives to helping other’s in their pursuit of faith.

    My two cents.

  2. elbyviau says

    There are some cultural changes that I don’t think the process has caught up with …
    Mobility (as you mentioned, people transfer) during and after seminary means people are taking ord exams without access to libraries or study groups and may not have a strong connection to a supportive church community.
    BiVocational students who take longer to get through school and have to juggle schedules differently for exams, CPE, internships. The good news is that the crazy is good prep for the growing reality bivocational pastoral positions.
    Disappearing churches- I did see that there was some mention of it in the newest version of the CPM handbook, but not a lot. What happens when you’re mid-process and your church decides to leave the denomination? Or it could close for other reasons, I suppose. I never got a lot of financial support from a church, but I hear that happens. But if there is much more for the “home church” to do and finding a new church while away at school (or even while in school via distance program and doing an internship) is not an easy task. Or at least not if one takes membership seriously.

  3. says

    The cost of seminary needs to be contended with. You can’t keep requiring a formal education that is only available to those with vast resources or those that borrow the resources nessesary to fulfill the education requirements of a particular institution. That financial burden is not what God call us as the church to.

  4. joann28 says

    First, I just read your post on San Francisco’s requirements for the first time, and am struck by this irony: They would not accept an essentially graduate-level course in History of Christianity from Whitworth. I did my first year at Wesley Theological Seminary, including the first semester of History. Coming in with a graduate degree in medieval-Reformation history, I was frustrated by the low-level expectations. The professor actually told me that the course was conceived as freshman-level! (The second semester at Union Presbyterian Seminary was much more satisfyingly challenging.)

    Second: Those of us who are older face challenges as well. I also passed all the exams on the first try, then was required by CPM to take CPE before they would certify me. The reason? They thought I was too passive, and the CPE would “fix” me. Actually, in “maturity” I discovered I have a contemplative spirituality with a strong focus on listening, not fighting. But they thought that was passive. So I finally passed their requirements–8 years ago. (They decided I was “ready” after I talked back to them.)

    Third: Even older now–and churches want either energetic young things, or older people with ordained experience. My experience has been waiting, searching, and being rejected. And I get older and older.

    • says

      I do want to point out that this is not a post against the Presbytery of San Francisco. I did write those posts while under care of the Presbytery of San Francisco, and had some conversations with folks about the requirements, etc. There were some wonderful folks who really went to bat for me in that Presbytery and everything worked out.

      Anyway – just don’t want this post to be about condemning San Francisco.

    • Heidi Smith says

      What irony…I was delayed in my ordination process because my CPM thought that I disrespected authority and was not pliable enough! I admittedly do not like to see authority abused–and will go back to Scripture or to our polity to make my point–but CPMs are made up of human beings who sometimes have egos and who often fear anything new or different or that rattles the status quo. I know a few other folks who have “disrespected” authority when it defied common sense and became untenable–John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jesus Christ–so I feel like I’m in good company.

      As for updating the process in the PC(USA), I’d suggest the following:

      1. Update the ordination exam process! I know that much is being done on the technical side of this already, and for that I’m grateful. But the human side also needs some overhaul. I was fortunate in that I only had to retake one ord exam, but some of the responses from readers were shocking and displayed very little understanding of the material which they were expected to pass judgment upon. Readers need to have a good knowledge of the subject matter, and also should not be working from a particular bias.

      2. Better training for CPMs to aquaint them with our polity!!! I was serving in a small congregation as a CLP/CRE while I earned my MDiv degree, and they needed to call me as a half-time Stated Supply pastor as they complete their transition into new leadership, freeing me up to seek another half-time call. Not only has this been done more than once in the presbytery in which I serve, but it was easily done under the old Form of Government and was not disallowed by the new Form of Government. Yet my CPM told me point-blank that it COULD not be done, and basically told me to just “keep doing what I was doing” as a CRE, which was financially untenable for both myself and for the congregation. We had to have a former exec come in from a neighboring presbytery to advocate for our congregation!

      Meanwhile, I agree with the sentiment that it is up to us to do something about it. It behooves all of us to be in contact with execs, CPMs, COMs, etc. with regard to the issues we faced. Likewise, if there is going to be any change, we need to serve on presbytery committees, councils, task forces, etc. (I know, where do we find the time?) if we are going to make any headway for those who follow us.

