By Kirk Petersen

The Rev. Matthew Cowden, an Indiana rector who grew up in Virginia, was elected to become the VIII Bishop of West Virginia at the diocese’s 144th diocesan convention on September 25.

Cowden has been rector since 2009 at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in South Bend, Indiana, which is a veritable bishop factory. Cowden will be the third priest to be fitted for a miter after serving at St. Michael & All Angels, which has a pre-pandemic average Sunday attendance of a bit over 100. The Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, currently the V Bishop of Southwest Florida, is a former rector of the church, and the Rt. Rev. William Gregg, the retired VI Bishop of East Oregon, was the interim rector before Smith.

Matthew Cowden

The bishop-elect serves on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, the governing body between General Conventions. Because he was elected to Executive Council as a priest from the Diocese of Northern Indiana in Province V, he will have to resign from the council upon becoming a bishop in Province III.

In a telephone interview with TLC, Cowden said the diocese of West Virginia faces “unique challenges” because of the state’s declining population and isolated rural towns. There are 61 congregations in the diocese, which encompasses the entire state. Some of them are in “towns where they’ve gone from 50,000 to 10,000, and the towns are not coming back. And the Episcopal Churches there are having to ask what is our ministry in this location now?” Parts of the state do not have reliable internet access, and “there’s no straight roads in West Virginia,” he said.

Cowden said he has experience working with rural congregations through the Diocesan Congregational Development Institute, an Episcopal leadership-training program. Working with DCDI, he helped develop the Calumet Episcopal Ministry Partnership, a collection of small congregations that describes itself now as “one church in six locations” in Northern Indiana.

He was elected from a slate of three candidates on the third ballot. The other candidates were the Rev. Canon S. Abbot Bailey, the Diocese of Virginia’s interim canon to the ordinary, and the Rev. Canon Patrick Collins, the Diocese of Easton’s canon to the ordinary.

Assuming he receives the necessary consents from a majority of bishops with jurisdiction and standing committees, Cowden will be consecrated bishop coadjutor of West Virginia on March 22, 2022, and will automatically become bishop diocesan on October 13, 2022, when the Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer retires, having served since 2001.

Cowden graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in 2006, and previously received bachelor’s and master degrees in theater from Florida State University and UCLA, respectively. He and his wife, Melissa, have three grown children.