Report: "The ordination process of Southern Baptist churches is a weak spot when it comes to protecting congregations from sexual predators"

"The report, 'Above Reproach: A Study of the Ordination Practices of SBC Churches,' was conducted by Jason A. Lowe, an associational mission strategist in Kentucky, in response to a Feb. 10 Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches." - BPNews

1351 reads

There are 17 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

I'm in full support of doing criminal background checks, but probably an even bigger factor is the person's attitude towards what can go wrong. 

Does one act on the warning signs (adults getting too familiar, etc..?), or does one wait until someone comes forward with a complaint?  How does one deal with complaints--I think "I believe you" goes too far (presumption of guilt really), but the typical pattern I've seen too often is "I don't believe you".  Maybe "I take this seriously" is a good starting point.  And then you've got the question of what is to be done when someone comes forward--if I had a pastor who said "handle it inside", one of us would be leaving soon.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

An unavoidable consequence of local church autonomy is that quality control will be uneven. I have great sympathy for the Presbyterian model for pragmatic reasons. I've worked in government bureaucracies my entire life, and I'm comfortable there. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

An unavoidable consequence of local church autonomy is that quality control will be uneven. I have great sympathy for the Presbyterian model for pragmatic reasons. I've worked in government bureaucracies my entire life, and I'm comfortable there. 

Of course, as soon as you have different people making decisions, the QC, will be uneven, as you put it.  Even in a theocracy, as soon as Moses started delegating some of his responsibility for judging Israel to several levels of judges, I'm sure that the decisions were not all made the same way by each of his delegates.

I agree that if each church is setting up their own process, it will be more uneven than it would be in the Presbyterian model.  However, pragmatism, as we know, is not a good enough reason to "modify" scriptural proscriptions, and if one is fully convinced of the congregational model of church government, the strengths of the Presbyterian model won't matter.

Maybe the best we can do is to try to both implement good practices, and encourage any churches that are in fellowship with our own to do the same.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

There can be variation, but what you do is to simply put that as part of association covenants.  IFBs not in an association might be excepted, of course, but the GARBC, SBC, and others can simply make certain things a go/no go for fellowship, and certain behaviors are proscribed as well.  In the same way, many insurers are saying 'we will not insure you if you do not have this in place."  

It should be noted as well that even the best quality systems are only as good as the people running them, and as the corporate culture enforcing them.  You can see that with the FAA and the Boeing 737-800 Max, with the FDA and drug approvals, with the ISO and Takata air bags and GM ignition switches (and Toyota accelerators), and a whole lot more.  Getting every significant person to agree that certain characteristics are essential is quite an art, and I don't think anybody has completely mastered it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think the regional association model can provide a quality control "gut check" for local churches, when it comes to ordinations. The problem is that I believe ordination is sometimes a rubber-stamped process with no possibility of rejection. When was the last time anybody here personally knows of when a candidate was denied ordination? Not because of some terrible moral lapse that burst out into the open, but just because it became apparent the guy wasn't competent, even if he was a great guy? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

It can be a rubber stamp, but my gut feeling is that by the time a council is convened, all of the major players are about 95% sure about the guy already.  Now to be sure, it can be an idiotic decision where a buddy of the leader is being given his sinecure, but if more than about 5% of ordination councils were ending in rejection, I'd have to start questioning whether the search committee/ordination committee were serious about doing their jobs.  

With regards to the kind of thing that's the central topic here, I'd argue that the criminal background check ought to be about the first thing a committee does after receiving an application and deciding that the academic/other background is worth bothering with.  It simply signals that the church is taking things at least semi-seriously, and will deter a lot of people with iffy backgrounds or views from even applying.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

The problem is that I believe ordination is sometimes a rubber-stamped process with no possibility of rejection. When was the last time anybody here personally knows of when a candidate was denied ordination?

Well, the ordination ceremony is just that, and that is usually all a regular attender at a church will see, and at that point, they *are* just a formality.  With the last ordination my pastor was involved in, the men of our church were actually invited to the examination/council that took place on the Saturday before the Sunday ordination, and was an all-day affair.  Unfortunately, I was out of town and therefore unable to attend, but I would have had I been in town.

I can't speak for most churches, but knowing my pastor, there's no way he'd participate in an ordination ceremony where the candidate showed during his council/examination that he was incompetent, even if the candidate received enough votes from other men present to "pass" him.  I think more men just need to be willing to say things like "no way," or "this candidate needs a lot more seasoning before he'll be ready," and similar.

In that way, it's not that dissimilar to other ceremonies/ordinances that take place in our churches, like baptism and membership.  Long before the candidates appear before they whole church, they have to give testimony to the elders/deacons that they do, in fact, meet the requirements, and in the case of membership, at least at our church, a class is required.  What happens on Sundays that the members see is only the last step in a whole chain of events (or at least, it should be).

