Sunday, November 6, 2011

Contract preachers and accountability avoidance

When Southern Baptist pastor Sammy Nuckolls was arrested on charges of video voyeurism, the news reports initially described him as merely a “Mississippi man” and as a “traveling evangelist.” There was no mention of the fact that he was a Baptist pastor.

Yet, Nuckolls was well-connected in the Southern Baptist Convention. In addition to stints in churches and as a revival preacher, he worked as a pastor for youth camps sponsored by Lifeway, which is a denominational arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. In other words, Nuckolls was not only a Southern Baptist pastor, but he worked for the denomination itself.

So why didn’t the initial news reports make mention of the fact that Nuckolls was a Southern Baptist pastor who worked at Southern Baptist youth camps?

I could speculate on several reasons, including the possibility that Baptist public relations people may have had contacts with local press people. But I think the more probable explanation is simply that the local press people didn’t know.

A national network-affiliated news station in California once called me because they were trying to figure out the affiliation of a “Baptist” pastor who was in the news in connection with a horrific child abuse case. The news station couldn’t find any source in Baptistland  –  not any denominational official for any Baptist group  --  who could provide information about the pastor’s affiliation. So, the news station called me, and I couldn’t help them either. That’s how difficult it can be to figure out what sort of “Baptist” a “Baptist” pastor is and what denominational entity he or his church may be affiliated with. Even with all the research resources of a network news station, it can be a virtually impossible task. And without official confirmation, reporters wind up erring on the safe side by saying things like “Mississippi man” instead of “Southern Baptist pastor.”

The largest of the Baptist faith groups – the Southern Baptist Convention – doesn’t even keep track of the names of all the ministers who work in Southern Baptist churches, much less on all the ministers who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. Most of the other Baptist denominational groups – and there are dozens of them -- do no better. This makes "find the Baptist pastor" into a sort of shell game.

But this is just one part of the failure-of-clergy-oversight problem for Baptists. Another part of the problem was illustrated by Lifeway’s response to the Nuckolls’ scandal – a response it made belatedly and only after Nuckolls’ Southern Baptist connection became public.

After initially scrubbing its website of references to Nuckolls, Lifeway finally put up this statement to explain Nuckolls’ relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention: Nuckolls was “originally hired as a summer staffer to serve in the role of camp pastor for FUGE camps in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2007 his role changed to a contract pastor only . . .  He served in this capacity through the summer of 2011. In this role, Nuckolls preached at general assemblies and large gatherings.”

Did you catch that? “Contract pastor only.”

It sounds to me like code for “not our problem.”

Making an employee into a “contract” worker is a common tactic that many organizations will sometimes use to minimize the risk of liability. (There are, of course, other possible reasons for shifting employees to contract status, but that’s one of them.)

In fact, like Nuckolls, the Southern Baptist pastor who molested and raped me as a kid became a “contract pastor” at a Florida church after he had been on staff at other prominent Southern Baptist churches. He was able to continue working as a contract pastor in children’s ministry even after he had been listed in the confidential file of clergy sex abusers that is kept at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. (The BGCT receives clergy abuse reports only from churches, not from mere victims, and according to the BGCT’s policy at the time, a minister could be placed in the file based on “substantial evidence of abuse” or a confession.) He was able to continue working as a contract pastor in children’s ministry even after I had reported him to numerous Baptist officials and even after my report was substantiated by another minister who knew about the abuse when I was a kid. He was able to work as a contract pastor in children’s ministry even when officials at Southern Baptist Convention headquarters wrote to me that they had no record of him being “in a ministerial position in any church.” And yet he was – except he had become a contract pastor instead of an employee pastor.

So, in light of that history, I’d like to know exactly why Lifeway switched Sammy Nuckolls to “contract pastor only” status in 2007. What information did Lifeway have about Nuckolls? Were any complaints made about him?

According to police, Nuckolls may have been surreptitiously videotaping women "for years." Based on reports of the initial charge, he was caught videotaping an Arkansas woman in the bathroom of her home while she was preparing to take a shower. He was staying as a guest in the home while he preached a revival at the Gosnell Baptist Church. After the arrest in Gosnell, police confiscated Nuckolls’ computers and discovered similar videotapes dating back for years. Now, police in Olive Branch, Mississippi have also filed charges, and charges are pending in a second Arkansas town. Police say there could be still “more victims and more charges.”

Hat tip to the numerous blogs that reported the facts about Nuckolls' relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention, and also to the Associated Baptist Press, which is independent of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Update: "Alleged peeping evangelist charged in third town," ABP, 12/15/11

This isn't the first Baptist pastor who has been caught making secret videotapes. See, e.g., this story from Jacksonville, Florida, in which there had been talk about the pastor's activity for years, but no one did anything until one man finally reported it . . . and he was kicked out of the church.

Related posts:
"Dear Pastor Oliver," 1/19/11 (Lifeway's statement sounds remarkably similar to the "not on staff" statement made by the Georgia pastor in this post.)
"Find the Baptist pastor," 1/22/09 (A North Carolina Southern Baptist church had 17 pastors shown on its "Meet the Pastors" page and not one was shown on the SBC's online registry of ministers.)