As Southern Baptists continue to reckon with sexual abuse and take measures to prevent it and to care for survivors, many state Baptist conventions took historic actions at their annual meetings this fall.
The actions in most cases were a follow-up to efforts undertaken by state conventions last fall to assess the need and determine how best to help churches protect their congregations and minister to victims of abuse.
According to historic Southern Baptist polity, the Southern Baptist Convention has no authority over state Baptist conventions or their entities. Any policies and procedures established by the national Convention govern neither state Baptist conventions nor local Baptist associations.
The majority of state conventions responded in some way to sexual abuse within their conventions of churches. Those responses varied, including receiving the reports of state convention-commissioned task forces, bylaw adjustments, updating sexual-abuse-related policies and the production and distribution of prevention resources.
Alabama Baptist Convention
Messengers to the 2022 annual meeting of the Alabama Baptist Convention heard the report of its statewide Sexual Abuse Task Force. The task force had been specifically charged with reviewing the policies and practices of the convention’s Cooperative-Program-funded entities. According to the report, which is available as a downloadable PDF, the task force was “unanimous in our encouragement and endorsement of the measures they are taking in training in and prevention of sexual abuse.”
The task force, which officially concluded its work with the report, urged churches to continue the efforts through their own diligence.
“While our task was to audit the policies of our entities and auxiliaries, we feel the need to appeal to our churches to take this issue seriously,” said task force chair Craig Carlisle, according to The Alabama Baptist. “We encourage each church to have effective policies in place. We further encourage our directors of missions to do all they can in assisting their churches to develop the policies necessary to accomplish our goal of our churches being as safe as they can possibly be.”
The eight-page report also provides churches with important information about state sexual abuse laws on reporting and seeks to clarify the problem of abuse of power within church settings. In addition, the report makes four suggestions to Alabama Baptist churches:
• Reinforce the seriousness of sexual abuse by implementing resources, such as Ministry Safe, to help church staff and volunteers prevent sexual abuse.
• Create and implement policies and guidelines for ministering to minors.
• Take appropriate action whenever sexual abuse accusations are made.
• Develop ministry plans to address the needs of sexual abuse victims.
Arkansas Baptist State Convention
The Sexual Abuse Task Force appointed last year by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention released its report and recommendations at this year’s annual meeting. The messengers had specifically asked the task force to “ensure the policies and procedures of the ABSC are above reproach in handling sexual abuse allegations.”
The report, available as a PDF download, provided both recommendations and rationales for those recommendations for each ABSC entity, including Ouachita Baptist University, Williams Baptist University, Arkansas Baptist Foundation, Arkansas Baptist Children and Family Ministries. The messengers for the annual meeting unanimously approved the recommendations.
According to the report: “While we understand that the ABSC has no authority over the local church, our prayer is that this report will compel churches to take appropriate steps to ensure they are prepared to handle such issues. This response is only the beginning of the work we all have to do.”
Arizona Mission Network of Southern Baptists
Ashley Evans, senior pastor of 22nd Street Baptist Church in Tucson and chairman of the Sexual Abuse Response Team, shared his team’s report to the network’s messengers at its annual meeting. The report included three observations and two recommendations. The recommendations included a “Churches that Care initiative” with 12 standards for churches.
According to Portraits, the network’s news journal, messengers approved a motion to remove the recommendations from the report and refer them to the state’s executive team. No action will be taken until the 2023 annual meeting.
The response team noted that the AMNSB had been developing a process to ensure all denominational workers had taken sexual abuse awareness, prevention, and response training, and completed background checks. The team also noted the network has plans to offer churches training and was working with Arizona Baptist Children’s Services to “provide counseling services and ministry to churches, survivors, the accused, families of parties involved, as well as to church members.”
AMNSB Executive Director David Johnson said the network would offer the 12 standards recommended by the response team as a resource of “recommended practices” for churches that want to use them.
California Southern Baptist Convention
Messengers to the California Southern Baptist Convention heard a report by the state convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force.
CSBC President Victor Chayasirisobhon told messengers: “Sexual abuse in the church is a fundamental theological issue – not merely a legal, psychological, economic or political reality.” He also noted that the California task force had a different assignment than the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force. Notably, he said, the messengers had given them a limited and narrow scope.
Instead, Chayasirisobhon hoped that the task force can help CSBC churches “in avoiding the drama and trauma that others have experienced.” Part of the goal was to suggest policies and procedures that can help churches address sexual abuse issues.
To do that, the report described three areas of emphasis in developing new policies and procedures: prevention, detection and restoration. To learn more about these recommendations, see the CSBC article on the task force recommendations.
Colorado Baptist General Convention
The Executive Board of the Colorado Baptist General Convention announced at its annual meeting that a new abuse link is now active on the convention’s website. The new page includes the convention’s policy concerning how a church can lose its credentials when showing indifference to sexual abuse protocols. The site also includes content about sexual abuse prevention training, background checks, church safeguards and caring for survivors.
