My cousin Holly’s house burned down in July. The family and their dog were saved, but they lost everything. Literally everything, except her grandmother’s ancient roasting pan just big enough for a 12-pound turkey and a diamond ring. Everything else in their rural home was gone in under an hour. The irony was that my cousin’s husband is a fire captain in a neighboring town. Local media played up that angle.
For that family, the fire becomes a line of demarcation. Henceforth, everything will be B.F. and A.F.—before the fire and after the fire. Traumatic events like this become significant landmarks in our lives. Afterward, sometimes for generations, much is measured against them.
I’m thinking of that right now because of several recent events. My cousin’s loss. The devastating wildfires in Maui. And, somewhat related, the loss of SBC leadership to moral failure. It is a searing defeat and one we won’t forget for a long while. We may not think of our era as B.F. and A.F. (before failure and after failure), but this entire season that began with the revelation of scores of sexual abuse claims in the Southern Baptist Convention in 2019 is certainly a dividing line.
The question is what will we do with it? Will we live differently on the other side of it, if in fact we are on the other side of it?
Almost immediately after Willie McLauren resigned SBC leadership in August and apologized for lying about his academic achievements, SBC President Bart Barber tweeted that as Christians we have no choice but to forgive our brother for his failure. That is true. Any of us would want the same for ourselves. Scripture is clear: forgive. Jesus is clear: keep forgiving. But may I confess here: that first tweet seemed awfully quick.
I wasn’t ready for public absolution to mean the nasty event was over, and that the denomination was ready to move on. It isn’t over, and lots of people haven’t moved on. Even the naming of replacements in leadership and resumption of the search for a new and lasting President and CEO for the SBC Executive Committee doesn’t end the lingering sadness over the string of ethical failures in that office.
This is the third person to leave the position under some kind of cloud. And that has implications and reverberations for all of us in SBC life. Ask any local pastor.
Two of McLauren’s former colleagues at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board called the impact of his deception a tsunami. Living at its Nashville epicenter, they surely feel it more than we do out here on the edges, but we do feel it. A month later, it’s not over.
I know what Paul told the Ephesians about not letting the sun set on your anger (4:26-27), but we’re not talking about anger. We’re talking about disappointment, deep disappointment, and that takes a while to process. Also taking time, rebuilding trust.
So how do we move on?
Appoint proven leadership. The trustees of the Executive Committee will set the tone when they meet September 18-19. We don’t need another bruising EC meeting. We don’t need another split EC vote. We need for Christian trustees to act accordingly and to peaceably elect tested, experienced, and vetted temporary leadership, in case the interim CEO is in for the long haul. The search committee indicated they were going back to square one, which means a process that started a year and a half ago could go on for a while. Perhaps it should, to give time for healing, if we have effective temporary leaders in place.
Don’t make a political appointment. This is not the time for any side in SBC life to advance its position. There must be someone in the statesman category who can represent all Southern Baptists, who can draw us all together right now for the advancement of the gospel above all our other interests.
Turn over every rock. Surely by now people know what vetting looks like. Vet everyone, please. Before our leadership brings candidates for consideration, I would say vet. Vet your best friend. Vet your brother. Out here on the prairie, we need to know you did your homework.
Here in the A.F., I hope our convention will emerge smarter, sharper, forgiving—and able to forget. Later.
Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media.