Sunday, January 31, 2010

From the archives: making a healthy transition #8

Originally posted September 5, 2005

The floor examination has a clear purpose: to test your readiness for ministry.

Notice: I didn't say, “test your knowledge” or “test your theological acuity.” This is a test of how ready you are for the day-to-day, hour-by-hour work of ministry.

A little background-- when a Candidate for Gospel Ministry pursues ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), he will be examined orally at least twice: once by a committee of presbytery, and once on the floor of presbytery. The committee exam will be private and closed, generally speaking. No one else will be there but the committee and possibly a few other ordinands. This exam will also take longer than the other; the committee exams sometimes go for several hours.

The floor examination, in contrast, will be an open exam. Everyone in attendance who is a member of presbytery will be there, and any other visitors are welcome to attend. It is not uncommon, for example, for an ordinand's wife or parents to come and watch. In fact, visitors may even stay after the ordinand has been asked to leave so that the vote may be taken (although the presbyters do have the right to call for visitors to be excused as well).

The committee exam is essentially all about what you learned in seminary and in other preparation for ministry. They will grill you on church history, fine points of theology, your knowledge of the English Bible, your understanding of the sacraments, and so on. These questions can be as particular as, “what was the point of difference between Ratramnus and Radbertus?” or “explain the rationale for a supra-lapsarian position,” or “give a detailed outline of the books of 2 Chronicles, Nahum, and 2 Thessalonians.” They want to be sure that you have learned as much as you can learn.

The floor exam, on the other hand, is quite different. There will be a few obligatory questions from each major area, because the Book of Church Order of the PCA requires that the floor exam include them, but when the questioning is opened up to anyone at presbytery, most of the questions will not be so particular with regard to “book learnin'.”

Instead, most will be directly related to the kind of issue or question that your ministry will put you in the line of fire for. A recent floor exam I sat in on included a question about how the ordinand (who had a call to an upper-middle class suburban church) would encourage racial and ethnic diversity in his congregation, and another about how he would support and advance that church's already active pro-life ministry.

Many of the questions in a floor examination will touch on things that the ordinand may never have considered before, and he will be forced to articulate an answer on the spot. A friend of mine told me about a question he received at his floor exam: must a person believe that the Bible is the Word of God in order to be a Christian? His answer: “No, one need not believe that the Bible is the Word of God to be a Christian, but I believe that if you are a Christian, you will believe that the Bible is the Word of God.”

The best thing about this kind of examination is that it requires an ordinand to understand his Bible, his theology, his confession of faith, and even his church history in practical, tangible ways. How else should a man be examined, after all?

Recent graduates: I offer you my prayers and hopes that every letter of the Bible, every word of theology, and every moment of history that you were exposed to in seminary may become so real and useful, so life-changing and ministry-shaping, so Gospel-driven and Christ-centered that you will find your floor exams, and all of the ministry that follows, a delight and a welcome challenge. May God bless your transition and your new ministry.

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