Friday, January 8, 2010

Essence of the Problem

Last week on the BaptistLife forum, a bare handful of comments captured the essence of the Baptist clergy abuse problem . . . and the essence of a partial solution.

Too bad no one paid much attention.

Timothy Bonney got the ball rolling. He’s a pastor with the American Baptists, not the Southern Baptists. American Baptists are a much smaller group, but like all Baptists, local church autonomy is central to their polity. However, for American Baptists, autonomy doesn’t automatically displace accountability.

I have long thought that American Baptists might be able to teach the Southern Baptists something on this. So when I saw Bonney’s comment, I held my breath, wondering if others would pick up on it.

But of course, as fast as the light bulb flickered, it then went dim.

Here’s how the dialogue proceeded. (You can see its entirety on the BaptistLife forum.)

Timothy Bonney (an American Baptist pastor):
“I'll wait for the collective gasps after I say this. But autonomy is not the be all and end all of the Christian faith. In the ABC [American Baptist Convention] our churches are quite autonomous. But we have a system for the denomination to recognize the ordination of clergy. This system allows us to be able to hold clergy accountable both on the local level (the church) and on the regional level. If a pastor commits some ethical misconduct his/her ABC recognition can be suspended or removed. If that happens there are very very few ABC churches that would consider their resume and they can no longer circulate their information in the ABC system. I believe this is one area where the greater good (preventing clergy abuse of church folk) should out way the good of autonomy. Unfortunately bad actors in Baptist life can and do use autonomy as a shield from accountability to the church and the gospel.”

David Flick (previously a Southern Baptist pastor and now an American Baptist pastor):
“The recognition of credentials by a ministry counsel was a surprise to me when I moved into the ABC. Frankly, I’m impressed with the idea of credentials being recognized by the denomination. Among Southern Baptists, almost anybody can get ordained sans any educational background. The statement on my recognition certificate grants eligibility (with accountability) to my participation in ABC church life. It can be withdrawn if I misbehave ethically or morally...

Timothy Bonney:
“… I think it is a good compromise between autonomy and interdependence . . . . The local church still ordains and the local church still choose to accept or ignore the recognition issues. But by having the system the ABC can warn churches of unethical pastors. Then the church has to take matters in its own hands at that point."

William Thornton (a Southern Baptist pastor):
“The ABC is not the model for this, sorry. I am unwilling to allow any denominational bureaucrat to evaluate and approve of my credentials before I can serve a church. Let each church set their standards. It is a waste of time to even discuss it. The SBC would never have a system like this.”

Bruce Gourley (Baptist historian with Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary):
“Am I am hearing you correctly? You support the right of SBC bureaucrats to tell you what you must believe as a Southern Baptist…, but would not allow the same bureaucrats to evaluate your ministerial credentials?”

William Thornton:
“… All the arguments for having SBC-wide ministerial standards, credentials, approval utterly fail when you imagine some group of denominational bureaucrats making such decisions. Like I said, it's a waste of time to discuss it. . . ."

Timothy Bonney:
"’Bureaucrats’ aren't involved. Each Region has a committee made up of laity and clergy that create ordination standards, deal with ethical misconduct issues etc. I happen to be the chair of that committee in Iowa. So I guess I'm your ‘bureaucrat.’ The ABC believes in both autonomy and interdependence. We believe that when a local church ordains someone that this means that they are making a statement that not only is this person fit for their congregation but that they believe they are generally fit for ministry. But without standards that basically means that the church with the least expectations gets to ordain the least qualified folks for all of our churches.”

Sandy (Southern Baptist):
“. . . It is not always very easy to get information out of a pastor's former church. We're 18 months into a pastor search, and I've made a lot of phone calls to cotton-padded stone walls….”

Big Daddy Weave (Southern Baptist and Cooperative Baptist?):
“… Can victims of sex abuse in ABC congregations report that abuse directly to some ABC official? Will an investigation follow?”

Timothy Bonney:
“We do have a system whereby an accusation can be brought to our committee, an investigation will follow, and the committee can and will take appropriate action within the limits of our polity. This action can include censure, suspension of recognition, or even removal of recognition. Such actions are shared with all ABC regions so that someone can't skip out of Mid-ABC and go somewhere else continuing abusive behavior. Such an individual cannot circulate an ABC profile, the main means of looking for a new church in the ABC.”

