Three Valley Presbyterian churches have finalized their divorce from the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, citing differences over the Bible's supreme authority and the possible ordination of gays.
But unlike the split within the Valley's Episcopal diocese, which turned into a bitter court fight, the three congregations are leaving on friendly terms. They have retained their church properties and have agreed to fulfill financial pledges for ministries run by the church they're leaving.
"The relationships we share with these three congregations, as brothers and sisters in Christ, are more important than property," said the Rev. Rick Irish, interim leader of the Presbytery of San Joaquin, which governs Valley congregations within Presbyterian Church (USA). "Therefore, we didn't make property an issue."
On Sunday, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clovis held a service to complete the split and join the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church, based in Litonia, Mich.
Two other congregations, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Fresno and Fowler Presbyterian Church, held similar services Oct. 18.
The congregations join Millbrook Presbyterian Church and Sanger Community Church as Evangelical Presbyterian Church members.
The Presbyterian split is in marked contrast to a division over similar issues within Valley Episcopal churches.
In December 2007, more than 40 Valley Episcopal Church parishes took part in a secession movement out of the U.S. Episcopal Church over differences such as the ordination of a gay bishop, same-sex blessings and the authority of Scripture.
The result was a breakaway Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, a remaining Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin -- and an ongoing legal battle over which organization owns the property.
The differences with the Presbyterian congregations have been brewing for some time. The three congregations wanting to leave held congregational votes a year ago.
"We want to be involved with a denomination that is clear who Jesus is," said the Fowler church's pastor, the Rev. Paul Irwin. "The denomination has been cautious about making comments on Jesus where it is clear that is how you are saved."
The Visalia-based Presbytery of San Joaquin, which governs about 7,000 members at 42 congregations from Madera County to Kern County, spent months reviewing their cases. The presbytery holds church property in trust for the denomination -- and ruled the three congregations can keep property. The three departing churches will take 1,900 members with them.
The three congregations also gave or pledged financial donations toward continuing ministries in the Presbytery of San Joaquin. Irish wouldn't say the amounts, but said the presbytery didn't require the pledges as a condition of leaving the presbytery.
Officials with Presbyterian Church (USA), based in Louisville, Ky., could not be reached to comment Sunday.
The presbytery's decision on property was well-received by the three departing congregations.
"They are very gracious; they have been most kind," said First Presbyterian Church's pastor, the Rev. Jamie Evans.
The Rev. Chuck Shillito, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, said the presbytery's decision "represents a totally different attitude than the one in the Episcopal situation -- and in other presbyteries."
During Sunday's service, Trinity Presbyterian congregants were were given a small card bearing "The Essentials" of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They were asked to confirm their desires to become members -- and they responded with a shout of "yes!" The church's 18 deacons and nine elders then knelt on the altar's steps and pledged to denominational representatives to carry out their roles within the new church.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has about 225 churches and 85,000 members. The Valley congregations gained affiliation through Presbytery of the West, based in Aurora, Colo.
One denomination representative, the Rev. Dave Fenska, compared the Presbyterian split with other, more contentious church breaks.
"I have friends in the Episcopal Church, and it's embarrassing what can happen," he said. "If we are part of the same body of Jesus Christ, we need to work together.