NEW ORLEANS (RNS) — During the opening day of their annual meeting, Southern Baptists reelected a president, debated the place of women leaders in the church and spent hours debating using Robert’s Rules of Order.
Still, nearly 10 hours after the opening gavel, key issues that brought nearly 13,000 members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans remained unsettled, including the status of reforms meant to address the issue of sexual abuse.
The meeting of local church representatives, known as messengers, kicked off with prayer and singing, followed by some legislative sparring and the resolution of a messenger’s complaint dating back to the previous annual meeting.
But once underway in earnest, the meeting dealt with motions in rapid-fire: a resolution on abortion that had been rejected in committee was proposed from the floor; requests were made for more transparency from the SBC’s seminaries and other agencies; calls were heard to investigate churches that minister to the LGBTQ community and to release security footage from the 2021 annual meeting in Nashville that allegedly showed a controversial exchange between Georgia pastor Mike Stone, then a presidential candidate, and an abuse survivor.
Stone’s supporters have long claimed he was falsely accused of mistreating the survivor on the eve of a close election he lost. His supporters hoped to have the video released to clear his name before Tuesday’s presidential election, when he was again a candidate. The motion was ruled out of order.
Messengers also heard appeals from three churches that had been kicked out of the SBC earlier this year, including Saddleback Church in Southern California, one of the nation’s largest and most prominent churches, which has been ruled out of “friendly cooperation” with the SBC for having women pastors. The denomination’s statement of faith says that the office of pastor is limited to men.
The messengers have voted on those appeals, but the results will not be reported till Wednesday (June 14). That same day messengers will debate a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban any church where a woman has the title of pastor, including children’s pastors and other staff roles that are not that of lead pastor of a church.
During a question-and-answer session, Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, was asked about the agency’s finances in light of a report of years of overspending at one of the denomination’s seminaries.
That report found $140 million in overspending over two decades and criticized a former president of the seminary who spent $11,000 on an espresso machine, more than $60,000 on Christmas decorations and more than a million dollars on renovating the presidential residence.
“I own my own home, have a Keurig and go to Hobby Lobby for my Christmas decorations,” Ezell said, to appreciative laughter from the messengers.
Ezell was followed by a report from Paul Chitwood, head of the SBC’s International Mission Board, and a ceremony celebrating a group of new missionaries heading around the world, from Poland to Japan.
Chitwood was asked pointedly by critics of the COVID-19 vaccine about requiring SBC missionaries to have the shot during the pandemic. He answered that for decades the IMB has required vaccination and had been concerned that missionaries would have been kicked out of the countries where they serve without the vaccine.
When some of those countries changed their rules, he added, the vaccine was no longer required. He added that while missionaries have long been willing to die for their faith, modern medicines make that less likely.
Messengers then passed a series of resolutions, dealing with issues such as revitalizing churches, caring for pastors, using artificial intelligence in an “honest, transparent, and Christlike way,” and “wisely engaging” immigration. They also passed resolutions that praised women whose “too often unrecognized contributions” helped spread the Christian faith and clarified the roles and titles of church leaders.
Prolonged debates and technical issues, however, forced a day’s delay in dealing with a report from a task force charged with implementing a series of abuse reforms.
The task force is expected to unveil a new Ministry Check website, which will help churches track abusive pastors. The new website will include the names of pastors in three categories: those convicted of abuse, those who have confessed to abuse and those who have had a legal judgment against them for abuse.
Last year, messengers approved a fourth category — those credibly accused of abuse. According to an update to that category from the abuse implementation task force, “an independent third party hired by any church or other Baptist body, may determine, by preponderance of the evidence following an inquiry, that a pastor, denominational worker, or ministry employee or volunteer is credibly accused.”
Because abuse is not always reported to authorities, that fourth category is “crucially important to the efforts to protect the vulnerable and make our churches safe from sexual abuse,” according to the task force.
However, the task force decided to hold off on the fourth category — in response to pushback from critics of the process, who worry that pastors will be falsely accused of abuse.
Among those critics is Georgia pastor Mike Stone, a two-time candidate for SBC president, who lost Tuesday’s election to Texas pastor Bart Barber. Stone and other SBC leaders have also criticized the 2021 report on abuse from the independent investigative firm Guidepost Solutions, which detailed how SBC leaders mistreated abuse survivors for years and sought to stymie efforts to address the issue on a national basis.
Two of the leaders named in that report — former SBC President Johnny Hunt and former seminary professor David Sills — have sued the SBC, denominational leaders and Guidepost Solutions for defamation.
Some Southern Baptist leaders have also called for the denomination to cut ties with Guidepost — because of the firm’s support for LGBTQ rights.
Because of the pushback, the task force decided recently to hold off on the fourth category, saying they needed more time. They are also expected to ask messengers to approve an additional year for the task force to do its work.
That appears likely to be approved, given the results of the presidential election. While Barber has supported the task force, which he appointed last summer at the direction of the messengers, Stone had promised to replace the task force with one more in line with his views.
The meeting ended on a high note. A messenger from Oklahoma, who had returned to a microphone repeatedly, finally got a chance to speak.
When she proposed that a future SBC meeting be held in Maui — the entire convention hall erupted in applause.