SCBC Sexual Abuse Task Force chair shares insights into work

The South Carolina Baptist Sexual Abuse Task Force has completed nearly a year of research, prayer, and work. Their report, after approval from the Executive Board, will be presented at this year’s annual meeting Nov. 13-14 at Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Irmo.

The Courier sat down with D.J. Horton, lead pastor at Church at The Mill in Spartanburg County and chair of the task force, for some insights into the process that has led them to a completed report.

Courier: What has it been like working through all the different ramifications of this important and sensitive subject?

Horton: I have mixed emotions. I’ve enjoyed the journey, but this is a subject rooted in sin, so it’s been bittersweet. We believe the vast majority of South Carolina Baptists want to be in the best possible position to minister to their communities. If you want to do that, you have got to be known as a place of safety, security, and a place where people trust you with their children. Churches are asking how they can more effectively create environments for ministry where we put people’s safety first.

Courier: Most of the churches in the SCBC are smaller churches and often have difficulty just getting enough volunteers to work in church ministries. How can these churches follow these guidelines?

Horton: I am the son of a bivocational pastor. I grew up in very small churches. One of the greatest challenges we face in the SCBC is that the vast majority of our churches are under 200 [members], but you don’t have to be in a small church or a large church to want to be a good, healthy, and faithful church. Every church cannot afford a camera security system, but every church can absolutely afford to run a background check for any person who is working with minors.

One of the greatest things we found is that every church that was impacted by some form of sexual abuse that happened in the context of the church’s ministry never thought it could happen to them. There are some sobering numbers that show a significant portion of sexual abuse happens from a known family member.

Courier: It appears we are seemingly more aware of sexual abuse because there has been such a media spotlight on it. What has the task force’s research revealed?

Horton: One of the things I was disheartened about was the number of sexual abuse instances that are never reported. It was pretty mind blowing. In the very small, minuscule percentage that are reported, filed, and brought to court, only a few end in a guilty verdict.

We cannot guarantee anything except that we will do everything in our power to show due diligence in the preparation of environments and in the training of volunteers to make sure that people feel safe.

Courier: The committee’s report will have best practices and many more strategies that churches can utilize. How are you going to present this report?

Horton: We are going to spend some time acknowledging that there has been some serious pain and sorrow in the lives of our Baptist family. There is something to be said for corporate lament, listening, and prayerful remorse for people who have been harmed.

There are two primary recommendations that we will make. One has to do with staffing our state convention in such a way that it has someone who is trained to help churches and devote their entire energy to this cause.

The second recommendation is for our task force to remain in place over the next year because our convention will be in a period of transition following Executive Director-Treasurer Gary Hollingsworth’s retirement.

The final part is what I would say is a section about resources. We collected the best practices we could find from a multiplicity of sources.

We really worked hard at hammering out the language so that pastors and leaders can leave the annual meeting in Columbia with our report in hand. It is a resource that they can sit down and read through in one sitting and ask some questions about how they can move forward. We are not suggesting that any of these practices are perfect or that they are specifically right for a particular church. We do not have dictatorial authority over our churches. Each of our churches is, of course, autonomous, but we have incredible unity.

Courier: When so much has come out about sexual abuse within the SBC, it sounds like this report is saying, “We have nothing to hide” and that we plan to deal with this issue with integrity, godliness, and honesty. What are your thoughts?

Horton: Far more sexual abuse happens in homes and other environments that it does in a Southern Baptist church. But we do not get to ignore what has happened in some leaders’ lives — and, in some contexts, in our state. No church does.

The world’s answer would be just more rules and regulations. But we know that no matter how many rules, regulations, stipulations, or policies are in place, you cannot fix a broken heart with outward behavioral modification. You need a new heart.

We need to get the basics right: background checks, two or more volunteers in rooms, following CDC guidelines for diaper changing, making sure we’re careful who we put in charge of young men and women in student ministry, and simple rules about not being in vehicles, closets, or small classrooms alone with an individual at any point at any time.

We need to say to survivors, “You are not the enemy.” I want to be positioned as a leader to say to a survivor, “I want to do everything in my power to be proactive in protecting my church. I want justice if something has taken place.”