When I was 16 years old, our church hired a new pastor. I was excited and intrigued because this was the first time I could remember our church hiring a new pastor. (Turns out there was a good reason for that, as the previous pastor had been there for 19 years.)
The new pastor was awesome. He was young and full of energy. He preached outstanding sermons, and he even counseled me when I wanted to surrender my life to the ministry.
Then came the phone call. My father is a deacon and one night he was summoned to church for an emergency deacons meeting. The new pastor had been caught talking to his girlfriend on a cordless phone. During the 90’s, if you had a police scanner, you could pick up the frequency of a cordless phone if you were in the vicinity. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had engaged in this behavior in three other churches. I was beside myself because, even as a 16 year old, I knew that the other three churches should have told our church something about his behavior.
Fast forward to ten years later, and the deacons are meeting again, this time to address the pastor who has just had charges filed against him for harassment. The victim was a female whom he had been having an internet affair with. How does this happen twice in the span of a decade? In the following paragraphs, I’d like to suggest some practical steps that churches can take to prevent this sort of can kicking, and then some suggestions for the SBC in general. We have got to get a handle on this, and while we can’t prevent every instance, we can certainly make our churches safer for the next generation, and make it harder for leaders who have a history of sexual promiscuity and abuse to continue working and leading our churches.
- More training—Pastor search committees should undergo a period of training before they commence their search. Most search committees are not trained in what to look for, how to go about a thorough background check, or how to ask the tough questions that ought to be asked. I can see a day coming when church insurance companies will require search committees to be trained or they will not cover any litigation that is brought against the church for the actions of a pastor or staff member who was hired but not properly vetted.
- Deeper, deeper, deeper background checks—While most search committees obtain criminal background checks, most stop the deep dive at that point. The criminal background check should be the beginning of the deep dive, not the end. Search committees should ask the candidate if he would submit to an audit of his finances; bank statements, credit card statements, and the like. This should be done by an independent third party, and the search committee members should only be given the results if there something malicious or disqualifying. Why search through financial records? This search will probably reveal whether or not the candidate has been involved in pornography. The type of predatory behavior we’re trying to prevent usually has its roots in pornography. The committee should also ask the candidate to submit to an audit of his personal computer. This again might reveal any involvement in pornography which would in turn disqualify the candidate. Is this an invasion of privacy? Yes it is, but God help when we’ve come to the point where we check out our candidates for political office with more scrutiny than we do the men who are supposed to lead our churches.
- Spies—My home church, to my knowledge, sent people to the towns of their candidates to ask around about them. This didn’t prevent what happened, but I think if more churches would take the time to do this, there would be some grief saved.
- Speak up—My father noticed a few eccentricities and odd behaviors on the part of the first pastor I mentioned above. His wife was hardly ever at church. He kept having to go to the hospital in the middle of the night. He would cancel services. He probably should have raised the flag on those issues. We need to foster a culture in our churches where there is safety in speaking out.
I have one suggestion for the SBC moving forward, and I think it would show how serious we are about our #metoo problem, and go a long way to creating a safe environment for victims to speak out.
We should create a separate entity, or a branch of an existing entity, headed by a trained investigator, whereby victims of abuse or misconduct could report their situation. That investigative service would then investigate the report and take appropriate actions. Those actions would include informing the authorities if there has been criminal behavior, or informing the church if there has been immoral behavior. That investigative unit would have branches in all of our state conventions so as not overburden one person or one team with a litany of investigations. Those state branches would all be led by trained investigators, and if we wanted to go a step further, those trained investigators would be non Southern Baptists.
Would the cost of such an undertaking take away money that could be used for missions? This is missions. James writes that true and undefiled religion is taking care of the vulnerable among us.
Those are my suggestions, and they may or may not have prevented my home church from hiring the two pastors, and they may or may not have kept Mark Aderholt from serving in other ministry positions. There wil always be someone who knows how to game the system and who slips through the cracks. The key word in that last sentence is cracks. Right now, our system looks more like a sink hole when it should be the size of a crack.