Last Sunday, The Houston Chronicle published a lengthy report about a horrifying crisis within the Southern Baptist Convention of churches: sexual abuse and misconduct.
The story was shocking. It was heartbreaking, disgusting, and horrifying. The more I read it, the more nauseated I became. The range of perpetrators was bad enough. It included everyone from pastors and deacons to youth leaders and children’s volunteers. But on top of that, there were the sheer numbers (over 700 victims), the brief time span (since 1998), and the range of victims (as young as 3).
Russell Moore, the President of our SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said it well this week:
“All rape and sexual exploitation is evil and unjust. Sexual abuse is not only sin but also a crime. All of it should be prosecuted in the civil arena, and all of it will be brought before the tribunal of the Judgment Seat of Christ.”
I agree. Churches should never sweep such things under the rug, use a cheap view of grace to excuse it, or downplay its severity. Never.
Innocence should be protected. It should never be exploited or destroyed. That’s what sexual misconduct with children and teenagers does. Furthermore, victims should never be dismissed or discouraged from coming forward. We should encourage men and women to speak up so that the wicked deeds of darkness can be brought into the light and dealt with properly.
Unfortunately, predators have discovered that churches can be an easy environment in which they can earn trust, gain access, and prey on children. The Houston Chronicle story is proof of that. But it should never be the case. Churches must be proactive to prevent this possibility. And our church is no exception.
Part of our church covenant states that we will “exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other” and “endeavor to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” In other words, we have promised to one another, that FBC should be a safe place for all children and families.
Words in a covenant are important. Though actions and accountability are even more important. At FBC, we have specific safeguards already in place to help. Maybe you’re familiar with these. Maybe not.
Our safeguards include:
At FBC, only church members can serve in our ministries. I have been criticized by visitors and even fellow pastors for this position. I’ve been told that it is narrow-minded and unloving to the larger body of Christ. Frankly, I don’t care. Member-only service is a massive safeguard in this regard and, as long as I am the Pastor-Teacher of FBC, this policy will remain in place.
In many congregations there is essentially an open-door approach to who can sing in the choir, serve as a greeter, or even work with children. In our community, it is common for churches to let college students (who need Christian service hours) to serve at will. We do not. I understand that some churches desperately need people. But that is a lousy reason to open yourself up to potential problems. Furthermore, this approach to the local church is inconsistent with our ecclesiology as Baptists and is a dangerous precedent to set.
I can’t say this for sure, but I strongly suspect that in many of these abuse cases the churches had a less-than-thorough membership process and a “warm-bodies-are-welcome” serving policy. Some may call that a more friendly approach to church life – I call it pastoral malpractice. Shepherds are supposed to protect the sheep, not recruit wolves to change diapers in the nursery. This is one of the reasons we have a careful membership process which includes one-on-one interviews with our elders.
If you serve at a church, you represent Jesus. FBC doesn’t have any knowledge or authority to recognize that a person represents Jesus unless that person is a member. That’s what membership is. It is a local church declaring by their God-given authority, “This person is a Christian and is part of the new covenant community.” This is why we Baptists practice regenerate church membership. It’s why we only baptize believers and not infants. It’s also why we should only allow members to serve in our ministries.
Membership isn’t perfect. People lie. People deceive. People will attend our church and never take that next step. It isn’t a guaranteed protection. But having a members-only policy certainly makes it harder for someone with evil intentions to gain the kind of access and opportunities often needed to exploit and abuse.
Having said all of that, let me encourage you: if you are a believer, you need to be a member of a local church. If you are not using your gifts within that local church in some way, then you are not obeying God’s word (see 1 Cor 12). Maybe that place is not FBC. That’s fine. But you should have a church home somewhere in which you actively and regularly serve. The local church is God’s plan A and there’s no plan B. Let me encourage you to become an integral part of His plan A.
Child Protection Training
In addition to our members-only serving policy, everyone who works with children and students must also complete a child protection training video session. (This also includes anyone who is involved in a mission trip.) The video, created by our International Mission Board, helps volunteers avoid situations which are questionable, recognize potential abuse victims, and know what to do if they suspect abuse. We want everyone to be on the same, basic page and have a common source of good information for action. This session helps us to do that initial work.
Furthermore, everyone who serves with our children and students must also complete two background checks: a Criminal Background Check and a Child Protective Services (CPS) Check. These checks utilize the power of the civil authorities to add an extra layer of legal insight to help keep us safe.
The Criminal Background Check searches the national registry of offenses. This includes not just sexual crimes but all criminal offenses and convictions. Additionally, a county or city-wide check is also run based on where a person has lived, whether that is in Virginia or in a previous state.
Volunteers must also be cleared through a Child Protective Services Check. This report alerts us if a person has been involved in abuse or neglect in which this agency has been involved. This check doesn’t even require a crime or legal charges to be filed. If an accusation has been established, the report alerts us to those details as well.
