I am proud to be an American Baptist. Our denomination is not perfect; far from it. But we have been on the right side of history more often than not. On this day, I feel compelled to point out what distinguishes us from Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists, who are much in the news for their incidence of clergy sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups.
American Baptists are Baptists. This means that we believe in congregational autonomy. Autonomy means that each church chooses its own pastoral leadership. However, we have accountability within our system that provides a layer of protection for our churches. A system like this has been in place in the American Baptist family for decades.
A pastor who has American Baptist “standing” has completed a number of steps. In my region of Massachusetts, these include a background check, a course on ethical boundaries in ministry and an evaluation at a professional counseling center (as well as other educational requirements). Each pastor agrees to sign the American Baptist Clergy Code of Ethics. When a minister receives standing, this is a nationally recognized credential.
However, just as American Baptist standing can be given, it can also be taken away. A person or a church can bring a charge against a minister, which is processed by our Ministerial Standing Committee. If the charges are found valid, standing is withdrawn, and this information becomes part of that minister’s record on our national database. Depending on the type of charge (not all of them involve sexual abuse, for example), there may be an opportunity for rehabilitation.
In every case where a minister breaks the law, police are notified. If an individual or a church will not call law enforcement, we will.
Only a local church can ordain a pastor, or rescind that ordination. But creating and maintaining accountability for American Baptist standing has protected us from the kind of widespread abuse that has been experienced elsewhere.
Yes, sometimes people slip through the cracks. There are evil people in this world, and some of them are very crafty. Jesus called them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
I acknowledge that the system has not always worked perfectly. But let me be clear: as an American Baptist leader, I take the issue of clergy misconduct very seriously. I want to be heartfelt in my support of the vast majority of our clergy who are people of integrity. But I will be vigilant in dealing with those who are not.
Amid the damage done to the Gospel witness and the untold harm inflicted upon victims of abuse, we are called by Jesus to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).