Saturday, January 25, 2014

Is The Church Going the Way of The Post Office?

The first section of this radio show is about drug legalization. Ignore that bit. If I knew how to cue up the audio I would to jump straight to 18:58 where they start talking about old businesses and radical reinvention. As I listened to this conversation I could not help but think about denominational Christianity. Tell me if you sense any of the similarities.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Ultimate Exegesis Exam Guide: Pass It The First Time (PCUSA Ordination Exams)

It is January. For most of us it is that frozen month of the year where we nurse our Christmas season hangover. However, for some of us PCUSA candidates for ministry today is the day we received news of the books that our exegesis exam will cover at the end of the month.

I passed this exam recently. Sometimes these exams are harder than others. I wanted to share with you my best advice on how to prepare for this exam regardless of its difficulty. This post is a little long but don't be discouraged. It is all sound advice and not that complicated. I also have a  basic checklist designed to compliment this post.

FOUR WEEKS OUT: Gather Materials

SUPPORT: Some of you are nervous, some of you are angry, some of you think this is not a big deal at all. I would encourage you to start this journey by finding support. Get some people praying for you. Find some encouragement. Find someone to take a walk with, have a beer with, whatever you might want to do to blow off some steam. Try looking at this time as less like passing an exam and more like an opportunity to engage in a practice where faith and community meet academic excellence. Let this be a time for the word minister to you. If you need someone, I am here, I can be a start of a support group. Also, if you are under 40 we have a facebook group that wants to help you through all the hard parts of early ministry.

PICK A LANGUAGE EARLY: Hebrew or Greek. Some people say graders are easier with the Hebrew. I took one of each. I did not find Hebrew to be easier. I actually found my Hebrew graders to be less informed linguistically making my job more difficult. There is no reason to not play to your strengths. Lean on your  language. Do not try to game the system.

STUDY MATERIALS
Gather and print out as many old exams as you can find.

RESEARCH MATERIALS
Compile your bibliography.

References
Some people love using bible software. I find it easier to use actual books. Either way, be sure you understand how to use and cite your references. Know how to look at the notes in a passage to help you determine if words in the text are questionable, frequently used, and where they are found first and in which ancient texts. This is basic exegetical stuff but it is also nuanced. It is easy to get rusty on this. Here is my New Testament list of musts. Sorry, I currently have nothing for Hebrew. (Suggest some in the comments)

  • BDAG is the standard lexicon. This one should already be considered a given.  
  • Greek Grammar and Beyond saved my life once or twice. Chances are they are going to try to throw some odd Greek at you this helps combat that.
  • The Basics of Greek Syntax will help.
  • I would also keep your basic Greek book on hand, whatever you learned with is probably best. This one is mine.
  • Metzger is a useful tool that helps highlight the immediately difficult passages and grades them by reliability. 
  • I like Matthews because it gives some cultural context. It is not about languages but about living in the world of the first century. It is the one I used but there might be better ones out there. Add a suggestion in the comments if you have any recommendations. Finally, if you are rusty on exegesis in general pick up 

Commentaries
Your list of research materials for your bibliography does not have to be long. In my opinion you should have at least three commentaries. However, I went totally overboard. I took home eight from the library. It was too much. Remember you are looking for quality not just quantity.

Check with your local seminary, if they have a Presbyterian office sometimes the office will have book recommendations specific to the biblical books for that particular exam. They may also have access to previous graded exams.

When selecting commentaries make sure you have:

  1. A commentary from someone who is not a white male. White males tend to dominate the academic landscape here. While a lack of diversity will probably not ruin your chances of success, being conscious of diversity will impress some readers. Some people will feel like actively trying to impress the graders is manipulative, but I see no down side to it.
  2. A commentary from the early reformers if possible. Check to see what John Calvin had to say about your book in question. 

THREE WEEKS OUT

1. Get an academic lay of the land. Find a general commentary and read up on the form, purpose, context and structure of the book. I recommend DeSilva's Book for the New Testament. I would recommend this dictionary for the Old testament Prophets.

2. Read through your biblical text several times. I also like to listen to it on MP3. Listen to it or read it from beginning to end. This is easier for the smaller books. Isaiah, is the OT pick for January 2014. I wouldn't go through that more than twice. James is the NT pick. I would probably start off every morning between now and the exam with a read through while taking extensive notes on my personal reflections.

3. Take the time to read through one like every other day. Take extra special time to note How the test taker indicated an answer to a question. Also, look at the graders comments. Try to get to the point where you can predict what the graders are going to say.

TWO WEEKS OUT

1. Continue to read exams. 

2. Start taking exams. You will not have the strong research base that your actual exam will have but trying to answer the questions, even in bullet points, to older exams will help you prepare to take the actual exam. Make sure you start to list all the possible sub-questions nested into a major questions that need to be answered. Graders often say, "The number one reason people do not pass an exam is because they do not answer the questions." Don't be one of those people. Ever question has major answers, minor answered, and answers to questions that are implicate. I am convinced that people fail most often because they do not take the time to realize all the subtle questions that are actually being asked. I took highlighters to my practice exam. Every time a question has a sub question I would highlight that sub question with a new color. When I reviewed my answers I would highlight the part of the answer with the same color as the sub question that it is answering.

