Under Our Care

An Open Letter to the Presbyteries Cooperative Committee on Exams in light of recent events,

I am a pastor from one of our churches in central Pennsylvania. Over the years I have served our denomination, it has been in churches from South Carolina to Tennessee to Southern Louisiana.

I am, what one of my professors once called, quite Orthodox to the tradition. I love being Presbyterian. I teach our Creeds and Confessions every chance I get, to every age level that can handle it, especially our officers. I have a long and abiding love affair with scripture, even though I still have to wrestle with its more difficult passages. I even use my biblical languages almost every week for my sermons to look further into what the texts can tell us.

I am also someone who believes in our ordination exams, having helped to grade them myself multiple times. I believe in the ordination process, having served on and then chaired Committees on Preparation for Ministry in two different Presbyteries.

And yet, as someone who was raised to know how to avoid rape, as someone whose life has been profoundly touched by experiences of the rape of those remarkably close to me, and as someone who has family members who have suffered sexual assault, I must say with the fullest of sincerity and seriousness: the passage chosen for this most recent Bible Exegesis exam does violence.

According to RAINN, someone in this country is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. According to CDC, half of women and 1 out of every 3 men experience sexual violence.

And while the exact severity of this violence may not be well known, the fact that such realities are overwhelmingly prevalent has been coming to light more and more in recent years. Which means that there is absolutely no way that you could not know without living under a rock. This also means that while you may have thought you were thinking through all the implications, you clearly did not think hard enough.

There is a reason why well-known scholars who have studied in this field and want to raise awareness did not include this story in their books. It is a step far too far. It goes beyond triggering. It very well might set someone with PTSD from such an experience back months, if not years. And these are people who are supposed to be under our care. How dare we.

Just because a scripture is present, does not mean it is useful for all purposes. This is an examination we require of our new leaders, not a chance for us to test every aspect of their mettle. Especially not for us to push them to the brink. We rewrote the Book of Order so that each individual Presbytery could appropriately work with individual candidates and handle the real life complexity and messiness that is the reality we live in. The exams should never be this over the top.

We believe in the Presbyterian tradition that God speaks to us through the voice of the people together. I would suggest to your committee that the larger church is speaking right now and perhaps it is not just us.

As a pastor, I might also suggest that you offer more in recompense than simply admitting this could cause problems for some of the test takers and giving them another chance to take the test for free. This is beyond the pale. More than a true apology from the PCCE, which is warranted, working with OGA to ensure monies are available for whatever counseling is needed for those under our care would also seem exceedingly appropriate. As a start.

I know some of you personally and know the remarkable wealth of wisdom and life experience you bring to the table. How this is handled will impact the future of the denomination we love and how we are able to work with God to raise up our subsequent leaders, as well. More importantly, though, these are real people and an exam like this suggests we have forgotten that our pastors (and candidates) are worth taking into account when doing the larger work of governance and church.

Yours in Christ, Rev. Janie McElwee-Smith

P.S. If you would like to sign a petition against this exam, here is the link.

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