I could almost hear the collective gasp on Twitter when the Houston Chronicle published the first of three installments titled “Abuse of Faith” — a report delineating hundreds of sexual abuses in Southern Baptist Churches. A similar wave occurred when J. D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, subsequently announced 10 calls to action for Southern Baptists on sexual abuse. Immediately, I began to see tweets, like “[J.D. Greear] was elected for such a time as this," scattered throughout my timeline.
As thankful as I am to see Greear speaking clearly and mournfully about sexual abuse in the SBC, I feel concerned by this praise-swirled-with-certainty-of-divine-intervention. It seems to surpass encouragement and land at a premature rendering of Greear as a hero. I fear that too many are equating words of sorrow over sexual abuse with a proportionate, justice-oriented response.
Some survivors, I’ve learned, fear the same.
Shannon Dingle was assaulted by a 24-year-old Southern Baptist church leader when she was 16 years old. She has lived in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area since shortly after J. D. Greear became the pastor of The Summit Church.
“I would more readily believe [Greear’s] newfound passion for addressing abuse if I had seen that same passion indicated before the Houston Chronicle exposé,” Dingle told me. “As it is, this feels like little more than crisis management in the news, though I hope I’m wrong about that.”
Kenny Stubblefield, who was abused by his associate youth pastor, feels similarly.
“There have been people crying from the rooftops for decades upon decades upon decades about abuse in the SBC,” Stubblefield said. ”And it has been ignored this entire time until now. The reason it stopped being ignored was the Houston Chronicle’s work.”
“Where was this response a year ago when I went public with my story?” asked Jules Woodson, who was assaulted by her youth pastor Andy Savage and has become one of the faces of the #ChurchToo movement. “And when Steve Bradley [Pastor of StoneBridge Church, formerly Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, where Woodson was abused] denied a coverup and an effort to silence me?”
Jim VanSickle, who was abused by a Catholic priest and testified before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, told me that “secrecy, intimidation, and coverup are occurring in these churches. All needs to be exposed.”
VanSickle also noted that the steps outlined by Greear go further than those proposed by the Catholic Church thus far. And Beth Moore, author, Bible teacher, and a survivor herself, tweeted that she, too, believes J.D. Greear was elected for such a time as this.
In our effort to center the voices of survivors, we must grant them the same privilege we grant our leaders — that of representing a variety of perspectives and the freedom to collaborate on a way forward. Requiring survivor responses to be monolithic while lauding collaboration between those with authority only reinforces the very power structures that so desperately need to be torn down. As long as we treat survivors like a lockstep subset and not a valued population in which each voice is heard, we still linger far from justice.
As we watch the SBC over the course of the next several months, our choices are not simply lauding the words of leaders or despairing that nothing can change. Some survivors find hope in Greear’s words, and plenty of them do not. Yet, collectively, they continue to watch, wait, and advocate — hoping against hope that change is coming in an institution that has long silenced the voices of the vulnerable.
In response to the Chronicle report, J. D. Greear addressed the Executive Committee of the SBC on the topic of sexual abuse. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Greear called for a range of actions, including potential background checks before ordination, a task force to develop curriculum to train ministers about sexual abuse, and a possible database of offenders. A study group on sexual abuse, which was created last year, offered the proposals.”
This sounds good. And, potentially, this could be good. But the SBC’s church-autonomy-prioritizing structure makes it very difficult for sweeping changes to occur in any sort of timely or cohesive fashion. Greear may be as sincere as possible in his sorrow over abuse in the SBC. But he cannot be the conquering hero, rising up to champion a new way forward, because the structure of the SBC won’t allow for it. And even if it would, his words simply don’t communicate fresh hope to many survivors of sexual abuse in the church.
“I think an honest reckoning with all that’s happened is necessary before change will come,” Dingle said. “So far, I see a great deal of sorrow expressed but very little repentance. That leaves me skeptical.”
The amended constitutional language recently approved by the SBC Executive Committee directly addresses churches that “have evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse that targets minors and other vulnerable persons and in caring for persons who have suffered because of sexual abuse.” The amendment also states that “indifference” includes allowing a convicted sex offender to volunteer with minors, employing anyone who concealed information about sexual abuse by any church employee or volunteer from law enforcement, or “willfully disregarding compliance with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.”
In order for the amendment to be approved, it will have to be voted on in two consecutive SBC annual meetings. The earliest the amendment could be approved, therefore, is June 2020. And some survivors also question the efficacy of the amendment if it does, in fact, pass 16 months from now.
“Are they willing to engage retroactively in this?” Stubblefield asked. “Or are they only going to establish this bylaw toward future allegations? ... How deep are they willing to go here?”
If people love the SBC and want to see its churches thrive, this is the time to acknowledge those in power who have spoken up, albeit much later than many feel they should have, and implore them to enact genuine change that matches the strength of their words.
“I do believe and have hope for SBC,” said Kelly Haines, who was groomed and assaulted by a Christian school teacher. “But there needs to be absolute transparency and humility.”
“It has to be a work in progress,” Woodson echoed. “This isn’t going to change overnight. But these are the responses they should have had all along. So praising them for finally coming forward and having a semi-appropriate response really doesn’t do anyone any good. That being said, I think some of the recommendations are great. But I really hope that they don’t shut out the voices of survivors by only working with certain leadership. That will only serve to, once again, elevate them in their positions and will be a disservice not only to themselves but survivors as well.”
Dingle agrees. The SBC should “welcome outside scrutiny in all the places they’ve kept in the shadows,” she said. “Churches need training from the people in their communities who investigate these crimes.”
“It’s so hard to have patience in this situation because so many people have been crying out for years — Christa Brown, me over the last year, advocates who have been saying these things for years,” Woodson said. “I’m concerned about the SBC’s focus on only 10 churches. I really hope that their focus isn’t narrowed in order to appease the general public in a time of outcry, but that they do the hard work to clean house everywhere.”
If we, too, want clean houses, we would do well to listen to and laud the voices of those who have been crying out against sexual abuse in the church for years. And we should encourage those with the institutional power to create change to do the same. History begs us to give survivors our ears, our time, and our willingness to follow them toward justice. Those who have been trampled by the powerful can often be found with their ears to the ground.