Breaking the legs off the proverbial Presbyterian stool

Clark Cowden

Rev. Clark Cowden

Presbyterianism has historically been described as a system of faith and practice that stands on a “three-legged stool” of theology, worship and polity. To lose one of the legs means all will ultimately fall.  We have watched with grief as the theological and worship practices of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been undermined and degraded over the years. However, there were many who held out hope that the third leg, governance, which includes ecclesiastical discipline, might yet hold. That leg is now broken.


Two cases on two coasts


In the case of the Decision Presbytery of Southern New England v. John Merz a self-identified partnered gay man was not disciplined by the Permanent Judicial Commission even though his violation of the Biblical and constitutional (Book of Confessions and Book of Order) standards of marriage were stipulated to by both sides.


On the other coast is the case of Clark Cowden, an ordained PCUSA minister with a litany of service to the local church and higher governing bodies, who found himself as the subject of an 18-month synod investigation and the now vindicated survivor of a four-day ecclesiastical trial that ultimately proved a failed attempt to defrock him.


Taking aim at a Presbyterian poster-boy


Cowden is the executive presbyter of San Diego Presbytery, former presbytery executive of San Joaquin, member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, former member of the PMAB executive committee and former chair of the General Assembly Mission Council’s leadership committee. He is nationally known as a good listener, creative thinker, compassionate conservative whose personal theology aligns with evangelicalism.


As the executive of a well-known conservative presbytery, one might expect Cowden to be an expert in church dismissals. Presbyteries like his have “lost” many churches during the turbulent realignment that has been taking place over the past half dozen years. But to this point San Diego has only had one church leave the denomination.  By all accounts, Cowden has done a good job working to keep churches “in.” So why did some want him “out?”




Two years ago a couple of disgruntled presbyters wanted to see him ousted from office and stripped of his ordination. When asked what he had done to offend them, Cowden said, “it was all very political. I pushed the presbytery to be more missional, embracing change and doing things differently.  For people who like things the way they were in the ’50s that was too much. Also, for really detailed oriented people I’m too much of a big idea, generalist. I was also not a person they could control.”


Out of control synod


But if control was the hope of those who initiated disciplinary charges against their EP, things got completely out of control when the case was transferred to the synod where more people had reason not to like Cowden.


Do you remember the Mid Council Commission? Do you remember the idea of having porous presbyteries, non-geographic presbyteries and other creative ideas proposed to the 2012 General Assembly? Well, Cowden and San Diego Presbytery led the way on non-geographic creative thinking.


Cowden acknowledges those creative options were explored with the hope of keeping churches in the denomination and discovering a way of being a presbytery that is defined by theological orthodoxy, missional creativity and relational health rather than an outdated notion of only geography. However, other presbyteries saw it as a strategic attempt to “steal” their strongest churches. That loathing had been simmering and the allegations made by traditionalists in his own presbytery gave fellow presbyters in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii the opportunity to go after him.


In April 2012, allegations were filed against Cowden and he in turn filed a request for vindication. The accusation against Cowden alleged misconduct related to synod and General Assembly grants for a 2008 presbytery new church development project known as Trinity Life. In February 2012, the presbytery voted in its consent agenda to suspend the presbytery’s relationship with Trinity Life, thus prompting the allegations.


Based on advice from the Office of the General Assembly, the Presbytery Council voted to refer the allegations to the synod, and the Synod Council accepted them in May of 2012, even though the PCUSA’s Rules of Discipline do not allow referrals to happen that way.  The synod in turn formed an Investigative Committee to determine if there was sufficient reason to file charges for a disciplinary offense.


According to both Tim Beal and Bob Davis, minister members of San Diego Presbytery who were both attorneys before they were pastors, that should have been the end of it. Nothing in the allegations rose to the level of discipline. These are the kinds of things that presbyteries routinely deal with at the Human Resources level. These are the kinds of things that are covered by: “let’s do it differently next time.”