3. Read through two commentaries. Try to find two commentaries that have wildly different perspectives. Read through them but don't get bogged down in the commentaries, especially in the larger books. A causal skim will suffice. Look for main points to chapters.  


THE WEEK BEFORE

STOP
You have done a lot of prep work. You should be proud of yourself. Take some time to relax. Stop reading commentaries. Stop reading through old exams. Stop taking exams. 

CREATE A BATTLE PLAN
Time management is key. This particular exam takes forever. Yes, you get several days to write it. Yes, it is easy to get behind. Cancel any non essential activity for those days. Chart out how quickly you want to approach the exam. I like to try to answer two questions a day. That gave me some time in the back end of the exam to change my mind if need be. Also, it is important to schedule down time during the exam. Allow for time to clear your head, be physical, and simply be distracted. 

THE EXAM PERIOD

STICK TO YOUR PREPARATION
Don't freak out. You are more prepared than most people taking this exam. Stick to your battle plan. Be sure to take your breaks. Eat healthy.

READ THROUGH ALL THE QUESTIONS
Keep in mind that the questions build on each other. The final questions will ask you to use what you have learned from the earlier questions. Keep those last questions in mind as you answer the first ones. Also, be sure to answer the questions. Remember to look for the major questions asked, the minor questions, and all the possible implicate questions. Be clear, restate the question in the answer. So for example. Last August the first question was...

Explain how the words “astounded” and “amazed” shape your understanding of Mark 6:1–6a. Discuss how other uses of ἐκπλήσσω and θαυμάζω in Mark inform your interpretation of Mark 6:1–6a. Limit your answer to 600 words.

This is not the whole answer but here is a feel for the type of prefixes I used to make sure the readers knew I knew my stuff.
Major Answer: Astounded shapes my understanding of Mark 6:1-6a  because ...
Major Answer: Amazed shapes my understanding of Mark 6:1-6a  because ...Implicate answer:  The English words astounded and amazed are similar in meaning and sometimes circular in definition. These words appear to be synonyms. In other translations such as Today’s New International Version (TNIV) both verses translate ἐκπλήσσω (6:2) and θαυμάζω (6:6a) as amazed.Implicate answer: Amazed shapes my understanding because...
REVIEW YOUR WORK
Read through your answers a few times to make sure you are saying what you want to. Do not give this exam to someone else to edit. The PCUSA considers it cheating. 

Check spelling and grammar.
Don't look like an idiot. There, their, there. It's and Its. You, your, you're. We all know them but mistakes happen in timed exams like this. I am sure if you looked hard you will probably even see my bad spelling and grammar expressed in this post. I passed even though my spelling and grammar are terrible. But I didn't win any friends along the way. Make sure this exam is polished.

Make sure nothing is omitted.
I cut and pasted some lines from a word document to the exam. certain lines disappeared in the final edit. Double check to make sure nothing is omitted or added by mistake.

Don't expect your graders to know anything. 
Technically, a grader may not even have a high school education. The only prerequisite of being a grader is that you are a pastor or an elder. Spell out everything for them.  Show them you know the Greek or Hebrew. Parse the words even if it is not asked in the question. 

Use a word program.
Don't edit the exam right on the website. That is when mistakes happen. That is when you might accidentally submit a half finished exam. Just wait on the website until you are done with the exam in word.

BACK UP: Back up your work on the internet, on your own computer, and once more somewhere else just to be sure. Remember, Jesus Saves. 

BE BLATANTLY PASTORAL
I always found exams to be a terrible place to be pastoral. It seems disingenuous to me to write in pastoral reactions to hypothetical situations. If I was ever in a situation that required pastoral care I would never stop at the bare minimum required in this exam. But they are basically looking to make sure your pastoral care has a heartbeat. Give it to them.

AVOID PARTISANSHIP
Let's be honest, our church has some extremes politically. Now is not the time to be a stalwart conservative or a radical liberal. Just be bland. Don't let your pastoral future rest on wither or not someone half way across the country agrees with you theologically. Don't sacrifice this exam in order to feed a need to be a theological martyr.

EXTRA HELP:

Below are long PDFs about taking the exam. Enjoy them until they start to feel overwhelming, then get rid of them.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ending Poverty by Holding on to Your Money

Every church I know wants to help the poor. The sentiment is pretty much ubiquitous. However, execution varies from congregation to congregation. Recently, a group of economists met and discussed solutions to crippling poverty. While this conversation is not from a christian perspective I think that it is both timely and important for us to have access to this information.

