How to Prepare for Your Ordination Exams

You might be wondering, "What qualifies you to talk about preparing for ordination exams?" No doubt, I'd be asking the same thing, and then I'd read ahead anyway just to see if there's something to learn before hitting the books.

I know I am not the most qualified to share about this because I've witnessed many exams where men have simply crushed it (as the kids say these days). I wouldn’t say I crushed any of my exams, but I did pass them so must have known enough to get through them. But in another sense, I'm qualified to share about this topic because I sustained both written and sub-committee/floor/oral examination in both the URCNA (United Reformed Churches in North America) and the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). We Reformed love our acronyms, don’t we?

Just to give a quick overview of what those exams were like:

Candidacy Examination in the URCNA (United Reformed Churches of North America)
Two weeks before I was assigned an Old Testament text and New Testament text. (Actually, I was only given one week to complete both because the clerk made a mistake and sent it to me late…yes, that can happen so it’s best to be prepared no matter what!) I had to write a paper for each Scripture text, then come ready to be examined on the floor on anything regarding the text in it’s original languages (Greek and Hebrew—grammar, syntax, etc.).

My floor exam started at 8am, we took a short lunch break, and we finished up by about 3:30pm or so. So it was nearly 6 hours of on the spot theological grilling.

Ordination Exams in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America)
Both exams were hard, in their own way. In the URCNA, you get assigned your written papers about two weeks before your floor exam. In the URCNA, there are no sub-committee exams so it's sort of "all or nothing" with the Classis floor exam. You either pass there, after 6-10 hours of oral examination, or you don't and have to come back next time (or some give up).

In the PCA, the hardest part is probably the sub-committee exam because that's where you get drilled with any and every question. Those usually last about 3-4 hours. Then you have the floor exam at presbytery, and that can last anywhere from 2-5 hours (I'm sure there are stories of longer, but I've yet to see them—thankfully).

Anyway, whether you’re preparing for your exams in the Continental Reformed or the Presbyterian traditions, here are some strategies and tips for preparing for ordination.

1. Start right now.

To prepare for my ordination exams, I started practicing and drilling myself with common theological questions during my first year of seminary. When I’d get home from studies, my wife or her family would ask questions, and I’d always try to provide some biblical and theological support to every answer as a way of rehearsing and practicing. If you start early and chew on this stuff over a span of 2-4 years, it tends to sit in the stomach better. When presbyters are wondering Is it in you? you can rest assured that you’ve digested your Christology thoroughly.

2. Purchase a few handy tools to carry with you wherever you go.

 I used old classics to prepare for both examinations.

  • Berkoff’s Manual For Christian Doctrine

  • Hendrickson’s Survey of the Bible

  • The Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity

These three resources would literally travel with me everywhere. I could pick up from where I last left off on each, and would memorize and practice as often as I could, like with flashcards for Greek/Hebrew classes. Also, reading/studying and taking classes on both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity will prove immensely helpful for gaining a proficient confessional knowledge.

3. Ask a friend to mock examine you regularly.

I asked my wife to ask me questions at the dinner table and while we were on dates sometimes.

I also had a good friend of mine ask me every question we could come up with leading up to my examination date. That really helped to calm my nerves and get quick with my responses.

And finally, my pastor went through a list of questions with me to give me further confidence that I could do this on the floor.

4. Go to Presbytery or Classis to watch how an exam is done and to learn what sort of questions might be asked.

One of the best ways to prepare is by watching others who go through the trial by fire ordeal before you. You can even write down all of the questions that are asked on the floor to use as part of your own mock exam. Listen carefully to which questions are asked and how the candidate responds to each question.

Ask yourself, “How would I respond if I were in the hot seat right now?” Try to provide your own answers during the exam, and cite Scripture and the confessions for support.

If you stick to these four tips, I’m confident that you’ll sustain your theological examinations in the coming future.

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

—Matthew 9:37–38

Some Thoughts on the PCA’s 47th General Assembly

Many at my own church have asked me what was notable about our recent meeting (called “General Assembly”). I figured I’d share my quick thoughts with more than just those who asked, in case others are interested. I’m on vacation this week so I’ll keep these brief.

Texas is hot.

I feel like our denomination has one rule: we must meet in the most humid climates imaginable. It was hot outside. And freezing inside. Why do we willfully do this when there are better climates available?

Like San Diego, for example.

Just saying.

The Nashville Statement discussion and decision was completely unnecessary.

This year, the Assembly accepted the recommendation to answer Overture 4, “Declare the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood’s ‘Nashville Statement’ on Biblical Sexuality as a Biblically Faithful Declaration,” in the affirmative. The vote was 803-541.

I was one of the 541 who voiced a “no” to this. Why?

We already have stated our views on marriage and sexuality in both our confessional and constitutional documents (WCF 24.1-6; BCO 59-3). To affirm a document written by a parachurch council still doesn’t make sense to me, especially if we have the means to create our own church document. (Btw, one TE said on the floor that the Westminster Assembly was a parachurch organization, and it got some laughter. But that’s not true. It was a council of divines tasked with restructuring the church, not with stating a biblical position on ethics. The Nashville Statement is a parachurch Christian statement, and as such it’s categorically different from the Westminster Standards in both nature and substance. Okay, done with my nerd rant. That really bothered me.)

Thankfully, we will be creating our own statement in the years to come since this GA has elected to “Establish [a] Study Committee on Sexuality.” That’s a very good thing and I trust we will produce something of great biblical fidelity and compassionate beauty.

So my position on this is that we didn’t need to say it all over again with affirmations and denials. We have our views clearly stated in the Westminster Standards and Book of Church Order. To restate them by declaring something like the Nashville Statement as “biblically true” only proves to ourselves that we’re awesome. It doesn’t persuade others that we’re awesome. And what I’ve found lacking in the Nashville Statement isn’t truth, it’s beauty. Where is the compelling language that clearly leads others—especially outsiders—into the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel? Where is the pastoral language that might lead someone who is struggling with their sexuality toward the biblical position? We simply don’t find it in the Nashville Statement. So I grieve our declaration of this statement for that reason. We can and must do better.

We have a study committee on sexual assault and domestic abuse!!!

The 47th General Assembly will form an "Ad Interim Committee to Address Matters Related to Domestic Abuse, Domestic Oppression, and Sexual Assault.” I am very excited about this. Our church co-hosted the Valued Conference this past March of 2019, so it goes without saying that I’d be a big fan of this one. We need to be as proactive and preventive as we can and this takes a necessary step forward in the right direction, BEFORE any sort of crisis emerges within our denomination.

I’m thankful that we saw the need and are responding sooner rather than later. We can never be too careful and have much work to do on responding better to sexual abuse. There are far too many survivors who need us. I hope this study committee will prove useful for the PCA and for the church catholic.

Did I say Texas is hot?

Seriously, how do people live in that?



Every year is pretty much the same.

We build up the hype, get all hot and bothered over the next General Assembly meeting—thinking that the sky is falling. Two years ago it was racial reconciliation, this year it was Revoice. Blogs sound the alarm the month leading up to our annual meeting. And then we meet to find out everything is pretty okay, and we don’t hate each other as much as we thought we did.

Of course, tensions remain. There was applauding on “both sides” of the aisle during the great debates this assembly, and I’m sure that tension will be there next year just as it was last year. But our denomination isn’t sliding into liberal oblivion, you can bet your britches on that. The Presbyterian Church in America is a confessionally Reformed denomination. That much hasn’t changed.