Tomorrow, more 1,600 Southern Baptists will gather in Dallas Texas for the ERLC’s “Caring Well” Conference. I’m looking forward to the conference and am bringing a small group from my church while others will be watching from home. Personally, I’ve considered myself an advocate for survivors of the trauma of abuse for years and I’ve been very hopeful about the progress being made in the SBC on this issue.
Before I write a piece on my hopes for the conference and why I’m attending, I want to acknowledge the pushback I’ve received from others in the advocate community about the ways in which the Caring Well Conference is problematic. This is not a hit piece. I support this conference and am excited to attend. I do, however, want to summarize some of the problems others have noted and give insight into why this is not being received well by all. I hope it highlights that we still have a long way to go. Here are a few of the problems that others have pointed out about the conference this week.
First, I have never seen a perceived problem in SBC life that we haven’t proposed a program or initiative or Convention-wide emphasis to address. To those who have been calling for the SBC to take this issue seriously for more than a decade, I understand the hesitancy to trust this current push. Would the SBC leaders have taken this issue seriously with this much publicity were it not for high profile cases and the secular press bringing sexual abuse in the SBC to light? My guess is probably not. So, I completely understand why the advocate community would look at this event as a huge PR stunt. Launch an initiative, host a conference, vote on a bylaw change and all the bad press goes away. Add to that the number of book releases timed around the conference and that just adds to the cynicism. The perception among many survivors is that the SBC is profiting off of abuse.
Further questions remain as to whether the denomination as a whole is taking this issue seriously yet. Even with all the publicity, it seems that there is debate among pastors about whether there is a systemic problem in the SBC and simultaneous debate among advocates about whether the systemic solutions offered are adequate, will actually be effective, or even pass the second vote required. The calls for an offender data-base are not going away, and the excuses for not creating one seem less and less convincing. In the meantime, many still perceive that, in the SBC, the fear of lawsuits trumps care of victims and that PR trumps full-disclosure of abuse. Even if the number of cases of abuse is a statistically small ratio, the pattern of cover-up and protection of institutions and abusers over against caring for victims is an alarming and a consistent pattern. Juxtaposed with the reality that relatively few of our 40,000+ churches have taken the Caring Well Challenge and this high profile conference can seem to some an fairly insignificant step.
Additionally, the PR foibles around this issue haven’t helped. Two notable ones include the virtually universal silence from SBC leaders when the Houston Chronicle piece on Paige Patterson was published and the release and endorsement of Matt Chandler’s book—two weeks out of the caring well conference—while he is currently being sued by a survivor and under scrutiny for he and his church NOT caring well.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the pushback is that it seems that some prominent survivors who have been sounding the alarm in the SBC for years have been left out of the process. The stories of survivors like Tiffany Thigpen, Christa Brown and others should be common knowledge among Baptists, but they are not – Why are they not being given a platform when they have been sounding the alarm of clergy abuse in the SBC for decades? Why are we only hearing from a select few survivors? The most obvious answer seems to be that some voices are not “safe”. Some survivors’ stories look bad for prominent and “important” leaders and flagship churches. Other stories don’t carry the happy ending of finding hope in Christ or having a deep love for the church. Many of the survivors of SBC clergy abuse have left the church, left the faith, or adopted progressive (liberal) views of Christianity. These “nones, dones, [and] gones” have important messages for the church too even if they don’t fit our desired narrative or aim. Christa Brown speculates “that organizers opted to invite survivors whose stories were deemed ‘risk-free for the SBC.’”
Now, many prominent people have come to the defense of the speakers, especially survivors, against the “designated survivor” idea—that is, that only speakers with the right story have been designated to speak. I myself have come to the twitter defense of Jennifer Michelle Greenberg, Susan Codone, Megan Lively, Beth Moore, and others. Yet, I think the point is valid that we are not yet hearing the whole story. The truth is, I am grateful for the survivors who will be teaching us this week – their stories are important, their voice needs to be heard, their warnings heeded, their healing celebrated. I’m looking forward to learning from them.
But what of the others? Their voices too need to be heard. Southern Baptists ought to be challenged by those who stories don’t fit our desired outcomes and we should come face to face with the consequences and damage of clergy abuse and indifference to holding abusers accountable. Perhaps the Caring Well Conference is not the place for that dialogue to take place, but there does need to be a place. We must care well for all survivors, even those who have left us. We must hear from all survivors, even those whose journeys have taken them on paths we don’t like.
That’s a rundown on some of the problems that surround this conference. Yet, let me end where I started. Even with all of these problems surrounding the Conference, I believe it is a good and needed step. As this article is being posted, I’m on a plane to Dallas and am bringing a team from my church. In a follow up post, I’ll share my hopes for this conference and why, despite the concerns mentioned above, I’m attending and supportingthe conference. I’m looking forward to hearing from the speakers and learning more about how I can lead my church and hopefully other churches to prevent abuse and “care well” for those who have experienced the trauma of abuse.
There is much more work to do in my church and in our denomination. May our hearts be changed, our ears be open, and may this conference be just one step in truly caring well for others.