The Washington Post ran a story the other day that was quite scary, if you care about the institutional church. The only problem I had with the story is that it wasn’t scary enough and, in particular, it wasn’t hard enough on one of the fastest growing forms of Protestantism in the nation (and the world, for that matter).
Yes, you read that right. I honestly think that reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon and her editors needed to be much harder on many evangelicals and the nondenominational megachurches that they seem to be building everywhere these days.
What’s this all about? Here’s the top of the report, which center on the fact that one in every 33 women who regularly attend worship services report that they have been, well, hit on by clergy:
The study, by Baylor University researchers, found that the problem is so pervasive that it almost certainly involves a wide range of denominations, religious traditions and leaders.
“It certainly is prevalent, and clearly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work, who co-authored the study.
It found that more than two-thirds of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance.
As the story says, this is not a left or right thing. Sin is sin and temptation is temptation and, in the wake of the waves of headlines about the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandals (plural, over multiple decades), some people are starting to get their anti-abuse act together in other folds. And there’s the key to the story.
About half-way into the story we find out:
At least 36 denominations have policies that identify sexual relations between adult congregants and clergy as misconduct, subject to discipline. …
Lawmakers are also taking note. Clergy sexual misconduct is illegal in Minnesota and Texas. Texas law, for example, defines clergy sexual behavior as sexual assault if the religious leader “causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.”
The story cites examples of abuse policies in Episcopal, Jewish and United Church of Christ settings. That all sounds very mainline, if not liberal.
But the second layer of this scandal is hidden in the word “denomination.” Abuse happens everywhere, but the abused — in a denominational setting — at least have a hierarchy of some kind to which they can appeal. And then there is the issue of the bottom line: Their lawyers have larger institution to sue that, to one degree or another, is supposed to be monitoring the careers of its clergy.
Meanwhile, the nation is filling up with totally independent, nondenominational churches with few if any ties — especially legal ties — to anyone or anything. Is anyone keeping track of the clergy who serve these churches? Is anyone accountable for them? We are dealing with a form of church government and tradition called the “free church” and, truth is, the clergy in these churches are very, very free indeed.
I do not want to pick on the Southern Baptist Convention, especially in light of my great love and respect for many in that body. My father, I should mention, spend much of the 1960s serving as an associational leader in North Texas, which means that he helped start new churches and was a pastor to the pastors.
Still, I need to stress that the SBC is literally and legally a convention, not a “Church” with a big C or a legal denomination. The last time I checked, there are few ties that bind in SBC life. The clergy are ordained by local congregations and, while they are registered for pensions and the like, there is not an official system that governs the movement or monitoring of clergy. If I am wrong, and something has changed, please correct me.
On this issue, that has caused major problems — in some parts of the country more than others. Again, even in a Baptist context, this is not a left vs. right thing. Here is one site that gives some idea of what is going on, viewed from the perspective of the abused.
The SBC, however, resembles the Roman Catholic Church in contrast with the totally disorganized, non-structured reality that is the post-denominational world. Trust me: There is another story here. Is that buried somewhere in the Baylor research?
Note: For a very early, way ahead of its time book that is linked to this issue, check out “The Snare,” by Lois Mowday Rabey. Yes, that last name should sound familiar.