During his remarks at the SBC Executive Committee winter meeting, J. D. Greear told EC members and guests, “I think we recognize, with brokenness, that our culture needs to change when it comes to our response to sexual abuse.”
Noting that the SBC has passed numerous resolutions “making clear how we feel about abuse,” the SBC president said it is time for Southern Baptists to “back up our words with actions that demonstrate our commitment to this.”
“We serve a God who laid down his life to protect the vulnerable,” Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, said in his February 18 remarks. “How dare we proclaim that Gospel with our mouths and turn a blind eye when the vulnerable in our midst cry out for help?”
Following his June 2018 election as SBC president, Greear formed a presidential initiative, working in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), to consider ways to combat the evil of sexual abuse in a church setting.
At its Fall 2018 meeting, the Executive Committee, acting on behalf of the Convention ad interim, approved up to $250,000 in Cooperative Program gifts to fund the initiative.
At the Winter 2019 meeting, Greear called on Southern Baptists to ten action steps in response to sexual abuse in a church or ministry setting.
Season of Sorrow and Lament
Greear called on Southern Baptists to enter a season of repentance of allowing a culture “that has made abuse, cover-ups, and evading accountability far too easy.” He called for a “season of sorrow” to “culminate at the 2019 SBC annual meeting as we have a time for prayer and lament on the subject of abuse.”
In “Five Updates on the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group,” an ERLC update posted on May 14, Phillip Bethancourt, the Commission’s executive vice president, said that the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group will “lead a time of prayer and lament as well as present a report on its work” during the ERLC’s presentation on Wednesday afternoon at 2:45 p.m.
Rollout of New Church Resource
In the same post, Bethancourt announced that Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused will be ready by the SBC annual meeting. The resource, introduced by Greear in his February 18 EC report, has been developed by a team of survivors, advocates, and experts and is designed to prepare pastors and other leaders to respond well to any reports of sexual abuse within the church setting.
Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused is “a free video-based curriculum to equip churches to provide holistic care for abuse,” according to Bethancourt. The twelve-part video series will include a companion written curriculum and will be available in both English and Spanish, he wrote.
A handbook by the same title has been published by B&H Publishing and became available for individual purchase for $4.99 on June 4 at LifeWay.com. Discounts are available for bulk orders in increments of 10–49, 50–99, and 100 or more
The B&H website states, “Though the most comprehensive training is experienced by using this handbook and the videos together, readers who may be unable to access the videos can use this handbook as a stand-alone resource.”
Statement of Principles Affirmed
During his February remarks, Greear announced that “all six seminaries, the officers of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL), and state convention executive directors” had already agreed to three statements of principles on abuse. The seminaries pledged to “share, care, and prepare” students, faculty, and staff “as standard preparation for ministry.” The latter two groups pledged to educate and equip their respective churches with training on sexual abuse prevention and care. He made copies of the three documents available to those in attendance.
Cooperating Baptist Bodies Respond
In the months since his presidential presentation, SBCAL leaders and state executives have continued to refine appropriate strategies to assist their cooperating churches and church leaders. Working in partnership, the groups have developed ten “encouragements” for cooperating churches in regard to the evil of sexual abuse. The document is titled, “Encouragements to Associations, State Conventions, and Churches Regarding Abuse of Minors.”
Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector reported in its May 15 edition that the document is “authored by The Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders (SBCAL) and the Officers of the SBC Fellowship of State Executives.”
The organizations’ stated intent “is to support associations, state conventions, and churches in the prevention of sexual abuse and to encourage the protection of minors.” The statement is not intended as a mandate, leaders from both organizations said.
“We recognize we have no authority over any Baptist entity,” Ray Gentry, SBCAL’s executive director, told the Baptist and Reflector. “But we also recognize our responsibility to serve churches. We want every church to be a safe place for everyone, especially children.”
The statement was initiated when Southern Baptist Convention President J. D. Greear asked SBCAL if the organization would form a task force to explore ways associations could assist churches with prevention, protection, awareness, education, ministry care, and healing in support of the prevention of sexual abuse and for the protection of minors.
“We gladly agreed to do so,” Gentry said. “Upon completion of our report, led by Kevin Carrothers of Illinois, we shared it with the state executive directors. They asked if we would work together and make the statement a joint report, which we were happy to do.”
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and current president of the SBC Fellowship of State Executives, said the intention of the two groups coming together “is to continue reminding those who are on the front lines of training workers and caring for children to be diligent.”
“These encouragements are elements many associations, state conventions, and churches have employed for years,” he added. “However, we offer them as reminders that we must be diligent and eradicate abuse completely. Even one instance is one too many.”
The document is on the agenda for the SBCAL annual meeting held this week (June 9–10) prior to the SBC annual meeting and will be considered by state conventions at their board and/or annual meetings throughout the summer and fall.
Background Checks Considered
In his February remarks, Greear asked the Executive Committee to “strongly consider requiring background checks, at a minimum, for all SBC standing committees and trustee appointments.”
The Executive Committee officers have placed consideration of requiring background checks for members of all boards and committees of the SBC on the agenda for the Committee’s September 2019 meeting.
