Six Presbyterian churches leave national church, but won’t face lawsuits

snowicki@modbee.comNovember 9, 2013 

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While area Episcopalians and Anglicans have seen their theological differences lead to lawsuits and battles over property disputes, Presbyterians have taken a different tack.

Six Presbyterian churches, including Trinity United Presbyterian in Modesto, quietly have been dismissed from the Stockton Presbytery, the denomination’s equivalent of an Episcopal diocese. The presbytery had 21 churches from Vacaville in the north to Merced in the south, and from Tracy to Columbia. The requests to leave were introduced in August and became final Oct. 23.

The departing churches include Central Presbyterian in Merced; Orestimba Presbyterian Church, Newman; Lincoln Presbyterian Church, Stockton; Delhi Community Presbyterian Church; and Escalon Presbyterian Church.

Instead of a property fight, the presbytery asked the churches to pay a fee to support ministry to individuals who did not wish to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The fees, determined by a formula based on the value of the church’s property, the number of members in each congregation and other factors, ranged from $3,600 to $65,000. In return, the presbytery signed the deeds for the properties over to the departing congregations, who recorded them under their own names and promptly joined the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

“The six churches left because of a theological drift in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over the years, centered around three main things: the lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture and the foundation of the confessions,” said the Rev. Dave Kerr, pastor of Trinity United Presbyterian. “In a nutshell, it’s because of the biblical theological stance of the (national) church.”

The same issues are at the heart of most disagreements in mainline denominations, including the Episcopal-Anglican split and rumblings in the United Methodist Church, among others. The splits often are attributed to a national church’s actions, such as the ordination of gay clergy or a change in marriage policies, but Kerr said the local Presbyterian churches did not leave because of social issues.

“I said for years that when we look at the interpretation of Scripture, there’s not one single group that can claim to have the corner on the market on the correct interpretation,” he said. “But I always said I had to draw a line in the sand when it came to the lordship of Christ. Unfortunately, our denomination has ordained people who deny the lordship of Christ. It just became very evident that we were just going to move further and further in that direction.

“I always maintained that we would stay (in the national church) and fight and ultimately win the battle for authenticity. We stayed; we fought; we lost. It was time to not sit back and be critical, but to take a stand and go where I felt God was calling me.”

The split came about three years after the Stockton Presbytery put a “gracious separation policy” into place. It allowed churches to leave without rancor and identified the formula used to determine what each departing church would have to pay.

“It wasn’t argumentative. It wasn’t punitive. It was very mission-focused,” Kerr said. “That’s how our presbytery is doing it, as opposed to almost every other presbytery.”

More than 200 Presbyterian congregations nationwide have been torn asunder in the rift that has resulted in lawsuits, sold churches, broken friendships and scattered congregations. At Fair Oaks Presbyterian in Sacramento, where more than 2,000 members voted to leave, members paid $1.1million for its deed; in Roseville, members paid $860,000. In San Joaquin Presbytery, from Madera to Bakersfield, churches were allowed to leave with just a request for a donation rather than a set fee, but there has been bitterness and hard feelings among churches there, Kerr said.

In contrast, Kerr said, “Our presbytery may not like (the split), but we’re going to support it. Those of us feeling called to move on, we’re not going to condemn those who don’t feel called — no pointing fingers or saying ugly things. I am so proud of this presbytery and the collegiality of our pastors. I met with 12 pastors last Tuesday. Some of them have left and some have stayed, but we’re going to continue to do ministry together. We’re a one-of-a-kind presbytery.”

Julia Leeth, executive presbytor of the Stockton Presbytery, said five people opposed the split and about 41 voted to let the churches go. Most opposition came from a retired pastor and a handful of others who believed the churches should pay more to leave. The split will leave the presbytery facing change: three of the departing congregations — Trinity, Central and Lincoln — account for about 47 percent of the organization’s membership.

“I think it is a difficult thing always when people have different views about important matters,” Leeth said. “But our presbytery handled the difficult situation as graciously as possible. It will have a significant impact on our presbytery. They will have to do some major restructuring. They’ll have to decide who God is calling them to be without these big churches that departed.”

The opposing votes, she said, “were very minor. Some are just grieving that the presbytery is not the same as it’s been. I think a lot of these pastors have served together for 20 to 30 years. So it’s hard not to serve together.”

Kerr and the other departing pastors, he said, are looking forward to becoming part of the new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

“The beautiful thing is that the new denomination is full of freedom and filled with a passion to build flourishing churches,” Kerr said. “It’s so exciting that it’s saying, ‘We’re not about denominations; we’re about advancing the kingdom of God.’ One of its goals is that by 2015, every church will do more baptisms than burials. It’s really invigorated me in looking at mission and ministry and kingdom building.”

But, he added, although the split will mean a new denominational alignment, Sunday worship services will remain the same, as will the church’s name, at least for now. “People won’t notice any differences (at Trinity),” he said.

About 17 people in the 450-member church said they would remain with PCUSA. One family left the church over the matter, Kerr said. Others said they would check out Geneva Presbyterian Church in Modesto, which is still with the national body, while still others have said they would visit other churches in town or remain at Trinity for a time to see what difference the change will make.

The Presbyterian Church, with roughly 3 million congregants nationwide, dates back to 16th-century followers of John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation. Five Presbyterians signed the Declaration of Independence. The church split during the Civil War over the issue of slavery, with Southerners believing the Bible supported the practice. That battle was laid to rest in 1983 with the unification of the two sides into the PCUSA.

Sacramento Bee staff writer Stephen Magagnini contributed to this report. Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or (209) 578-2012.

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