Building a Better GOE*: The Canonical Assessment Retreat

[Read the ECMN E-News article, featuring quotes from participants and mentors.]

*What is the GOE, you ask? The General Ordination Exam is a cumulative assessment tool that indicates aspiring priests’ preparedness for ministry. The canons of the Episcopal Church stipulate that new priests and deacons be assessed in various academic and practical areas of study. However, dioceses are not required to use the GOE to assess competency for priests — the canons leave the method of assessment open. In 2015, General Convention defunded the Board of Examining Chaplains, the group that has long operated the General Ordination Exam. They continue to operate, though at a higher cost to those who take the test. When Bishops receive the results of the GOE’s, some use those results to determine who will or will not be ordained. Others use them diagnostically, seeking out further study for the candidates in the areas in which they did not ‘pass,’ to ensure that they get the training they need to succeed in ministry. 

Ask a priest about their experience taking the General Ordination Exam, and you’re likely to get a strong response. Many priests describe the week of timed essay writing as one of the most stressful of their seminary or formation experience. The stress itself isn’t necessarily a problem; formation for ordination should be intense, and should demand intellectual and spiritual work that will stretch and grow the individual more into the person God calls them to be as a deacon or priest. The Episcopal Church is right to expect that its clergy be people who have experienced deep, meaningful formation of their souls and minds. Moreover, the Episcopal Church ought to also expect that the formation process itself be an experience of transformative Christian community. The GOE is a problem if those who participate in it don’t experience the values of God’s kingdom or the practices we think healthy clergy should employ in their ministry.

Participants and mentors at the Assessment Retreat were anointed by the chaplains at the opening eucharist.

While some who have taken the GOE appreciated the challenge to integrate the material they learned over years of study, a few significant criticisms of the process crop up often. The feedback comes back weeks later, from anonymous sources. The questions sometimes seem arbitrary, or designed to trick, or just irrelevant. And because the feedback has been said by many to be sharply critical and disheartening, and free of a relational context, many priests describe the experience as institutional hazing. These experiences don’t reflect the best practices that ground healthy faith communities, such as direct communication that is loving and honest, support for ongoing discernment, and generosity in equipping people to use their gifts for God’s mission.

So this past fall, we set out to build a new canonical assessment process.

These were our goals:

1) Create an experience of learning and integration within the assessment – addressing multiple learning styles and offering a range of advance work, oral assessment, and collaborative projects

2) Ground the experience in community and relationship – those aspiring toward

The Rev. Michael Pipkin led the ‘Ministry and Theology’ workshop, in which participants looked at the identity, context, and resources of a real faith community, and wrestled with options for sustainable ministry.

ordination, and additionally, those charged with assessing their readiness – reflecting best practices of healthy clergy who seek support and collaboration with others

3) Bring those in formation for the diaconate and the priesthood together at the same event with largely the same content and expectations, furthering the existing practice of the School for Formation

4) Set the event in the context of a retreat, with shared prayer and encouragement

5) Give face-to-face feedback – naming, affirming, and encouraging the gifts for ministry already identified by those in the process, and making a plan for gaining competency in any areas identified for growth

6) Include competencies we value in ECMN that the GOE does not explicitly test – namely preaching and missional theology

7) Set an expectation of continued education and formation

In early January, the Canonical Assessment Retreat took place at the ECMN Retreat Center, with six participants, two chaplains, and a multitude of mentors and experienced deacons and priests. The retreat was a great first step in the right direction, and a great opportunity to learn how to do this even better next year.

A few of the participants’ suggestions for next steps in the ‘Ministry and Theology’ workshop.

How did we do it? 

We asked the participants to submit several essays ahead of time, along with a video and text from a recently preached sermon. When the retreat began on January 4, Bishop Prior opened our gathering with an invitation to continued learning, reminding us that this is about supporting those who are called to find and make use of tools that will best support their long-term, healthy ministry. Chaplains led us in shared worship, anointing the participants and mentors at the beginning. Participants took part in workshops and oral assessments, some of which were collaborative, team-based, and conversational – much like real ministry. Participants were invited to use and cite any sources they could find for their work. The mentors who assessed the papers written in advance gave their feedback one-on-one and face-to-face. Finally, participants collated the feedback they had been given, made a plan for any work required before ordination, and made a draft plan for the first three years of their continuing education after ordination.

Here’s some of what we learned from this experiment:

The closing eucharist was led by the Rev. Joanie Delamater, one of the retreat chaplains, and the Rev. Chip Whitacre, who served as a mentor for the diakonia assessment.

It’s still hard, and it should be. Cumulative exams shouldn’t be hazing, but they should demand some of your best work and set an expectation for integrated thinking.

Participants really valued the expressions of support their faith communities sent them. The process of formation for the diaconate and the priesthood is costly – costly to one’s time, energy, relationships with family and friends, and self-identity, in addition to being a significant financial commitment. This is a particularly intense part of the process. Having notes, cards, and messages from those praying for them gave them clarity about who and what they were undertaking this process for.

The timing of the retreat – just after the start of the New Year – comes at a real cost to participants, many of whom spent a significant amount of what would have been family time over the Christmas holiday preparing their work. But, having the canonical assessments done in time for the January MEB allows next steps to happen that support a smooth ordination process. We’ll be looking at the timing for next year in order to craft a schedule that fits better into the other coursework in the School for Formation; ideally, participants and mentors alike can celebrate Christmas as clergy normally do – in worship, and hopefully also in sabbath rest and time with loved ones.

Some participants really appreciated having the opportunity to write in advance. Others found it more stressful, feeling that the assignments expanded to fill the time allotted. We might take this one step further, adopting a portfolio approach to assessment, in which students would submit papers prepared for their previous courses to demonstrate competency in each area. Knowing how we want to ask students to demonstrate competency, we have the ability to work with course instructors to ask them to tailor final projects that will not only be useful tools for ministry but also clear evidence of an ordinand’s competency.

We have much more to learn in order to make our process reflect the Church we want to be. Any kind of assessment tool is an opportunity for bruised egos, unkind speech, and systemic anxiety. But the goals listed above can be taken further and farther as we lean into best practices in adult education, prayerful discernment, and healthy habits for ministry. As we seek a cumulative assessment experience that is integrative rather than performative, this is just one step in the right direction. Hopefully it will be followed by even more creative thinking and exploration that will help us adapt the process of formation for leadership to the capacities and characteristics needed by the church God dreams of – the church we are still discovering anew in each age.