How to Pass the General Ordination Exams

I try to write this blog in an ecumenical spirit, because I view all Protestant denominations as basically interchangeable we all serve one Lord, profess one faith, and share one baptism. But I have to take a moment here in cyberspace to give a shout-out to my fellow Episcopalians. Specifically, those who are in their final year of seminary and preparing to square off with the General Ordination Exams.

Hey, friends! You’re feeling a little down lately, huh? Seminary is not nearly as fun as it was two years ago, am I right? You’ve been reading all those depressing studies about gender-based clergy pay discrepancies, haven’t you?

And now, to add insult to injury, you have to spend Advent getting ready for the GOEs.

Life truly is unfair.

For the uninitiated, the GOEs (usually pronounced “G.O.E.’s,” rather than “goes”) are a set of six-formerly-seven essay exams required for ordination to the priesthood in most dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Each exam lasts three and a half hours, is scored on a pass/fail rubric, and covers one of six-formerly-seven canonical areas: Scripture, history, theology, ethics, worship, and ministry.

Why six-formerly-seven? Where did the seventh one go?

Good question, young grasshopper! For various reasons, all profoundly theological in nature and totally unrelated to how frigging expensive it is to administer and grade these things, two canonical areas of the GOEs have slowly collapsed into one: “theory and practice of ministry” and “contemporary society” are now bundled into “theory and practice of ministry in contemporary society.” Try to keep up.

There is no doubt that the GOEs are a big old pain in the neck. And yet!

And yet, there is no reason to be afraid of them.

Look, here is some full disclosure for you. I passed all seven GOEs — yes, grasshopper, back in my day we had to sit through seven of them — and, unfortunately, I can assure you that this was proof neither of my dazzling theological genius nor of my robust and well-rounded preparation for ministry. In fact, an ungenerous observer might even suggest that I had an unusually slipshod and scatterbrained preparation for ministry. I never took an ethics course. My background in liturgics is kind of weak. Please don’t ask me any detailed questions about the formation of the prayer book.


I nailed those exams right to the wall.

And so can you.

I am here to tell you everything I know.

Let us begin.

Tip 1: Make a plan for how to use your exam time.

For each essay, you have three and a half hours to write 1,000 words. That is a preposterous amount of time. You could probably hammer out these exams in half that time, if you were forced to.

But instead, you have a long, luxurious stretch of several hours, and with any luck you have volunteers from your seminary quietly circulating to bring you coffee and snacks. How will you use these amazing gifts of treats and time?

My plan looked like this:

  • Preparing (30 minutes): Reading the question, sketching the rubric (see below), drafting an outline, gathering sources
  • Writing (2 hours): Writing the essay
  • Editing (30 minutes): Reading over my work, comparing it to my rubric, spell-checking, fine-tuning, submitting
  • Relaxing (30 minutes): Tooling around on the Internet, eating snacks, eating more snacks

Yours might look different. Perhaps you will want more time for writing, or more time to eat snacks. But do start with a plan.

Tip 2: Before you start writing, take a minute to sketch out the grading rubric for the essay question.

Update: I was delighted to learn from a past examining chaplain that GOE candidates are now given the actual grading rubric at the time of the exam. How wonderful! Also, how startling that the church has implemented a widely accepted pedagogical best practice! However, I still think the following tip is a useful exercise, so I’m leaving it in. –Ed.

I know I’m going to draw some ire for saying this … but …

The GOEs are just another standardized test.

Okay, okay, they’re not JUST another standardized test. You should approach them more prayerfully and so on. But still, don’t get so caught up in the mystical spiritual qualities of the GOEs that you fail to see them for what they are: plain old essay exams, graded according to a plain old rubric.

Let’s take that last point apart. The GOEs are anonymized and graded very quickly by the nice people of the General Board of Examining Chaplains (GBEC), who have just a few days to crank through 200 sets of exams. This means that, when they read your work, they are a bit short on the time they would need to truly appreciate the following:

  • Lyrical composition
  • Sophisticated reasoning
  • Theological imagination

They would surely be looking for all of those things if they were hearing you preach a sermon, or blurbing your first book. But on the GOEs, what they need from you is somewhat more pedestrian:

  • Intelligible sentences
  • Cited sources
  • Answering the damn question

Use this knowledge to your advantage: Before you put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard to tackle a GOE essay, take a second to think about the rubric.

Want an example? Here’s part of the church history question from 2015:

The Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries affected the Christian church, as well as the Western world. Some of the hallmarks of Enlightenment thought include: the importance of individual autonomy rather than the authority of society and the state; the preference for human reason over received tradition; the importance of empirical observation rather than divine revelation; progress as a result of human achievement; and an optimistic view of the future. Write an essay of about 750 words in which you discuss changes that occurred in the church, as seen in the writings and ministries of Bishop William White of Pennsylvania or John Wesley, as the result of the Enlightenment. Select three of the five hallmarks listed here and give one example for each hallmark as exemplified in White or Wesley (choose only one of the two).

