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‘Repentance and change’: Pastors lead churches in response to sex abuse report

RALEIGH, N.C.(BP) – Former Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear says he’s encouraged by the SBC’s bottom-up structure putting power in the hands of lay members.

“I want to be in a convention where the people have the power. Because like we see, usually it is the leaders who go corrupt more quickly than the people,” he said in a May 30 special broadcast of his Ask Me Anything podcast.

Among the family of some 50,000 Southern Baptist churches and missions, pastors are leading their congregations in responding to the messenger-commanded Guidepost Solutions report of the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse allegations spanning two decades.

”We recognize that when you have unchecked power in the hands of a few, as it was in the case of the SBC – you’ve got corruption there – it’s a people that hold accountable the leaders, rather than vice versa,” Greear said. “This report reveals some significant leaders who abused their power to protect the institution, to protect their own power.”

Lament, repentance and change are recurring sentiments expressed in sermons and public statements from pastors of churches of varying sizes and influence.

“This is primarily a time for us to lament and to repent where we have failed,” said Greear, senior pastor of The Summit Church based in Durham, N.C. “I think the posture we all have to have is a posture of brokenness and a posture of grieving.”

SBC President Ed Litton updated his congregation May 29 following the May 22 release of the Guidepost report.

“I lamented the sin and failures it exposed regarding our convention’s handling of sexual abuse cases and our lack of compassion toward survivors” he told Baptist Press May 31. “I also urged our people to be in prayer that the SBC would take the appropriate next steps going forward and that God would change our culture to make all of our churches and institutions safe places for survivors and the vulnerable.

“Moreover, I encouraged them to expect our own church (Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala.) to continue to review our policies and procedures to ensure we are doing all we can to protect our people and prevent abuse.”

Congregations large and small, including First Baptist Church of Sulphur, La., First Baptist Church of Fairmont, N.C., and First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tenn., received pastoral guidance after the report’s release.

In Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Huntersville, N.C., pastors Grant Gaines and Ronnie Parrott, who authored the motion at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting calling for the independent investigation, led their congregations in lamenting, repenting and advocating for change at the upcoming 2022 SBC Annual Meeting June 14-15 in Anaheim, Calif.

“These actions of our Executive Committee harmed survivors and endangered churches. We need to know this information,” Gaines, pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., told his congregation May 26. “We need to hear it in all its brutal honesty so we can take steps to make things right with survivors, and so we can make changes to prevent these evils from happening again.”

Gaines expressed grief and hope as Southern Baptists move forward.

“Now the SBC has the opportunity to take that knowledge and begin the process of repentance and change. The report diagnosed a serious disease, so to speak, and now it’s time to take the steps necessary to eradicate it,” Gaines said. He encouraged Southern Baptists to send messengers to Anaheim to take measures “and ensure our institutions aren’t allowed to fail us in these ways again.”

Parrott, senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Huntersville, N.C., addressed the report May 29 from the pulpit.

“We partner with the SBC to advance the Great Commission, but we cannot advance the commission if we do not handle these issues appropriately,” he told the church, “so please be praying that the SBC will take the appropriate steps in a few weeks in our annual meeting in Anaheim, California, and we will continue to change not only our policies but our cultures when it comes to these things.”

He assured members of Christ Community’s work to keep its church safe from abuse, and encouraged members to Christ Community pastors with any related concerns.

“Honestly, our church has been on the forefront of implementing all sorts of important procedures,” he said, referencing background checks for volunteers and staff, educational resources including the Caring Well curriculum, and mandated reported to law enforcement of allegations. “Our processes here are safe and secure, but we are reviewing them all again.”

At First Baptist Church of Sulphur, La., with a pre-COVID pandemic attendance of 140, senior pastor Michael Linton counseled the congregation May 29 after the report.

“It is a repeated catalogue of failure of some Southern Baptist leaders to act responsibly when confronted with repeated acts of sexual abuse in our SBC churches,” he said of the report. “While it is true that our denominational polity doesn’t allow for oversight of our churches by the convention, there is an extreme distance between doing nothing and defying polity. The Executive Committee leaders chose repeatedly and for years to do nothing.

“What this means for our church locally is that we must take every precaution to protect our people from predators. We do much, but I’m certain there is more we could do. We will, again, be examining how we protect children especially, but any who would be vulnerable to abuse.”

He assured the congregation that “should someone in our church be credibly accused of abuse, as well as the police being immediately called, the church will be informed and steps will be taken to distance the perpetrator from any other opportunities for abuse.”

He welcomed repentance and accountability among Southern Baptists.

“This is a horrible time for our convention, and the reckoning may be the end of us. If so, we have reaped what we have sown,” he said. “If we repent, provide care and restitution for those we have further abused by our silence, better protect those who are most vulnerable, and make the necessary changes to never let this happen again, God may be gracious and allow the SBC to continue and pick up the pieces.”

Darrell Gwaltney, interim pastor of First Baptist Nashville that averaged 630 in Sunday worship before the COVID-19 pandemic, petitioned Jesus to “create something new.”

“How is the heart of God grieved at these very real stories about people who suffered abuse. See, we cannot come in these doors and pretend these painful things are not happening among us and in our world,” said Gwaltney, who begin serving in late March as interim pastor. “We are the people of God who have been called out of the darkness and into great light. We are called to be the heart of God for the world to see something new. Jesus, make something new within us,” he said, referencing an original song sang by guest music minister C. Scott Shepherd of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “Oh, people of God, we have work to do.”

He thanked First Nashville trustees for releasing a statement to the congregation “to express our sorrow and our commitment to be a congregation that supports victims, and be a positive advocate for change to foster an environment that empowers victims to come forward to report abuse while holding abusers accountable.”

Carter McNeese, in his first year as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Fairmont, N.C., released a statement on Facebook shortly after the report’s release, and was preparing a formal statement to his congregation when Baptist Press contacted him May 31.

“I want to say this clearly and succinctly: there is no place in the body of Christ for unrepentant sinners of any stripe. There is no place for those that cover up the sins of others,” he said May 22 on Facebook. “There is no place for those that harass and demean victims. I trust the agency that was contracted to write this report and I trust the men and women who were named to the SATF (Sex Abuse Task Force.)

“Further, I fully believe that we will not see renewal and revival in our convention and in our churches until we pull sin out into the light, confess, and repent. Thus, the work of the SATF is not, as some have claimed, a distraction from the Gospel, rather it is gospel work, work that must be done if we are to see renewal and revival.”

If you are/have been a victim of sexual abuse or suspect sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a Southern Baptist church or entity, please reach out for help at 202-864-5578 or [email protected]. All calls are confidential.