Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear cries during a lamenting prayer for the sexual abuse that has occurred in the church. The prayer took place June 12, 2019, during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill

Southern Baptists face sex abuse crisis with litany of lament

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (RNS) — The last session of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention opened with thousands of Baptists lamenting for what their president, J.D. Greear, labeled a crisis of sexual abuse.

Following along on large screens around the Legacy Arena, women, men, pastors, lay people and survivors took turns reading words drawn from the biblical books of Psalms and Lamentations.

At the end of the litany on Wednesday (June 12) they jointly prayed for divine intervention.

“Therefore, our God, hear the prayer and the petitions of your servant,” they said. "Make your face shine on your desolate sanctuary for the Lord’s sake. Listen closely, my God, and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations.”

After days of discussions in which survivors described nearly unspeakable crimes against them, members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination turned to a 45-minute period of prayer and planning about what they could do next.

“The failures of the way of man brought us to the place we are as a denomination on this issue of abuse,” said Greear at the meeting that was attended by more than 8,000 delegates, or messengers. “It is only the movement of God, we know, that can rescue us from it. It’s not just policy. It’s not just statements and changes. It’s the spirit of God working in us.”

He asked pastors in the audience to make room in their calendars over the next year to take an eight-step “Care Well” challenge that includes training a team in their congregations to lead their response to building awareness and assisting survivors.

“You don’t have room not to include this in your calendar,” Greear told them, drawing applause. “The impact of this moment on our gospel witness is too critical for you to minimize, to postpone or to ignore this.”

The day before, Baptists overwhelmingly voted to adopt changes to the convention's governing documents that will bring greater visibility to their desire to disaffiliate with churches that do not handle instances of abuse properly. The messengers also created a new, standing Credentials Committee that can consider whether churches are not “in friendly cooperation” if they “act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.”

Near the end of the session that began with the responsive reading, Baptists adopted a resolution on “the evil of sexual abuse.”

“We affirm that sexual abuse is not only a sin to be disciplined in the context of the church,” they said, “but also a crime to be prosecuted in the context of civil government.”