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Monday, February 07, 2005

Fr. Jason's Tips for Taking the GOEs

And now, just in time for no one to care...here are Fr. Jason's Tips for Taking the GOEs:

(For those who don't know, the GOEs are General Ordination Exams that (almost) everyone takes who is in the process leading to ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in the USA. There are seven exams on prescribed areas: contemporary society, church history, Scripture, theology and missiology, ethics and moral theology, liturgics and church music, and theory and practice of ministry. Six of these last a half day each and one is a day long; I believe the day-long exam changes from year to year, this year it was the theology question. The exams area taken over four days (six half-day exams = 3 days + 1 full day exam), and generally include a day in the middle, sometimes a full weekend, to rest. Needless to say, there is great shpilkis, great anxiety about these exams, and a fair bit of preparation offered to students in the early part of their final year of seminary.)

(Why am I qualified to offer advice? Frankly, I might not be. I don't speak officially for ECUSA, or the seminaries, or the General Board of Examining Chaplains. So, here as elsewhere: caveat lector. On the other hand, I did well on the GOEs, and on exams generally. Also, I have been a reader of GOEs for the last three years (and examining chaplain for my diocese for the last two), a task which I, um, enjoy. So I've read of a lot of GOEs and have become reasonably familiar with the expectations of them; I've also seen some patterns which I think are worth discouraging in future generations of test-takers. So I thought I might offer some observations and hints that some might find helpful in the future -- I'll try to repost this next Christmas break, in case some reader might be prepping to take them next January.)

So without further ado, here are Fr. Jason's Tips for Taking the GOEs:

1.) Read the question, answer the question. Don't answer what you think the question is asking for, address what it is actually asking for. If there are parts of the question, make certain you answer all parts of it. If it asks you to make reference to something in the question in your response (such as a text or diagram), for Pete's sake, make sure you refer to it. If the directions forbid use of certain resources, such as an annotated Bible (one this year did), then make sure that you don't.

2.) Answers need to be adequate. In order to sustain a section of the GOE, you need to get a three, which means that your response needs to be adequate. In other words, you don't need to write a publishable essay, you have to write a clear response; you don't have to know everything, you have to know enough. On sets which are open book, or at least allow minimal resources, you don't even have to know everything, you only have to know where to lay hands on your trusted resources to help you respond. I think that people often build up the GOEs in their minds until they are blown all out of proportion, with the result that they become overwhelmed and panicky. Which leads me to...

3.) You are able to provide an adequate respose. Mark my words: most of you have been in seminary for two and a half years, and have been given the tools and resources you need to provide adequate responses. More than that, since seminary isn't a preliminary to the GOEs, but a preliminary to ministry, training and formation which you will be using every day for the rest of your life, think of the GOEs as a feedback tool to gauge your proficiency in many of those life skills you will need as a priest.

4.) The GOEs are diagnostic feedback. If it's feedback -- instead of judgment, or some other ominous description -- then why be threatened by it? We've all gone through so much discernment and feedback by then, why will a little more true (if partial) description of ourselves hurt? The GOEs are means by which you and the diocese assess your proficiency in seven areas that collective pastoral wisdom has found that you need in order to flourish as a priest. If you fail to sustain, don't become cowed and discouraged, or combative and dismissive: take it as helpful feedback and either think of alternate ways you can demonstrate that competancy, or, better yet, ways that you can sharpen that area of your priestly practice. Perhaps these are helpful hints for your first year or two of continuing education time?

5.) Questions are designed to be answered. Because this is a nationally administered, standardized test, there is no such thing as an unanswerable or trick question. Irony is unknown in the halls of standardized test writers. (I know, it is sort of a boring place, but it comes with the territory.)

6.) Creativity is a plus in responses, so long as this in no way interferes with your fulfilling the tasks set out in #s one and two. A particularly satisfying response might well (but need not) provide a creative addition. But don't let this distract you: a creative response which doesn't answer the question or isn't adequate will not do well.