I would figure (just like Bert said), that many (most?) candidates end up dropping out of or having to leave the process long before it gets to the point where they would fail the ordination council.  Most of us just don't hear much about the failed candidates.

Dave Barnhart

TylerR's picture

Editor

My apologies; when I refered to "ordination" I really meant the formal examination by the council. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

My apologies; when I refered to "ordination" I really meant the formal examination by the council. 

Yeah, as I got to the end of my post, I pretty much figured that.  You were probably asking other pastors, which I'm not one.  So I don't hear much about candidates who never get to the ordination council/examination.  You're right that I haven't heard of many failures (maybe none) of those who got as far as the council.  But honestly, it would be a pretty sad set of advisors that would let someone get that far who wasn't ready.  And I've never been part of that faction of fundamentalism where academics and preparedness didn't matter, so maybe that's why I don't know any "good old boy" ordinations.

I can, however, speak to the experience of being part of the graduate program in Computer Science at Clemson University.  They have a well-respected program, but in my 3 years there, I don't recall hearing a single case of a master's or PhD candidate that failed orals, or botched their thesis or dissertation and did not receive their degree, though I certainly heard of those who dropped out of the program before those points.  And that school is not so large that I couldn't know everyone in the graduate program (and I think I did, at least until my last year where I was only working on my paper/thesis).  Though I never got such advice from my advisors, I suspect they were quite good at both shepherding along those that would eventually make it, and advising those who wouldn't to realize that and try something else.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

As a fellow engineer to Dave, and as a member of a search committee last year (as well as about a decade back), I can affirm the need to be a little more "businesslike" in vetting applicants.  Look up a background check and a credit report--it tells a lot about character and whether they're worth going forward with.  Look up their references.

Most importantly, ask questions that not only determine whether they've got the "right answers", but to get a picture of how they think.  For the most recent time I was on a search committee, I had a couple of go to questions I asked every candidate:

  • What is your "go to" theological reference when looking into questions of theology?  
  • If time and money were not a limitation, what seminary level courses would you take?

The interesting thing for me is that the Bible college graduates we were interviewing almost always answered some commentary for the reference, and some course of practical theology for the second.  Nothing on Biblical languages, systematics/Biblical theology, etc..  I don't demand a young Bible college graduate be totally fluent about those issues, but to be aware that those resources are out there, and to have a basic idea how to use them, would be really, really refreshing.

(I want them to have the right answers on a number of topics, but that's not all that's important in ministering to our area, which is heavy on educated professionals)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Last week: Texas conv. removes church with sex offender pastor

So the way this works, if I understand correctly, is that without violating local church autonomy, churches that have voluntarily joined in fellowship with other churches may be--as part of the terms of the relationship--be kicked out of the fellowship for various problems of conduct and message.

I don't see why GARBC, IFCA, etc. can't do this, other than the resources involved in getting it organized and implemented. But I wouldn't think the costs in manpower and $ would be prohibitive.... In cases where the law has not come down with a guilty verdict, it would be expensive--because of the work of investigating and having some kind of due process.

ScottS's picture

So the article noted:

He explained that ordination candidates should have no hint of sexual abuse or cover up in their past and asked why background checks are often more rigorous for children's ministry volunteers than people being ordained to lead.

It is the "no hint" that I'm questioning, for what is the best route to take if a candidate had issues prior to their salvation? Where should grace enter into allowing for a person to have been changed by God? I realize caution is still needed; and really, perhaps in such a case (abuse issues prior to salvation, then saved, then discipled/trained for ministry), there should be simply a open notation of the prior issue (so a congregation that hires the pastor is aware of it and can be on extra alert). I don't know. I just have a bit of an issue with the all or nothing feel of "no hint" if those hints (or even out-right confirmed acts) were pre-salvation.

Paul was a murderer before salvation, not after. Many a minister has come out of drugs, gang violence, etc., and used that testimony to propel a vibrant ministry. If a pastor can be honest about their pre-salvation past, expect accountability for the future (because of that past), then should they be rejected from ordination (not that ordination is critical to ministering, in my view, but I acknowledge the value of it)?

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Paul ordered deaths within a legal framework. They were heinous acts of violent persecution, to be sure, but not quite the same thing as personally murdering someone. Still, it's a good question... where do we draw the line on the "above reproach" qualification in the pastoral epistles? I don't think it has much to do with "grace," but it does have to do with qualifications.

The reality is that lines have to be drawn somewhere, and whenever we do that, there are individual cases that make the line seem to be in the wrong place. But standards are for guiding the behavior of many, and if they're effective, they'll always look unfair in some individual cases.

I personally think the felony sexual offender rule is necessary, no matter how far back in someone's history the offense may have occurred. Various misdemeanor offenses before conversion might be more negotiable.

