Tuesday, January 2, 2018

An Important Announcement from COD: All Things Must Crust

All Things Must Crust


I was talking with someone a few weeks ago who was not particularly a fan of these General Ordination Exam blog postings, and even thought I was undermining collegiality with my fellow members of the General Board of Examining Chaplains by continuing to post them. It was a good, open, honest conversation: despite the character I play on this website, I like to
My favorite Beatle.
think I’m open to discussion and engaging with people who may hold different opinions than I do. I reminded my colleague that I abide by all the confidentiality and social media guidelines established by the Board: I do not share the questions
with anyone, I do not write a word of these postings, I do post them, but only after all persons have finished the examination. I have violated none of the established standards of confidentiality or social media guidelines. My colleague reiterated that these blog postings were not to their liking. Finally I asked,

Do you know why I started doing this?” There was a pause. “Actually, no,” the person replied.

It’s not to be mean, or difficult, or to undermine collegiality,” I said, “though I realize I have to take responsibility for the reality that I may have offended people, and I need to hear that. I started doing this back in 2012, the first year I served as an administrator. I came up with the idea to post and dissect the questions for two main reasons. (And, BTW, I have stated these reasons over the years on the blog.)

The first is that taking the GOE was one of the most miserable experiences I’ve had in the church. I had no idea how to prepare, I thought some of the questions were confusing and others unfair, and, then when I got my evaluations, my evaluators said some things I thought were unacceptable, making assumptions about me I thought grossly unfounded. And I had no way to respond to any of this: I had no agency in the matter at all. Some people I didn’t know wrote an exam, other people I didn’t know evaluated it, and I was stuck with the results. I thought, at that time, if I can make this experience a little less isolating and lonely in the future for other people taking the exam, then I’d do it. Lo and behold, 18 years after I took the GOEs, I found myself in that position as academic dean at an Episcopal seminary. So I kept my promise and tried to make the exam a little less isolating, tried to create a shared sense of community among those taking the exam. That’s one reason.

The second is that the General Board is not accountable in any way, shape, or form to the broader church in any real way. Sure, we submit a report to General Convention, and sure, dioceses can vote with their feet and decide they don’t want to use the GOE. But for something that’s been around for so long and the vast majority of clergy have taken, it’s a bit shocking there’s no systems for discussion, evaluation, or feedback of the examination. If a question comes out that is confusing, or poorly written, or unfair – there’s no recourse. If an evaluator says something that is inappropriate -- there’s no recourse. If there’s a discrepancy in data – for instance, if there’s a question where there is a huge gap in pass rates between men and women, for instance – there’s no feedback loop. There’s more mutual accountability with my parish budget at monthly Vestry meetings as a simple country parson than an exam that impacts people’s lives and considered part of fitness for ordination. We had more mutual accountability when I was academic dean at the seminary. As a seminary professor, every course by every professor gets a course evaluation. Almost every event, public or private, that the seminary did, from alumni day to new student orientation, we sent out an evaluation. We don’t do don’t solicit feedback for the GOE in any way, shape, or form. I started this blog for this second reason – to try to raise issues and concerns around mutual accountability, because it’s not happening in anywhere else in any kind of tangible or transparent or recognizable way.”

That’s what I said to my colleague. These are the two reasons I started doing this, although I have not been involved the past two years. And I clearly hit a nerve, these are some of the more popular blog posts of the year.

I have concluded that it’s time to bring these postings to a close, and I will not be posting or hosting any GOE discussions. I’ve concluded that because the two reasons I started doing this six years ago, as outlined above, are no longer possible.

With regards to making the exam takers feel a little less anxious and isolated by providing a communal, shared experience: given the changing nature of the GOE, this just isn’t possible anymore. More and more people take the exam asynchronously apart from the four-day period in early January, given the changing nature of theological education, with more bivocational persons and persons trained locally and not in seminary programs. To maintain the integrity of the examination, in good conscience I cannot post anything until everyone has completed the exam, which is now often weeks after the majority of individuals have taken the exam. This is why in 2017, the postings came up to two weeks after the exam began, and almost ten days after the bulk of people completed it. Given the asynchronous way the exam is now taken, the postings can no longer function as that kind of communal experience, because of the need to safeguard the integrity of the exam process.

