Editor’s note: While the issue addressed in this column speaks primarily about the Southern Baptist Convention, the ordination processes referenced are typical of many Baptist bodies in America, which operate with complete autonomy on clergy ordinations.
Two years ago, the Houston Chronicle published a shocking report of systematic sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. The series of articles documented 700 victims of abuse over 20 years.
At first, the report was treated with the gravity it deserved. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, commissioned an advisory group to study the issue. The group noted several systemic issues: failure of training, using church autonomy to avoid taking action, failure to take care of the survivors, failure to disclose, failure to report to civil authorities, recommending suspected perpetrators to new jobs, and promoting leaders who glorify the mistreatment of women.
Now, two years later, the question that must be raised is if the actions taken by the SBC are sufficient. In the 52-page report given by the committee, there are several positive recommendations about caring for victims and reporting. There are some recommended preventative measures about background checks, safety teams and creating an atmosphere where the opportunities for sexual abuse are limited. All these are good and important steps.
The problem, however, is that sexual predators in the clergy have long abused the loose SBC ordination process to hide their predilection toward evil.
“A majority vote equals ordination, period. We call this church autonomy.”
In order to be ordained as an SBC minister, one only needs to have a majority vote of a local congregation. Yes, most candidates for ordination use a process that engages the local association (a local group of SBC churches of like mind and thought) by creating an ordination council to interview the candidate and make recommendations. Even that small step is not required, however. A one-vote majority vote in a church conference yields ordination, even if the association is not consulted. What would surprise most non-SBC Christians is that a church can vote to ordain a candidate even if the ordination council recommends against it. A majority vote equals ordination, period. We call this church autonomy.
Once given a majority vote, there is no way to discipline or defrock a minister. If a minister has a worrisome pattern in his behavior, there is no way to compel him to change or leave the ministry. Worse, if a minister commits abuse and avoids arrest and prosecution, there is no way to track him. The minister can simply move along, leaving a trail of broken lives behind him. The ordination process has been this way for generations in SBC life, and it shows no signs of changing.
While background checks are good and every church should do background checks before hiring clergy, this suggestion alone is insufficient. Let’s face it, because SBC churches are notoriously anti-authoritarian, it is impossible to get 100% of SBC churches to implement any particular policy. Universal background checks among SBC churches likely will not happen.
Even if it were possible to get 100% of churches to do background checks on clergy, the background checks themselves do not catch every abuser. The SBC report acknowledges this issue. So, the problem is then twofold: not enough background checks being completed and imperfections in the background check process. The SBC’s posture of simply encouraging background checks, therefore, will not prevent the kinds of systematic abuse we have seen.
The issue that must be faced is there seems to be no serious plan to keep predators out of the pulpit in the first place. There is no serious effort to reform the ordination process. There is still no process to discipline or defrock ordained ministers.
“There seems to be no serious plan to keep predators out of the pulpit in the first place.”
Lest my friends in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship think they and their churches are immune, remember that CBF uses the exact same ordination process the SBC uses. In fact, they typically use the same associations.
Interestingly, because CBF candidates are more likely to get unfair treatment in associational ordination councils, CBF congregations often create their own ordination councils bypassing the association altogether. In short, the CBF ordination process is every bit as open to abuse as the SBC, if not more.
So, has the response to the Houston Chronicle report been sufficient? No, it has not. Until Baptists of all stripes are willing to tackle the thorny issues of ordination and discipline of ministers, we are putting our people at risk.
Layne Wallace serves as senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church, Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and is author of Karl Barth’s Concept of Nothingness: A Critical Evaluation.