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Authority in question

Sexual abuse in churches isn’t new, but Southern Baptists face a fresh crisis over an old conundrum: How can they hold autonomous churches accountable?

Authority in question

Second Baptist Church’s Cypress Campus in Houston, Texas (Loren Elliott /AFP/Getty Images)

When Malcolm Yarnell read the Houston Chronicle’s devastating investigation into sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches in mid-February, he grieved for the survivors and received an unexpected phone call from his mother: “I need to talk to you.”

Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, has also been a Southern Baptist minister for decades. Shortly after his ordination, his mother left the Baptist church and became a Roman Catholic.

In February, she told her son why: When she was 3 years old, she began enduring sexual abuse from a church leader that went on for a decade. Many years later, she struggled when Yarnell entered Baptist ministry.

Yarnell didn’t know this part of his mother’s history when the Chronicle stories appeared online, reporting the abuse of some 700 survivors by a reported 380 Southern Baptist ministers, youth pastors, and volunteers over the last two decades. But Yarnell began speaking out, and he called on Southern Baptist churches to protect the lambs from wolves.

Yarnell’s mother, now in her 70s, called her son to commend him, and she finally revealed her abuse. They both wept: “My mother told me, ‘I know you’ve been following God, even when it hurt me. … And on this I want to encourage you to continue following God—because I know you do follow Him.’”

For leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), following God means finding a way to protect the millions of people in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination from those who exploit power to abuse the vulnerable.

The endeavor poses a huge question: How does a denomination composed of autonomous churches enforce accountability?

And what are the deeper cultural and spiritual issues local churches must face if they want to end the abuse in their own backyards? That question forms the even longer-term work ahead of Southern Baptist churches, says Yarnell: “You can set up a system, but the culture needs to be reshaped.”

CLICK ON THE Houston Chronicle’s investigation of the SBC, and you’ll find a searchable database of some 220 former employees or volunteers from Southern Baptist churches who have pleaded guilty to or were convicted of sex crimes since 1998.

Rows of mug shots include links to each offender’s record and media reports about the crimes. The investigation reports that at least 35 who had exhibited predatory behavior found work at other Southern Baptist churches.

For a denomination that claims 15 million members, the newspaper’s reported numbers are far fewer than the thousands of Catholic clergymen who perpetrated abuse over the last several decades.

But abuse is often underreported, and Keith Whitfield—a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.—says the issue for the SBC isn’t primarily about math, but neglect. He says downplaying the problem is dangerous: “Denial creates a safe haven for abusers.”

In the days after the report appeared, many Southern Baptist leaders didn’t downplay the problem. SBC President J.D. Greear—pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C.— lamented what he called “pure evil.”

A few days later, Greear outlined 10 steps Southern Baptists should take based on recommendations from the SBC’s sexual abuse presidential advisory group. The steps included investigating churches highlighted in media reports for their handling of sexual abuse, and exploring possibilities for a registry of sex offenders.

Greear named 10 specific churches to examine. Less than a week later, members of the SBC executive committee’s bylaw working group released a statement saying it believed only three of the 10 churches on Greear’s list warranted examination. The move created consternation among some abuse advocates who thought a few days wasn’t long enough to determine the next steps.

In a written statement, Greear said: “While we do not presume the guilt of any [of the churches named], the advisory group and I believe that the public nature of these media accusations warrant a public response.”

Mark Humphrey/AP

Greear speaks to the denomination’s executive committee on Feb. 18 in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

At the SBC’s annual convention in June, delegates—known as messengers—will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to identify neglect in the area of sexual abuse as a cause for the SBC to expel a church from the denomination.

(The SBC constitution requires voting on any proposed amendment at two conventions, so the amendment’s earliest passage would be in 2020.)

An even more vexing question: How can the SBC work to prevent abuse now? A closer look at examples of abuse on local levels offers key areas to consider.

In Texas, where the Chronicle found more offenders than in any other state, the report focused on a handful of churches, including Second Baptist Church in Houston. The church is one of the largest in the denomination, and its longtime pastor, Ed Young, once served as president of the SBC.

Chad Foster had a much shorter tenure at the church.

According to the Chronicle, Foster moved to Houston soon after a divorce, a history of hard drinking, and a recent conversion to Christianity. Second Baptist hired him and later ordained him as a youth pastor. The paper reports Foster later said, “When I took the job, I didn’t know anything about it.”