7.) Don't pad. Most quotations from Scripture can be very easily summarized, perhaps only including the most salient part of a quote to demonstrate some point, while providing a citation for the overall pericope. If they are quoted at length -- and this goes for the prayer book, too, or most any resource -- they can very easily crowd out your own reflections and take up valuable space. Worse than quoting at length is doing so and leaving it unremarked, as if a certain passage is utterly perspicuous and showing your proficiency in this canonical area is only a matter of quoting someone else. Don't pad.

8.) Brevity is the soul of wit -- not GOE writing. The questions generally specify how long an essay should be: a three-page essay, for example. This is a clue that the test-writers are giving you to help you define what an "adequate" response will be -- use it! Most any question we run into in life can be answered briefly and generally, at a level of exhaustive detail, or somewhere in-between. "Three pages" or whatever it happens to be, specifies a level of detail that an adequate response will provide. Note well: this does not mean that responses are assessed on page count. They are not. I have read elegant and adequate brief responses, and confused and inadequate long responses. My point is that if you find you have written a page and a half for a three page answer, you either need to be very confident that you have hit all the points in an unusually economical manner, or else you ought to reconsider the scope of your answer. (If your answer is too long, you also might need to narrow the scope -- or else eliminate padding or rambling and unfocused tangents.)

9.) Do yourself a favor -- outline your response in advance, and then proofread when you are done. I have nearly come to grips with the fact that the rough draft has gone the way of the buggy whip. But do outline a response so it will have some coherence and clarity, and you can be confident that it will answer the question. And do proofread your essay before turning it in -- and I don't just mean use spellcheck: actually read it through. Both of these will be little favors that you can do yourself, not merely because they will significantly improve your GOE performance, but because these are habits you need to get into anyway and now is as good a time to start as ever.

This isn't just about the GOEs, after all, the nine points here are about life, and particularly life in the priesthood. We need to learn to listen and repond to people, not our expectations of them. We need to give appropriate, adequate answers to questions they pose, not telling them everything or nothing. We need to be confident of our training, and set learning goals for ourselves (no one else will do it for us) so that we can keep learning and growing. We need to understand the context of our ministry. Creativity is often needed, though rarely demanded, yet we exercise this creativity in the setting of the ordained priesthood, which has some salutary duties which we ignore at our (and often others') peril. We need to give people good stuff, in our own voices, but make sure they also know it isn't just free-floating fantasy, but rooted in the story of our Christian faith. We need to pick up contextual cues for what is going on in a situation. And certainly not least for the priesthood: we need to communicate clearly.

Please don't make the assumption -- rooted in defensiveness, perhaps -- that the GOEs aren't about "real life" and are just a hurdle to get over and forget about. The sorts of skills needed to flourish in the GOEs are very much the skills needed in life and ministry.

Well, enough for now, it's late. I welcome any suggestions of additions or modifications that readers might have.

3 Comments:

Blogger Thunder Jones said...

Sheesh. I've got to take those things in a few years. How difficult would they be for those educated outside of Episcopal seminaries? Especially the liturgical sections.

Monday, February 07, 2005 2:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Well, I suppose the question is actually how much Anglican liturgical knowledge will you need to serve well as a priest? The same goes for Anglican theology, etc. I don't think anyone would flourish in ministry without some such knowledge. Again, though, I stress that the time spent in seminary will give people a good grounding in these things, so I don't think there is cause for alarm or worry.

Monday, February 07, 2005 6:42:00 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

A couple of things occur to me:

I also remember experiencing GOEs as a real spiritual trial--as the week went on, I found myself struggling with my personal demons. I think this is to be expected but nobody ever really seems to talk about this aspect of it (I don't think we Americans want to think too much about the tests and trials of "call" but that's another topic).

One thing that worked for me was to evaluate where I was re GOEs the summer before senior year--what classes had I taken and what gaps would I have by Jan of senior year? Rather than try to refresh my memory on every topic, I did a little reading that summer on areas I felt weak in (the Oxford Movement, ethics, the big picture of the OT). Then over Christmas break before GOEs I skimmed through and organized my class notes so I could find things quickly.

Monday, February 07, 2005 8:42:00 PM  

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