That was the end of it.

I was disheartened by William Thornton’s twice-repeated “waste of time to discuss it” remark. I believe Thornton to be a good man, but his remark encapsulates the typical view of Southern Baptist pastors and captures the essence of why clergy are not held accountable in this denomination.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer. Other professionals are subject to ethics review boards -- doctors, lawyers, nurses, police, psychologists, etc. Other clergy are subject to ethics review boards. But not Southern Baptist clergy.

Instead, the “autonomy above all” attitude prevails. It’s a knee-jerk sort of self-serving “autonomy” that makes very little sense in the context of all the other ways in which Southern Baptist churches cooperate. To me, it looks as though the Southern Baptist autonomy doctrine has been twisted to focus more on the autonomy of the pastors rather than the autonomy of the congregations.

You can see an example of how the American Baptist system worked in actual practice here. A review board considered a report of clergy sex abuse (a report that was too old for criminal prosecution, as most are). The review board’s determination gave reporters something they could write about, and that in turn provided a way to warn people in the community. Even though the church still supported their pastor (as churches almost always do), and even though the review board exercised no authority over the church, the process provided a means to get the information into the light of day.

That sort of process is exactly what is lacking for Southern Baptists, and as a result, people in the pews never find out about most of the preacher-predators. Even when molestation victims try to report ministers, no one pays any attention. The ministers simply stay in their pulpits, or else they move on to some other church and find new prey.


William said...

Hi Christa,

It is a waste of time to discuss autonomy on because the several of us that participated in the discussion you copied have had the same discussion numerous times. But I would have to be candid enough to say that I don't see any scenario by which the SBC (or the CBF) would ever move away from absolute local church autonomy in hiring, supervising and firing ministers.

One of these days some SBC clergy may subject themselves to a credentials board in order to attain certain certifications etc. This is already true with respect to some clergy recommended to willing churches by state conventions for certain specific functions.

I don't know but that the SBC, probably some state conventions rather than the Executive Committee in Nashville, may eventually do what the AL CBF did in establishing a review board. I gather that such is similar to the ABC's regional boards but limited in purpose.

And I wouldn't claim 'autonomy above all' but it is what we have. I don't see it changing.

I hesitate to use your blog to promote another site but anyone who has interests in these things are welcome to discuss them on We get a little wearly of having the same half dozen people repeat the same things.

Anonymous said...

“Am I am hearing you correctly? You support the right of SBC bureaucrats to tell you what you must believe as a Southern Baptist…, but would not allow the same bureaucrats to evaluate your ministerial credentials?”

Rev Bonney nailed it with this response. Thorton is arrogant and puffed up. He cannot see how hypocritical his stance really is.

The SBC state conventions DO evaluate churches as they just disfellowshipped FBCDecatur. Evidently, according to their beliefs, a woman pastor is much more sinful than a pedophile or pervert minister.

Christa Brown said...

"I don't see any scenario by which the SBC... would ever move away from absolute local church autonomy in hiring, supervising and firing ministers."

I don't think anyone has ever suggested that the SBC should take over the local church's role in "hiring, supervising and firing ministers." It's an argument I've heard plenty often enough -- i.e., that if Baptists institute review boards for abuse complaints, it will take away local church autonomy -- but it's really just a "red herring" sort of response because no one is making any argument about "hiring, supervising and firing" of ministers.

On the subject of Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse, the real question is this: Why shouldn't Southern Baptist ministers be subject to an ethics review process in a manner similar to other professionals and other clergy?

For the SBC (or state Baptist bodies) to provide that sort of review process, and to then provide congregations with the information derived from the process, would NOT interfere with local church autonomy. To the contrary, it might actually help to empower the local congregations.

After all, the SBC doesn't have any problem with empowering local churches by providing information about how much they should pay their pastors. So why wouldn't it also be empowering to provide them with expertise and objective information about clergy who have been credibly-accused of sexual abuse?

BaptistPlanet said...

