An Outsider’s Preview of Upcoming SBC Annual Meeting

An Outsider’s Preview of Upcoming SBC Annual Meeting June 6, 2024

A rendering of a convention floor with many attendees.
A rendering of a convention floor with many attendees (Image rendered by DALL-E for Patheos)

Southern Baptists Set ‘Pivotal’ Meeting June 10-12

Funding for sexual abuse reform, an amendment to officially ban female pastors and the election of a new Southern Baptist Convention president will top the agenda at the upcoming SBC annual meeting June 10-12 in Indianapolis.

As an outsider looking at the SBC, I have mixed feelings. First and foremost, it isn’t any of my business because I left Southern Baptist denomination a lifetime ago. And while I have a few opinions about the meeting, I want to set aside my thoughts and beliefs and detach myself from the proceedings to write this article – but I am human, so….

Before we begin, let me say that I have a great deal of sympathy for women and children victimized by leaders of any church. Sadly, sexual abuse is often systemic, as it is in Southern Baptist churches. In 2022, the SBC released a previously secret list of several hundred pastors and other leaders accused of sexual abuse.

Power may motivate some sexual abuse as much as lust does. In the SBC – as in several other large denominations – men are in control, and women are taught to be submissive. It’s ingrained in them, and I’m thankful to be free of it.

The pastor of my church is a woman, and she has taught me more about Christ, the Bible and Christian living than many of the men who have pastored churches I have attended.

My pastor grew up in a fundamentalist church that bans female pastors, and she left her childhood denomination when God called her to be a minister. Thank God she did. I’m grateful for her wisdom and knowledge, and I’m glad to be part of a denomination that allows women, as well as men, to reach their full God-given potential.

With all that said, I have tried to detach myself and give you a fair and honest preview of next week’s SBC meeting.

A Pivotal SBC Annual Meeting

SBC 2024 prep
Preparations for the Annual Southern Baptist Convention are underway in Indianapolis. Image courtesy of Jonathan Howe, Vice President for Communications, SBC.

The SBC’s annual meeting came to my attention several days ago when the Nashville Tennessean ran an intriguing story under the headline, Southern Baptists Set for Pivotal Annual Meeting in Indianapolis.

Having written about the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference, I was interested in an important meeting of another major Christian denomination. And the issues on the SBC agenda will involve women, one way or another.

One major agenda item will be funding for the new nonprofit task force that the SBC established to oversee sexual abuse reform. Another will be the decision on whether to officially ban female pastors, and yet another will be the election of SBC’s next president.

Predicting the outcomes of these debates will be more difficult this year than in previous years, according to the Tennessean. “Unlike the past couple of years when policy positions divided along two main coalitions, a more fragmented array of voting blocs this year makes it harder to predict how certain groups of delegates, called messengers, will vote,” the newspaper explained.

Supporting Sexual Abuse Reform

The major question regarding sex abuse reform this year is money. SBC recently announced the creation of a nonprofit organization to oversee long-term reforms and improve the SBC’s accountability.

“Major SBC-affiliated agencies, called entities, haven’t volunteered that seed money as the nonprofit’s backers hoped,” The Nashville Tennessean reported. “It potentially leaves the current SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force to ask the convention directly for support….

“Long-time skeptics of abuse reform are leveraging this uncertainty to allay other doubts, such as the increasingly burdensome legal costs to the SBC Executive Committee to fight abuse-related lawsuits.”

The question over funding is undoubtedly slowing progress on abuse reform.

Large-Scale Sexual Abuse

The SBC has been accused of covering up hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by church leaders, ministers, workers and others. The scandal may seem like old news. But it isn’t.

The Tennessean and other news outlets reported only days ago that the U.S. Department of Justice has charged a former Southern Baptist seminary professor with falsifying records to cover up a report of sexual abuse and then lying about evidence tampering.

Matt Queen, a former professor at the SBC’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and current pastor in North Carolina, has denied the charges against him. Read more here.

Previous allegations involving hundreds of SBC leaders were allegedly ignored or silenced by the organization’s leaders, according to NPR. “Meanwhile, the church kept a secret list of over 700 offenders. The list was even kept secret from most of the church’s leaders.”

In 2019, a team of reporters from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News wrote a series of explosive articles on sex abuse in the SBC. “The reporters found that hundreds of Southern Baptist Convention church leaders and volunteers had been criminally charged with sex crimes since 2000,” according to NPR.

“The series also detailed numerous incidents in which denominational leaders mishandled, ignored or concealed warnings that Southern Baptist churches were being targeted by predators,” NPR said.

Unfortunately, sexual abuse in the SBC is alive and well.