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding expelling a church for failing to recognize and expel people like known sexual predators, what I'd recommend is something really akin to Officer Friendly asking you for license, registration, and insurance; by driving (or being a member of the association), you consent to the propriety of having those papers--background and reference check, etc..  Some people will slip through, and for that, you take a look at why, and then you do corrective action--and that's where it ought to get expensive.  By and large, what I'd recommend to the church is to take action on simple yes/no kinds of things where documentation is easy--really a matter of time, since Megan's List is available for free online. 

To draw a picture,I would never recommend that a church dig into the difficulties of a he said/she said case where you've got to dig through all the "tells" that each person gives that help investigators cross examine each party to arrive at the truth.  Rather, it's "do you have a background check?", "did you report to police when people reported a crime to you?", and the like.  Simple yes/no.

Regarding the notion of restoring a pastor upon repentance, I've got a couple of thoughts.  First, together with easy-believism is easy-repentism, where we believe the repentance of a wolf and all kinds of problems result.  Anyone who wants to put someone convicted of any sex crime in a pulpit, or really in any position involving children, needs to be asked "what would you tell an aggressive plaintiff's lawyer about your decision if you were in the witness' seat in court?". 

Regarding Paul, keep in mind he was an unbeliever when he took part in murdering Stephen, which accounts for some of the difference.  Keep in mind as well that for Paul, as well as Moses and David, people had the testimony of none less than the Holy Spirit that their repentance was real--in our cessationist world, or at least "world where most of the signs and wonders seem to be fraudulent", that's a bit of a stretch to assume we've got that, don't you think?

I've personally been mulling over the question of what place repentant sex offenders ought to have in church, because quite frankly with 850,000 people on Megan's List (and a similar number who should be), we quite frankly WILL have some in our fellowships from time to time.  At this point, my gut is that I don't trust the repentance of a man with such in his past who won't voluntarily abstain from putting the church he says he loves in tremendous legal liability.  There are great places for repentant felons to minister, but the nursery and Sunday School are not among them.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

ScottS's picture

To be clear, Bert, my question was purely regarding pre-salvation life vs. post-salvation. I would agree if a person does this after their salvation testimony, that while they may "repent" (even truly so), at that point they are disqualified from pastoral/elder ministry.

What I was questioning and seeking opinions on was purely cases prior to grace having been received by a person and their life changed by the Holy Spirit (i.e. salvation; NOTE: Aaron this is what I meant by "grace" entering into it, that God showed grace, a person received it by faith, and then how ought we as brothers/sisters in Christ also recognize that grace working in the lives of the now true believer) .

I agree with Aaron that a "felony sexual offender rule is necessary, no matter how far back in someone's history the offense may have occurred," my question is related to what that "rule" should be in relation to pre vs. post salvation offences. If a person evidences a truly changed life for 5 years, 10 years, or something, having gone on to pursue ministry, and having been open an forthright about their past (so that people are aware of it), should such a testimony post salvation qualify as above reproach (since none of us were above reproach in any sense prior to salvation).

Again, just thoughts about where (or how) to draw the line, but not against a line at all (nor more discovery and transparency about people's past on these matters).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Bert Perry's picture

....if you don't have the express testimony of the Holy Spirit that someone's repentance is real, and for that matter the testimony of Paul risking his life to spread the Gospel, you're going to want to have some seriously strong evidence that someone's repentance is real before reinstating them in ministry.   Stepping up before the congregation and admitting one's sin would be a great start.  Agreeing to serious limitations on activity would be another, and a third would be participation in ministry to other felons.  One of the banes of prison ministry, according to some, is how easily they pull the wool over the eyes of others--why not use the expertise of known criminals in this regard for good?

(an illustration of pulling the wool over peoples' eyes; Larry Nassar started a Bible study in prison, and then during appeals, basically tried to deny the things he'd confessed under oath....another case that came out yesterday is a pastor who repeatedly raped his adopted daughter, and got 30 people from his church to come out as character witnesses when his DNA was found on his daughter's bed.....this is not something to take lightly)

Finally, one thing that I don't think I said clearly yet: kudos to the SBC for getting things right and showing these guys the door.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Again, just thoughts about where (or how) to draw the line, but not against a line at all (nor more discovery and transparency about people's past on these matters).

It's a good question and the back and forth illustrates some of the factors that can make it difficult to draw. I'm probably echoing Bert on this point: most of the time, it's a matter of doing the basic kind of checking and dealing with obvious problems. There are always going to be cases at the margins that are just plain a nightmare to sort out. I can't see any way to avoid that, and those are going to come down to judgment calls of some kind. And sometimes they'll be wrong. The NT qualifications for the office of elder are effectively statements of principle that can be applied in multiple cultural settings over thousands of years--that same quality of broad usefulness makes them difficult in particular cases. God hasn't told us exactly where to draw some of the lines.