Ongoing Safety Protocol and Policies
In addition to these pre-serving safeguards, we also have many in-house policies for staff and volunteers that we seek to implement week-after-week. Here are just a few of the more key guidelines that we have:
- We have a two-person policy for working with children. (At all times, two adults should be present in children’s groups and classes and one is to be a female.)
- We have a female-only policy related to bathroom needs. (This includes changing diapers and restroom visits.)
- We have motion-sensor video monitoring for our church facility, both inside and outside.
As we all know, though, safeguards, guidelines, and policies are imperfect. What’s written on paper can be ignored or a loophole exploited. This is why we must build strong relationships with one another in the church. We should all actively greet visitors. Get to know people’s names.
Anonymity is not good in the local church. Accountability is. We must all take personal responsibility to protect our children and the least among us, for “of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
(As I said, these are just a small sampling of our safeguards. There may be guidelines or checks that we need to add to our training. If you have a suggestion of something we might consider adding or clarifying, please send those along to me directly via email: email@example.com. I will make sure that our leadership takes each one into consideration and see what we may need to implement in various ministries.)
While it has thankfully not been a common occurrence in my time as pastor, I can say that as a leadership we take any such accusations seriously. We investigate reports carefully. We will involve the authorities.
The Bible warns us that evil men will try to “enter” into our midst, exploit the vulnerable and be driven by their “various impulses” (2 Tim 3:6). God’s advice is simple: “Avoid such men as these.” (vs. 5) We will do whatever we can to help victims and their families to be comforted but also to stop evil men and women from doing their evil deeds in our midst.
Currently, the SBC has a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group, initiated by our president JD Greear (pictured), investigating all options and reviewing what other denominations and groups have done to keep track of abuses. (This group has been working for months, long before the Houston story came out.) They are also hearing from law enforcement, psychological and psychiatric experts, survivors, and many others to advise us on best practices. I look forward to hearing their findings this summer at our Annual Meeting in June and to see what we might learn to be even more vigilant.
Much more could be said about these issues. But I, at least, wanted to remind everyone that our leadership does want our church to be an intentionally safe and loving place for everyone.
Allow me to close with a few pleas to everyone about these issues.
A PASTORAL PLEAS
If you are in a position working with children or youth at our church, please follow the guidelines asked of you. At times, they may seem cumbersome, but they are there for a reason. We want to both protect our children from being hurt and your reputation from being hurt as well. Pray for those serving around you. Speak up if you suspect problems. Take ownership of your ministry area and continue to be part of the solution. And on behalf of our elders, thank you for all that you do!
If you have been abused, you are not at fault. You did not deserve what happened to you. Let me encourage you to speak with someone. Please don’t suffer in silence. I know it takes earth-moving courage and grace to come forward and speak up. But evildoers must be punished, and future victims protected. Find someone you trust and share with them. Speak with an elder or elder’s wife. Vocalizing what you have been through is one of the hardest parts, but rest assured, Jesus will be there to meet and weep with you.
Our Lord can truly “sympathize” with you. In His own humiliation, Jesus was ridiculed for being the supposed by-product of disgraceful, sexual sin. He was mocked, jeered, and crucified in nakedness and shame. He is a Man of sorrows, acquainted – not only with grief, but also with disgrace, exploitation, and being harmed and abused at the hands of wicked people. His life, His blood, and His strength can bring healing. As someone once said, “The resurrection of Jesus is proof that there’s no wound that God can’t heal.”
If someone shares their experience of abuse with you, please listen. Do not dismiss them. Do not shame or blame them. Reassure them that they are not responsible for what happened. Say, “I am sorry this happened to you.” Ask questions. Cry with them. Pray for and with them. Comfort. Show concern. Listen. Follow-up in the days afterward. (If it is a child, share with a ministry leader and bring it to our elders ASAP.) Help bear this heavy burden as a fellow church member. Encourage them to speak with law enforcement authorities and church leaders. Go with them and support them through it as much as you can.
If you are an abuser or an adult who preys on children or teens who just so happens to be reading this, God has one message for you: “Woe unto you!” Psalm 11:5 says, “The LORD…hates the wicked man who loves violence.” Stop your wickedness immediately and repent! By repent, I don’t simply mean tell God you’re sorry. I mean turn yourself into local law enforcement today! Confess fully and completely what you have done, every last crime and sin. Accept the deserved-punishment handed down. Continue in your satanic exploits and you are only storing up for yourself the eternal wrath of God in the day of judgment. Repent –in words, tears, and actions – while you still can.
May we all remember the words of Isaiah 35:3-4, “Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come against evildoers, But He will save you’.” May the Lord protect everyone in our flock, both young and old, and may we all be His instruments to defend the defenseless.