I failed an exam.
There were several reasons why I failed, but nonetheless…I failed it. And there’s a little bit of joy around failing that exam because it’s one of five Senior Ordination Exams for PCUSA ministers. I passed the other four the first time I took them. Three of them I passed with flying colors. One I passed by God’s grace and mercy! So go me for passing the other exams!
I’m telling y’all this because as a Black woman in my denomination (where Black people make up less than 5% of the entire body), passing these exams is like jumping through hoops placed too high and too close together. The system, like everything else created by the dominant culture (read – white people in power) is setup for those with access to resources. Resources of time, of knowledge and of financial support.
At the time, I was a full-time student and mother working a couple of jobs. I had very little time and worked very hard for all of my financial resources. My access to knowledge was somewhat prohibited by the fact that I had little time to read additional materials and no extra financial resources to purchase texts of my own for this specific exam. This was also paired with the fact that I was in high stress mode trying to finish the last semester of my time in Div School virtually, writing final papers and completing a huge project for my graduate degree concentration. I was swamped to say the least.
I know I’m not the first person to fail an exam, but it was an eye opener. I worked hard at what I thought would be great essays, but I felt crushed because I just didn’t have the right texts. It was my choice to attend an ecumenical Divinity School/Seminary. And it was my choice to focus on more radical work within my degree (Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies). But it wasn’t my choice to be penalized for it. They tell you not to include anything in the test that would identify you, but it’s hard to separate my experience as a Black woman within Christianity. Our identities make our spiritual experiences unique and shape our theology. Even if I agreed with Migliore, Barth, or Calvin, how I came to agree with them still speaks to who I am in this time and place and context. How do you leave that out? How do you wash yourself clean of the personal experiences to write about a theology you have come to know and love through deep investigation of self and God? How do you write a sermon about the disabled and not talk about how there are levels to which differently abled persons get more visibility? Or how do you speak to someone about a priestly blessing without speaking to the fact that there are those who have been abused by the faith leaders they once knew?
So, I failed. Because as I wrote, I kept panicking about whether or not I was saying too much or too little. I wondered if it sounded too “Black,” or too “radical” or just plain and simple…not white enough. And then, I turned the test in blank. Yeah you read that right. After slaving over translations, online resources, and a couple of trips to borrow books, I turned the test in blank. I was crippled by fear. Fear that I wasn’t good enough. And even as I am now on the other side of this and have passed the exam, – third times the charm – I still feel sad about failing. I feel sad because I let bringing my full self to the table be a hinderance. But isn’t that part of being a minister? Isn’t allowing your story and God’s story to meet up so that you can walk with God’s people on their journeys part of being a good pastor? How can you gauge if I’m ready to pastor only on translations, word studies and historical background? Why isn’t it about how all of that speaks to God’s people today, in this specific place and time and context, in Black and Brown bodies and experiences? Because if I wrote to the needs of those people, with the experience that I have, the readers would know who I was – A Black woman in the South trying to become a minister in a denomination where she is the ultimate minority.
Maybe people will read this and think I am complaining. Maybe there are those of you who think it’s par for the course. Maybe there are others who feel just as bewildered as I did. Whatever you’re feeling, I hope you remember that you are God’s child too and that it matters who you are. Your skin color, your gender, your sexuality, your location…everything about you matters to God. And God loves you for you. You don’t ever have to erase yourself to be loved, to be chosen or to be accepted by God. So show up as your full self. You’re made in God’s image and you’re beautiful and qualified to do whatever God has called you to do in this world.