  5. says

    It seems so much deeper than just the ordination practices. It is going to take a systemic change of the organization. You think the ordination process is bad wait until you piss off the wrong person after you’ve been ordained. If you were a person that did not fit the mold before ordination you still won’t fit the mold afterwards and will continue to experience pressure to just go with the flow conform to what is already happening.
    The system is currently built around sustaining the powerful and the organization as is.If we change the way we ordain new pastors it will only put them into a system that does not know how to handle these outside the box people and isn’t going to fix our denomination (and many other main lines too). I wish I had more suggestions but as it is right now doing a root cause analysis will not be allowed because it will reveal that the Wizard of Oz (or Committee on OZ) is only an ordinary person (group of people) like the rest of us with more questions than answers and afraid of admitting this. The system is not ready to leave the safety of the walls and palace we have built.
    I for one think its time to go for broke, put it all on Green and give it a spin.

  6. says

    Personally, my ordination process was pretty OK. The exams helped me learn things that seminary classes never taught. And nothing I had to do was a large burden or obstacle.

    That being said, the process doesn’t always work as smoothly for others and there needs to be same major reforms that happen. The reason that I don’t think that reforms will be madeis mainly because of our system of government. Any major changes in the PC(USA) happen through the efforts of ministers and elders at various levels of government.

    If this was a matter of a couple of staff people in Louisville coming up with a new proposal than we might have a shot. But there’s no way this would happen without commissions, task forces, committees, meetings, studies and all the other bureaucracy that makes us what we are today as a denomination.

    I’d love for someone to prove me wrong, because sometimes it’s downright depressing.

  7. says

    I’m at the very beginning of the process– just an Inquirer. So far, I’ve found the CPM to be supportive and helpful. I realize I haven’t started looking seriously at schools other than sending a few emails and scouring websites but I trust that the people who make up the CPM are going to be what I need as I navigate the process. I hate hoops. I hate procedure. Still, I feel called to pursue ordination and so far it seems like the hoops make sense.

    I’ve heard horror stories and I watched my brother go through a little bit of hell right before he was ordained. For him, it seemed like the problems came from key people on the committee dropping the ball on getting paperwork completed. I think the quickest, best way to bring change to the process is to serve on the CPM. If the committee on a local level consisted of people passionate about making the process less scary, that would help immediately. I don’t know much about standards being consistent across Presbyteries. My instant uninformed thought is with the diversity of the denomination, a little variation in standards might not be a bad thing.

    I reserve the right to completely change my mind about the friendliness of my CPM in a couple years. ;)

  8. says

    I’m reading this while at the annual COM/CPM retreat. I think some of these things are slowly being addressed, and as we live into the New FOG, there will be opportunities for change.

  9. says

    “as soon as we’re ordained–let’s fix this damn thing.”

    Thanks Adam for your post. I have been thinking the exact same thing. I believe the current process today is likely to turn more people away rather than taking potentially great candidates in. While seminary is challenging, one’s ordination process usually is the most difficult and frustrating part.

  10. Scott Robertson says

    I agree with much of what is written here… I would, however, like to add another step…

    Having just been called (and soon to be ordained and installed) to my first call, it was the process AFTER having been certified ready to receive a call that frustrated me the most. I’m not talking about the need for someone to sift through the seemingly endless posts on the CLC for me – I’m talking about the need to reform the method by which churches and those in search of a call interact with one another.

    One of my more clear lines came a long time ago when I wrote down, “[the number of] churches with 50 in attendance looking for a pastor with >6 years of experience and paying an effective salary of 35k is silly.” How are we to encourage new pastors into the game when, as soon as the call market is stagnant, it becomes a “buyers” market? Having to check the box on my PIF that said that I had no years of ordained experience immediately made me undesirable to many churches despite the fact that I had worked in the church for years and was an ordained ruling elder.

    While I don’t like the idea of more oversight on the presbytery, but I think it would be exceptionally helpful for a(n) (A)PNC who is comprised of volunteers to have support and a bit of guidance in constructing their CIF’s.

    Likewise, I would hope that those churches who are searching for a new pastor, would see this process as a ministry to those in search of a call. Communication cannot be understated here. I had many interviews with churches I was smitten with, only to not hear from them for nearly a month and receive a form letter stating that “my gifts and their needs,” “we’re heading in a different direction,” or “[they’ll be] pursuing other candidates.” I know we’re all flawed people, but this is a church ministry, not a business strategy – which it felt like more often than not.

    I, of course, had my part to play in this. While I had help in forming my PIF and how I should self-refer, what my CPM and others told me was often in conflict. I found that the personal website with audio/video and other info was a huge win for me, and that including more than just my PIF to churches in which I self-referred was huge in getting me MANY more interviews. At any rate…

    I still have some healing to do from my 2+ years of searching, but I thought I would add what I see to be the next step in addressing these issues is.

    My heart aches for what you have gone through, and to all those who have gone through difficult processes. Best wishes, and may the wind be at your back from here on out.


