PETAL, Mississippi (BP) – Brad Eubank hasn’t always been optimistic about Southern Baptist efforts to prevent sexual abuse. The Mississippi pastor and sexual abuse survivor remembers a grim meeting at the SBC Executive Committee in 2014 when his concerns fell on deaf ears.
“I walked out of that meeting as disappointed and as dejected of being a Southern Baptist as I have probably my entire life,” said Eubank, pastor of First Baptist Church Petal, Miss., member of the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and the chairman of the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Response Team. “I’ve been a Southern Baptist my whole life. My family has been. It was a really disappointing moment. I will say I am now equally as encouraged of where the trajectory potentially can go. We’ve still got some issues to deal with. There is no question. I’m not a Pollyanna here to say everything is great. We have a ton of work to do. But I’m hopeful.”
Part of the reason Eubank is now optimistic is what he has seen in his own state of Mississippi and in other state conventions. Eubank calls the cooperation between state convention task forces and other teams related to sexual abuse prevention “phenomenal.” He notes some state conventions are further along than others, but they are helping one another take important steps, including sharing resources and ideas.
Eubank also speaks enthusiastically about the work in his own state. He says although Mississippi had made efforts to train churches in preventing sexual abuse for more than a decade before the work of the task force, there is still work to be done.
Mississippi Baptists formed the task force in 2022, in the wake of the May release of a report from Guidepost Solutions detailing the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse claims. In its first year of operation, Eubank says the task force has done a considerable amount of listening to both survivor stories and to how Mississippi Baptist churches have responded to abuse in the past.
Eubank is particularly excited about two resources the task force released at the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s annual meeting last month. The Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Guide walks churches through a five-part pathway (Train, Screen, Protect, Report and Care) toward protecting their congregation and community from predators. The pathway mimics the one released by the SBC’s implementation task force, but it also contextualizes it for Mississippi churches.
“Our hope is to go to every association in 2024 and do an hour or hour and a half training or so,” Eubank said. “[We’ll] target those smaller churches or normative-size churches and introduce them to the concept you can do the pathway.”
The task force also distributed an assessment that helps churches see strengths and weaknesses in their sexual abuse prevention and response plan.
In addition, during their November 2023 annual meeting, Mississippi Baptists approved a resolution encouraging the enactment of laws protecting sexual abuse victims and removing the fear of civil liability for those who report it. Eubank hopes the resolution will help Mississippi Baptists as they advocate for state laws to protect people from sexual abuse.
“I believe this was a watershed moment in the life of our convention, that we’re putting solid, concrete things that are attainable and accessible for every single church in their hands,” Eubank said. “I’m also excited that people are understanding the devastation of sex abuse and the personalization of it in Mississippi.”
Leveraging MinistrySafe partnerships to protect churches
Greg Love, co-founder of MinistrySafe, says most state Baptist conventions are following two pathways in helping their churches protect themselves from sexual abuse.
“One is trying to message and downstream resources of prevention to the church level,” Love said. “Another one is identifying resources for hope and healing, and then down-streaming that to the church level.”
MinistrySafe has partnered with state Baptist conventions to help with the first of those priorities, sexual abuse prevention, for more than a decade. It provides training, screening, background checks and policy forms for churches. Currently, it is working with more than 25,000 churches across denominations and adding about 500 new churches a month.
Love pointed out a number of state conventions that prioritize sexual abuse protection by providing resources to the effort.
For example, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention announced at this year’s annual meeting that it would provide a MinistrySafe membership for the first 500 new churches that sign up. The Alabama State Board of Missions made a similar commitment, providing $200 off a membership for participating churches.
Also, Love added, several of the large state conventions have partnered with smaller conventions to help them in their efforts to protect churches.
Love urges churches not to wait to act on sexual abuse prevention in their context.
“Please don’t assume you’re ready for this risk,” Love said. “This risk is not intuitive. It’s knowable. You’re just going to have to intentionally get the information necessary, because we can’t reduce a risk we don’t understand. I’ve got hundreds of data points to show you that the churches don’t yet understand.”
Other state actions
Throughout the recent annual meeting season, state conventions made a number of important decisions and announcements regarding sexual abuse. Here are a few of them:
- The West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists approved a new sexual abuse policy and handbook. The convention had approved the policy last year as well, but it was voted on a second time to comply with the convention’s constitution.
- Messengers to the Missouri Baptist Convention heard a report from the convention’s Sexual Abuse Response Team. The team provided messengers with a booklet that helps churches understand, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse.
A resolution was approved by messengers, asking Missouri Baptists to be proactive in their efforts to prevent abuse. The resolution also urged lawmakers to pass legislation that provides consistent definitions and classifications of sexual abuse by pastors and removes “barriers to the free flow of information between churches and other entities about employees and volunteers and, in so doing, empower churches to prevent sexual abuse.”
- In addition to learning that the first 500 churches that signed up with MinistrySafe for the first time would get a free membership, messengers to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention annual meeting also learned that a licensed therapist specializing in trauma and sexual abuse had been retained as a resource for convention churches.
- Arkansas Southern Baptists heard a brief update from the chair of their Sexual Abuse Response and Resource Team. Chairperson Christa Neal encouraged churches to implement strategies to protect, report abuse, and assist those in need.
- At their annual meeting, Illinois Southern Baptists heard a testimony by convention president Michael Nave about how his congregation, Cornerstone Church in Marion, handled revelations about a moral failure and grooming behavior of a staff member. Nave described the period as a time of “honest assessment” and said the lessons in transparency the church learned could apply to all kinds of ministry situations.
The highlights above are not intended to be an exhaustive list of 2023 state convention annual meeting actions on sexual abuse. For a more comprehensive list, go here.