Sexual Abuse Crisis Expected to be Main Issue at Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting in Alabama

Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear speaks to the denomination’s executive committee Feb. 18, 2019, in Nashville. Just days after a newspaper investigation revealed hundreds of sexual abuse cases by Southern Baptist ministers and lay leaders over the past two decades, Greear spoke about plans to address the problem. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

The sexual abuse crisis didn’t skip Southern Baptist churches.

Key leaders in the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. have spent the last 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 June 11-12 in Birmingham, Alabama, for their big annual meeting.

That focus is intentional, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear said. 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.

Critics say Southern Baptists are not moving fast enough to address abuse

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,” Easter, who is ordained through the Progressive Christian Alliance, said. “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 a challenge, to get everyone on board with recognizing the importance of addressing sexual abuse in the church.

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SOURCE: The Nashville Tennessean, Holly Meyer