“I want you to guarantee me this will never happen again. That this man can never do this to a young lady again.”
Those are the words of a mother spoken to me as it was revealed that a single youth pastor in his twenties had involved her 19 year old daughter in a sexual relationship.
I will never forget. The contrite brokenness of the young lady. The controlled rage of her mother. My frantic mental search for the right answer.
You see, we’re Southern Baptists. We are not a denomination with hierarchy or the controls or the accountability that may come with it. We are independent and autonomous churches that voluntarily cooperate together for the purpose of missions. We join together in local associations—a county or region of the state—state conventions, and, of course, the national body, the Southern Baptist Convention. We’re only technically a convention when messengers from churches meet together each June. The rest of the year, we entrust leadership of our various agencies to our Executive Committee. The polity is similar on state and local levels.
Given our independent but affiliated system with no centralized reporting system, what was I to say to this mother truthfully?
“I will do everything I can. I’ll ask others to do everything they can. You have my word,” I replied.
I discovered that our state convention did in fact have a database of pastors accused of or involved in sexual misconduct. And they did provide counseling and accountability for this pastor for the next year. But, as I talked to the state convention executive, I had to ask, “Why don’t we know about this? Why haven’t you used your communication resources—the state Baptist newspaper, pastor’s meetings, and even a special mailer—to tell us this exists? We need to protect people!”
His honest, yet woefully disturbing reply, “You are right. But people are just supposed to know; they call like you when something happens.”
“How are we supposed to know?! What about before it happens?!,” I pleaded. Then I used an example he’d know that should frighten any of us, “So a guy leaves a pastorate due to sexual misconduct. He leaves that off his resume. He says all the right things to get hired by a new church. Then he can do it all over again?” I was angry. Grasping. Concerned that—in some ways—our system was worse than the Dallas Catholic Diocese that was in the news at that time for systematically covering up sexual abuse by priests. We weren’t covering it up, but we were not doing enough to create a system to help prevent it.
And now, 15 years after the encounters I’ve reported herein, this. Finally someone is calling the Southern Baptist Convention out. Sadly, it had to be a news organization since calls from within have been ineffective. We have some initial response from SBC leaders here and here.
Most local churches do background checks now. But what if the person—pastor or prospective volunteer—has moved? What if the background check doesn’t look far enough back or into other states or counties? What if the offense was not illegal, but still immoral and sinful as in the case I reported?
It is well past time for the Southern Baptist Convention to establish one simple, shared, well-known, nationwide sexual misconduct database. Publicize it to our churches, let other denominations and non-denominational churches share it too. Any local church would check it before hiring a new staff member or enlisting new volunteers.
Sexual misconduct is sin. Sin destroys. That damage is exponential within the church. We must make it harder for known offenders to repeatedly offend. We must change this now.