As an anticipated 17,000 messengers descended on Nashville for the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 14, the SBC Executive Committee defended its decision to pre-emptively investigate itself and refused to broaden the scope of that investigation.
Meanwhile, a North Carolina pastor who previously had announced an intention to ask the full convention to launch an investigation into the Executive Committee’s response to matters of sexual abuse in the denomination said he will amend his motion in light of what the Executive Committee already has done.
Ronnie Parrott, lead pastor at Christ Community in Huntersville, N.C., said he would amend his motion to ask the convention to take oversight of an investigation announced by the Executive Committee late on Friday, June 11.
As it stands now, the powerful Executive Committee has hired an outside firm to investigate the Executive Committee and report back to the Executive Committee — a move widely seen as preemptive to motions planned by Parrott and others at the annual meeting in Nashville June 15-16.
On June 11, Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd — who is himself one of the people to be investigated — announced that he and the committee’s president already have hired an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions. This same firm is engaged in reviewing the management and culture of what previously was known as Ravi Zacharias Ministries, which was all but ruined by revelations that its namesake founder had been credibly accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse.
Advocates for accountability within the SBC — who claim the Executive Committee has covered up and failed to take seriously allegations of sexual abuse within SBC churches, agencies and seminaries — have expressed no concern with Guidepost Solutions doing the audit of the SBC. They and others have, however, questioned the propriety of the Executive Committee hiring the auditors and having control over what they report.
Thus Parrott said he will amend his motion to “transfer oversight of the independent third-party review” to a task force appointed by the newly elected president of the SBC. He further will stipulate that the task force be comprised of “members of Baptist churches cooperating with this convention and experts in sexual abuse and abuse-related dynamics.”
Parrott’s motion likely will be opposed by the Executive Committee, which wants to retain control over the investigation. One of the comments Floyd made in a secretly recorded conversation released late last week was about his desire to prevent anything critical of the Executive Committee from being given a platform.
Parrott previously served seven years on staff with Floyd at a Baptist church in Springdale, Ark.
A failed attempt to broaden the scope
During the June 14 meeting of the Executive Committee on the eve of the denomination’s largest annual meeting in 25 years, one member attempted to get the Executive Committee itself to expand the scope of the Guidepost investigation and create more transparency in the process.
Texas pastor Jared Wellman wanted to present a motion to the Executive Committee that would do some of the same things Parrott is suggesting. Wellman’s suggestion would have asked the newly elected SBC president (or his designee) “to appoint a task force independent of the Executive Committee” and that would include “individuals not directly involved in the investigation.”
His recommendation also would have made this independent task force the recipient of the Guideposts report prior to it going to the Executive Committee. A public report of “all the findings and recommendations” could not be “vetted or edited” by the Executive Committee prior to its release.
Further, he asked to expand the scope of the investigation to include “all paid, appointed or elected leaders or staff, previous or current of the Executive Committee, convention, and convention entities” with “no limit to who can be interviewed.”
Because Wellman’s motion was not on the stated agenda for the June 14 meeting, adding to the agenda required a two-thirds supermajority vote, which it failed to get. In other words, Executive Committee members avoided debating and voting on the actual motion by declining to allow it onto the agenda.
The power and limitations of a floor motion
They will not have such control when the full group of perhaps 17,000 “messengers” (as SBC voting members are called) gathers June 15 and 16. The president of the convention, pastor J.D. Greear, has authority to rule on how to receive motions that are made from the floor. That task also falls to the Committee on Order of Business, which receives all motions made from the floor and schedules them for debate and vote, sometimes with recommendations for referrals to other SBC agencies.
This year’s Committee on Order of Business is chaired by Adam Greenway, current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Greenway has sought transparency and accountability within a denomination that enabled his predecessor, Paige Patterson, to lead in ways that have been characterized as heavy-handed, self-serving and abusive. Southwestern’s trustees recently accused Patterson, in writing, of theft of seminary property.
What role Greenway will play in allowing or disallowing proposed motions to be debated on the floor of the convention remains to be seen.
During the heat of the so-called “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and ’90s — led by Patterson — SBC presidents often avoided controversial motions by referring them to other entities to study or respond to.
Internal critics of the current Executive Committee leadership already have warned they will not tolerate parliamentary tricks this year.
The Baptist Blogger, an inside critic of the SBC’s power structures and an ally of Greenway, tweeted: “Messengers are smarter now than they’ve ever been. They will NOT be run over by the parliamentarian or the convention lawyers this time. Not ever again.”
Sexual abuse issues detailed
In 2018, the Houston Chronicle published a series of articles detailing hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in SBC churches nationwide, along with concerns about how abusive clergy moved from church to church with no consequences. Alongside this and the #MeToo movement, other people — mainly women — came forward to detail other situations where they faced abuse and were not believed or were further victimized when they reported it.
The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, then led by Russell Moore, attempted to address this issue in its 2019 Caring Well Conference. According to Moore, he and the ERLC were chastised by Mike Stone, then chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, and other Executive Committee leaders for allowing comments critical of the SBC to be aired during the conference.
Moore’s concerns were detailed in two leaked letters he wrote and in several audio clips of private meetings that were recently released. This documentation sparked the present call for the Executive Committee to be investigated.
Meanwhile, another letter from 2019 surfaced this week, demonstrating the kind of thinking emanating from the Executive Committee at the time of the Houston Chronicle expose and the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference.
August “Augie” Boto at the time was executive vice president and general counsel at the Executive Committee. At the same time, he was embroiled in scandal in Texas whereby Paige Patterson, recently fired as president of Southwestern Seminary, allegedly conspired with Boto and others to take over a private foundation and redirect its charitable giving away from the seminary and to Patterson’s own private foundation. Through a pre-trial settlement in February, Boto and others agreed to stand down and never again to serve on the board of a nonprofit organization in the state of Texas.
Writing a memo on May 19, 2019 — as final preparations were being made for that year’s SBC annual meeting and Executive Committee leadership was resisting calls for urgent action on the sexual abuse problems — Boto called the sexual abuse concerns “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.”
He singled out two of the most vocal critics of the SBC’s lack of response, Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander, for their “victimizations.” Then he wrote: “They have gone to the SBC looking for sexual abuse, and of course, they found it.”
But this, he explained, “is the devil being temporarily successful.”
As messengers arrived in Nashville for this year’s annual meeting, Boto’s comments ignited even more controversy and more calls for the Executive Committee to be held accountable.
Abuse survivors speak out again
The day before the Executive Committee met in Nashville and refused to consider Wellman’s motion to expand the scope of the sexual abuse inquiry, eight survivors of sexual abuse within the SBC released a statement calling on messengers to take their concerns seriously.
They urged five actions:
- Support planned motions regarding hiring an outside organization to audit and assess abuse and mishandling of abuse within the denomination.
- Support expanding the scope of the Guidepost investigation into the Executive Committee to include the SBC Credentials Committee and “all paid, appointed, elected or volunteer staff or leaders of the convention, the Executive Committee and the Credentials Committee.”
- Demand that the Executive Committee “waives all privileges, allowing Guidepost complete and full access to all data and information.”
- Require that the Executive Committee commit that “any final report of the Guidepost investigation will be made public in full, without redaction or revision, except for the firm’s protection of the personal identifying information of abuse survivors.”
- Suggest that any future investigations or audits regarding sexual abuse within the SBC include the services of GRACE, an independent group dedicated to recognizing, responding to and preventing sexual abuse in churches.
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