Sex abuse response, entity transitions top Baptist stories in 2019

As Southern Baptists headed into 2020, they closed the books on a year of transitions at several national entities, along with decisive action across the national convention to help churches care well for those affected by sexual abuse and harassment. With increased giving to both national missions offerings and the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists are poised to continue their Great Commission advancement efforts.

These five news stories, selected by both the editors of Baptist Press and a poll of Southern Baptist state publication editors, represent the most important stories of 2019.

1. Southern Baptists Take Action to Curb Sexual Abuse in the Convention

Over the past year, Southern Baptists have taken historic steps to address the issue of sex abuse within the convention.

In February, Southern Baptist leaders expressed brokenness over the findings of a series of Houston Chronicle articles detailing the plight of victims of sex abuse in SBC churches. The newspaper released a database of 220 individuals who had been convicted or pled guilty to sexual abuse. Greear called the abuse “pure evil” and resolved to mobilize the SBC in “stopping predators in our midst.”

After 10 months of work, the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study initiated by Greear issued a 52-page report it hoped would “spark a movement of healing and reform” within the convention. The three sections of the report called for the education of SBC churches to understand abuse and its impact, the equipping of SBC churches to care for abuse survivors, and the preparing of SBC churches to prevent abuse.

Southern Baptists overwhelmingly approved bylaw and constitutional changes at the 2020 SBC annual meeting to specifically deal with systemic issues the report addressed (more on this in story number five in this list).

In May, the International Mission Board released the findings of an independent investigation into past allegations of sexual abuse and harassment and began implementing recommended reforms. In June, the mission board announced the hiring of a full-time senior staff member to oversee sex abuse prevention response efforts. The IMB also said it would involve outside legal counsel when reports of child abuse and sexual harassment were received.

In June, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, LifeWay Christian Resources and the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study released an eight-step guide to equip congregations to prevent predatory behavior and to care for survivors. A free training resource and a conference with 1,650 registrants were a part of the eight-step plan.

2. Four New Presidents Elected to Lead SBC Entities

In a historic year of Southern Baptist transitions, SBC trustee boards elected four new entity presidents.

In February, the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, elected Adam W. Greenway as the seminary’s ninth president. Previously, Greenway had served as dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At his introductory press conference shortly after the election, he declared his desire to continue the seminary’s legacy as the “big-tent seminary of the SBC,” where students who may differ on secondary theological issues can unite behind “rigorous scholarship, missions and evangelism.”

Less than two months later, the SBC Executive Committee elected former SBC President Ronnie Floyd to be its new president and CEO. Floyd was in his 33rd year as the pastor of Cross Church, a multi-site church in northwest Arkansas. At his September inauguration, Floyd urged Southern Baptists forward in prayer, unity and a “hyper-focus on missions” in order to finish their Great Commission task.

In early June, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary trustees tapped Jamie Dew as the school’s ninth president. Previously, he had served as vice president for undergraduate studies and distance learning at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

At a press conference shortly after his election, Dew outlined a four-part vision for his first year at the seminary, calling Leavell College his “priority number one.” He also included enrollment, marketing and communications, and building denominational relationships among his top four priorities.

LifeWay Christian Resources trustees chose Denver church planter Ben Mandrell as the entity’s 10th president at a June 28 meeting in Atlanta. Trustees chose the 42-year-old Mandrell to lead LifeWay during a time of historic change. When he was installed as president in late August, Mandrell stressed the need for unity and teamwork as the entity pushed forward with large-scale changes to how it distributes products.

In November 2018, IMB trustees selected Paul Chitwood to be the board’s 13th president, which meant five new SBC entity heads took over in less than eight months’ time. IMB officially installed Chitwood as president on Feb. 6, 2019.

3. LifeWay Closes Brick-and-Mortar Stores in Historic Shift to New Online Strategy

In the most significant transition since its 1891 founding, LifeWay Christian Resources announced the closure of its remaining 170 brick-and-mortar stores in 2019 as part of a shift to a broader digital retail strategy. As part of this announcement, the entity said it would continue to offer a “broad selection of resources” through its website and the LifeWay Customer Service Center.

LifeWay also announced a number of new strategies to better engage customers in 2019. To compensate for a lack of physical storefronts, LifeWay implemented an Authorized Dealership program, allowing local, independent Christian bookstores to sell LifeWay-branded Bible studies. LifeWay’s partnerships also go beyond independent bookstores, extending to established chain stores such as Walmart, Books-a-Million and Mardel Stores.

4. Great Commission Giving Surges Throughout the Convention

Southern Baptist churches gave generously to fund Great Commission efforts throughout the convention in 2019.

In October, the North American Mission Board announced a record $61.4 million Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. The offering marks the third consecutive year the AAEO hit a record high.

Southern Baptists also gave their third-highest total in history to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. One hundred percent of the $157.3 million given through the offering goes directly to missionaries on the international mission field. The offering exceeded the IMB’s goal by $2.9 million.

As the SBC Executive Committee’s 2018-2019 budget closed in September, the committee reported that Cooperative Program giving had exceeded budget for the fifth year in a row. Southern Baptists gave $196,731,703.44 to Great Commission causes through the Cooperative Program.

Last month, the Executive Committee reported the strongest first two months of Cooperative Program giving since 2009. Contributions to the Cooperative Program exceeded $32.5 million, surpassing last year’s budgeted contributions through two months by more than $1 million.

A number of state Baptist conventions reported higher than expected — even record — missions giving. Several passed budgets to increase the percentage of their giving going to national Cooperative Program efforts. 

5. SBC Votes Overwhelmingly to Approve Significant Bylaw and Constitutional Changes

At last June’s SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., messengers approved two amendments to the SBC constitution, which stated that sexual abuse and discrimination based on ethnicity were grounds to declare churches “not in friendly cooperation” with the convention. The two constitutional amendments will require a second two-thirds vote of messengers at the 2020 meeting in Orlando.

Messengers at the 2019 annual meeting also approved an amendment to the SBC’s bylaws to repurpose the convention’s Credentials Committee into a standing committee. This new standing committee will make inquiries and recommendations for actions regarding sexual abuse, racism and other issues that could call into question a church’s relationship with the SBC. The bylaw change required a vote at only one annual meeting.

In December, the new standing Credentials Committee announced the establishment of a portal for reports of a church’s alleged departure from Southern Baptist polity, doctrine or practice.

— Tobin Perry is a writer living in Evansville, Ind.