Next steps for SBC abuse reform now in the hands of EC

“We took this work as far as we were allowed to take it,” North Carolina Baptist pastor Josh Wester, chair of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.

Leaders of a volunteer task force charged with implementing abuse reforms in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination say they were given an impossible task.

In the end, the task proved too much.

“We took this work as far as we were allowed to take it,” North Carolina Baptist pastor Josh Wester, chair of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, told the more than 10,800 local church representatives, known as messengers, gathered Tuesday (June 11) at the Indiana Convention Center for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting.

Instead, the SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee will now have the task of implementing those reforms.

The task force was charged two years ago with creating resources to help churches deal with abuse, publishing a database of abusive pastors and finding permanent funding and long-term plans for abuse reforms. While the task force did unveil a new “Essentials” training resource for churches, the other two tasks remain incomplete.

Wester said the task force has vetted more than 100 names of abusers but has not been able to publish them on an online “Ministry Check” database of abusers, largely due to concerns about insurance and finances.

“I wish that standing before you today, I could say that the Ministry Check website is now online,” Wester told the messengers. “But I cannot do that.”

In his report to the messengers, Wester detailed some of the challenges the task force faced over the past year.

In January, he said, he was called to an “emergency meeting” with other SBC leaders, where he learned insurance concerns made the database impossible. He also said the task force has not been able to access the funds it needed to do its work.

“It was made clear to us there was no future for robust abuse reform inside the SBC,” Wester said.

In response, he said, the task force set up an independent nonprofit, known as the Abuse Reform Commission, to run the database. But the SBC’s two mission boards, which had pledged millions to support abuse reform, said they would not fund the new group.

However, Wester said the new president of the SBC’s Executive Committee is committed to moving the reforms forward. He said the task force hopes the reforms will remain inside the SBC.

‘We must be proactive’

Messengers approved the task force’s recommendation that the reforms, including the database, would go forward and that responsibility for the future of reforms be given to the Executive Committee.

Though they would not fund ARC, leaders of Send Relief, the SBC’s humanitarian arm, which is funded by the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board, said they are willing to work with the Executive Committee on reforms.

Send’s leaders pledged $4 million for abuse reforms two years ago.

”In the two years these funds have been available, Send Relief has not rejected any requests for funding that fall within the original intent of its commitment,” a spokesman for the North American Mission Board said in an email.

The spokesman said those funds are still available.

Members of the task force did not come to the annual meeting empty-handed. The new “Essentials” curriculum went live online this week, at the website, as part of the ministry toolkit authorized by messengers in 2022.

“To help make our churches safe from abuse, we must be proactive,” reads the website for the new curriculum, which outlines a five-step process for addressing the issue of abuse.

Messengers got a flyer when they registered for the annual meeting, telling them where they could pick up a copy of the curriculum. Copies will also be shipped to each state convention. The curriculum is available as a printed booklet or on a thumb drive.

“The task force looks forward to getting the Essentials curriculum into the hands of as many messengers as possible,” the task force told RNS in an email. The task force also will maintain the website that hosts the curriculum, even though its term has expired.

Wester said the delay in implementing reforms shows the limits of volunteer task forces to deal with issues like abuse.

“Task forces have some power,” he said. “They apparently have very limited power when it comes to doing things in the SBC.”

Clear will

Southern Baptists have been calling for a database to track abusive pastors since at least 2007. In 2008, during a previous meeting in Indianapolis, SBC leaders said such a database was impossible.

Fourteen years later, messengers at the 2022 SBC meeting overwhelmingly approved the database and other reforms during their meeting in Anaheim, California. The delay in implementing those reforms has left abuse survivors discouraged.

“It’s such a long road to get where we need to be,” said Jules Woodson, one of a group of survivors who have advocated for reforms in recent years.

During their meeting Tuesday, messengers voted for the reforms to go forward and to task the Executive Committee with working on them.

“I think the will of the messengers is clear,” said Megan Lively, a survivor of abuse and longtime Southern Baptist and local church messenger.

Tiffany Thigpen, who has been working on abuse reforms for years, wondered why SBC leaders have failed to do what the messengers told them to do and failed to fund abuse reforms.

“What is it going to take for this to happen?” she said.

‘Sea change’

During the Tuesday meeting, several messengers made motions that were critical of the abuse reforms and wanted to know how much lawsuits related to the abuse crisis have cost. Questions about those costs were also raised during a presidential forum on the eve of the annual meeting.

So far, the SBC’s Executive Committee has spent more than $2 million on a pair of lawsuits filed by former leaders named in the Guidepost Solutions investigation that prompted abuse reforms.

Despite delays, Wester and other SBC pastors say progress has been made in dealing with abuse in recent years. More work needs to be done, they add.

Former SBC President J.D. Greear said that in the past, churches didn’t know how to respond to abuse and tried to figure things out on their own. Greear, a megachurch pastor from North Carolina who championed abuse reforms, said churches are much more likely now to know what to do when abuse happens.

“There has been a sea change,” he said.

At an SBC presidential forum, Clint Pressley, another megachurch pastor from North Carolina, said that in the past, his church would not have been prepared to deal with abuse. But the recent reforms, he said, caused his church to take the issue seriously and enact policies and training to deal with abuse.

That training meant the church’s leaders knew what to do when a church volunteer was recently accused of abusing a family member. Had the SBC not started dealing with abuse in recent years, he said, “We would not have known what to do.”

Greear said the database and other reforms are still needed. Churches also need to be reminded of the need for training and awareness, he added, saying churches need to remain vigilant. While there are costs involved in reforms, he said, they are worth it.

“It always costs you more not to do the right thing,” he said.

Sending the abuse reforms to the Executive Committee comes with risks. That committee has faced budget deficits and growing legal costs from abuse-related lawsuits — and has a relatively small budget. It also went several years without a permanent leader — until naming former seminary president Jeff Iorg to the post.

Wester said he has been encouraged by his conversation with Iorg and other SBC leaders, who he said are committed to reforms. He said Iorg assured him that he was committed to the reforms — which a spokesman for the Executive Committee confirmed.

“If our leaders want to get this done, it will get done,” Wester said.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Bob Smietana and originally published by Religion News Service.


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