Yesterday we had our Spring classis meeting (the classis is the regional assembly of ministers and elder delegates from churches [If you’re interested in the governance and structure of my denomination, there is information on its website), and at that meeting we have the opportunity to examine our enrolled students of theology. These students are at various points in their Master of Divinity programs in seminary, but it is the responsibility of the classis to examine them to ensure that they meet the standards for ordination. It is a process that every minister in the Reformed Church in America must go through, and in a lot of ways it is a rite of passage.
While I had my final classical exam in 2008, this is the first time that I have attended the examination of students as a minister and a member of classis. This was also the first time in which I was able to participate in the examination as an examiner. I was asked to examine the students in the field of Christian Education. This experience allowed be to reflect more deeply on the process of classical examinations, particularly as I was not the one being examined.
There are some tendencies among ministers to put students to the screws just like we were when we were students. Some ministers find enjoyment out of intimidating students, just as we were. But there is a much deeper responsibility and privilege to classical examinations that makes it much more important than simply some kind of ecclesiastical hazing ritual.
Classical examinations are a time in which we are able to celebrate with the students what they have learned. It is an exciting time which serves as the culmination of the year. Because students are typically enrolled in the classis of their home church, it is a time for students to return home, to familiar faces, and to the people who first noticed and affirmed their call to ministry, to be able to celebrate with them their learning. It is a time in which the classis can reaffirm their call to ministry, encourage them, and pray for them in a meaningful way.
It is also a heavy responsibility, because the classis is charged with ensuring that the students are not only learning, but that they are able to articulate it in an effective and orthodox manner. Ministers are never imposed on the church from something outside the church, they are always grown from within the church, and the church serves as the final gatekeeper for ministers. This experience also allows a time for the classis to determine if they have concerns about a student in any particular area(s), and to give them special guidance and assistance to help them in the area(s) where they have the most need.
The goal of classical examinations is not to keep people out, but rather, to ensure that our ministers are of a high quality. My own view of classical examinations is that it should not be an unduly harsh experience or that we need to intimidate the students (in fact, these folks are quite literally a dying breed), but that we must take our responsibilities seriously. We only have ourselves to blame for poor ministers, whether in knowledge, abilities, or personal piety. As the church, we have the final say over who becomes a minister, and who does not. We cannot take this heavy responsibility lightly.
It is important, therefore that we find a balance between being harsh and being lackadaisical. We must take our responsibility seriously, but we must do it with good intentions, and a warm Christ-like heart. We must ensure that our ministers are of a high caliber, but that we always encourage students in whom we have seen God’s call to ministry. Although it can often be an anxiety-producing experience, classical examinations are a wonderful time, and an important task. I am privileged to have been able to experience this again this year.
(On a side note, I am pleased that all of our students’ examinations were sustained, and they have all been extended a year-long license to preach.)