He told a judge he had no training on how to teach or counsel youth.

The church fired him in 2010 after receiving complaints about lying and other inappropriate behavior, according to court documents examined by the Chronicle. (Second Baptist officials said they had not received reports of sexual abuse during his employment.) By 2011, Foster found another job as a youth pastor at Community of Faith Church. The pastor of that congregation later testified that Second Baptist gave Foster “a great reference.”

By November 2011, authorities had arrested Foster, and he later pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault of a child and two counts of online solicitation of a minor. He had met two of his teenage victims at Second Baptist.

One of the girls told the court: “My innocence is gone. I no longer have a relationship with God, and that was something that was very special to me. I don’t trust anyone in churches anymore.”

Second Baptist underscored to the Chronicle that it did not learn of the sexual assault allegations until after it fired Foster. The church declined a request from WORLD for comment. Members of the SBC committee included Second Baptist in its list of seven churches they didn’t believe warranted further inquiry. But Foster’s reported ordination to the ministry as an untrained man with a rocky personal history and a recent conversion raises concerns.

Quick ordinations aren’t uncommon, according to some in the SBC. Indeed, SBC president Greear singled out examining the ordination process as one of the 10 steps Southern Baptists should take in seeking to prevent abuse.

But this remains a local issue: Each Southern Baptist church sets its own process and requirements for ordination. The process may be rigorous depending on the congregation, but Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Florida and executive director of Founders Ministries, says it’s not uncommon for a church committee to examine a man with a few simple questions in the afternoon and perhaps ordain him that evening.

That includes youth pastors, and the Chronicle reported that more than 100 Southern Baptists described as former youth pastors or youth ministers are “in prison, are registered sex offenders, or have been charged with sex crimes.” The most common targets were teenage girls and boys.

Even if a man is ordained hastily, a church still has the power to revoke his ordination if it finds him unfit for ministry.

Given that some employment laws can punish employers for information they share in a reference, churches may worry about whether they should reveal concerns about an employee to another church, if asked.

Loren Elliott /AFP/Getty Images

The front page of the Houston Chronicle’s coverage of accusations of abuse in the SBC. (Loren Elliott /AFP/Getty Images)

Jon Whitehead, a Southern Baptist and an attorney, says courts usually side with the church giving the reference, and generally recognize this kind of communication as protected speech. Still, he concedes the law is complicated, and he says churches should consult with attorneys about how to give a proper recommendation in such cases. (Having a policy in place before an incident occurs is helpful for legal purposes, he says.)

But he also notes churches have a Biblical obligation to be honest with another congregation about a candidate’s fitness for ministry. “[The Apostle] Paul says ministers should be ‘above reproach,’” he wrote. “But on sexual misconduct, churches can end up with ministers ‘not quite convicted.’”

IN HANDLING ABUSE BETTER, the local level may be a critical place to start. Most SBC churches not only belong to the national denomination, but also to state conventions and local associations geographically much closer to the local churches.

With some 47,000 churches in the SBC, it makes sense for these local groups to be the front lines of prevention.

On the church level, Tom Ascol says church discipline was once a robust reality in Baptist life for all sorts of issues. Churches confronted members living in unrepentant sin, and removed them from membership if they didn’t repent. (In the Baptist form of government, the whole congregation would vote on whether to remove a member.)

The same happened in churches straying from Biblical doctrine or practice. A local association would hold a trial and vote on whether to remove the church from its association’s roll. This sometimes still happens, but the practice is largely missing from Southern Baptist life, says Ascol.

Today, he notes the gap between Southern Baptist membership and church attendance: For the year 2017, the SBC reported total membership as a little over 15 million. It reported weekly church attendance at 5.3 million.

Ascol finds the gap of 10 million people missing from worship each week alarming: “If we don’t care about people’s souls, how are we going to care for their sexual safety?”

(Different churches also operate in different ways: Some SBC churches have elders to help make decisions and keep pastors accountable, some have deacons in leadership authority, and some have solo pastors who exercise all or most of the authority.)

The Baptist commitment to local church autonomy could prove challenging to some kinds of abuse-related reform: Though churches often associate with local, state, and the national convention, no outside body exercises control or authority over a local church. A local, state, or national body can remove a church from its association, but it can’t make binding decisions over a local congregation.