Executive Committee staff amended the nominations form completed by Committee on Nominations’ members. Each person nominated to serve in an elected role on SBC boards and committees will be asked to provide written affirmation of the nominee’s willingness for background checks to be conducted on him or her upon their election to serve.
Ordination Practices Reviewed
While ministerial calling and ordination continue to be a function of each local church, associational leaders are beginning to review ways to strengthen the process through their local network of churches.
Jason A. Lowe, an associational mission strategist in Kentucky, began polling pastors and other Baptist leaders across the Southern Baptist Convention on ways to enhance the ordination screening process, according to a May 10 Baptist Press news story about the survey.
In the resultant report, “Above Reproach: A Study of the Ordination Practices of SBC Churches,” Lowe noted that “very little study” has been done on this topic and that no one has a good snapshot of what is actually happening across the SBC when it comes to ordination practices.
“No one knows how thoroughly candidates for ordination are being examined,” wrote Lowe, who serves as associational mission strategist for the Pike Association of Southern Baptists in southeastern Kentucky as well as executive pastor for First Baptist Church in Pikeville.
“No one knows how many ordination councils require candidates to complete a background check,” he wrote. “No one knows how many ordination councils examine a candidate’s sexual purity.”
The 555 survey responses Lowe collated included pastors (60 percent), associational and denominational leaders (17 percent), deacons (9 percent), retired or former pastors (5 percent), and others (9 percent) from thirty-four states, Baptist Press reported. He released his findings in a 42-page report and noted five significant points of interest:
- SBC ordination practices have significant room for improvement.
- Discussions regarding a candidate’s sexual purity are sparse, but on the rise.
- Ordination practices are changing in both positive and negative ways. For instance, more churches are requiring theological training, and more are conducting background checks and asking candidates about sexual purity. But on the other hand, the role of the ordination council seems to be decreasing in importance. Screening periods have gotten shorter as a whole, and councils involve fewer ordained pastors.
- Ordaining churches in more populated areas set higher standards for their ordination candidates.
- Larger churches are more thorough in their examination of ordination candidates. Churches with a larger membership are more likely to cover more topics during the screening process, require a background check, and require training.
The full report is available at https://jasonalowe.files.wordpress.com/2019/04/sbc-ordination-practices-report.pdf.
ACP Questions Considered
In his May 14 update, Bethancourt noted that there is no expected change for this fall’s Annual Church Profile report churches are asked to submit beginning this summer and throughout the fall.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, who oversees development of the Annual Church Profile in concert with pastors, state convention representatives, and SBC leaders, told Executive Committee staff in a May 2 email that the 2019 report had already been finalized and distributed to states and associations for them to begin the annual process of collecting responses from more than fifty thousand churches and church-type missions across the United States and its territories.
Annual Meeting Activities
During the SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, a beehive of activities will highlight sexual abuse prevention in a church setting.
The central element of this focus is a scheduled presentation during the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission presentation, part one, at 2:45 on Wednesday afternoon, June 12.
In addition to the report to messengers, the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group and the ERLC “will partner together for a Monday night event on ‘Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention,’” according to Bethancourt’s May 14 update. The event is scheduled for Monday, June 10, and will meet in the South Exhibit Hall, Level 1, in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Space is limited for the event.
Panelists include ERLC President Russell Moore; SBC President J. D. Greear; author and Bible study teacher Beth Moore; attorney, advocate, and educator Rachael Denhollander; and Susan Codone, a survivor of sexual abuse in a Birmingham area Baptist church, Bethancourt wrote.
The ERLC booth in the exhibit hall will serve as a hub for information, resources, and conversations about abuse.
Database Possibility Explored
In his February 18 presentation to the Executive Committee, Greear raised the possibility of a “database of offenders.” He noted that the “subject of a database is complicated and will take time to evaluate.”
“Just because we are not announcing any plans regarding a database tonight does not mean that we are not doing everything we can to evaluate it as an option,” he said.
In his May 14 update, Bethancourt indicated that an update on the status of a potential database “is not expected at the SBC annual meeting”; but, he wrote, “progress is taking place” on this “long-term item” on President Greear’s list.
Governing Documents Amended
During the February 18–19 Executive Committee meeting in Nashville, the EC adopted a proposed amendment to SBC Constitution Article III that would provide for removal of any church deemed to have “evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse” from the list of cooperating churches with the Convention.
In the intervening months, the Bylaws Workgroup, joined by the EC chairman, has held numerous conference calls in continuing deliberations on this subject. In late May, it recommended that the EC officers present a streamlined version of the Article III amendment, and proposed expanding SBC Bylaw 8 (which currently primarily relates to the registration of messengers) to the Executive Committee for consideration at its June 10 meeting in Birmingham.
The expanded Bylaw 8 being considered would create a standing SBC Credentials Committee with a defined set of responsibilities to assist the Convention by reviewing allegations it receives that place a particular church’s relationship with the Convention in question, and then making a recommendation.
Both matters—a constitutional amendment to Article III and an amendment to Bylaw 8, with attendant amendments to Bylaws 15 and 29—are on the agenda for the EC’s June 10 meeting, and the recommendations on these two matters, if passed, will be presented to SBC messengers on June 11 during the EC’s second report session on Tuesday afternoon.