Pastoral Letter

Dear Friends and Members of the Presbytery of San Diego,

As you may have been hearing lately, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is currently voting on amendments to our Book of Order. One amendment is a proposal to remove our ordination standard that church officers live in fidelity in the covenant of marriage and chastity in singleness, and replace it with a standard that officers joyfully submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The proposal would shift the full responsibility of ordination decisions from the national level of the denomination to the presbytery and session level. It represents a de-centralization of the denomination. It looks like this new proposal will probably get enough votes to pass.

What does this mean for us here in the Presbytery of San Diego? Here are four things I would like to share with you.

First, this language gives us permission to remain who we are and to act as we always have. The DNA of the Presbytery of San Diego has been shaped by spiritual, missional, and relational strands. Our identity is rooted in Jesus Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches. If we abide in Christ, we can bear much fruit, but apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). This will not change.

In 2003, we approved the Essential Tenets and Reformed Distinctives as guidelines for preparing and evaluating candidates through the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, for directing incoming ministers through the Committee on Ministry, and for educating and training our officers and members. They have helped to shape the spiritual strand of our identity. These tenets continue to articulate what we believe.

In 2006, our presbytery discussed a resolution that expressed a concern that the Presbyterian Church (USA) was moving away from the essential convictions that formed the covenant that we received and entered. In order to answer the questions raised in the resolution that was adopted, the Task Force on the Way Forward was formed. This report recommended a Year of Preparation to devote time to corporate worship, communal discernment, and interactive prayer. It expressed a desire to create a new paradigm for the presbytery. It listed ten areas of concern.

In 2007, the Way Forward Work Group was formed to follow up on these areas of focus. The final report that was approved in 2008, stated that our presbytery is no longer primarily a governing body, but that we are primarily a relational community, and we hope to someday become primarily a mission agency. This helped develop the missional and relational strands of our DNA. This document outlined the beginnings of our missional vision, and some exploratory missional pilot projects, which have continued to grow in the years since. We voted to affiliate with the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, and organized our first Moving Back into the Neighborhood event. We reaffirmed our theological identity, strengthened our local ordination standards, adopted a property covenant, and sought to expand our networks and partnerships. We also stated that we might need to develop responses to future scenarios such as actions to set aside ordination standards. We said we wanted to lead, not leave. We continue to pursue this missional vision.

In 2010, we re-affirmed the Standards of Ethical Conduct. We continue to abide by them. All of these actions have helped shape the spiritual, missional, and relational strands of the DNA of our presbytery. The coming change in our denomination’s ordination standards does not mean that we will all of a sudden change who we are. We will be true to ourselves. We will act out of our identity, and discern people for ministry in the same prayerful, spiritual way we always have.

This language gives more permission to the local level, but we would not be required or forced to change. We will continue to examine pastors and candidates for ministry in the same, diligent, prayerful way we always have. We will continue to take seriously the responsible to discern God’s will as we always have.

Secondly, I believe there are a small number of people who are active in same sex relationships who will try to become ordained under the new ruling. This will not be automatic. A presbytery may try, it will probably be challenged, and rulings would be needed by the Permanent Judicial Commissions of the church before we will know for sure what the actual impact of the new language will be.

Third, this represents a de-centralization of the denomination. The PC(USA) is becoming more like the NCAA, which has 32 different conferences for major college athletics. The Pac 10 has different rules than the Mountain West Conference. The Western Athletic Conference is different from the Big 10. What other churches and other presbyteries do around the country, will be more like what other conferences do in college athletics. We are not responsible for what others do. We are only accountable for what we do.

Fourth, I have been involved in numerous conversations with many people across the denomination over the last two months to understand what the impact of this decision will be, what options are available to us, and how to help us best move forward. I hope that we can all respond together. I believe the denomination gets weaker when individual churches pull out. In addition, a couple of churches have contacted us about transferring into our presbytery. We will be praying and talking about what actions we believe God wants us to take. I would ask that you be patient, pray, and wait upon the Lord as we seek His face and ask for His direction.

As Reformed Christians, we believe strongly in the sovereignty of God. Thus, we do not need to act out of fear, but we believe that God has everything under control. There are some very exciting ministries that are developing across the PC(USA). However, our denomination is definitely changing. We need to monitor these changes, anticipate where they are going, and not be afraid to take the actions we believe are necessary. I continue to be impressed by the people in our presbytery, and I have every confidence that we will continue to make good decisions in the future. Our hope is in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who said, “Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me, and I will be glad to talk to you face to face, by phone, text, email, or Facebook. Hang in there. God is on the move!

God bless you,

Clark Cowden

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3 Responses to “Pastoral Letter”

  1. Matt Ferguson Says:

    Clark,

    Overall a great blog post. The only critic I would submit is your reference to the NCAA. I know you like that illustration but it has some serious flaws. In this case, you fail to note that the 32 conferences are not free to have whatever rules they want. There are certain standard / essential rules for all. Ex: The Pack Ten cannot decide to start paying college athletes a salary. The change in ordination standards is something much more significant than the differing rules the SEC and Big Ten have. Otherwise, a well stated blog that I am sure I will ‘steal’ a few bits from to help folks here understand what the passage of 10-A means—if it comes to be.

  2. Whitman Brisky Says:

    What of evangelical congregations, and individuals, in progressive presbyteries?

    What happens when someone who would violate your standards attempts to transfer into San Diego?

    What happens when you discover someone who would violate your standards has transferred in, or been ordained, without your knowing of the violation?

    What if there is at least one progressive congregation in San Diego that decides to ordain as Elder someone who does not meet your standards?

    And is not the act of one part of the Body, an act of the whole Body?

  3. Is The PC (USA) Like The NCAA? « YoRocko! Says:

    […] another post, Clark answers his own question: The PC(USA) is becoming more like the NCAA, which has 32 different […]

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