The concerns should have been raised with the presbytery’s personnel committee not the PJC. In fact, they were raised with the presbytery’s personnel committee.  But, when their investigation did not result in any serious consequences for Cowden, a group of accusers decided to file disciplinary allegations.


The investigation should have never been pursued. Charges should have never been brought. A trial should have never been held. But that is not how this story goes.


The Synod Investigative Committee conducted an intensive eight-month inquiry into Cowden’s personal and professional conduct.  In February 2013 they filed 12 charges against him.


Cowden was accused of submitting applications to synod and General Assembly without necessary authorization by the presbytery; making those applications under false pretenses; causing the presbytery to breach commitments to the synod and General Assembly for those grants, violating the Manual of the Presbytery regarding oversight of the project, and making false or disingenuous statements with the intent to mislead the Investigative Committee.


As is directed in the Book of Order, members of the Investigative Committee formed the Prosecuting Committee in the disciplinary case. They announced that they were seeking the highest level of censure: removal from ordained ministry. They also communicated that they would not settle for anything less.


That “off with his head” demand makes no sense. There was no accusation of moral failing. There was no accusation of financial malfeasance. And yet, the synod prosecuting committee would accept nothing less than an end to Cowden’s service in the PCUSA as an ordained leader.


Not guilty, on all counts


Following three pre-trial conferences, a trial was held Aug. 16-19, 2013, before the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC). The PJC was composed of seven members that came from presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California & Hawaii other than San Diego. In order to find the accused guilty, five of the seven members must vote guilty. There is a vote taken on each count.


The case included 12 charges alleging 120 specific violations of the Constitution or Scriptures.


  • Two charges and their specifications were dismissed in Pre-Trial Conferences as not even constituting offenses.
  • Three and one half charges were dismissed and barred by the statute of limitations. These charges dealt with the Synod Grant application. Even though these were dismissed, virtually the same facts were adjudicated in the remaining charges regarding the General Assembly grant.
  • In charges 11 and 12, the PJC ruled Cowden not guilty at the conclusion of the prosecution’s case for lack of evidence, even before the defense presented its case. The vote for a failure to present a prima facie case was 4-3.
  • In the remaining 4 ½ charges, the PJC voted not guilty 0-7 on all of the main charges.  They voted not guilty 1-6 on one subpoint, and 2-5 on a couple of subpoints (dealing with financial oversight).


Discipline as restoration or humiliation?


It would seem that somewhere along the way the Investigating Committee got caught up in its own frenzied pursuit of Cowden. They were so determined to pronounce him guilty that they were not interested in any outcome other than his removal from ordained office and his personal humiliation along the way.


For what offense?


Cowden feels as if he himself became an offense to the PCUSA institutional preservationists.  That thought is offensive to consider. It unmasks the intolerance of a system that cannot abide the continuing presence of people who lead change in evangelical and missional directions.


And yet, on the other coast, the court refused to hear the relevant evidence in a case where the accused is living in clear violation of Biblical and constitutional standards for marriage. Which also unmasks the brokenness of a system that will abide the continuing presence of people who lead change in progressive directions.


The stress on the ecclesiastical discipline portion of the church governance leg has simply become too great.  Three synonymous words come to mind: fractured, broken, failed. By any definition, it is a system whose integrity has been compromised on both coasts with examples of cases on two extremes.


Both of the accused carry on as before. Vindicated? Maybe. Restored? Hardly.


For whom the bell tolls


After all was said and done the synod billed the Presbytery of San Diego for all the costs related to investigating, prosecuting and trying its executive. The cost of Cowden’s defense was $42,000. The presbytery’s insurance policy paid the first $20,000, and then the presbytery voted to pay the remainder of the costs. The presbytery’s bill from the synod is nearly $105,000.  So those who were concerned about the potential use of presbytery monies for something other than new church development got precisely the opposite of what they were seeking.


But who pays the other toll?  How do you account for the human toll paid by Cowden and his family?  How do you account for the distraction this caused for an entire presbytery?  Who will pay for the time lost, the energy wasted and the missional opportunities missed?


The bell is tolling, but for whom?

Carmen Fowler LaBerge