A Southern Baptist church volunteer charged with molestation in South Carolina was previously removed from working with children due to an “uneasy feeling” about his interactions with kids in a similar congregation 200 miles away.
Elevation Church, a multi-site congregation started a decade ago as a church plant by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said in a statement that Jacop “Jake” Hazlett volunteered to keep an eye on children while their parents worshipped at the church’s Lake Norman location in late 2014.
A couple of months later, church officials say, Hazlett was moved to an administrative volunteer role with no direct contact with or oversight of children, serving there until he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in January 2018.
“There were no incidents or events at the campus that led to him being moved in 2015, however, the campus leadership did have an uneasy feeling with how he interacted with supervised kids prompting a discussion with him and we made the decision to move him,” the statement said.
Hazlett, 28, faces multiple felony charges after allegedly molesting numerous preschool boys over a period of 90 days inside a bathroom at the North Charleston campus of NewSpring Church, a multi-site megachurch started with help from the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1999 now with a reported weekly attendance of 20,000 at 14 campuses spread across the state.
Like NewSpring Church, Elevation Church downplays its denominational affiliation by leaving “Baptist” out of the name. Both churches were started by charismatic pastors fresh out of seminary. Perry Noble, the former pastor at NewSpring, left Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, before finishing a degree. Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick holds a master of divinity degree from Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Both pastors have been targeted in controversy. Noble clashed with leaders of the South Carolina Baptist Convention over theology and eventually got fired for alcohol abuse. Furtick raised eyebrows in 2013 for building a $1.7 million house. He returned to the spotlight in 2014, when media reported that his famous “spontaneous baptism” invitations were carefully orchestrated, complete with a written “how to” ministry guide.
Both churches adopted the multi-site model, where one church meets in multiple locations. There were about 10 such churches when NewSpring started and around 1,500 when Elevation Church came along in 2006. Today as many as 10 percent of Protestants worship in a multi-site church.
Others say the term multi-site church is a misnomer, because such congregations actually function like a presbytery, with a ruling body of elders overseeing congregations in a geographical area. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, the official doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, defines a New Testament church as “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers” that operates “through democratic processes.”
Current Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, whose church adopted the multi-site model in 2005, has defended the practice as biblically sound, saying if done well it “can be practically wise” for managing growth, church planting and pastoral care.
In July Greear announced he would form a presidential study group on sexual abuse in partnership with the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, said in October the study will result in recommendations for “tangible steps” churches and SBC entities can take to prevent and respond to sexual abuse, with implementation beginning at the 2019 SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.
Greear’s study came after a tumultuous 2018 SBC annual meeting overshadowed by a #MeToo-like response to the firing of a seminary president over alleged mishandling of reports of sexual abuse of women.
A separate study at the SBC International Board announced this summer came in response to the arrest of a one-time missionary discharged for past sexual misconduct who afterward continued as a minister at Southern Baptist churches and in executive leadership of a Southern Baptist state convention.
America’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics has studied the problem of sexual abuse by clergy before. In 2008 the SBC Executive Committee considered establishing an independent review board to receive and evaluate reports and keep a database of clergy credibly accused, confessed or convicted of sexual abuse before rejecting the idea as not feasible due to autonomy of the local church.
If convicted Hazlett faces a potential penalty of 25 years to life in prison. NewSpring Church has been slapped with a lawsuit alleging negligence in vetting, training and supervising volunteers.
Before attending Elevation Church Hazlett showed up at another multi-campus church with SBC ties. The Cove Church in Mooresville, North Carolina, confirmed Hazlett volunteered at the Lake Norman campus from 2010 to 2014. According to local media, he also gained access to kids by coaching youth football.