By now most of you will have read The Houston Chronicle‘s second article on sexual abuse in the SBC. I believe that the reporting by The Chronicle, taken together with the responses by various Southern Baptists on this site and in other places, offers us a painful examination of a few undeniable facts:
- People who want to abuse children sexually are able quite easily to gain access to our pews and our pulpits and are using that proximity to pick off innocent lambs within the flock.
- If it has served their self-interest to do so, other Southern Baptists have far too often, rather than forcing those miscreants to face justice and rather than preventing them from perpetrating their abuse elsewhere, chosen to silence victims and pass abusers on to other churches just in order to distance themselves from the problem.
- There are aspects of Southern Baptist polity that can pose obstacles to some of the ways that might immediately spring to mind for curtailing this pattern.
I’d like to add to the conversation another topic for discussion. If sexual abuse in churches is a disease threatening our family of churches, then, following that analogy, I’d like to argue that our immune system has been compromised by a specific change in our polity. I’m not talking about a theological or a philosophical change; I’m talking about a practical change that emerged recently (within my lifetime) and is now ubiquitous.
In the mid-1800s, the average Southern Baptist was a farmer with no college education. The average Southern Baptist pastor was of similar stock. Neither had ever held a job that involved having an office (including the pastorate, which probably did not include an office). Parson and parishioner alike were thoroughly agrarian.
Frederick Jackson Turner, in his 1920 work The Frontier in American History, analyzed the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon what had previously been frontier areas. An exchange of one set of virtues suited to the frontier—individualism, nationalism, mobility, and egalitarianism—for another set of virtues suited to industry—efficiency, ambition, professionalism, and futurism—affected Southern Baptist ministry as well. As more Southern Baptist congregants adopted these urban virtues, the twentieth century brought into Southern Baptist life the church office, the policy and procedure manual, and Dr. Pastor. The practices of American Industry became one formative influence, alongside theology and tradition, of Southern Baptist polity. Indeed, I would argue that during my lifetime (except, perhaps, for the most recent years), the influence of American business upon our polity has been the ascendant, and maybe the regnant, influence among that triad.
My lifetime has witnessed within American business the emergence of the HR Department. It is dogma—sacrosanct—in American Industry that you never give negative details about a past employee’s time at your company (OK…maybe not quite “dogma,” but check out this article from Inc. and see whether my hyperbole isn’t pretty close to the truth). I contend that Southern Baptists have drunk deeply from this well and that the amount of useful information to be gleaned from job references given for employees of Southern Baptist churches is not high.
In my experience, most churches searching for staff (pastoral or otherwise) actually do put some effort into contacting listed references and researching former employers. I don’t think that’s where the problem lies. I think they just aren’t getting the truth when they make those phone calls. Why is that? Is it because they are reaching people who are part of a conspiracy to enable an abuser? Sometimes, yes. But also, I would argue, it is sometimes because the person fielding that phone call reads Inc. or otherwise thinks that he or she knows that it is the best course of action not to say anything about a bad ending for a former employee.
If we want to start making some headway against this problem of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches, this needs to change. If it does, it might help solve some OTHER problems, too, because there are pastoral candidates out there who are bad for reasons other than sexual abuse.
So, I think it might be nice if our conventions, associations, and seminaries started to educate local churches in how to respond to the person who calls while pondering the resume of the former pastor. It might also be helpful for the ERLC to offer an “explainer” about whether and how honest answers to calls for references exposes a church to legal liability. Indeed, perhaps in this moment of crisis we ought to push for state legislatures to adopt laws that explicitly shield churches from liability for providing job references for former employees. I’m open to other ideas and will not feign expertise about employment law. No HR expert, however, will ever convince me that honesty isn’t the best policy for cleaning up these problems of predatory behavior in our pulpits.