In the period between release of the third-party investigation of the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse claims in the denomination and the SBC Annual Meeting where messengers acted on recommendations for reform, several things became clear.
Everyone has an opinion on the report and its findings. Not everyone who has commented has read the report. At 288 pages, the Guidepost Solutions report is not a quick read. But I would urge Baptist pastors, church members, and other concerned parties to read the primary sources of information, in order to fully understand the facts and consider relevant actions that all of us can take to prevent sexual abuse and to minister to survivors and their families.
It’s also clear that more than one response is needed because of the various people and groups affected by abuse and responsible for action. As a leader in a Baptist network, I want to speak a brief word to three specific groups:
First, let me speak to survivors of sexual abuse. While only God can heal the deep hurt you have experienced, please know that many more of us have now entered into your ongoing pain. I hope you can read in the report and in the many responses since then the grief and the lament over sexual abuse, and the angry outcry of God’s people when it is exposed in the context of a trusting church relationship.
You may well have felt alone and abandoned during the abuse you experienced, and perhaps doubly so when some you trusted with the information did not really help. But the call for this investigation and the demands for change since then demonstrate that God’s faithful people desire transparency, and justice, and defense of the powerless.
Second, let me speak to pastors and church leaders. This report urges each and every church to compassionately listen and minister to abuse survivors, and to proactively ensure that its leaders and ministries are safeguarded. Frankly, when abuse is reported in a church setting, churches often need to be quicker to rely on law enforcement and other professionals and not assume their own competence in this area.
Though the instances of abuse as a percentage of the number of churches and years may not seem large, they are also undoubtedly underreported. No church should assume “it can’t happen here.” Each church should have vigilant policies and practices that protect the vulnerable from predators, and that protect its leaders from even the appearance of impropriety.
Finally, let me speak to networks of churches and their leaders, and in doing so I am speaking to myself. While the church may be on the front line of abuse prevention, and while Baptist church autonomy may sometimes limit network influence or even awareness, church networks still bear responsibilities in this area.
Training and consulting in prevention is certainly an important role. Helping churches identify qualified counselors may increasingly be another. And we must somehow find more effective and comprehensive ways for churches to share information about offenders who may seek to move from one church setting to another, or one network to another.
Here in Illinois, our network leaders and staff are prayerfully studying the recommendations of the task force report and the actions of messengers in Anaheim. We are reexamining our training and systems and the prevalent practices in churches to ensure we are doing everything we can to make sure that churches remain the safe haven of trust, healing, and hope that our broken world needs.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.