      • says

        i would encourage you to talk to those who recently (read within a year) have been through the process to see what works, what doesn’t work, how to make connections, how to skype interview, etc… its a humbling experience trying to learn these “basic” skills from others, but it’s a huge help and gives you more people who can be with you through the process which cant be understated either…

  11. says

    I had a bit of a rough time with my CPM as I was going through the process and as a result was anxious to serve on a CPM after ordination. In the ten years since ordination I have served six on the CPM, been an exam reader and currently moderate our presbytery’s CPM. I have learned a couple of things through all this involvement in the preparation process. 1) It’s not perfect – of course in that regards it reflects the church and basically all human endeavors. 2) The people serving on CPM do care about those in the process but, as committees are made up of individuals, there are often different ideas about what would be beneficial to the candidate and the church. The result is the inquirer/candidate does sometimes end up facing additional requirements in order that all members of the committee are satisfied. 3) Committees do understand that they are serving both the larger church and the inquirer/candidate and those duel rolls are at times difficult to reconcile. 4) Personal development (spiritual, social, etc) is looked at during annual consultations far more than grades or classes. An MDiv is necessary but we tend to leave that evaluation to the seminaries and focus on other aspects of preparation. 5) Committees are aware when a relationship seems more adversarial than continental and they are as uncomfortable with this as the inquirer/candidate. In these cases, we try to remind ourselves that we are in a covenant relationship – not just acting as a committee supervising a student.

    In my presbytery, we use Skype for consultations when appropriate and provide funds for professional spiritual direction or life counseling when we add such a request to a inquirer/candidates preparation. As there are more ministers than positions in the church today, an increasingly important part of the process involves helping the inquirer/candidate look at the variety of ordained calls and possible options if a full time call is not forthcoming.

    We do seek to have a relationship with the seminaries but quite frankly, that is one of those things easier said than done. We have little input into the makeup or timing of seminary classes and that frustrates us on behalf of some of our candidates, especially those nearing the end of the process.

    From a personal standpoint, I did discover that working with my committee was, in fact, a micro-congregation and in a way, I was helped by the difficulty of the experience.

  12. says

    I think the spiritual direction suggestion resonates with me. I do value the intent of requiring CPE because CPE, in a good program, is more about developing self-awareness than anything else. I understand you can’t force self-awareness but without it ministry is not a good place to be. We have along way to go towards being more about spiritual formation than we are about havin our doctrinal ducks lined up in a row…but I see little signs of this changing ever so slowly. The Presbyterian Way!

  13. says

    Fascinating discussion! The Church of the Nazarene has three levels:

    1. Local minister’s license;
    2. District minister’s license;
    3. Ordained elder (or deacon)

    # 1 is issued by a local church board, as a first recognition that God has called an individual to vocational ministry, or to use the more traditional term, has “called them to preach.” Having said that, only those on the elder track profess to a call to preach; ministry as a deacon is anything else except for preaching.

    # 2 is handled by a district Board of Ministerial Credentials. The candidate appears annually before a committee, which is elected by the District Assembly (what the Methodists call a Conference). Questions are raised about the individual’s calling, personal life, “gifts and graces,” indebtedness, doctrine, you name it. This is a time for encouragement, but also for vetting. The candidate must also report on educational progress toward ordination, which is often done through one of the Nazarene universities.

    # 3 is the culmination of the process, i.e. ordination itself. When all educational requirements have been fulfilled, plus at least 3 years of full-time Christian ministry, upon the recommendation of the District Ministerial Credentials Board and the vote of the District Assembly, the candidate is presented to the presiding General Superintendent for ordination.

    Overall, I found the process encouraging. My first local license was granted to me at age 18. During my second year of undergraduate, I was given my first district license, and received those for 8 years before I was ordained in 1991.

    Ordination is no guarantee, which they make clear at the outset. Theoretically, even if all requirements were fulfilled, the General Sup’t can choose to withhold ordination, though I know of only one such case.

    – Greg

  14. says

    I agree with this post deeply. One thing i would add is this. I think we should allow provisional ordination to candidates. Having to go through all the hoops in school and them upon graduating being forced into unemployment because we are not allowed to put up our PIF until we are certified is economically unjust to future pastors.

    I morn the fact that there is absolutely no love in this process. having finished most of it I am still on the edge where I may be willing to knock the dust off my feet and never look back. I too carry deep wounds from this process. Wounds that upon reflection almost seem unavoidable due to how we have designed this process. I have also found this process to be the strongest apologetic against the committee based Presbyterian model that we have.

    • says

      They are working on this, but there is substantial cost in gathering people to write the exams, gathering people to read the exams, and even in the basic processing of all that paper. All this overhead has to be spread out over less than 1,000 exams each time. There is no subsidy from any other place in the church on this, unfortunately. The move to online everything should at the very least keep cost increases to a minimum going forward as travel expenses are cut back substantially.

