While national leaders continue grapple with new revelations of past missteps involving the reporting of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, a Texas church urged its members to give a former worship leader under arrest for alleged sex crimes in Tennessee the benefit of the doubt.
Stan Allcorn, senior pastor at Pioneer Drive Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, sent an e-mail informing the congregation of Monday’s arrest of Jeffrey Charles Berry, a manager for Christian artists now living in Franklin, Tennessee.
Berry 55, is being held on a $10 million bond on charges of fleeing justice and indecency with a child in a warrant issued Oct. 10 in Taylor County, Texas. Critics said the pastor’s initial letter showed more sympathy for the alleged abuser than the supposed victim.
Berry, a Christian artist manager now living in Franklin, Tennessee, served Pioneer Drive Baptist Church as an intern in the 1980s and as associate minister of music in 1995 and 1996. His parents are still members there.
The indictment is listed as sealed in court records that are accessible online, but according to ABC affiliate KTXS-12 documents indicate Berry is accused of fondling an underage boy on or around March 1, 1996, while working for the congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“Jeff Berry is my friend,” Allcorn said in his message to church members. “I love him as a Christian brother. We have served in revivals together on two occasions. I am praying earnestly for Jeff today and will continue to do so.”
“We do not have all the facts surrounding this situation,” the pastor counseled. “We do not know the full story. I would urge against speculation and for compassion toward all involved.”
Amy Smith, a blogger and longtime advocate for abuse survivors in Southern Baptist life, called it “a textbook church response in how to discourage other victims from coming forward to police thereby enabling an alleged child sexual predator.”
The church released a separate statement offering assurance that “Pioneer Drive is committed to the safety of our children and does not take these matters lightly” and pledging “to cooperate with any local authority and encourage others who have information regarding this circumstance to do so as well.”
The arrest comes at a time of intense scrutiny about the prevalence of abuse in Southern Baptist churches and institutions. Major newspapers have in recent months published stories on both the sheer number of abuse cases going on in more than 47,000 autonomous but cooperating Southern Baptist churches and about high profile church leaders not caring well for victims when they do come forward.
The topic dominated this summer’s SBC annual meeting. The denomination just held a three-day meeting focused on caring well for survivors that brought new revelations of insensitivity toward abuse victims. On Tuesday Baptist Press issued a second apology for earlier this year reporting an abuse allegation as an inappropriate relationship between consenting adults.
While not a household name, Berry is well-connected in Southern Baptist life. After graduating from Baptist-affiliated Hardin-Simmons University in 1986, he went on to earn an MBA from Baylor. He taught economics and entrepreneurship in Baylor’s business school before founding Crosswind Ministries in 1994. For 11 years he helped direct Grace Bible Study, a non-denominational Bible study for high school and college students in Abilene attended by about 1,500 students on Tuesday nights held at University Baptist Church in Abilene.
He was front man for the Jeff Berry Band, a praise and worship group based in North Texas that recorded albums and performed in thousands of settings across the United States and in England, Germany, Turkey, South Africa and Scotland.
For three years beginning in 2004 they led worship at The Heights Church in Richardson, Texas, and for Dallas Baptist University, where Berry taught as an adjunct professor in the music business program.
His ministry also included Reality Weekends, an intensive discipleship weekend for students, including one in 2003 in Germany for children of missionaries living in Europe.
In 2007 Berry partnered with Centricity Music in Nashville to begin an artist management division and work to develop new artists including two-time Grammy Award winner Lauren Daigle and the country brother duo group High Valley.
In 2017 he left to launch his own management endeavor, Courage Management. For the past 10 months he has worked at recruiting artist partnerships for World Vision out of the charity’s office in middle Tennessee, where his arrest took place on Monday afternoon.
World Vision released a statement Oct. 15 saying Berry has been placed on administrative leave. World Vision said child protection protocols prohibit staff from being alone with children at any time and that before his hiring Berry passed a background check showing no criminal convictions, either felony or misdemeanor.
According to The Tennessean, Berry has recently been involved at Rolling Hills Community Church — a multi-campus congregation founded in 2003 by Baylor graduate Jeff Simmons — including chaperoning church camps attended by his children in 2014 and 2016.
An old photo shared on social media in 2018 shows Berry hanging out with a group of friends starting out in ministry together identified in a caption as contemporary Christian music artist and worship leader Chris Tomlin, singer-songwriter Ross King and Greg Matte, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Houston.
Berry, married and a father of two, is due to appear in court Oct. 24.
This isn’t Pioneer Drive Baptist Church’s first experience with the criminal-justice system. Jeffrey Forrest, who worked with children at the church as an intern while attending Hardin-Simmons University in the 1990s, was indicted in 2015 on two counts of sexual assault against a child for acts alleged in 1993. Forrest, now 47, did not show up for his trial in 2016. A second warrant for jumping bail was issued in May.