Let’s pretend we are on the GBEC and dream up our own grading rubric for this question. The prompt is pretty clear in telling us what it wants. Therefore, to give a score of “proficient” to an essay in response to this prompt, we should be able to answer yes to all of the following questions:

  1. Does the essay discuss three of the five indicated hallmarks of the Enlightenment?
  2. Does the essay relate those three hallmarks to the writings of either William White or John Wesley (not both)?
  3. Does the essay make reference to changes in the church, as seen in the writings and ministries of White or Wesley?
  4. Does the essay demonstrate sufficient mastery of spelling and grammar for us to trust that it was written by a human being, rather than a spambot?
  5. Does the essay more or less make sense?
  6. Does the essay have sources cited in some fashion? (The GOEs tolerate an astonishing amount of sloppiness in source citation, but you do at least have to say what your sources are.)
  7. Does the essay contain about 750 words?

Here’s what you need to do to pass: Check every one of those boxes.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at last year’s grading rubrics.

Note that, because these guidelines are so strict, it is possible to write a quite brilliant essay that still does not pass. If you only tackle two hallmarks of the Enlightenment, or if you get overambitious and weave together the works of White AND Wesley, or if you get so excited by writing about Wesley’s extraordinary vision or White’s political savvy that you forget to emphasize changes in the church, or if you assume that everyone has heard of Forty-Four Sermons and that you therefore do not need to cite it, you are cruising for a failing grade.

Tip 3: Do not let your ignorance of a topic scare you off.

William White who?

Look, I’m not going to go into extensive detail about my ignorance of church history because I’m pretty sure my bishop reads this blog. But I will say that the GOEs these days are completely open-resource, including open-Internet. Let’s assume you read this question and panic because you have never heard of John Wesley OR William White.* How, then, will you write 750 words about them?

Wikipedia, my friends! Who knows? Perhaps it has come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

Here’s how a person who doesn’t know John Wesley from a hole in the ground should approach this question.

  1. Don’t get all stressed out about the Enlightenment part. Even if you have never heard of the Enlightenment or could not reliably guess the millennium in which it happened, who cares? The prompt has already identified everything about the Enlightenment that it wants you to know. There is no need, in the time allotted to this essay, for you to learn about a sixth hallmark of the Enlightenment. The examining chaplains won’t care. I certainly don’t.
  2. Look up John Wesley on Wikipedia. You need to talk about his writings, so scroll on down to the Literary Work part.
  3. What?!?! He wrote, edited, or abridged some 400 publications?!?! That is too many! You don’t have time to try to figure out which ones were the most important. Don’t write about him.
  4. Look up William White on Wikipedia. Skim … skim … skim … okay, only one lone literary work is mentioned in this article. That one must be pretty important.
  5. Click the external link to William White’s writings. It’s a long list, but we’re going to trust that the pamphlet mentioned on his Wikipedia page, The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, is the most significant and start with that.
  6. We now have all the basic information we need about William White’s writings (from the pamphlet) and ministries (from the Wikipedia page). All that’s left for us to do is find some facts we can plug into three of those hallmarks of the Enlightenment.
    • He was a Church of England cleric who sided with the American Revolution? That’s a pretty darn optimistic view of the future.
    • He ordained the first African-American Episcopal priest? If that doesn’t reflect a belief in progress as a result of human achievement, I don’t know what does.
    • He was ambivalent about the function of bishops in Anglicanism? Holy cow. Look what he wrote in Chapter IV of that pamphlet: “There cannot be produced an instance of laymen in America, unless in the very infancy of the settlements, soliciting the introduction of a bishop; it was probably by a great majority of them thought an hazardous experiment.” OHHHHHH MAN WILLIAM WHITE THEM BE FIGHTING WORDS. Also, suggesting that the church do away with bishops is a jagged break with tradition … so … he must have reached that conclusion not by consulting received tradition, but by relying on his human reason instead.


*Confession: I didn’t know a lot about either of these fine men when I took the GOEs, but I had indeed heard of them. I don’t want you to think my grasp on church history is THAT weak.

Tip 4: Do not let your expertise on a topic lead you off track.

The GOEs are notorious for candidates failing the canonical area they know the most about. Church historians fail the church history exam. Liturgists fail the liturgy exam. Theologians fail the theology exam. It happens all the time.

Why? It goes back to that first tip: The examining chaplains don’t have time to appreciate your subtle brilliance, they just need you to answer the question that was asked. Don’t show off at the expense of actually answering the question, and don’t waste your energy providing answers to questions that nobody asked. If you are asked to write a brief reflection on the Gospel passages for Advent in Year C, there is no need to go into tedious detail about the development of the Revised Common Lectionary. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Tip 5: Do not be a sloppy writer.

Note that I did not demand that you be a GOOD writer. If you struggle with academic writing in English, for any reason — maybe you have a verbal learning disability, or maybe English is not your first language, or maybe writing is simply not your spiritual gift — you can still get through the GOEs just fine.

Instead of fretting about the aspects of your writing that you can’t control, focus on the ones you can. You can definitely control your answers to the following questions:

  1. Have I started with an introduction and ended with a conclusion?
  2. Have I broken my essay into paragraphs so that it is easy to read?
  3. Have I started each of those paragraphs with a sentence that kind of indicates what the paragraph will be about?
  4. Have I clearly labeled my list of sources?
  5. Have I carefully read through my essay, perhaps out loud if I have an exam room to myself, in order to catch obvious grammatical errors or missing words?
  6. Have I used spell check?

