Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Didn't Forget to Remember to Forget the GOEs

Crusty Old Dean weighed in on the PB's proposed budget in a previous post; while not perfect, it's certainly several steps up from the inchoate clusterf**k submitted to PB&F.  COD is willing to get behind the PB budget, seeing it as a transition budget for the 2013-2015 triennium, with the hope that a truly constructive resolution can come out of this Convention setting up some kind of consultation to discuss more substantive restructuring, with substantive changes to be introduced in 2015.

You might think Crusty Old Dean is getting on in years, since there were two things COD did not mention in the PB's budget, but he did mention in previous postings.  It's not that, in the words of the classic Elvis song (though COD prefers the Johnny Cash version), that COD forgot to remember.  Rather, COD felt they warranted a more in-depth discussion:  the funding for the General Board of Examining Chaplains and the seminarian assistance grant.  Let's take the second one first.

The pathetic and paltry seminarian assistance grants provided in the 2009 budget evidence some of the bizarre reality of General Convention, a fitting symbol of how it is out of whack with reality, its tendency to go all sound and fury, passing resolutions demanding peace in the Middle East and telling the US government how to handle North Korea, and in the end doing not much at all.  Take seminarian debt and financial assistance.   General Convention actually did something in 2009, passing a resolution to increase funding to seminarians.  So far so good.  But the amount was tiny, and even that paltry amount was cut in the Executive Council proposed budget, and also does not appear in the PB budget.

And COD is not too disconcerted by this.  Not because of the issue in question: COD is a seminary dean, after all, and was a former seminarian himself, and is still paying his student loans every month.  It's not because he doesn't think the issues is important, but because the solution was so pathetic.  It was almost insulting that we could consider to have addressed the question given the amount put forward -- a whopping $195,000 for the 2013-2015 triennium, or about $65,000 per year.  This is like saying the federal government is concerned about rising health care costs and coming up with $100 million in a multi-billion dollar industry, and BTW with no strategic plan other than that pittance amount. 

So COD is not disconcerted, because in this case maybe half a loaf -- hell,  not even that, maybe 1/100th of a loaf -- isn't better than no loaf at all.

Rather, let's show we take the matter seriously; let's come up with a strategic plan.  If the church is serious about establishing this development office proposed -- and COD is still unsure about the wisdom of using a draw from principal to fund a development office to raise money for the DFMS -- then let's make raising funding for theological education part of its charge.  Looking at our ecumenical partners is revealing; while we struggle to come up with $65,000 a year for seminarian assistance, the ELCA mobilized significant churchwide resources, raised over $40 million, and distributed nearly $1 million in scholarships to 187 seminarians in 2010-2011 alone.  Let's have General Convention take the matter seriously, and actually adopt a plan which might address the problem they claim they are so concerned about, rather than throwing $5 at a $1000 problem.

OK, now the GOEs.  The initial Executive Council budget eliminated funding for the General Board of Examining Chaplains, claiming that this was work better done at the diocesan level.  COD was concerned about this reasoning, for a couple of reasons:

--This is not just a diocesan matter, since areas of competency are mandated in the national canons;
--This is not just a diocesan matter, since having theologically and pastorally competent clergy is something which concerns the entire church;
--This is not just a diocesan matter because it's also a matter of equity and fairness; different dioceses have different realities and different resources; are we now, with a few months to spare, suddenly to tell 109 dioceses they are on their own?

And let's remember equity and fairness was the real reason for establishing the GOEs in the first place.  Prior to the GOEs, when we solely had a system of diocesan examinations, they could be wildly different in their level of complexity.  Some were considered fairly easy, while some were onerous.  They also could be overly personal; stories abounded of high church dioceses discriminating against low-church or evangelical ordinands, and vice versa.  The argument was to have a single, churchwide standard, double-blind, reflecting a single set of canonical areas of competence.

The reasoning behind this decision, to COD, showed the dark side to subsidiarity:  dumping something to a certain level of the church because somebody felt like it.  Instead, as COD has repeatedly argued, we should think of ways different levels and networks in the church can come together on an issue in which they have complementary stakes, instead of General Convention, through its budget, getting to be the body that decides who should do what kinds of things.
However, despite what he considers faulty reasoning, COD can live with the elimination of the General Board of Examining Chaplains and the GOEs in their current form because, well, the GOEs needed an overhaul, anyway.  They were expensive to write and grade, came at a terrible time (the week after New Year's), and at times exhibited the problems of having a double-blind system (the readers don't know who the students are and the students don't know who their readers are).  COD once counseled a student whose reader said he evidenced racial insensitivity to people of color.  The student was a person of color and actively involved in anti-racism work.  COD once counseled a student whose reader said they showed no understanding of youth and young adult ministry.  The student had worked at church camps all her life, was serving part-time as a youth minister, and felt called to a ministry with youth and young adults.  And so on.   The GOEs needed fixing, anyway.

This is in addition to COD's issues with GOEs as a seminary dean:  it's an examination seminaries have no role in writing, grading, or interpreting, yet we are expected to prepare students for it and deliver it.  