The second is that substantive accountability cannot be brought about by online commentary alone. Online commentary can raise awareness, but often does not bring about substantive change on its own – it has to be combined with structural engagement. This is why I agreed to be nominated for the General Board of Examining Chaplains, the group that prepares, administers, and evaluates the GOE. I agreed to be nominated because another colleague asked me, point blank, “Are you just going to complain about the GOE, or do you want to have the opportunity actually to do something?” I admitted the colleague had a point, agreed to be nominated, and was elected by the 2015 General Convention to the General Board of Examining Chaplains, and am halfway through my six-year term.

As I have said repeatedly in these postings, the exam is improving. We could list many improvements: the move to a simple proficient/non-proficient evaluation, central to a competency-based testing process; the inclusion of an evaluation rubric that both the exam taker and the evaluator receive; the move towards open resources on all questions, including electronic resources; and more. To be sure, the examination still has room to
Byzantine mosaic of Nyssa's epektasis.
improve.
We all do. I’ve been preaching regularly for over 20 years and believe me I can improve. St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that we continued to grow and develop spiritually after our deaths as our souls move into the eternal peace of God. It has improved dramatically and substantively thanks to the faithful work of the members of the Board, who, like me, take this ministry to which we have been entrusted seriously. But it, like all of us, always has room for continued improvement.

I cannot speak for others, only myself, but here are some of the ways I think accountability to the church can be strengthened: by asking exam takers, Commissions on Ministry, seminary faculties, and other constituencies to evaluate the exam yearly just like we evaluate every single course at seminary; if a question has a pass/proficiency rate differs dramatically from other questions (for instance, if every other question has a pass/proficiency rate above 80% and one has a rate of 50% – that’s something to flag), to do a post-mortem on possible reasons why; to collect additional data, such as proficiency rates by gender and ethnicity (to see if, despite best intentions, there may be a gender or racial gap in the exam). When looking at mutual accountability gathering feedback is essential, as well as having systems in place to address what we might find. We do it for almost everything else in the church. For God’s sake, I’m a parish priest, and I didn’t move the placement of the announcements in the service without gathering feedback from parishioners.

Higher education has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and one of the most important aspects has been the emphasis on measuring outcomes and gathering feedback from constituencies, largely pushed by accreditation agencies. If you ran a seminary in 1990, you had to explain what degrees you offered, how you offered them, and demonstrate you had the resources (faculty; library; financial stability) to offer them. A massive change in the late 1990s and early 2000s was to demand that you show that you were actually doing what you said you were doing, and to be able to back that up. You say you have adequate financial resources? Show me your student loan default rate. You say you are preparing your students for parish ministry? Do a survey of recent graduates and ask them how well prepared they feel. And what happens if you find out you have a high student default rate? What steps will you take to address it? And so on. Collecting data and doing surveys is
Add a question from the Bobs on Annual Reports?
pointless unless you have systems in place to process the feedback and inform how you do what you do. Has this gotten burdensome at times? To be sure. But overall it has been tremendously important in requiring seminaries to create a feedback loop to inform best practice and establish procedures and policies to address issues that might arise.
Imagine if we asked parishes to do something similar, to take any kind of step to see if what they believe they are doing they actually are doing, and what systems they have in place for changing course if need be.

The GOE has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 5-7 years, in part because the General Board has begun bringing best practices of current educational and testing methodology to the exam. An important next phase will be to bring in evaluative and feedback best practices to continue to improve the exam – and, as such, Crusty is committing himself to this process. To put it real simple: if we can improve accountability to the church in structured, institutional ways, we won’t need rambling, pop-culture referencing blog posts to shriek into the wind to hold the exam accountable.

Let me be clear: I have not been formally asked in any way to stop blogging the GOEs. If this had been demanded of me, I would not have complied. I am doing this solely on my own volition.

Let me be clear: I stand by every word I’ve written on this blog or posted by others. I engage the readers in the comments and have answered personal emails sent to me because I believe in being held accountable for what I say and do as I try to hold others accountable.

I am sorry if my words here over the years may have hurt people or been cause of offense. Really, I am. I have a thick skin and let most criticism slide off me, while at the same time having a circle of close colleagues and a peer group I check in with. At times that may make me seem insensitive to others, and not realize how much words can have an impact. I am sorry for any offense. However, while offering that apology, I also would anyone who may take offense to think long and hard about how much of their offense is reaction to hearing negative feedback. Developing standards of mutual accountability, and being willing to process critical feedback, is sadly one of those areas where the church lags behind the secular society we often presume to think we are above.

