By Bob Allen
The president of a Baptist child care agency has resigned after a no-confidence vote in November by the Kentucky Baptist Convention for recommending that Sunrise Children’s Services drop its ban on hiring gays.
No formal announcement was made about the resignation of William Smithwick, president of the KBC agency formerly known as Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children since 1997, but a Dec. 9 letter addressed to pastors from the agency’s board of trustees announced selection of an interim president and plans to form a search committee for a new leader.
“If recent headlines have your congregation wondering whether or not they should continue their support of Sunrise, let me assure there should be no cause for concern,” said the letter signed by board chairman William Hurley.
“Rest assured that if you and your church continue to support Sunrise financially, we will never forget our responsibility to the children extends not just to their physical well-being, but to their spiritual well-being also,” Hurley wrote. “We will not knowingly expose any child in Sunrise’s care to unbiblical influences. We dare not do anything to lead any of these little ones astray.”
On Dec. 17 the Louisville Courier-Journal quoted Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood as confirming Smithwick’s resignation.
“Having served the children of SCS effectively and sacrificially for 16 years, Dr. Smithwick has recognized the need for new leadership for this season in the organization’s long and rich history,” Chitwood said. “The board of directors has accepted his resignation with deep appreciation for his service.”
Much of Smithwick’s time at KBHC/Sunrise was punctuated with a 12-year legal battle that stemmed from the firing of a lesbian worker in 1998. Earlier this year he told this board of trustees that given rapid changes in the law and public opinion viewing homosexuality as a civil right, maintaining its policy against hiring gays put the agency at risk of losing $23 million a year in state contracts to provide services to nearly 2,000 children across the Commonwealth.
Kentucky Baptist leaders reacted negatively to Smithwick’s proposal. The Sunrise board of trustees voted Nov. 8 to keep the current hiring policy in place, and on Nov. 12 the state convention passed a non-binding no-confidence vote in his leadership.
Smithwick said in a Courier-Journal op-ed Nov. 20 he was not surprised by and accepted the board’s decision, but he was disappointed that he became a lightning rod for controversy.
“That was certainly not my intent,” Smithwick wrote. “It is not, and has never been, about me. My sole focus is to provide a safe haven to these kids.”
His greatest fear, he said, “is that this debate will hurt private donations we receive.”
An earlier Courier-Journal editorial criticized the Kentucky Baptist Convention for “amazing gall” in its dealings with Smithwick, contrasting the convention’s action with Pope Francis’ comments asking who he is to judge gays in the church.
“But if that’s not sufficient for the body’s 700,000 Baptists in Kentucky, perhaps the words of the founder of Christianity might resonate: ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.’ That’s Jesus in the New Testament chastising followers about the hypocrisy of flawed individuals condemning others,” the editorial said.
Chitwood responded in an op-ed article answering questions about whether Kentucky Baptists hate homosexuals.
“I know that is not true of me or of any Baptist who seeks to obey God’s word,” Chitwood said. “The Bible teaches that God is love and that those who love God are to love everyone because every person bears God’s image.”
“Refusing to hire persons who practice homosexuality to work at Sunrise is not hate,” Chitwood continued. “We also would not hire heterosexuals who live in blatant and unrepentant sexual sin. We don’t hate them, either.”
Chitwood said Sunrise’s hiring practices require every employee to exhibit values in their professional conduct and personal lifestyles consistent with the agency’s Christian mission.
“We believe God designed sex to be shared only by a man and a woman in a monogamous marriage covenant,” he said. “Jesus referred to the creation account from Genesis and said this was God’s plan ‘from the beginning.’ The Christian sexual ethic hasn’t changed in more than 2,000 years; thus we can only use employees who seek to live within these boundaries.”
Prior to coming to Sunrise, Smithwick worked as assistant executive director at Virginia Baptist Children’s Home and Family Services in Salem, Va., a ministry he previously served as chaplain/administrator.
He is a graduate of Averett University, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and graduated in 1978 with the M.Div. in pastoral care from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Smithwick’s interim successor at Sunrise is Dale Suttles, the agency’s eastern region advancement director.