  15. says

    As an ordained teaching elder, a former CPM chair, and an ordination exam reader, I have invested a great deal of time and energy into the PCUSA ordination process. In my view, the process itself is not broken so much as designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays there are plenty of people who go to seminary without fully understanding their sense of call to ministry, and the process doesn’t provide a safe place to examine that. Very few people can follow the two-year inquiry-candidacy system and a three-year MDiv and emerge ready to be ordained AND with a job. The world that this system was designed for just doesn’t exist anymore, and so more than anything this process is clashing with these changes in the world.

    In the midst of all this, I think most CPMs are doing the best they can. I take great pride in the ways that the CPM with which I served stood up for and reached out to inquirers and candidates, even when we didn’t have any staff support for our committee that was dealing with 45 people under care! We will necessarily fall short on some things, but in the end, my philosophy has always been that the committee should do everything possible to stand on the side of the candidate unless there is good reason to do otherwise—in large part because the system is just not designed for what it is being asked to do these days.

    All that said, I think we desperately need a new way forward for the PCUSA process. Band-aids are not fixing it. I was under the impression that GA passed something about an evaluation of the process this year, but I’m not sure that such actually happened. Still, I hope that we’ll see some substantial studying and even major changes in the near future. If I were to write such a process on my own, I’d work toward a portfolio-based process where CPMs review the full body of a candidate’s work on a person-by-person basis. There would necessarily be some national standards (a revised ords process, maybe?) and even some local ones, but each person really ought to be treated as a human being, with different gifts and talents and needs for education and training. If only there were an easy path to getting there………

  16. says

    Having completed the PC(USA) ordination process 7 years my opinion is that about half of the process is pure hazing. A dear Native American couple at my church watch me going through the process and as a ordination gift gave me a handcrafted Native American doll doing a hoop dance. They clearly understood.

  17. says

    As Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal, we have worked closely with leaders in the United Church of Christ to provide an extensive online course of History and Polity that is receiving national acceptance. We are finding that many seminaries (particularly seminaries with students from multiple mainline denominations) are phasing out their History & Polity Course for smaller denominations. I have found that a robust and meaningful learning envioronment can be created online at a lower cost than traditional classroom education.

    • says

      Having just graduated from seminary this May, my ordination process began in 2004 which concluded with beginning a call in June. I must concur with many of the sentiments that are offered in this dialogue. The process is not perfect, the financial difficulties are very real, ordination exams processes need to be (and are being) changed in order to adapt to 21st century ministry. However, the process, when engaged in a thoughtful, uplifting Christian manner, can be very successful. My process was one of genuine care, development and support as well as challenging in order for me to become a better candidate and pastor.

      I would beware of measures upon which we begin to water-down the process to accomodate people in the process. Our society is what I would like to call a “microwave culture” that we want instant access and instant results.

      However, scripture reminds us that things happen in God’s time, not ours. I strongly affirm the changes to the exam process that have taken place with online methods of testing and full use of BoO and BoC for all exams. I also believe that response times from CPMs and or mentors need to be improved dramatically (although mine were fantastic).

      I would venture to say that some of the most critical things for any seminarian to pursue in this process are:

      1. Know who your mentor is from CPM and actively communicate with that individual. Do not wait for them to initiate.
      2. Develop a strong relationship with someone from the seminary faculty that will serve as an avocate and reference for you.
      3. In your annual reviews with CPM, be at your best. This is the one opportunity each year that these individuals get to see and engage you. If you do not put your best foot forward in this interview or in the written responses, expect the road to be more difficult.
      4. Expand your horizons in the search process. If you are too confined in your search, you will be too confined in your opportunities.
      5. Develop strong biblical study skills, theology skills and personal spiritual disciplines. The congregations that I spoke with (I was extended calls from three different PNCs and was one of two final candidates for two others) want to know that you can articulate your personal theology, engage in your own spiritual self-care and can utilize scripture as the basis for a pastoral decision, suggestion, teaching, etc.

    • Scott says

      Aaron-Does your question about good experiences also extend to mainline denominations? If so I had a very positive and affirming experience with the UCC. It might have helped that I was on the tail end of seminary and had just finished a year long full time internship-so I might have been a more “finished” product that someone in their first year. No matter the reason I felt tremendously affirmed and encouraged on the entire journey.
      Hope that gives some hope.

  18. Matthew says

    The great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon called ordination ’empty hands laid on an empty head’ in a sermon entitled ‘fragments of popery’. The whole shebang should be done away with because it reinforces the separation between clergy and laity and makes a nonsense of the reformation idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

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