That's a scholarly group without (correct me if I'm wrong) a fake Phd or an academically insupportable certification in the crowd.
Isn't that a part of the explanation for their lack of resistance to the centralized evaluation and record keeping require to think predators from the herd of shepherds?

BaptistPlanet said...

I meant to write "thin predators from the herd" not "think predators from the herd."
My apologies to all for the error.

Christa Brown said...

Well. . . you gotta wonder why so many Southern Baptist pastors are so set in stone against the notion that an outsider might be able to assess a complaint against them.

Dr. David Flick got it exactly right when he said that, "among Southern Baptists, almost anybody can get ordained."

david clohessy said...

RE: William Thornton’s twice-repeated “waste of time to discuss it” remark. . .

For years and years, Catholic bishops told us it was a "waste of time" to push for a nationwide church sex abuse policy. But eventually, after thousands of shattered lives and horrific news accounts and civil lawsuits and all the rest, bishops gave up a shred of their almighty "autonomy" and created such a national policy. The same can happen with the Southern Baptists.

David Clohessy, SNAP

Anonymous said...

I am an American Baptist pastor. I totally support the system of recognition in the ABC USA. However,it is not perfect. Known repeat predators are still at work in the ABC...due to the blindness of some Executive Ministers and Regions.

The other side of the story is that often an accusation is sufficient to end the ministerial leadership of an individual EVEN WHEN THE CHARGE WAS IDENTIFIED AS FALSE.

There is no perfect system. Every one of us must treat our ethics as central to our call. We need to hold ourselves accountable and invite our colleagues to make sure we do.

Christa Brown said...

"Known repeat predators are still at work in the ABC..."

I'm sure this is true, but the ABC system still presents way more possibility for accountability than exists among Southern Baptists.

Anonymous said...

It does not surprise me about the SB pastor with his attitude toward the American Baptists polity....they had the same attitude with them concerning the "underground railroad." SB needs to evaluate how their formation also led to the civil war...Mallard Filmore who was probably the worse president in history tried to assert the southern stated had the rights to get back the slaves that escaped close to the time that the SB formed. Now the SBC did not approve of slavery rather they asserted states right the Constitutionally appropriate order. From the research I could gather, they formed because the issue was a distraction to foreign missions and wanted a new organization to be able to send them. They never really wanted to resolve this issue because it looked Constitutionally appropriate but nevertheless the Declaration of Indenpendence states a desire for the institution of slavery in their list of grievances to England.

He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it...George Santyana

Christa Brown said...

Yes, Southern Baptists have their very origins in slavery. Historical accounts typically report that the SBC got its start when Baptist leaders refused to appoint a slaveholder as a missionary. So, Southern Baptists split off and started their own group. . . a group that promoted the "rightness" of slavery through biblical justification. And this isn't just part of some long-distant past, either. Southern Baptists used the Bible to justify instituionalized racism well into the 1990s.

Lydia said...

"Southern Baptists used the Bible to justify instituionalized racism well into the 1990s."

Do you have a source for that?

Christa Brown said...

Lydia: I expect whole books could be written on the history of Southern Baptists and slavery and racism. In fact, they probably already have, and I imagine I've probably got books on my shelves that document various pieces of that history. But I think, for today, I'll decline to sift through them looking for a specific quote or source. The bare gist of that history can be seen on wikipedia. References to it are made in these columns by Bob Setzer and David Gushee.

The reason for my "well into the 1990s" statement was because it took until 1995 for the SBC to make an apology. In 1995 was when it issued this resolution, apologizing "for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime...."

Christa Brown said...

Lydia: I was actually working on something else when I just now ran across this 2008 article in the Washington Post: "Southern Baptists are diversifying to survive." It also speaks of the history of Southern Baptists and racism:

"From its 1845 birth in Georgia as a haven for white Baptists who supported slavery, the convention has had troubled relations with African-Americans.

For 150 years, by its own admission, it was hostile to black progress, often speaking in favor of Jim Crow laws."

Lydia said...

I was just wondering because I had Black Sunday School teachers in the SBC in the 60's and I am white. I grew up in mixed congregations.

gmommy said...