Banning Female Pastors

Delegates to the SBC annual meeting also will consider an amendment to formally ban women pastors. Females in the pulpit are already frowned upon, and several SBC churches have been expelled for having them.

The SBC voted by a large margin at last year’s annual meeting to uphold the expulsion of two Southern Baptist churches led by women. Those churches are Fern Creek in Louisville, KY, and Saddleback Church, which pastor and author Rick Warren established in Southern California several years ago. Other churches were also expelled but didn’t appeal their expulsions.

Saddleback Church’s expulsion arose from Warren’s decision to appoint a husband-and-wife team to succeed him when he retired in 2021. Saddleback compounded the problem, as far as the SBC was concerned, when it appointed three additional women pastors the same year, per the Baptist Press.

“The (2023) vote to uphold those removals came just a few hours before a two-thirds majority of the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – separately voted to approve an amendment to its constitution that would more broadly prohibit churches from having women hold any pastoral title,” CNN reported last June.

Outgoing SBC president Bart Barber insisted, “We’re shaped by what we read in the New Testament…. We believe that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture.”

Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches also prohibit women from holding leadership roles, while Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian (USA) and the United Church of Christ accept women ministers.

The SBC Annual Meeting’s Presidential Election

The other major issue at the SBC annual meeting is the election of a new president. Six men are vying for the unpaid — but powerful — position. Learn more here.

The candidates are:

David Allen, dean of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary’s preaching center – Rev. Allen is a long-time professor who believes the SBC needs more balance and transparency in leadership, according to the Religion News Service. The seminary is independent of the SBC but describes itself as “Southern Baptist in theology.”

Prior to joining the Mid-America faculty, Allen was a preaching professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He believes SBC churches should continue to address the sexual abuse scandal and supports “a financially prudent plan” and “genuine compassion” for victims. He termed the issue a “problem” rather than a “crisis.”

Clint Pressley, pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. – Rev. Pressley proposes to keep the SBC on an even keel if elected SBC president. He explained that the rhetoric and temperature within the organization are high and should “come down a good bit.”

Pressley says the denomination has done a great deal about sexual abuse, but SBC churches need to be “more accountable and responsive.” He does not support the idea of listing abusive leaders on a website but does support continued focus on background checks and better training to “root out abusers,” per the Religion News Service. As for female pastors, he favors the amendment to expel churches led by women.

Mike Keahbone, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lawton, OK – Rev. Keahbone, who is Native American, became pastor of the Lawton church during the COVID pandemic. His previous ministries have included serving as a youth minister and traveling evangelist.

He is a member of the SBC’s Executive Committee, has served on the denomination’s Sex Abuse Task Force and the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force. Keahbone supports efforts to help SBC churches prevent sex abuse and to assist victims of abuse.

Like many Southern Baptists, he opposes the ordination of women pastors but feels that amending the SBC constitution to ban females would hurt SBC churches in minority communities.

Bruce Frank, pastor of Biltmore Church in Asheville, N.C. – One of Rev. Frank’s goals as SBC president would be to help every SBC congregation bring at least one person to the faith and be baptized. New baptisms could revitalize many churches that have lost members, he said.

Rev. Frank is recognized for chairing the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force and supporting a series of reforms in recent years. He said the SBC must make “reforms stick,” Religion News Service reported.

“Some good progress has been made, but the messengers (meeting delegates) have been pretty resounding in saying there’s still some more steps that can be taken.” He does not believe the SBC needs to amend its constitution to ban female pastors, though he thinks men and women should have different roles in the church.

Dan Spencer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Sevierville, TN – Rev. Spencer said he didn’t expect to be a candidate for the SBC presidency but was asked by “several people” to consider the idea. He explained that he doesn’t “have an axe to grind,” but thinks the SBC may need a consensus builder who focuses on unity.

He said he’s “on board for anything that makes our churches safer and provides better curriculum resources for churches to be more on guard than ever.” At the same time, he questions the need for a database of sex abusers and fears the danger of false accusations.

Spencer does not believe the SBC constitution should be amended to exclude women pastors because the current constitution gives local churches the autonomy to make their own decisions.

Jared Moore, pastor of Homesteads Baptist Church in Crossville, TN – Rev. Moore has said the SBC “has issues,” but “there is a lot to love about the SBC.” One issue that concerns him is the lack of financial transparency, according to Religion News Service.

Moore specifically points to long-term mismanagement of finances at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Its leaders have admitted to deficit spending of $140 million over several decades, and Moore believes they should be more forthcoming with financial information in the future.

He also said he isn’t eager to expel SBC churches who have female pastors. Religion New Service noted that “close to 2,000 of the SBC’s 47,000 churches may have women with the title of pastor, most in a supporting role.”


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