To all of you disappointed there will be no blogging of the GOEs, I am putting my hope in the
Crusty's not going anywhere, friends.
possibility of living in a world where blogging the GOEs may some day no longer necessary. My thanks to all of you who have read over the years, I am continually amazed anyone has any interest in what a verbose, rambling, expletive-laced, pop culture name-dropping blog that looks like a GeoCities website from 1996 has to say. While retiring the GOE blogging, Crusty is still going to be full of piss and vinegar on other matters and will continue to blog. And, knowing the clusterf**k dysfunction the church serves up regularly, we can all be sure there will continue to be plenty of source material.

So let me close out one more time:

Well, friends, it's time for Crusty to ride off into the sunset for good on GOE blogging.  Thanks for joining me for the ride, and special thanks to Dread Pirate Crusty for filling in for the past two years.

And despite what you may think, and what Crusty has been accused of by some people, COD is not opposed to the GOEs.  Crusty loves the fact the Episcopal Church has always had a competency-based system, ever since the Course of Ecclesiastical Studies introduced by William White.  There's never been a single standard, unlike, say, the PCUSA or ELCA or Roman Catholic Church where degrees are normative, even written into polity in some cases.  With a competency based system, we have an inherit flexibility -- should we ever choose fully to embrace it -- in how we train persons for the ordained ministry. 

So be good, people.    Remember to stay grounded in prayer, Christian discipleship is hard and the only way to make it is to develop and cultivate a life of prayer.  Exercise regularly, it's the only free and 100% effective way to avoid numerous health problems. And have at least one minor vice to show the world you're human.

Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do more than we can ask or imagine; Glory to God from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.

7 comments:

  1. This makes me very sad, as being one of those students in a less traditional seminary-scenario (i.e. not at a full-time, residential, Episcopal seminary), I was looking forward to your reflections as a way to participate in a vicarious communal debrief. But, I get it. Thank you for the work that you're doing.

    Former-student-Lindsay

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  2. Belated thanks for your GOE blogs, and as I understand and affirm your decision, I am sad for current/future test takers that they will not have your exam "reality-check" day in and day out through the process as I did back in 2014. Our professors were away on break and so you were the only grounded voice that helped ease my seminary class' mutual angst around each question. Bless you for the massive pastoral support your GOE blogs gave so many of us for so many years.

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  3. Sorry to read you're giving up on commenting on the GOE. The issues you raise were also issues in the 1990's when Bishop Charlton and Dr. Bowman were Administrators, and I think they and the Board made some progress dealing with them. We moved from sufficient / insufficient to a 5 point system. Writing a good Ethics question was always difficult. From the mid 1980's through the 1990's the seminaries all did about as well one as another and as the "others" which included students at non-Episcopal seminaries, non-M.Div. degree candidates at Episcopal seminaries, alumni/ae, etc. Over the years the number of women increased and their results became more consistent with the results of the male GOE candidates. All best wishes.

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  4. Fully understand your decision and am sorry to see the commentary go. Thanks for the years of erudite discussion. Maybe we could find a way to post the questions after all have taken the exam and open a discussion where people can dissect, comment, and debate the questions. Thanks again.

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  5. COD - thank you for explaining this, and your rationale for why you started and why you are stopping. Please continue your excellent ministry of rigorous and accountable formation in TEC.

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  7. Axios, Crusty, and thank you for such excellent work on the GOEs. As a former test-taker, I definitely felt like I had no agency, even when my evaluations were fair; and it was much, much worse when I felt my evaluations were unfair. So stirring the pot was a useful thing, and it was fun to read your thoughts and engage the questions to keep my theological mind working. Thanks!
    One more thing: you say, "To put it real simple: if we can improve accountability to the church in structured, institutional ways, we won’t need rambling, pop-culture referencing blog posts to shriek into the wind to hold the exam accountable." I deeply hope we can improve the accountability of the tests, because I can't think of a priest who didn't somehow bounce off of one of the questions, and feel powerless to seek fairness; I'm encouraged by the broadening discussion on who to make the GOEs more successful. But I will never believe that the world is better without rambling, pop-culture referencing blog posts shrieking into the wind. Please continue writing; thank you for what you've done, and well done!

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