Dear Church Family,
This past weekend the Houston Chronicle published the first in a series of stories detailing allegations of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and ministries. According to the published report, more than 700 victims have gone on record with stories of abuse at the hands of leaders in Southern Baptist churches and institutions dating back to the past several decades.
These stories are heartbreaking and the connection with Southern Baptist Churches and ministries hits way too close to home. As a Southern Baptist Church, Faith partners with more than 47,000 churches across North America as part of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. While Faith includes people from multiple denominational backgrounds and traditions, we are a Southern Baptist congregation and this cooperative network serves as our primary vehicle for cooperative mission work around the world.
It is worth noting for the uninformed, that one of the hallmarks of Baptist ecclesiology (how we organize our churches) is that each congregation is autonomous. There is no denominational umbrella that controls or oversees local churches. Each local church is self-governing and cooperates freely under the leadership of the Holy Spirit with others to advance our gospel mission across the country and around the world. In other words, the Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t ordain or supervise pastors, local churches do. That makes our organizational structure very different from, say our Roman Catholic friends, who have a very pronounced hierarchical structure. While it makes our organizational approach different, it doesn’t make the reality of sexual abuse any less horrific. In fact, our autonomous structures may actually allow perpetrators to hide more easily and simply move on to other victims with little accountability.
The stories being told are stories of human sin and depravity but they are also, in many cases, stories of systemic organizational failure. In far too many cases, churches and ministries have not adequately protected their flocks and have viewed sexual misconduct as a matter of church discipline, church policy, or, even more horrifically, as a public relations problem to be managed. Sexual abuse may involve any of those things, but it is more. It is sin and it is also criminal. Criminal activity should be reported to law enforcement and legal authorities should hold perpetrators of sexual abuse and sexual crimes to account.
What are we to say to these shameful things and how does it affect our ministry today here at Faith? First, let us acknowledge that you can find sinful conduct anywhere, even in churches. As disgusting as it is, some pedophiles hide behind religious masks to conduct their crimes. Churches are often soft targets that provide adults with easy access to supervising children.
Historically, churches have been too unprepared in training, oversight, and enforcement. There are many reasons for such laxness but it is inexcusable that so many children have been put at risk – totally inexcusable.
Second, it has become apparent that in not only churches, but across our culture, many institutions have failed in an attempt to hide such shameful crimes and prioritized appearances over consequences. In so doing, we failed our children. Sexual abuse is not a public relations problem – it is a sin problem. It is that and it is more; it is a crime. It is not a problem merely for internal church discipline; it is a legal problem that requires outside law enforcement. Crimes against children must be reported and we must care more for the victims than for the appearances of our own institutions or the reputations of pastors and leaders.
The Chronicle report is understandably tough on our network of churches and on many Baptist leaders. We might be tempted to argue over a phrase or try to defend our actions. That would be the wrong response. The reality is that we did not do enough. We failed and in many cases people have been irreparably damaged.
I do believe things are changing. Our Baptist churches and institutions are doing a much better job addressing these issues. Like others across our culture, we have seen the dark side of abuse exposed and we recognize that we are not immune. Attitudes have changed and meaningful policies have been enacted among our cooperating Baptist institutions. I am grateful for these changes. Our current SBC President, J.D. Greear, appointed a panel this past year to look over the entire Southern Baptist landscape and recommend ways in which we can work cooperatively to expose predators and protect innocent victims. This will be an important report and I look forward to its release and hopefully many meaningful changes.
And yet, the great danger, especially in Baptist life is that all churches are indeed autonomous. Many churches are still too lax in their policies and seem all too willing to give an offender a “second chance”. It should be said that no minister or volunteer who sexually abuses a child should ever be allowed to serve in any church where they can repeat such behaviors.
At Faith, we have taken this challenge seriously. Our staff and leadership teams have taken the responsibility of creating a safe environment in our ministries as one of our most sacred tasks. We have invested thousands of dollars in training and security. We have required training of every person who works in our ministry. Several years ago, we partnered with Ministry Safe, a nationally recognized leader in training churches and ministries, to provide training for all our staff and volunteers in sexual abuse prevention. We require every member of our team and every volunteer working in our ministry to participate in training. We require extensive background checks of all staff and volunteers who work with minors. We are committed to a safe environment and I give you my word as your pastor that we will do everything we can to protect our children and we will never ignore or make excuses for any perpetrators of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.
The stories coming out in the Chronicle are painful to read but we must address the issue head on. We must hear the truth and tell the truth. We must confront the past, however painful. We must make changes in our ministries and we must insist that Baptist ministries with whom we cooperate make changes as well.
Finally, to those who have been hurt, no words can ever erase the pain of sexual violation. As a pastor and church leader I would like to say I am so sorry. I am sorry that trust and innocence were violated. There is no excuse for someone using a spiritual or religious cover to justify sexual abuse and there is no excuse for ministries and institutions ignoring the cries of the abused and giving cover to the abusers. As a pastor, I am angry and ashamed. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I am deeply troubled. For those who have courageously stood up and told their stories, thank you. For those who have stood up to insist that we can and must do better, thank you. I am confident that in the future there will be fewer victims, greater accountability, and fewer stories like we are hearing now.
Jesus once warned those who offend a little child, that it would be better for them if they had a large stone tied around their neck and cast into the sea (Matthew 18:6). These are serious words. These are angry words. These words come from the Son of God and they indicate that there is indeed a judgment waiting for those who prey upon the innocent.
It is time to take sexual abuse seriously. It is time to stand with those who have been wounded and have the courage to step forward. It is time to quit excusing sexual misconduct in our leaders. Let the Lord arise and sweep out His house and let us humble ourselves, confess our sins, and repent. Let us pray for shepherds who will protect the flock and not prey upon it. And finally, let us resolve to stop the wolves, even those – and especially those – that come in sheep’s clothing.
Pastor Danny Sinquefield