This post is an explainer about reason on-goings in the SBC provided to our church by one of our own members, Dr. Laverne Smith.
What’s Going On?
Last summer, the messengers at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville passed instructions for the incoming SBC president (Ed Litton) to appoint a Sexual Abuse Task Force to investigate the response of the SBC Executive Committee officers and trustees related to the issue of church pastors and leaders abusing women and children. The messengers instructed the Executive Committee (1) to cooperate fully with the task force’s investigation, including funding it and (2) to waive Attorney-Client Privilege (ACP) so that the task force has unhindered access to all Executive Committee documents related to this topic. These instructions were in response to media and social media reports that SBC leaders had not responded appropriately to survivors.
After the convention, Ed Litton appointed the Sexual Abuse Task Force and the task force is working on contracting with Guideposts, a third-party investigator. The setup has gone smoothly; the investigation is being funded, but the contract with Guideposts was hung up because the EC balked at waiving attorney-client privilege (ACP).
Some of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee trustees and officers were reluctant to follow the messengers’ instruction to waive ACP because they are concerned about leaving the convention and perhaps themselves exposed to uninsured liability, should the investigation reveal negligence on the part of past or present officers or trustees. The lawyers working with the Task Force say the ACP waiver may not risk the liability insurance of the convention or the officers. The EC officers demurred on this point based on advice they got from their attorneys. So, everyone was lawyered up and defending their point of view on this issue.
On Tuesday, October 5, 2021, after much debate during three zoom meetings and behind doors in Executive Sessions, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee Trustees voted to agree to all the terms of the Guidepost contract, including waiving of attorney-client privilege.
Why Does Attorney-Client Privilege Matter?
This matters because back in June 2021 the messengers instructed them to waive attorney-client privilege as part of their task. When we as messengers tell a convention agency to do something, it is expected to comply, however difficult it is to comply. The Executive Committee’s reluctance to waive attorney-client privilege was a direct challenge to the way Southern Baptists expect convention agencies to respond to motions we pass at the convention. Thankfully, Tuesday’s vote resolved the impasse in favor of the convention messengers.
Southern Baptists have traditionally distrusted top-down governance of our convention. Churches decide in their annual budgets how much of their local giving is forwarded to their state conventions, and the state conventions, when they meet, decide what percentage of receipts are forwarded to the national convention. The Executive Committee receives funds from the conventions in Nashville and distributes the funds to SBC seminaries and agencies, according to the budget approved by the messengers at the previous annual meeting. We send messengers to state and national meetings to vote. Messengers at a convention may move to recommend action be taken by a SBC entity and, if the action is approved by vote of the messengers, the agency is expected to comply.
If the Executive Committee had refused to waive ACP, this would have turned our polity upside down. Convention leadership saying no to the collective will of the messengers is unprecedented. Dr. Floyd, trying to do damage control, argued that the EC had not said no but was trying to figure out the best way to comply. His leadership so far did not engender confidence that there is a good-faith effort in the works.
The reluctance of the Executive Committee to comply with the messengers’ directive on attorney-client privilege did not go unnoticed, and the grassroots response to this no doubt changed some EC trustee votes from no to yes. The Southern Baptist Convention Seminary presidents issued statements encouraging the Executive Committee to comply. Numerous state conventions collected pastoral signatures expressing the convention’s alarm that the Executive Committee is saying ‘No’ to the ACP directive. Social media outlets like Baptists21 and SBC Voices raised the alarm that this behavior is threatening our trust of the Executive Committee to carry out its proper function. Some saw this as a potential cause for unravelling the cooperative program. If churches cannot depend on the national entities to follow their instructions, why would they continue to support the convention programs?
We need to pray for Dr. Ronnie Floyd, president of the Executive Committee, who has pledged full cooperation with the investigation, that he will be a man of his word. Pray for Rev. Rolland Slade, Chairman of the Trustees of the Executive Committee, who will appoint the trustees who will work as a liaison committee between the Sex Abuse Task Force and the Executive Staff and Trustees.
We need to watch what God does to seek justice for abuse survivors. The issue was made public when the Houston Chronicle “shouted it from the housetop” by publishing an investigative report. The good response that has been done so far includes the Caring Well conference, and frankly, this push for an investigation of the leadership’s response to survivors. Those who resisted addressing this issue are smart and do not want to see the SBC’s funding hurt by bad publicity. The pressure on them to do what is right needs to be maintained. You can see opportunities to get informed and to express your concern in the blog post of this article when it is on the church’s website.
Pray that there will be no further failures of leadership at the national level of the SBC that would hinder the task force’s work, and further injure survivors. Forest Baptist Church, like other Southern Baptist Churches, needs to keep a prayerful eye on the course of the investigation to determine if the SBC leadership earns our continued trust with our Cooperative Program gifts.
For more information:
- Robert Downen, Lisse Olsen, and John Tedesco, “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse Spreads as Leaders Resist Reforms.” Houston Chronicle. This is a six part series that was published in 2019. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/investigations/abuse-of-faith/. The articles themselves are behind a paywall requesting a subscription to the Houston Chronicle. This is what opened the door and required the response from the convention.
- D. Greear and Phillip Bethancourt, “What is the Caring Well Challenge?” The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, 6 June 2021. https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/what-is-the-caring-well-challenge/.
- Kate Shellnut, “SBC Executive Committee Balks at Directive to Open Up to Abuse Investigation,” Christianity Today, 21 September 2021. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/september/southern-baptist-sbc-executive-committee-investigation-priv.html.
- Baptists21 Podcast, “Discussions on the Recent EC Meetings,” 21 and 28 September 2021. https://baptist21.com/podcast/2021/b21-podcast-a-discussion-on-the-recent-ec-meeting/ .
- “A Statement from the SBC Executive Committee,” 30 September 2021, https://www.sbc.net/a-statement-from-the-sbc-executive-committee/
- “Important Update from the Task Force,” 1 October 2021, https://www.sataskforce.net/updates/important-update-from-the-task-force.
- “A Brief Guide to Southern Baptist Meltdown over Sexual Abuse,” Religion News Service, 2 October 2021. https://religionnews.com/2021/10/02/why-are-southern-baptists-fighting-over-sexual-abuse/.
- Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee webpage, sbcec.org.
- State Baptist Convention of Michigan, “Resolution on Cooperative Partnership and the SBC Executive Committee” published by SBC Voices, 30 September 2021, https://sbcvoices.com/state-conventions-speaking-out-about-executive-committee-failure/. Other conventions mentioned in this update include Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and a joint statement from the two SBC conventions in Texas: Southern Baptist Convention of Texas and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
- “A Video Statement from Dr. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary,” published by SBC Voices, 29 September 2021. https://sbcvoices.com/a-video-statement-from-dr-jason-allen/.
How you can address your concern to the Executive Committee:
- Dr. Ronnie Floyd’s publicly available e-mail: email@example.com.
- You can add your approval of an open letter to the Southern Baptist Executive Committee that’s been signed by many Southern Baptist pastors and church leaders. Published by SBC Voices, https://sbcvoices.com/letter-from-southern-baptists-to-the-sbc-executive-committee/.