Do these things and your essays will be just a little bit easier to read. The examining chaplains will thank you.

Tip 6: Don’t make yourself crazy with studying or resources.

I went to one session of a GOE study group and quickly realized that participating in it would just make me anxious. Back in the day when the GOEs were largely closed-book, it made a lot more sense to spend hours and hours studying. Now, though, everything is open-resource. If you need to come up with three Anglican writers to reference, you can just look at Wikipedia’s list of Anglican writers and take your pick. If it will make you feel better to have a bunch of websites bookmarked, I’ve put together a list that might help you out.

Also, can we talk about books? While you are allowed to bring your own books to the exams, that does not mean you need to bring your entire personal collection. If it brings you comfort to drag two large rolling suitcases full of books to the GOEs (I had a number of classmates who did this), by all means go ahead … but also remember that the GOEs are entirely open-Internet, that you are probably taking them in a well-stocked theological library, and that a superabundance of resources can induce serious writer’s block.

I brought exactly two books with me to the GOEs, more as talismans than as anything else. One was The Episcopalians, by Hein & Shattuck, which I highly recommend but totally didn’t need to bring because the seminary library had about 80 copies of it. I don’t remember what the second one was because it stayed at the bottom of my backpack all week.

Tip 7: Expect something strange to go wrong.

Call it Satan’s wiles or Murphy’s Law, but something inconvenient will probably happen to you during the GOEs. Your hard drive will fail. Your bus will be late. You’ll forget your computer charger or spill coffee all over your lap.

In my case, on the morning of the last day of the exams, before I even left the house, I dropped my glasses on the floor and they snapped right in half. I am VERY VERY nearsighted and had no backup glasses or contact lenses, so I had no choice but to stagger around my blurry house looking for tape to stick them back together (note: this does not work), somehow walk the three blocks to the drugstore by my bus stop without getting hit by a car, ask the drugstore clerk for help finding the Krazy Glue, ride the bus to what I fervently hoped was my stop, and ask the first person I saw to help me glue them back together. (He was another examinee, now a priest, and I still owe him big time. Thanks, Eric!)

What I learned from this experience was: 1) If your glasses are glued back together in an even slightly imperfect way, you will get intense double vision and a blinding headache that lasts about half an hour until your brain figures out how to correct for the irregular distance between your lenses; and 2) always have a spare pair of glasses.

What you should learn from this experience is: Consider potential problems that could throw you off your game and think through a backup plan. Leave early for the exams in case you hit traffic. Borrow a library laptop if yours is an antique. If you are spill-prone, bring an entire change of clothes. What’s it going to hurt? The guy next to you is dragging two rolling suitcases full of books. Nobody is going to think your overpacking is weird.

Tip 8: Even if you fail several of the GOEs, probably nothing bad is going to happen to you.

Most people know this but get caught up in testing anxiety anyway, partly because it’s a rite of passage to agonize about the GOEs with one’s classmates and partly because it’s easy to think of them as a licensing exam. They’re not, though.

I repeat: The GOEs are not a licensing exam. You do not have to pass a certain number of them to get ordained.

If you’re feeling anxious about the GOEs, contact your diocesan exam coordinator — most often the canon to the ordinary or whoever handles the ordination process — and ask what will happen if you fail one. You don’t have to wail into this person’s voicemail inbox, “WHAT HAPPENS IF I FAIL THE GOEs?” Instead, send a brief, politely worded email: “Hello. I am preparing for the General Ordination Exams and am looking forward to completing them in January. I was curious about this diocese’s remediation process for exams that are scored ‘not proficient.’ If I receive a not-proficient score on one of the exams, what will I be asked to do to demonstrate proficiency in this area?”

Typical answers (which vary from diocese to diocese) include:

  • You will have a humiliating but short conversation with your diocesan examining chaplain.
  • You will be asked to write an essay related to the canonical area in which you still need to demonstrate proficiency.
  • Nothing, the GOEs are just a formality anyway.

Last year, more than 60% of GOE takers failed at least one of the tests. I assure you that your canon to the ordinary/Commission on Ministry chair/diocesan examining chaplain has encountered ordination candidates who do not have perfect GOE scores, and that your bishop has ordained such people to the priesthood. If anyone tries to make you feel like you are an outlier for failing some of the GOEs, that person is a jerk.

Hang in there, seminarians. A month from now you’ll be on the other side of these things. In the meantime, tune back in for a roundup of GOE resources that will be worth your time.

2 thoughts on “How to Pass the General Ordination Exams

  1. How timely. I have friend super over anxious info about these to the point I requested my old answers just to show that brilliance is not required to pass. I’m hoping that by sending this it’s ok to repost?

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Please do! I’d be honored to have you repost it personally or on Episcopal Cafe — and I am planning to post all my answers as well, just to prove that you don’t even need to get within spitting distance of brilliance for a passing grade.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s