Florida Baptist Convention
Florida Baptist Convention messengers heard a report by a special committee they tasked with examining policies and procedures related to sexual abuse allegation reporting. The committee had no investigative authority.
The nine-member committee selected Telios Law, PLLC, based in Monument, Colo., to perform an independent review of the state convention’s policies and procedures. The committee announced during their report that Telios found there were “no overwhelming flaws in the policies and procedures of the state’s cooperating ministries.” The ministries included in the review were Florida Baptist State Board of Missions, Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center, The Baptist College of Florida, and Florida Baptist Financial Services.
The committee highlighted seven “areas of critical importance moving forward” in its report. Those seven areas include developing communications procedures for inter-ministry communication of abuse allegations; a process for completing, documenting and retaining records related to employee and volunteer background checks; and “clearly articulating a trauma-informed approach to survivor care.”
The committee asked that the cooperating ministries report back to messengers about their implementation of these areas of importance during the 2023 annual meeting in Tampa.
The convention’s messengers voted to adopt the report and disband the special committee. To read the seven areas of critical importance for Florida Baptists, go to this article on Florida Baptists’ website.
Georgia Baptist Convention
The Georgia Baptist Executive Committee approved steps recommended by a special committee that had met for the previous year to find ways to stop sexual abuse. Those steps were outlined during a presentation to messengers at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention, which celebrated its 200th anniversary.
As part of those efforts, the mission board plans to create a telephone hotline by early 2023 where people can report cases of sexual abuse. The committee’s chairman, Micah Hamrick of First Baptist Church in Villa Rica, told messengers that the mission board’s first steps should be centered on preventing sexual abuse, responding to sexual abuse and ministering to sexual abuse victims.
The mission board has already begun providing what Hamrick believes are great resources to educate and train Georgia Baptists on sexual abuse, but many of these resources and training aids were in different locations. The mission board is currently preparing a website where the curated collection of resources can be housed.
Illinois Baptist State Association
The outgoing president of the Illinois Baptist State Association, Heath Tibbetts, told messengers to the annual meeting that the next president would gather an ad hoc group of pre-existing committees to “put extra teeth into enforcement of sexual abuse prevention guidelines,” according to the association’s news journal.
In addition, there is a plan to give extra force to the IBSA Credentials Committee by clarifying language about what is a cooperating church. Tibbets noted this would help them identify tools needed to respond if a church fails to take action on credible claims of abuse.
After the release of the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force recommendations in May 2022, the IBSA staff produced additional plans for abuse prevention. IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams told messengers it was important that churches “be vigilant” in their training and in performing background checks.
Kentucky Baptist Convention
Messengers to the annual meeting of the Kentucky Baptist Convention passed two resolutions related to sexual abuse. On the response and care of sexual abuse, Kentucky Baptists denounced “in the strongest possible terms every instance of sexual abuse,” both those who “perpetrate abuse” and “those who seek to defend or protect perpetrators.” This resolution also publicly lamented the harm caused by actions or inaction toward abuse survivors. Another resolution called on churches to report any suspicion or accusation related to sexual abuse.
Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware
Messengers to the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware approved a constitutional change that requires churches to take steps toward protecting children and vulnerable adults to maintain affiliation with the convention.
Mississippi Baptist Convention
The Mississippi Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Response Team gave a preliminary report at the convention’s annual meeting. The MBC’s Executive Committee announced it had allotted $250,000 for churches to use toward membership and training with MinistrySafe, a ministry that provides “a complete child safety system designed to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse,” according to the group’s website.
The MBC will hear a final report by the response team at the 2023 annual meeting.
The response team will also be releasing special resources that churches can use, including a First Step Booklet. The booklet provides suggestions for a pastoral response to disclosure of sexual abuse or assault. No copyright is on the resources. They may be reproduced.
Missouri Baptist Convention
The Missouri Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Response Team discussed their findings at last fall’s annual meeting. After the convention, they made available a summarized version of their report in The Pathway, MBC’s bi-weekly publication. The report reviews a number of resources available to churches to help them prevent or respond to sexual abuse. The report also includes a list of additional resources that are helpful for churches as they respond.
Baptist Convention of New England
Preaching from the book of Ruth, Baptist Convention of New England President Stephen Woodard encouraged BCNE annual meeting messengers to show necessary resolve to help sexual abuse survivors. He also told messengers that work was underway to “ensure our BCNE policies and procedures are where they should be” related to preventing sexual abuse.
Baptist Convention of New Mexico
Messengers of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico annual meeting learned about a new partnership between the BCNM and MinistrySafe to offer a free year of Sexual Abuse Awareness resources for the state’s Southern Baptist churches.
Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
Todd Unzicker, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, told messengers to this fall’s annual meeting the results of a yearlong review of BSCNC policies, procedures and materials concerning sexual abuse awareness, prevention, and response. The review looked at N.C. Baptist camps and conference centers, as well as Fruitland Baptist Bible College. While the policies and procedures were good, Unzicker says the convention discovered a need to update them.
Convention officials solicited independent assistance from subject matter experts, outside counsel, abuse survivors and others during the review. N.C. Baptists also launched a website with abuse resources, which is available at ncbaptist.org/abuse.
State Convention of Baptists in Ohio
The State Convention of Baptists in Ohio messengers approved a resolution supporting the work of the state convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force. The SATF shared with messengers a new sexual abuse policy guide, developed by the task force, that provides a clear policy for SBCO staff and volunteers and as a resource for churches in engaging workers, safety practices, reporting abuse, caring for victims, and training staff.
Oklahoma Baptists heard a report from the state convention’s Abuse Prevention and Response Task Force at this year’s annual meeting. During the report, the task force introduced new resources for churches, which are available at oklahomabaptists.org/abuse-prevention.
The resources include an Abuse Prevention and Response Guide and Abuse Prevention and Response Supplements. The response guide, written to Oklahoma Baptist churches, defines five essential action steps for churches “to begin to protect your church from predators who seek to prey on the vulnerable.” These essentials are abuse-related education, abuse prevention, crisis response and care, assessment and accountability, and continuing care. The 28-page guide includes detailed instruction and links to supplemental resources in each of the five essential areas.
South Carolina Baptist Convention
A nine-member Sexual Abuse Task Force of the South Carolina Baptist Convention shared its report at this fall’s SCBC annual meeting. The task force recommended the convention create a staff position for a person trained in trauma-informed care who would help pastors and churches dealing with suspected abuse. The state’s SATF also recommended a broader definition of sexual abuse and challenged pastors, churches, associations and the state convention to provide more resources to help churches handle and prevent sexual abuse.
The report also included best practices for churches in the prevention and monitoring of and response to sexual abuse. The messengers approved the task force’s remaining in existence for another year to help monitor and aid the implementation of the state convention’s response.
Tennessee Baptist Convention
The Tennessee Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Task Force presented its report to messengers at this year’s annual meeting and introduced messengers to the booklet, “Ministering Well: Best Practices and Resources Related to Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response.” The booklet, according to a letter within it, “is not to just resource Tennessee Baptists but to equip them.” Each Tennessee Baptist church will receive a copy of the booklet.
The task force also introduced messengers to a new interactive website where churches can find a number of resources, including the “Ministering Well” booklet, to help as they respond to sexual abuse in their ministry contexts. This new website is available at tnbaptist.org/abuseresources.
Messengers also approved a resolution related to sexual abuse at the annual meeting. Among other statements, the resolution condemned sexual abuse, urged churches to develop partnerships to serve survivors, and encouraged churches to review how they protect and care for people who come onto their property.
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
The Sexual Abuse Advisory Committee, appointed by the convention president, released its report and shared four recommendations to the convention. The report, which culminates in the four recommendations, also described its theological foundations and the research that led to the recommendations.
The committee recommended:
• That the SBTC contract with a consultant(s) and/or organization(s) to aid the convention and its member churches regarding matters of sexual abuse;
• Development of a church resource guide for (a) assisting churches in training their congregations for sexual abuse prevention, (b) ministering to sexual abuse survivors and their families, (c) protocols for sexual abusers and accused sexual abusers in the church, and (d) appropriate reporting of suspected sexual abuse in accordance with state law;
• Cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Ministry Check” effort;
• That the SBTC strengthen its internal policies and practices regarding reporting sexual abuse, accessibility of resources to affiliated churches, and informing staff of available resources and services.
The SBTC Executive Board and staff will oversee the implementation of these recommendations.
West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists
The messengers of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists approved a new sexual abuse policy, which was the result of a yearlong examination of the state convention’s policies and procedures on sexual abuse. All staff, whether paid or unpaid, are required to fully comply with the policies and procedures contained with it. Existing convention churches are strongly recommended to develop a similar policy. New churches or associations requesting affiliation with the convention must demonstrate the adoption of a similar policy “as a requirement for WVCSB membership.”
Wyoming Southern Baptist Mission Network
Messengers to the Wyoming Southern Baptist Mission Network annual meeting approved a motion to engage the Steinle Counseling Services as its ethics and compliance consultant. The network’s executive director, Quin Williams, described sexual abuse as the main component to the effort. The consulting firm will be developing and implementing multiple reporting channels; establishing, implementing and maintaining a third-party hotline; conducting training events; consulting with pastors and church leaders; providing counseling for survivors; advising the network and more.
— Tobin Perry is a writer in Evansville, Ind.