The board of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwestvoted unanimously on May 11 to part ways with the denomination. Less than two weeks earlier, church delegates within the group voted 1,125-209 to recommend the board move to sever ties.
The California group will now use the name Transformation Ministries and will sever ties by Nov. 1. The decision affects about 300 churches affiliated with the denomination in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.
Leaders of the Valley Forge, Pa.-based denomination, which claims 1.4 members in the United States, have anticipated this decision but reacted with sadness to Thursday's vote.
"This is not a happy day for American Baptists," said the Rev. Robert Roberts, a spokesman for the denomination. "We will all be left weaker by this, in my judgment, and so it's a very sad day."
Asked if other regional groups are likely to follow suit, the Rev. Dale Salico, executive minister of the Pacific Southwest churches, said: "It's possible, but I really can't speak for others."
Roberts said other regions have voiced similar concerns, but said no other regional body has "moved as deliberately" as the California churches.
Last September, the board of the California churches approved a statement that said "deep differences of theological convictions and values" between the region and the denomination are "irreconcilable."
Its members believe the denomination has not enforced a resolution that states "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
"The inability of the denomination to adequately implement (the policy) was one of the factors," said Salico, whose office is in Covina, Calif., outside Los Angeles.
Salico also cited differences over the authority of Scripture and the accountability of local churches. "When churches are as far apart as we are with ABCUSA, it makes mission really difficult," he said.
"We want to just concentrate on those areas that we're called to be in ministry with and not to be constantly engaged in a struggle within the denomination."
Salico said his organization will continue to send missions-related funding designated to the American Baptist mission efforts by local churches, but an annual administration fee of about $150,000 will end.
Denominational officials said individual churches must also vote if they wish to break ties.
"One of the things that brings us some hope is that there are a number of churches out there that have indicated that they will stay with American Baptists," Roberts said.
"There are enough of them that they will form a new American Baptist association."
Roberts said this is a new dimension for divides within his denomination. In the 1930s, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches split from the American Baptists, who were then known as the Northern Baptist Convention.
"We've had splits before and we have actually lost many churches in an area before, but it's the first time a regional group has left the denomination," he said.
The divide in this faith group is reflected in other Protestant churches, especially the Episcopal Church, that have battled over homosexuality, autonomy and biblical authority.
"We're in a tug of war that's caught all Christendom, which is the tug of war between right and center," Roberts said.
The Rev. A. Roy Medley, the American Baptists' general secretary, said in November that the debate over homosexuality "tears my soul."
The Rev. Ken Pennings, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, said he felt a "sense of peace" about the Pacific Southwest decision because it allows the region and remaining denominational members "to move on in directions we feel are consistent with our own faith and testimony."
Rather than viewing it as an omen for other faith groups, he said it is an "inevitable" part of a process that can lead to more inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.
"There'll be people who feel they must cut themselves off from people with whom they disagree rather than build bridges toward them," he said.