So by all means, let's end the General Board of Examining Chaplains, and take this as an opportunity to come up with a better system.  Because the inherent reason for the GOEs in the first place hasn't gone away:  having theologically and pastorally competent clergy is something that is probably a good thing for a church.  Having a centralized set of areas in which competency is to be expected defined in the canons is a good thing, too, in COD's opinion.   In fact, this is our canonical system at its best.  The canons are designed to outline what is considered essentially and necessary, and allows great flexibility.  For instance, as Crusty Old Dean always tells his students in class, the canons say dioceses should have bishops, and a system for choosing them, not does not lay out any one method.  We could draw lots or throw darts at photos on a cork board.  Similarly with theological education: there is tremendous room for creative adaptation, if only we could live into it.  The Episcopal Church does not have, and has never had, the expectation of a formal theological degree as normative; rather, we have come up with a set of standards and permitted flexibility in meeting them.  There is an inherent challenge in this, and this is where the rubber meets the road, because it puts the onus on the church to come together and find ways to live into that flexibility -- because as much as we claim to prize the flexibility in our governance, it also takes a lot of work.

COD would like to propose

--That a coalition of people connected with seminaries, and not just Episcopal seminaries, work with representatives from diocesan training programs, and persons actively engaged not only in parish ministry but non-parochial ministries (chaplains, etc.) to write an exam

--That they cover the seven areas from Title III, Canon 8, Section 5 (g), and more or less in the same format as the current GOE; with the proviso that one question may cover two areas (thus permitting six questions instead of seven, see below for reasoning)

--That this examination be written no later than November 1, 2012;

--That they be designed to be taken over a weekend, from Friday-Sunday (thus six sessions over three days/1 weekend instead of taking 5 days to administer)

--That there be a "window" when the examination can be given, any time from January 1, 2013-March 1, 2013.

--That each diocesan board of examining chaplains receive the examination and administer it in a manner they seem fit.  If they would like their students to take it at the seminary they are attending, work with the seminary on doing so; if they would like to administer it locally, they may do so

--Responsibility for reading and interpreting the responses is solely lodged with the diocesan examining chaplains.  This is one of the oddest things about the GOE right now; we spend a good chunk of money writing, reading, and grading it, yet the diocese can do whatever it wants with the results, anyway.

--That a modest fee be charged ($100) to help fund one initial meeting among the people drafting the exam, and that everything else be done online.

--Stop treating the GOE questions as if they were missile launch codes, and allow students to take them  in a place and at a time determined by the diocese.  Yes, it means some students may have taken the exam and others may have not.  But these are people going into ministry, and if we can't trust them to take a written exam and not cheat, are we really going to let them handle financial assets of the church and be privy to people's most intimate and personal concerns?

--And, of course, COD is open to other ideas.

One thing which COD keeps coming back to is in this blog is that one of the reasons many of the issues facing us are so pernicious is the way they are deeply rooted in issues in our polity.  We never sorted out the relationship between the PB and Council back in 1919 when the PB office was changed and the Council set up; any wonder nearly 100 years later these chickens are coming home to roost?  Same deal with seminaries: we have 10 seminaries, founded in different times and different places, with little or no connection to the denominational structure as a whole.  This is not how some other denominations function -- the United Methodist Church and ELCA have a much closer relationship with their seminaries, setting standards, giving an "official" stamp of approval to them, coordinating work between them at the denominational level, and providing funding (albeit steadily decreasing).  Part of the issue with seminarian funding and demonstrating competency is the fact that all the actors in the drama are independent of one another:  the canons set the standards but do nothing more; dioceses have tremendous leeway in how they choose to provide training for clergy; and all the seminaries are freestanding, independent organizations.

This makes it challenging, yes.  But it also provides incredible opportunity for creative partnership.  Can we seize those opportunities?


  1. Great article. I do, however, count 11 seminaries formally related to the Episcopal Church: Berkeley Divinity School at Yale;
    Bexley Hall; The Church Divinity School of the Pacific; Episcopal Divinity School; Seminary of the Southwest; General Theological Seminary; Nashotah House; Seabury-Western Theological Seminary; School of Theology at The University of the South; Trinity School for Ministry; Virginia Theological Seminary.

    I believe Seabury-Western is out of the M.Div business, so perhaps that's why 10 seems more realistically to be the number now. But as I understand it they are still breathing, after a fashion, with a cooperative D.Min and perhaps some extension programs.

  2. Hey Bruce -- very self-consciously said 10 instead of 11. Bexley Hall, where I am dean, and Seabury Western have voted to form a federated partnership. Calling one president for one federated seminary, with Chicago and Columbus locations. Here's a link:

  3. I'm also in agreement that the GOEs in the current form could be reformulated as part of a larger plan of evaluating clergy formation.

    I do think, however, thinking about the GOEs puts the cart before the horse. I'd like the church to think some more about the folks we let into the process in the first place. Church membership has declined steadily in the last 40 years. At the same time, the number of people ordained per year has stayed steady or increased. The church is becoming more priest-heavy. That doesn't seem to make sense to me. I also don't think it's a mistake that this trend coincides with the development of parish discernment committees and diocesan commissions on ministry.

    There's a resolution at Convention this year that calls for reviewing what we require of priests. I'd like to see that broadened to review the entire formation process. It seems like an excellent opportunity to do some of the creative exploration you call for in this post.

    -Jesse Zink

  4. Agreed, Jesse -- but I think we're getting there. The number of ordinations to the priesthood has fallen steadily, it's now been at its 1995 level for the past two years. There's a lag, sometimes, but I think bishops and commissions on ministries are catching up to our reality and slowing down the pipeline -- I think it's going to flatline or even drop some more.

    And I'm absolutely with you on thinking how we broaden the understanding of formation - the first canon in Title III says Commissions on Ministry should assist all the baptized. Truly living into the baptismal ecclesiology we claim is going to require a lot more work.

    I bring up the GOEs because we've got to do something NOW, since there are a couple hundred people who need some kind of diagnostic assessment as they move towards approval for candidacy and ordination in the next year.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.