NASHVILLE — The sexual abuse crisis didn’t skip Southern Baptist churches.
Key leaders in the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. have spent the past year owning up to that while trying to figure out how their network of evangelical churches can do a better job of addressing and preventing sexual abuse in the future.
In the wake of recent revelations illustrating how widespread the problem is, Southern Baptists will soon have a chance to enact changes that would make it easier to hold churches accountable and keep people in their pews safe.
Sexual abuse in the church is expected to be front and center when thousands of representatives from the more than 50,000 Southern Baptist congregations gather next week in Birmingham, Alabama, for their big annual meeting.
That focus is intentional, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear says. Victim revelations have made it clear that Southern Baptists need to create systems that protect the vulnerable, he said.
“God gave his life for them,” Greear said in an interview. “How dare we not provide protection for them so when they’re in the house of God they know that they’re safe and that they’re cared for?”
Up for consideration are two changes to core Southern Baptist Convention governing documents:
The first is an amendment to the Southern Baptist Convention’s constitution that would explicitly state that addressing sexual abuse and racism is a part of what it means to be a Southern Baptist church.
The second is a proposed bylaw change that would create a committee to assess misconduct claims, including sexual abuse, against churches.
Southern Baptists not fast enough in abuse response, critics say
But critics, including sexual abuse victims and advocates, think Southern Baptists are not moving quickly enough to kick out problem churches and implement safeguards.
The Rev. Ashley Easter, a survivor advocate helping to organize a protest outside this year’s annual meeting, also thinks Southern Baptists are hiding behind their denomination’s decentralized structure. Unlike denominations with top-down authority, Southern Baptists believe in local church control.
“We hoped that we would see big changes. We really don’t see big changes between this year and last year. In fact, there have been some things that have concerned us,” said Easter, who is ordained through the Progressive Christian Alliance. “Basically, it’s just been talk.”
Greear, a North Carolina pastor elected convention president at last year’s annual meeting in Dallas, said he understands that reaction, especially when it is coming from victims who are in pain.
While he cannot answer for what happened in the past, Greear said he made addressing sexual abuse in the church one of his first priorities as convention president, including launching a sexual abuse advisory study and spending the year listening to victims, advocates and experts. But the convention meets only once a year, he said.
“We want our churches to be as safe as possible as soon as possible,” Greear said.
“We want to know that pastors know how to follow up immediately. We also know that when you’re dealing with an organization as large as the SBC that we’ve got a lot of layers that we’re trying to work through.”
While Greear cannot walk into Southern Baptist churches and tell them what to do, he does think it is possible, although challenging, to get everyone on board with recognizing the importance of addressing sexual abuse in the church.
Southern Baptists grappling with sexual misconduct – like last year
This is the second year in a row that Southern Baptists have been faced with sexual misconduct in the church in the run-up to their annual meeting.
As victims came forward last year, Southern Baptists became embroiled in months of controversy over a prominent church leader’s treatment of women and how he handled years-old allegations of sexual misconduct at Southern Baptist seminaries.
Media reports since then have laid out just how widespread the sexual abuse crisis is in Southern Baptist churches and the mission field.
In February, a startling report from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found sexual misconduct allegations against 380 Southern Baptists who held formal church roles. Many were convicted of sex crimes and some are still in prison, but others continued to work in churches, according to their report.
The report spurred Southern Baptist leaders to call for changes.
At the time, Greear laid out a list of 10 recommendations — the first to come from his sexual abuse advisory study — that included the possible expulsion of churches that do not take sexual abuse prevention seriously.
Soon after, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, which handles day-to-day operations of the denomination when the convention is not in session, supported amending the constitution to make that consequence clear. A revised version of this proposal is expected to be considered in Alabama.
Greear also called out 10 churches by name that had been accused in media reports for not taking sexual abuse within their walls seriously.
But the executive committee quickly followed up, explaining its bylaws work group had determined that one of the 10 called out by Greear was not a Southern Baptist church and only three others warranted further inquiry, according to Baptist Press, an official Southern Baptist publication.
Another annual meeting, another sexual abuse protest
Critics like Easter think an outside entity is best suited to evaluate sexual abuse in the church, not internal denominational ones.
That is one of the reasons she will be standing next to a millstone, like the one referenced in the Bible, outside the annual meeting Tuesday calling for change.
“What we’re calling for is concrete actions,” Easter said.
She said the goals of the 2018 For Such A Time As This Rally are still relevant: mandatory training for all Southern Baptist pastors, seminary students, ministry leaders and volunteers; establishment of a clergy sex offender database in the Southern Baptist Convention; and better treatment of women within the network of churches.
Jules Woodson will be there, too.
The 38-year-old Colorado Springs, Colorado, woman, who is one of this year’s rally speakers, was sexually assaulted as a teen by her Southern Baptist youth pastor in Texas. Woodson came forward with her story last year and eventually it spurred the pastor, Andy Savage, to resign from his post as teaching pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis.
The USA TODAY Network-Tennessee typically does name victims of sexual abuse, but Woodson hopes that being public with her story will help spur change.
While she appreciates that conversations about sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches continue to be in the forefront, Woodson is frustrated to still be waiting for action.
Woodson wants the pastor she says failed to act in her case taken out of the pulpit, and she wants to see meaningful changes implemented across the network of churches.
“I have not seen true beneficial action in the way that they can support survivors, in the way that they can change how their system operates so that we can stop protecting people who abuse their power in the pulpit,” Woodson said.
What will happen in Birmingham to address sexual abuse?
Greear said change is coming. Southern Baptists will leave Birmingham well aware of how important sexual abuse prevention and response is in their denomination, he said.
“There have been hours and hours of meetings and conversations with victims and advocates, buy-in from all levels of the convention,” Greear said. “I think you’ll see in Birmingham, you’ll see not talk and loud proclamations against abuse, you’ll see substantive action that reduces the possibility of abuse and provides a pathway for good care and prevention.”
On Monday, the Executive Committee will consider the proposed constitution and bylaw changes that will help hold churches accountable for actions that go against Southern Baptist views and beliefs, including sexual abuse. If approved, they will be taken up Tuesday and Wednesday when the annual meeting is in session.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is also hosting a Monday night panel on sexual abuse in the church.
During the annual meeting, Greear will give a report on the work his sexual abuse advisory study has done in the last year and there will be time set aside for lament and prayer.
The work on addressing sexual abuse in Southern Baptist life will not end when they leave Birmingham.
It can’t, said Russell Moore, the president of the ERLC, which is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
His own entity overhauled its upcoming annual conference in October to continue tackling how to keep people in Southern Baptist pews safe.
“It’s going to take ongoing reform, and that’s the case at the local church level as well. Congregations have to not only have good policies and procedures in place, but they have to constantly be evaluating, reevaluating, updating those policies and procedures as well,” Moore said.
“This has to be at least a 20-year project that’s constantly reevaluated. I hope that 20 years from now that we can look back and see sexual abuse in churches as something unthinkable and a long-buried horror of the past. We’re a long way from that.”