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.”