ANAHEIM, California. – The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention said Wednesday he would accelerate sex abuse reforms in the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
Texas Pastor Bart Barber’s First priority: assemble a panel of people—Southern Baptist leaders and experts—to lead this work for the entire convention, as commissioned by thousands of representatives from local SBC churches.
The day after winning a runoff against Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who promised to move the conservative denomination further to the right, Barber reiterated his desire to lead as a unifier and peacemaker. The SBC has experienced deep divisions and a steady decline in membership for more than a decade.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Barber expressed his commitment to forming a new action group to help implement recommendations from the Sexual Abuse Task Force, which delegates overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday. Delegates at the national meeting of the SBC also agreed to find a way Prosecution of church workers who are credibly accused of sexual abuse.
These recommendations came after a glowing 288-page report by an outside consultant, Guidepost Solutions. The company’s seven-month independent investigation uncovered disturbing details of how faith-based leaders mishandled sexual abuse complaints and mistreated victims.
On the final day of the two-day annual meeting, Barber said sex offenders had used Congress’s decentralized polity to turn gatherings “into a hunting ground.” But with systemic changes and reforms, Barber hoped sex offenders would be taken notice of.
“The hunters are now the hunted,” he said.
Though he was reluctant to provide a timeline for action, he promised to appoint the new task force quickly.
Barber repeatedly urged Southern Baptists to find common ground despite their differences on issues such as race and gender roles.
“I think we’ve seen some unhealthy ways lately that secular politics has dominated the conversation here at the Southern Baptist Convention,” Barber said. “As Christians, we must engage politically. We just have to make sure that theology leads in the dance between theology and politics.”
Barber said “the rudeness and crude discourse out there has crept into the SBC and into people’s social media feeds.” Expressing anger on Twitter and trying to “own” people rather than solve problems has only deepened divisions among Southern Baptists, he said.
“Every way I’ve served SBC has left scars,” he said. “But this church family is worth it.”
However, the SBC, despite its size and political clout, has yet to find a way to stem the long-term decline in membership, or baptisms — its key measure of religious vitality — that began well before the pandemic disruptions.
The number of annual baptisms in 2021 was 154,701, down 63% from its 1999 peak. Membership was 13.7 million, down 16% from the 2006 peak, according to statistics from SBC affiliate Lifeway Christian Resources.
Barber said membership tracking is complicated and the results could be skewed, but noted the SBC president has little control over it. “It’s the local churches that will take the gospel forward and help us grow,” he said.
Measured against the nation’s political and religious spectrum, the SBC is decidedly conservative. But groups like the Conservative Baptist Network and the Founders Ministries, which Ascol has long led, have mobilized to pull the SBC further to the right, claiming that its leaders and seminars are influenced by liberal trends and “awakening.” .
Candidates allied with these groups were defeated for SBC President. Chairman of its Executive Committee and President of the influential Pastors’ Conference held just before the annual meeting each year. But at least one of their preferred candidates prevailed in a close vote — Victor Chayasirisobhon, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of Anaheim, for first vice president.
But throughout the meeting, hardened Southern Baptists voiced a variety of criticisms on the meeting hall floor. They ridiculed Guidepost’s hiring for investigation following a recent pro-Pride tweet and opposed allowing Saddleback Church to remain in the convention despite the ordination of women ministers and more.
A report by the Credentials Committee, which examines whether churches are in good standing, said it was not clear whether the denomination’s official opposition to women pastors applied only to senior pastors or to other ministry roles as well.
Rod Martin, co-founder of the Conservative Baptist Network, pledged to continue his efforts in the coming year.
“Well it’s time to regroup and redouble our efforts,” Martin tweeted. “I don’t think people have realized that we’ve reached the point where a supposedly conservative Credentials Committee can no longer define the word ‘pastor.’ “
He predicted a different outcome for next year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, which, unlike Anaheim, is in Southern Baptist heartland.
Delegate Scott Dunford, executive director of Redeemer Church planting in Fremont, California, said he voted for Barber because he sees him as a strong conservative who is also compassionate towards other groups, particularly on the issue of sexual abuse in the church .
Coming to Congress, Dunford said the sex abuse crisis was most important to him.
“[Barber]seemed genuinely sympathetic to the concerns of victims of sexual abuse — in a way I haven’t heard from the other contestants,” he said.
But Dunford doesn’t think appointing women as pastors will help alleviate the problem.
“Every denomination has a problem with sexual abuse — even those that have female pastors,” he said. “Anywhere there is a large group of people interacting, wolves will try to manipulate the situation.”
Rev. Clint Sullens, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Monroe, Georgia, said he cast his vote for Tom Ascol because “his focus is on Scripture, and we really need that this season.”
“But I’m not discouraged or disappointed with where we are right now,” he said. “We had great men to choose from.”
Sullens hopes the large faith community will come together, specifically to prevent sexual abuse and to better care for survivors. He believes it is possible to unite on critical issues.
Delegates also rejected a proposal to weaken the convention’s political arm, which has long been a target of critics who complain that it is not conservative enough. Proponents said the Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission will be needed more than ever given the expected struggles in state legislatures if the Supreme Court decides the Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.
Smith reported from Pittsburgh.
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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/15/new-sbc-president-commits-to-move-sex-abuse-reforms-forward/ New SBC president pledges to advance sex abuse reforms