Tag Archives: Classis Exams

Reflections on One Year of Ordained Ministry

One year ago today I stood in front of the president of the classis, the regional assembly in my denomination.  Behind me sat the members of the classis, and behind them sat family and friends who had come to share this special day.

Of particular significance was the part of the service which is traditionally called “The Interrogation”, although that term is rarely used any longer. It is a time in which the power differential is very visible.  The presiding officer stands behind a lectern on the chancel, and I stood on the floor looking upward.  When I was examined by the classis, I stood with others.  When I made my declaration as a licensed candidate (the intermediate stage between “candidate” and “minister”) I stood with others.  This particular day, however, I stood alone.

There was no one around to answer for me, I could not hide behind anyone.  Even more significant, was that there was no one to lean on, either.

Do you confess together with us and the church throughout the ages your faith in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

This was the moment to which I had felt called, for which I prepared.  This was the culmination of three academic degrees, three years of ecclesiastical examinations following the academic ones, and two years of interviewing with churches.  It was an exciting moment, but also a sobering moment, as I felt a weight on my shoulders that slowly increased with each additional question.

Do you believe in your heart that you are called by Christ’s church, and therefore by God, to this ministry of Word and sacrament?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

Much like my wedding, it was a moment that would set a particular course for my life, and there was no turning back after this. While I do not come from a tradition where ordination is understood to ontologically change someone, we ordain people for life, because in the declaration for Ministers, following the ordination, the newly ordained minister says, “I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ…” Although I remain the same person after the ordination, my place in life and in the church is radically altered.

Do you believe the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the perfect doctrine of salvation, rejecting all contrary beliefs?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

For the previous several years I had been learning, exploring, dialoguing, engaging.  That day, however, was different.  I had no opportunity to defer, to qualify, to write an essay. I did not have the opportunity to confer with colleagues or do further reading or research. It was a scary moment to make a declarative statement, particularly for someone who prefers to consider, think, read, write, and confer.

Will you proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; upholding the witness of Holy Scripture against all schisms and heresies?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

I immensely miss the academic environment. I miss the community of scholarship, I miss the intellectual growth that happens, I miss the regular evaluation, and I miss the ability to explore. Parish ministry exists in a different world. It is a world in which one statement, thought to be interesting, may be kept and used as a weapon at a later time. It is a place where a person has only one chance to say the right thing. It is a world in which rejections continue to happen, with the absence of comments or suggestions on how to improve or even explanations. What is more, parish ministry is a world in which I cannot barricade myself in a library for days on end.

Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace?  Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Ministry is a fish-bowl. Not only am I expected to be the perfect pastor, being everything to everyone, I am also expected to keep my entire life in order and maintain healthy self-care practices to provide an example for the faithful. It is an impossible task, one that seems like it will never be accomplished. The days are often when all I want to do is to go where nobody knows my name. The opportunity simply to exist, to be seen with fresh and eyes that do not know any better who I am or what I do.

Will you accept the church’s order and governance, submitting to ecclesiastical discipline should you become delinquent in either life or doctrine?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Will you be loyal to the witness and work of the Reformed Church in America, using all your abilities to further its Christian mission here and throughout the world?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

The answer to the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads, “…I am not my own…”  While this refers to the wonderful comfort of the sovereignty and providence of God, it also became apparent that in every way I am not my own.  I belong to God, but I also belong to the church. I want to belong to myself, to be in charge of my own destiny. However, I largely offered that belonging, that control, to the church when I made these promises.  While there may be something comforting about feeling in control, there is something humbling about belonging, almost completely, to God and to God’s agents on earth.

Will you strive to fulfill faithfully, diligently, and cheerfully, all the duties of a minister of Christ: to preach the Word of God in sincerity, to administer the sacraments in purity, to maintain proper discipline in the household of God, and to shepherd the flock faithfully?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

It was at this final question of the Interrogation, that I felt the immense isolation of standing alone on the floor before the President of the Classis, as I realized that no one could answer for me. I stood alone.

However, this sense of alone-ness was alleviated when the actual ordination occured and all ministers and elders of the classis are invited to participate in the laying on of hands.  In ministry, although we must at times stand alone, we are never alone.  I do not know if this was the design of the rite, to help the candidate feel utterly alone and burdened, and then to welcome them into community.  If it was not in the design, it is a very salient side-effect.

* * *

As I reflect on my ordination one year later, I have the opportunity to examine my promises and my ability to keep them. Have I been able to keep them?  Some better than others, but I strive for all of them.  It occurs to me that the response, “I will, and I ask God to help me” is not a one time promise, but something for which we must continually strive.

One thing that I do know for sure, however, is this: Over the past year, I have learned just how difficult and how weighty those promises actually are.

I still feel that immense weight upon my shoulders, and perhaps, in a way, it is a good thing. It is because I feel this weight that I realize that I continue to take this all seriously.  It is also because of this weight that I can seek God’s help (as well as the help of others) to alleviate some of it, knowing that I do not have to carry it all alone.

Examining Students of Theology

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.)