Some leaders cited that reality in 2008 when the SBC rejected a proposal to create a registry of registered sex offenders, noting there would be no enforcement mechanism to require churches to participate. Today, SBC president Greear and other Southern Baptists say they are open to the proposal.

Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor who suggested such a registry a decade ago, says the culture in the SBC has changed since then, and he believes there’s now a greater awareness and commitment to preventing abuse and helping survivors. “We’re still autonomous,” he says. “Autonomy isn’t the reason we didn’t do anything. We didn’t do anything because we didn’t want to.”

It seems clear some in the SBC want to address the issue now, but it will remain dependent on local churches voluntarily committing to the work it takes to screen volunteers and employees, train church leaders on how to prevent and respond to abuse, and participate in any larger initiatives like a potential database to alert other SBC churches to sexual offenders.

All the SBC state conventions signed a commitment in February to follow a set of steps for abuse prevention and response, and each Southern Baptist seminary agreed to add training to the required curriculum for students. The SBC announced it would release a new set of training materials for local churches in June. A sexual abuse advisory group has already been meeting for months.

Another major step on the horizon: Many in the SBC are watching to see whom the executive committee chooses as the committee’s next CEO. The position has been vacant since former CEO and pastor Frank Page resigned last year, citing a moral failing. Burleson says it’s a key post to fill with someone who affirms he’s eager to work on a robust agenda of working against sexual abuse: “If he doesn’t, they shouldn’t hire him.”

Whitfield and Yarnell also suggest a process to find advocates for victims at each level of associations, and for churches to voluntarily enter a covenant to pledge to take certain steps to be well-prepared and trained to handle crises.

Whitfield says that would require churches voluntarily making themselves more accountable to each other: “The challenge is whether we’ll be sacrificial with the solution if it requires more from us in terms of time, money, and other resources, and whether we’ll be willing to freely give up some of our autonomy—not have it taken from us—but freely give up some of our autonomy for this greater good.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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    Posted: Fri, 03/01/2019 11:43 am

    Preventing abuse must begin with the tacit assumption that ANYONE can become an abuser. Soooo... you never under any circumstances agree to be in any situation where you the so-called adult is alone with any minor. You install cameras to monitor all activities behind solid doors. You install clear doors and rely more on open cubicles for all but the most intense counselings and you have women counsel women, men counsel men. 

    I sat quietly thru a court martial. The defendant was acquitted. Had he not done so the task of shackling him and escorting him to a navy brig in Charleston SC fell to me. The testimony revealed carelessness on the part of the defendant. But it was also apparent witnesses had been coached or conditioned  and were all too eager to do a "take down" of a young and promising military physical therapist. 

    In these issues perhaps immediate counselings or reprimand of those accused is advisable from a liability standpoint. Even creating the "mere appearance" of an inappropriate superior/subordinate relationship can end a career. From tiny acorns might oaks do grow. We had a UTSA university president who when confronted tried to assert that in his Mexican American culture it was a given that he would be a "hugger". Huggings should be avoided unless we speak of the "sideways church hug" which even then can be off putting to many. 

    Posted: Fri, 03/01/2019 01:59 pm

    Having been baptized in the Southern Baptist Church and pastored - and since been part of other "Protestant" churches - mostly independent - I can see on part of the problem.  It is our freedom - since the Reformation - the church has become in some ways too free - Kevin Vanhoozer talked about this in "Biblical Authority After Babel".

    As an American and 22 year veteran of the USAF I believe in fighting for the freedom for all.  But freedom without responsibility breeds... well ... all this rampant sin. I realized a long time ago "I can justify anything for myself."  It's the last verse in Judges 21:25 "...everyone did as he saw fit." (ESV).

    Today the idea of "control" or "oversight" does not ring well with us... but freedom without responsibility is unbiblical.

    We all must submit to a higher authority - keeping in mind what our task is - to be the "eyes, ears, feet, hands of Christ presenting the Gospel - the good news to all.

    We need to take seriously the words of Jesus when He said that "if we cause any of these little ones to stumble" and "if we cause anyone to sin" - we will be judged.  This applies not only to the one causing but also to those who conspire with them by allowing it.

    Let there be accountability to Christ through His body... the church more and more - and pray that does not get out of control.

    Only Jesus can make this happen.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 03/02/2019 10:19 pm

    It is well to fix this problem, but not well to focus on it to the exclusion of other problems.  I hope that the SBC can wisely tread this tightrope.