So, not that enough people will read this for it to make a difference, but somewhere I need to flesh out where I think we are, currently, as Southern Baptists, especially on the area of responding to the cascading numbers of sexual abuse reports in our fellowship of churches. It is an area that I have learned a lot more about in the last decade and I have, most likely, said things in other venues that I am about to contradict.
But as I heard today, attributed to Maya Angelou, "When you learn better, do better." The guy who shared the quote may have gotten it not right, but I think the principle is valid. I am learning better. I need to do better.
And this goes double for us as Southern Baptists.
What is the nature of the problem?
Quite frankly, it is this: we have far too many men in positions of authority within Southern Baptist life who have used that position to sexually abuse people they have authority over. While it is true that "one is too many," one can be an anomaly. We have enough of this that shows we have a systemic problem: if 1 person in your hospital gets a staph infection, such things happen, it is tragic, and you do your best to care for that one person.
If 1 person in 500 gets a staph infection, you start looking for where the system is breaking. And you care for those people. Since we can start pointing to statistics that show numbers of abusers, and repeated incidents of abuse by the same perpetrator, we have a broken system.
One of the major problems we have, though, is how to handle the highly independent nature of every SBC-affiliated church. We are built, historically, on the idea that individual churches can tell the cooperative system what to do, but they cannot tell each other what to do--and neither can the system. It's structured that way so that a failure in one church does not bring the whole thing down. It's structured that way because, initially, there were not communications practices that enabled doing anything more. What are you going to do about a church in West Texas if you are a church in Virginia, and it took 3 months to get information? Or to follow up with questions?
You just could not. Our legacy is distributed work. That, however, has made it very possible for predatory individuals to easily slide from end of the SBC to another and evade responsibility. Those who do so with utter stealth may be beyond catching.
The real problem has been when churches and cooperative organizations have enabled those types of moves. Sometimes quite overtly: a seminary actively trying to silence testimony against a star student, a publishing company terminating a victim for being a distraction, a church "planting" another church to send out a predator, just to get him away from his first victims.
And then the further actions of collectively helping to keep these problems quiet. We've done that through bad training over the years. One aspect of Baptist ministry training is this: most of our classes in seminaries are fact-based: Biblical Studies, languages, theology studies. The practical courses are very direct skillsets: how to preach, how to make a budget, how to think you're an effective counselor when you probably aren't (not the actual course title).
The nuts and bolts of how to handle a sexual abuse accusation? That learning comes from hands-on lessons from other pastors, whether mentors or associational folks or denominational leadership. So, while we can readily get the latest edition of Steps to the Sermon and so pick up how to make digital slides alongside our exegesis, we are still dealing with sexual abuse issues by word-of-mouth training from generations past.
And we did not handle it right in generations past.
So we keep recycling the same issue: a predator comes along, eventually someone brings an accusation, and then...the system tries to protect the reputation of the church, the denomination, the pastors that have enabled and encouraged the predator (not in his predatory behavior, just in his ministry overall). And to do that, we put our cooperative effort into crushing the person who had to put herself (and himself) together enough to bring that accusation.
Then it makes the news, we look to someone in leadership to address it, apologies are made, committees formed, and nothing happens. This has never been good enough, but too many of us normal Baptist preachers have been willing to fade back and hope there's a better result someday. Making waves hurts our chance of being on cool committees or preaching annual meetings or getting help from the Important Baptists when we need it for our church or for our own job advancement.
This cannot continue. We have enough blood on our hands simply for our inaction. I have enough on mine simply for suggesting we stick with the slow process for the last 15 years. Time to say some things; eventually, when I find them, time to do some things. Here they are:
What do we do about it?
First and foremost: we need to use our cooperative system, work with experts in the field of providing restorative care to victims and survivors, and provide for their needs. We cannot claim that we are only supposed to fund "mission" when we are also crushing people. There are ways to figure that out--constantly we are told inside the SBC that our seminaries are filled with the brightest minds in all of evangelical life. We constantly have things to say claiming to hold the solution to every other problem in America.
We either need to acknowledge we're not that bright or use our brainpower to fix our problems. This one ought to come first: bandage the wounded. And do so in a manner that is driven by what is best for them, not what is best for us. We may expose ourselves to liability by doing the right thing. Better that than leaving a trail of victims in our wake.
Second, we need to revamp our cooperative systems to cooperate to lock predators out of churches. That will require using some standards to determine what constitutes "predatory behavior." Again, we claim to have a great deal of brain power. Surely we can do this, right?
And remember: someone can use position and perception and authority in ways that violate another person's ability to make free choices. In some churches, pastors are seen as having that authority. I have served in churches where there were other members who held that authority--and in fact, while not being sexually abusive, were spiritually abusive even toward the pastor's family--but the perception of power is what matters here. We claim to not have authority in our churches, but while that may be the way we talk, it is not the way we act.
This will require more open information sharing. Yes, that means more people will know about our mess. At this point, though, the only people that do not know are those willfully ignorant or who will not care anyway. It's past time for the sweet little old ladies who have raised millions for the SBC to know what's been done with some of it.
Third, we need to find a way to use our cooperative systems to have updated, mandatory training on dealing with matters like sexual abuse. And not presented by the same good ole boy network that currently delivers 90% of the post-seminary training in the SBC: this should not be done with the "well, you know, whatever" attitude that usually shows up in associational and denominational gatherings. Our failures here are harming people now and harming our ability to make disciples.
We are killing people and killing our witness but won't take it seriously. Instead, most of our together time is the same old self-congratulatory, "We're awesome" talk it always has been.
I do not have all the solutions, but I know this: we're not going to find them with the same leadership that has perpetuated them. The same systems that have victimized people will have to be radically rebuilt to prevent it from continuing to happen. If we keep looking to the same "great men of the SBC" that we have looked to for decades, we will continue to do it all again, and again, and again.
And if we do that, the least of our worries will be civil judgments and social media outrages. The Lord God Almighty may have patience, but He will not tolerate this forever.