Would a Big Bucket of Cash Change Your Life? (Listen to podcast here)


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Go Out

Below is a link to a blog post that I think you should read. It is from the PCUSA director of East Coast Presbyterian Center of New Church Innovation. It is just another voice in the chorus of where I believe the church needs to go into the future.

http://pres-outlook.org/insights-opinions/outpost-blog/18950-a-simple-walk-can-be-a-game-changer.html

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Three Ways to Tell if Your Church is into Necromancy (Part 3)

"Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God." -Leviticus 19:31

Does church necromancy actually have anything to do with Leviticus 19:31? Not really. Necromancy is defined as using a magical art in order to commune and control the dead. This seems like a command that by-in-large the church has all wrapped up. Yet I see a parallel  We do not try to conjure up the spirits of the dead people. Controlling dead churches, however, is another matter. 

Here is the third way to  tell if your church is into manipulating the dead.

Are you beating a dead horse?

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is The Wire. It is a story about a police force in a city that is in decline. People are moving out of the city at alarming rates. Leadership positions are filled with self serving politicians that lack political will to do the right thing. The drug dealers are smarter, better paid, and more capable than most of the police that are chasing them. The police arrest drug dealers on the corners all day but over crowded prisons just spit them back out.  The commissioner goes to his captains to ask how they plan on taking on the drug dealers. Their answer, "The same thing, but harder."

Does your church think that doing the same thing but only harder is going to keep people from moving away? I have seen it before. "If only we got the 'right' youth leader than our model would work." or "If only we could find enough volunteers then we could have this committee up and running in no time." There is not right leader. There are not enough volunteers. That horse is not going to get up out of the grave and have you ride it off into the sunset. 

A living congregation will learn to try new things. They will not be afraid to experiment. There may be times when a good idea has simply not caught on. Yet, until it does churches should be looking to work smarter not harder.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Three Ways to Tell if Your Church is into Necromancy (Part 2)


"Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God." -Leviticus 19:31

Does church necromancy actually have anything to do with Leviticus 19:31? Not really. Necromancy is defined as using a magical art in order to commune and control the dead. This seems like a command that by-in-large the church has all wrapped up. Yet I see a parallel  We do not try to conjure up the spirits of the dead people. Controlling dead churches, however, is another matter. 

Here is the second way to  tell if your church is into manipulating the dead.

Are we allowing new people to change the culture of the church?

Sometimes ghosts of a congregation are beloved figures that have long since moved on. We like to keep them with us because they meant something to our lives. However, there are another type of ghost found in some churches.

They are the ghosts of people we ignore. 

I have been in churches where it simply did not matter what the newer members thought. They might as well be ghosts because they are completely ignored. This church belongs to the old guard. The long term members "know what is best for the church" because they have been there the longest. The leadership wants the new people there. They just do not want to have to change in order to accommodate. After all, "We have been doing it this way since forever. It is the new people that should learn how to do it our way."

How can you tell if your church is trying to control the ghosts of people we ignore? Look at you leadership. A vibrant living community of believers changes and adapts over time. How long has that leadership been in place? Are titles of elder or deacon being passed down from father to son? Mother to daughter? Would you rather have Person X take control of lent devotionals because you "know they will not screw it up" instead of trying to bring in someone new? These are all hallmarks of church necromancy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Three Ways to Tell if Your Church is into Necromancy (Part 1)

"Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God." -Leviticus 19:31

Does church necromancy actually have anything to do with Leviticus 19:31? Not really. Necromancy is defined as using a magical art in order to commune and control the dead. This seems like a command that by-in-large the church has all wrapped up. Yet I see a parallel  We do not try to conjure up the spirits of the dead people. Controlling dead churches, however, is another matter. 

Here is the first way to  tell if your church is into manipulating the dead.

1. Do you have a ghost congregation?

When asked,  "How large is your congregation?" I find most Christians have three numbers in mind.

1.The number on your church resume. When looking for a pastor a church usually inflates it
s numbers to include everyone who has darkened the doorstep in the last 10 years, plus a few that have passed away, plus an additional 30% just for good measure. This is the "right number." The number members think they should be have. It is the number that churches think, "If we had a few good years we would be back at this number."

2. The number on your membership roles. This is usually slightly smaller than the first number. It includes official church members but usually no one takes the time to edit this membership. Why should they? "Isn't a larger church better than a smaller one?" In just about every church I have worked in there is Grandfather Church Leader who has five grandchildren in their mid-20s who all went through confirmation in junior high. Presently, half of them would not even consider themselves Christian. The other half may not have darkened the church doorstep since high school graduation. In order to not offend the church leader the "kids" stay on the membership roles. This number is the number most people think their church has in their congregation if everyone who comes regularly (but not weekly) came on the same day.

3. The actual number. This is a number that can be counted at any given Sunday service. I believe this is the number we should be emphasizing. The other two, while usually being flattering and larger, do not help us because they only prepare us to set unrealistic expectations. How many people are realistically going to come to that pot luck? How many children should we expect to be part of confirmation? How well is the church reaching out to young adults? Going off the first two numbers will only end in an empty wallet and a overstaffed  family camp trip.


How many ghosts are being counted in your registry? How do these ghosts keep you from addressing the needs of the actual congregation?