That is so cool that you grew up in that kind of church environment! I can't imagine a Baptist church that progressive in the deep South back then. I didn't learn until all the Bellevue Baptist trouble (that led me to research the SBC) that it was connected to slavery issues.

Christa Brown said...

I too think your church must have been exceptional. Was it a Southern Baptist church in the South?

That’s certainly not like the Southern Baptist church I grew up in -- First Baptist of Farmers Branch, Texas (a suburb of Dallas). I remember how I told the youth and education minister that I had invited an African-American friend to come to church with me, and he said she would be turned away at the door. I still remember how surprised I felt, but he said they had churches of their own and that the deacons would direct her to a church for “her people.” Most of all, I remember the slight smirk on his face when he said they would tell her “very politely,” and my own wonderment at how it could ever be “polite” to turn someone away at the door to the church. But he said I was too young, and that I would understand better when I got older.

Of course, I wasn’t too young for this same minister to start molesting me not long after that. And even though other ministers knew about it, they let him move on to work with other kids at First Baptist of Tyler and then at the mega-Southern-Baptist-flagship church of First Baptist of Atlanta. Years later, I realized that deacons had also known about his abuse of me -- those same deacons who would have stopped an African-American kid at the door but who wouldn’t do diddly-squat about a minister known to have molested a kid.

Incidentally, my friend knew that she wouldn’t be welcome in my church -- she told me so. I was the na├»ve one who insisted that she would.

Jim said...

Christa, the issues surrounding Southern Baptist polity today are far more complex than simply rehashing it's origins in support of slavery in the mid-19th century. One could level those same charges against Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians during the first half of the 20th century (each had a "Southern" branch born of pro-slavery sentiment). That argument is not helpful in a discussion about local church autonomy and does little to enlighten a conversation about child sexual abuse. To more nearly understand SBC hard-headedness regarding their interpretation of local church autonomy, one must take into account the Landmark movement; a raging conflict between Baptist and the followers of Alexander Campbell (later to became the Church of Christ), before, during and after the civil war. Each tried, through Biblical and doctrinal gymnastics to prove that they were the true expression of Chruch in the world. That movement gripped Baptists during the westward expansion of the nation and greatly influenced Baptists in the South. At the heart of the movement was a sense of hyper-autonomy of local Baptist churches. In that doctrine, a church was the Church. They could choose to cooperate with other churches like themselves, but their autonomy could not be superceded. Vestiges of that movement still haunt Southern Baptist ecclesiology and polity today.

Christa Brown said...

Well . . . perhaps I went afield a bit. Jim, you're right, of course, that Southern Baptist polity is far more complex than its origins in support of slavery, and that there were other Christian groups in the South that also supported slavery and institutionalized racism (though Southern Baptists were probably the biggest if for no other reason than because they became the dominant faith group of the South). But I think the point I was really trying to make (in responding to the comments of Anonymous and Lydia) was less about autonomy per se and more about the ways in which Baptists have a history of distorting the Bible to support twisted, self-serving ends -- ends that are now perceived as obviously offensive. They do much the same thing with their insistence that the New Testament commands their radicalized version of local church autonomy -- a version that, according to them, precludes the cooperation of churches for the sharing of information on clergy-predators. I believe there will come a day - perhaps years in the future - when people will look back in wonder at how offensive this misuse of scripture was -- a misuse that effectively abandoned the safety of children and left reported clergy-predators in their pulpits.

Lydia said...

"I too think your church must have been exceptional. Was it a Southern Baptist church in the South?"

Yes, well a Civil War border state. But there were mixed churches all over the city. It was not a big deal.

that is why your comment shocked me. Up in Michigan, where I spent summers, I never saw a black person in the American Baptist churches.

Junkster said...

I grew up in Michigan. Some parts of it don't have many blacks at all. I never had a conversation with a black person until I was 19 or 20, simply because there weren't any in the town I grew up in.

I know the border state of which you speak. The folks there think of themselves as Southern, as do most Northerners, but the former slave states don't :)

As to the original topic -- there is simply no doctrinal reason for the SBC not to adopt something similar to what the ABC has done. As Christa has indicated many times, it is s smokescreen.