Making the Grade

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The semester is winding down, and it’s time to post grades.  Oh, boy.  It’s not my favorite part of this process.  Sure, some of this has to do with my distaste for sharing bad news.  Who wants to be the one to tell somebody you care about that they’re not measuring up?  I can see my wife, Kathleen, and me looking at one another when one of the girls had acted up:  “Are you going to tell her, or should I?”  You can guess how that often went down.  But most of this has to do with its ridiculousness.  Sure, it’s easy to grade a Hebrew exam:  “That’s not the hiphil, but the hophal!”  But what about a sermon, or a verbatim, or one’s participation in a travel seminar?  Aren’t we trying to form not only competence, but character?  For Christian ministry?  How do you put a grade on that?  “I’ll give you an A for effort, a D for humility, and a B- for perseverance; average C+.  Now, aren’t you happy?”

I write this as I sit in our upstairs library where two of our dear students are typing out their ordination exams.  There’s a heaviness, and a seriousness, and a giddiness/panic in the atmosphere.  Here we go.  All this work, and all these sacrifices, and all this wrestling with call – and now, in a few pages, do I pass or do I fail?  I know what I’m supposed to say, “It’s only a test.  An imperfect test, meant to indicate readiness for ministry.  Just do your best, and know that others have gone before you.  Mess up, try again.  Persevere, you’ll get through.”  But it takes me back to my days with the SAT, and the time I took the Medcats (yes, another possible vocation).  How do I measure up in the eyes of potential colleges and grad schools?  And this is an “ordination exam”!  How do I measure up in the eyes of the denomination, if not in the eyes of God?  Oh, boy.  I don’t like grades.  I’m not sure God does either.

I’ve often joked that I’m glad that ministers and educators don’t get paid “for performance.”  How would you measure it?  Surely not by the hours spent in sermon preparation, or the diligence of visitation.  There’d have to be some standard for effectiveness, not just in what we say, but what we do.  Wouldn’t the faithfulness of the congregation have to show up somewhere on the grade sheet, or at least “signs of increased faithfulness on the Way.”  Oh, boy.  Not sure I want to go there – as I look back over my years of ministry, and watch the tides of faithfulness ebb and flow, in others and in myself.  We’re studying the prophet Micah right now in Sunday School.  I’m wondering how his contemporaries would have graded him?  B+ for creativity, D- for good news, F for charm:  low C overall.  Now, Micah, aren’t  you happy?

I was this week, believe it or not, re-reading part of the Westminster Confession of Faith with one of the students now seated behind me in the library.  We were prepping for the theology exam.  There was a practice question on Election.  Oh, boy.  What’s a pass versus fail answer?  He quite astutely (I wonder who taught him theology!) went to chapter 3.  Listen in regarding the elect: these God has chosen in Christ “out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works [add, or good grades], or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.”  Maybe the main grade to always worry about, and celebrate, is not the grade that someone else gives us, but the grade that God in Christ has placed on us all:  “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased.”  Surely not on the basis of our performance, but due to the depths of God’s love.  A happy rest of the summer, post-grades and post-standard ords, to you all.

Richard Boyce
Academic Dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte Campus
Associate Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Leadership

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