The Southern Baptist Convention seems to have been frozen in time for a few decades, entrenched in doctrinal disagreements, ongoing concerns of sexual and spiritual abuse, and so focused on operational autonomy that renders it unable to police itself. For good reason, a small army has risen to protest the harm this torpor has generated. Their voices are both valid and valuable.
There is a tipping point, though, at which genuine advocacy slips into routine outrage, especially regarding a large and lumbering religious system that has managed to ride by most cultural reforms on the backs of those who have preserved a dangerous status quo.
Among the various social problems facing the Convention, sexual abuse received little attention until very recently. This has been a dangerous and costly gap. My abuse happened 35 years ago, and Megan’s 16 years. Mine was not reported. Hers was and properly so, but then horribly mismanaged. Both of us have almost a birthright reason to disavow the SBC, but we have not done so because we both want to see this season of cultural change and reform succeed, and we believe there are courageous leaders paying attention.
The SBC Credentials Committee released its first set of guidelines yesterday. For the most part, these guidelines seem appropriate for a committee guarding the credentials necessary to be a Southern Baptist church. Some have questioned the guideline that “No submission will be received that is anonymous.” By its wording, this is confusing. Of course the Credentials Committee will receive anonymous submissions; this is guaranteed. Most survivors want anonymity for many reasons. The Credentials Committee, subject to the same wordsmithing all committees face, might have stated it better this way: “Anonymous submissions will not be considered.”
In higher education and in most business organizations, anonymous submissions are received all the time but not investigated. How can an investigation occur when the complainant has no identity and no correspondence can occur? A sensible reframing of this issue would clarify that the Credentials Committee is not an Investigations Committee. Crimes should be reported to law enforcement first, where investigations belong. In sexual abuse cases, the committee can only look for fact patterns, rely on law enforcement reports, and apply criteria to disfellowship churches that do not comply with removal of abusers.
Another way to reframe this particular issue of anonymity, which has quickly become a flash point of outrage, would be for the Credentials Committee to state that if anonymous submissions are received, they will not be considered. Instead, resources could be sent to the anonymous address along with a request for a proxy point of contact. Survivors deserve protection, and a practical way for their reports to be heard anonymously would be through a proxy who can speak for them. Then, the Credentials Committee can open a dialogue to determine if credentials should be removed from a church. Survivor identities would be protected. And the immediate outrage that has emerged over this single point in a policy would dissipate.
Neither Megan nor I are representatives of the Convention and we cannot defend the actions of SBC churches to protect sexual abusers, tolerate racism, or other problematic issues. But as survivors ourselves of high crimes from an SBC church and entity, we ask that the Credentials Committee be given time by SBC members and observers to refine this policy as they begin to deal with submissions. The Committee is a balanced group of our brothers and sisters, navigating a new and complex path. Megan and I also ask that the Caring Well curriculum be given time to soak into the training fabric of SBC churches. Continuing reports of predators do not negate the validity of Caring Well. Instead, they make it even more imperative. Training, education, and better policies are the bedrock of institutional culture change, and all take years to become established.
A predictable pattern may be a rise in submissions, and then as procedures are refined and training and education become more widespread, the frequency of reports will hopefully decrease. But this may take years, not days, and especially not 24 hours. Both Megan and I have waited a long time for the Convention to attend to these problems. Both of us want SBC members and the watching world to continue kicking the tires but let the reforms have a chance to start working. In the landscape of a Convention almost 175 years old, a six-month rollout of a curriculum and a 1-day rollout of a policy calls for patience, even for an institution that has not always shown itself deserving of such grace. As two women who have been severely impacted by the SBC’s lack of action, we ask for patience from all as the system finally begins the process of change which has been needed for so long.