Note: This post provides an overview of the SBC Ordination Practices Report. You can download the full report here.
“An overseer must be above reproach…”
1 Timothy 3:2
Southern Baptists, we have a problem.
Actually, we have multiple problems brought to light by a recent investigation by The Houston Chronicle, which uncovered a horrific litany of sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches, with more than 700 victims over the past twenty years and more than 250 offenders since 2008. This has led to some difficult, but necessary conversations among Southern Baptists, with calls for action to do everything possible to prevent such atrocities in the future.
During his address to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) on February 18, 2019, President J.D. Greear announced ten specific calls to action, one of which was to urge churches to reexamine their ordination processes for pastors and deacons. In Greear’s opinion, we have a problem with our ordination practices. He commented, “Why is it that our background check and screening process is often more rigorous for children’s ministry volunteers than people being ordained? This is a sacred responsibility and we have to take it seriously, ensuring each candidate lives up to the standards set out by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3 – and being above reproach certainly means having no hint of sexual abuse or cover-up in their past.”
This sentiment appears to resonate with several other Southern Baptist leaders as well.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote, “Another issue Southern Baptists must reconsider is the practice of ordination…Lackadaisical ordination will produce doctrinally dubious and morally corrupt pastors. This trend must end and churches must take responsibility for those men they ordain for ministry.”
Thom Rainer, former president of Lifeway Christian Resources, noted, “Because our ordination process is so weak, we ‘bless’ new pastoral candidates who may not be ready for ministry at the least, and who are sexual predators at worst.” Rainer also offered suggestions to improve Southern Baptist ordination practices in order “to protect our churches from predators and others who are not fit for vocational ministry.”
Jimmy Scroggins, Lead Pastor of Family Church in West Palm Beach, recently tweeted, “I do not believe in transferable church membership and I do not believe in transferable ordination. Each church must take responsibility for its own vetting & qualifying of members and leaders. But networks of churches can assist one another in vetting & qualifying by appropriately sharing publicly available information. And there is strong momentum for the SBC to get a lot more intentional on this effort. I’m glad.”
If these comments are true, there really is a problem with our current SBC ordination practices. However, no one quite knows for sure how bad it is because very little study of actual ordination practices has been completed. No one knows how thoroughly candidates for ordination are being examined. No one knows how many ordination councils require candidates to complete a background check. No one knows how many ordination councils examine a candidate’s sexual purity. No one knows if ordination practices in recent decades are getting better or worse. However, if we are going to fix the problems with our ordination practices, we must first know exactly what the problems are.
In an attempt to fill that void of information, an online survey was created in February 2019, and ordained Southern Baptist pastors and deacons from across the SBC were invited to participate. They answered questions ranging from topics covered in their ordination council, to the logistical details of scheduling their ordination service, to the perceived thoroughness of the ordination process. In all, respondents were asked over thirty questions related to their ordination experience.
There were 555 total responses during the survey period of February 20-March 6, 2019. Respondents were ordained in a total of 34 states, and they currently serve in a variety of ministry roles, as follows:
- 60% Current Pastors
- 17% Association/Denominational Leaders
- 9% Deacons
- 5% Retired or Former Pastors
- 9% Other
With such a large number of respondents from a variety of states and ministry roles, the survey results revealed several significant findings, which are summarized below. (You can download the full report here.)
#1: SBC ordination practices have significant room for improvement.
The observations from SBC leaders noted above have proven true. While there are some encouraging trends, SBC churches need to improve our current ordination practices in a number of ways. Consider the following as a sampling of needed improvements:
- Only 30.2% of ordained ministers were required by their ordaining church to have a background check as part of their ordination process.
- Only 29.4% of ordained ministers were questioned about their sexual purity during their ordination process.
- More than half of ordained ministers (58.0%) were examined by their ordination council on the same day the ordination service was held.
- 60.7% indicated their ordaining church publicized the ordination service to the congregation prior to the ordination council completing their examination.
- 43.9% of ordained ministers have never been contacted for follow-up by their ordaining church.
- 94.8% of respondents agree (63.1% strongly agree) with the statement that SBC churches need to do more to examine candidates for gospel ministry before they are ordained.
#2: Discussions regarding a candidate’s sexual purity are sparse, but on the rise.
As mentioned earlier, the catalyst for this study was The Houston Chronicle’s report on sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches. Unfortunately, the topic of a candidate’s sexual purity is not discussed most of the time (only 29.4% of ordained ministers indicated that it was brought up during their ordination council). However, there has been a significant uptick (40.5%) since 2010.
#3: SBC ordination practices are changing in both positive and negative ways.
Since the survey included ordinations spanning every decade since the 1960s, several statistically significant trends emerged. The positive trends include:
- More churches are requiring some type of theological training prior to ordination since 2010.
- More churches are beginning to conduct background checks of ordination candidates since 2000.
- More churches are questioning candidates regarding their sexual purity since 2010.
- More candidates have been a Christian for at least a decade prior to ordination since 2000.
Some of the statistically significant negative trends identified in the study include:
- There appears to be less emphasis on the ordination council’s importance in recent years. For example:
- The number of ordained pastors participating in the council has declined.
- The percentage of churches inviting participants from other churches has declined.
- The length of the council is getting shorter.
- Churches utilizing an ordination council as part of their process is declining slightly.
- The practice of licensing a candidate prior to ordination is in a steady decline.
#4: Ordaining churches in more populated areas set higher standards for their ordination candidates.
Churches in urban and suburban contexts are more likely to:
- Require some type of training prior to ordination.
- Conduct background checks of ordination candidates.
- Follow-up with candidates after their ordination (urban contexts only).
Churches located in less populated areas are more likely to:
- Conduct the ordination service on the same day as the ordination council.
- Publicize the ordination service to the church prior to completing their examination of the ordination candidate(s).
- Include participants from other churches.
#5: Larger churches are more thorough in their examination of ordination candidates.
Larger churches are more likely to:
- Conduct multiple meetings of the ordination council during the process.
- Discuss more topics during the ordination council.
- Require some type of training prior to ordination.
- Conduct a background check prior to ordination.
By contrast, smaller churches are more likely to conduct the ordination service on the same day as the ordination council as well as publicize the ordination service to the church prior to completing their examination of the ordination candidate(s).
Much more could be said, but this summary highlights the most notable findings from the research. The full report explains these findings in much greater detail and can be downloaded here.
As the intended purpose of this study is to provide Southern Baptists with hard data regarding SBC ordination practices, it is outside the scope of this project to make specific recommendations for improvements. These findings are shared with the hope of generating productive conversations among Southern Baptists as we seek ways to improve our ordination practices in the days ahead. May we rejoice for what we are doing well. May we weep and mourn for what we are doing poorly. And may we resolve together to improve our ordination practices so that every ordained Southern Baptist pastor or deacon meets the biblical qualifications, especially being described as one who is above reproach. That is the singular aim of this research.