Southern Baptist business meeting ends, but sex-abuse, other challenges remain

Shaun H. Ruff


ANAHEIM, Calif. — The banners, buttons and book displays are gone, as are most of the thousands of Southern Baptist Convention lay members, pastors, and administrators who filled a meeting hall at the Anaheim Convention Center here with two days of praise music and balloting on the movement’s future.

But some issues will continue to follow back home the 13.7-million-member denomination’s “messengers” — as delegates to the business meeting are called.

First among these will be the issue of sexual abuse, for which the messengers voted to spend $4 million as part of remediation efforts.

The bulk, $3 million, will go towards implementing recommendations of the church’s Sexual Abuse Task Force, including the creation of a database of convicted and/or “credibly accused” abusers. Another $1 million will be allocated to provide counseling to victims.

The Rev. Bart Barber, newly elected as president of America’s largest Protestant denomination, said Wednesday that predators would no longer have a “hunting ground” in the movement’s 47,000 congregations.

However, some abuse victims remain dissatisfied, and it’s likely that calls for other measures will continue from within the church as well as from those no longer affiliated.

The messengers voted to seek “more consistent laws” on the definition and classification of sexual abuse by pastors, as well as laws shielding churches from civil liability when sharing information about abuse accusations with other organizations of institutions.

Mr. Barber, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, told reporters Wednesday that cooperation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the Texas Private Schools Coalition was instrumental in getting such a measure passed unanimously by his state’s legislature.

He said he hopes this will expand to other states.

“This is not just a church problem,” he said. “It’s a problem that touches many parts of our society. And so we would be delighted to see not just Southern Baptist churches, but also people of good will across the country, work with us to help these kinds of laws being passed.”

The Baptists also passed a resolution branding as “reprehensible” the policies of 408 Federal Indian Boarding Schools between 1819 and 1969 to forcibly assimilate indigenous peoples’ children and even impose conversions on them.

No Southern Baptists were named in a recent Bureau of Indian Affairs Investigative Report, but the group felt a need to condemn the actions it described.

The Rev. Mike Keahbone, a Native American and the lead pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lawton, Oklahoma, said the measure was “the first resolution among Southern Baptists that addresses the mistreatment and abuse” of indigenous peoples, and it sends “a very powerful and clear message that we are with this family and we matter.”

A motion calling for the closure of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, whose longtime director Russell Moore left the group and the denomination last year over the response to abuse victims, failed despite support from some more conservative quarters in the denomination.

Another motion that failed to go anywhere demanded the denomination expel Saddleback Church, an Orange County, California, megachurch about 30 minutes away from the convention site.

Saddleback, led by outgoing senior pastor the Rev. Rick Warren, had ordained three women as pastors, which critics said violated Southern Baptist rules.

Mr. Warren gave delegates an impassioned five-minute floor speech Tuesday afternoon in which he noted the accomplishments of Saddleback, which included the planting of 90 SBC churches in Orange County alone.

“Are we gonna keep bickering over secondary issues?,” he asked, “Or are we gonna keep the main thing the main thing?”

His question was greeted with substantial applause, and while that helped kill the anti-Saddleback motion, it could return again.

Mr. Barber said “it’s possible that some of those questions will come back later on. And to the degree that messengers still feel that they are unresolved, [it] is their right to bring them” in future years.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mislabeled as “resolutions” motions from Southern Baptist Convention messengers related to Saddleback Church and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.


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