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ERLC board votes to re-designate $250,000 to ARITF

NASHVILLE (BP) — In their board meeting March 21, trustees of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission voted to re-designate $250,000 toward the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force as it “wraps up its work in response to the mandate given by the messengers.”

Those funds were originally set aside following the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting when a motion requested the ERLC “hire an outside organization to oversee an audit and assessment of sexual abuse within the SBC.” When leaders from the Sexual Abuse Task Force and ARITF reached out to the ERLC in the following years to request a pause in the “audit and assessment,” the ERLC agreed, holding those funds in reserve.

Providing the $250,000 to the ARITF will help it “with the next phase of implementing what messengers overwhelmingly have requested at multiple SBC annual meetings,” ERLC president Brent Leatherwood told trustees during the meeting, which was held virtually.

Doing so, he continued, would ensure the ERLC “continue[s] playing the supportive role that we have had with them for the last several years. This will not only be consistent with our ministry assignment; it will align with what is called for in the [2021] motion.”

ARITF Chairman Joshua Wester noted the task force’s gratitude for the ERLC’s “steadfast support for abuse reform.”

“For many years, the ERLC has stood at the forefront of our Convention’s efforts to raise awareness, change the culture and care for survivors of sexual abuse,” Wester said. “This latest act of generosity will only strengthen our ability to advance this work among Southern Baptists.”

A motion at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans by Maryland pastor Keith Myer asked that the SBC Organization Manual be amended “to ask the ERLC to assist churches and entities in responding to abuse.” The motion was voted down by ERLC trustees, but Leatherwood made clear it wasn’t over disagreement to its sentiment.

“He is a strong voice for abuse reform and someone who understands the desperate need that we have in our Convention to combat abuse,” Leatherwood said of Myer. “… Not only did I thank Keith at the time when he made this motion, I wholeheartedly agree with it.”

However, Leatherwood went on to highlight the ERLC’s work through areas such as the Caring Well Initiative, the Church Cares curriculum and Caring Well Sunday.

“We obviously view [response to sexual abuse] as part of our ministry assignment, and we consider it a privilege to do so. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily require any sort of an amendment,” he said.

Awards presented to Strode, Smith

Longtime Baptist Press contributor Tom Strode was presented the Richard D. Land Distinguished Service Award for his career in journalism, primarily through his 32 years as BP’s Washington bureau chief.

Originally hired by Land under the ERLC’s predecessor, the Christian Life Commission, Strode continued his work of informing Southern Baptists about innumerable political and public policy areas for decades.

Former BP editor Art Toalston, a co-worker for 23 years, said Strode “gave a backbone of integrity to Baptist Press that distinguished it in both the denominational and secular media contexts. He reported with clarity on the sanctity of life, bioethics, religious liberty and other public affairs concerns relevant to Southern Baptists.

“Yet his stories uniquely included a few succinct paragraphs for Baptists’ awareness of opposing points of view – and for their proponents to understand that Baptist Press, and thus Southern Baptists, had treated them with fairness and respect.”

When describing Strode, current BP editor and SBC Executive Committee Associate Vice President of Convention News Brandon Porter said, “Tom Strode is not only an exemplary journalist but also an exemplary man of God. Southern Baptists were blessed to have Tom represent them. His integrity, humility, wisdom and kindness were known by all who worked with him and read his articles. Tom’s work ethic and grace under a deadline set an example for all who worked with him.”

“When I pause to think about mentors who have had the greatest impact on my life, Tom is at the top of the list,” said Elizabeth Bristow, ERLC press secretary. “I’ll never forget my time serving as an intern in the BP office my junior year of college and getting to cover Supreme Court hearings and press conferences at the National Press Club. Tom was always so gracious, patient, approachable, and I learned so much from him that semester.”

Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ-4) was presented the John Leland Religious Liberty Award.

Smith was cited for his more than four decades as a leading advocate for international religious freedom and efforts for raising global awareness over religious persecution. One of the 19 letters the ERLC issued in 2023 was in support of Smith’s resolution regarding violations of religious freedom in Nigeria and for that nation to be designated a “Country of Particular Concern.”

A committed Roman Catholic, Smith also routinely lines up with Southern Baptist sentiment on pro-life issues as well as legislation to fund pregnancy centers and to fight human trafficking.