Note: The above diagrams are admittedly simplified, obscuring two things.
First, for most participating churches, their financial contributions do not go directly to the “Cooperative Program” or its entities. Rather, their financial contributions are made to their respective state convention, which then collects some of those funds for its purposes and then passes on the rest to the “Cooperative Program.” It’s not required to give this way. A church can give directly to the “Cooperative Program,” or select “Cooperative Program” entities, by sending their money straight to the Executive Committee and bypassing any state convention.
Secondly, although LifeWay and Guidestone are entities that serve participating churches, they do not actually receive financial support from the “Cooperative Program.” I nonetheless included them here though to make you aware of their existence within the “SBC ecosystem.”
I’ve heard things about abuse in the SBC. What was that all about?
In early 2019, an investigative journalist published a report detailing cases of abuse that occurred in churches that participate in the “Cooperative Program” (often less precisely referred to as “SBC churches”).
Participating churches grew in concern over how abuse was being handled within the association. More and more victims continued to speak up. And suspicions eventually emerged regarding how the Executive Committee (EC) in particular handled (or better, failed to handle) reports of abuse they had received.
So at the 2021 annual Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in June 2021, the church delegates voted to hire an independent entity to conduct a thorough (and very costly) investigation into the Executive Committee’s handling of abuse claims.
Now to clarify, participating churches are independently governed. In other words, no one—not the convention, not the Executive Committee—can make an individual participating church do anything, like handle abuse claims properly. So the specific scandal here is not failure on the part of the convention or EC to stop the abuse in these churches (they can’t do that), or failure to make a church respond to abuse properly (they can’t do that either). The most the convention would do is remove a church from fellowship if it were to act out of line. That abuse occurs in a church, and a church fails to handle it properly, are of course scandals in their own right. Those just aren’t the specific scandal in view here.
The scandal in view here is how the Executive Committee handled reports of abuse it had been receiving. No, they couldn’t do anything to stop the abuse in churches or make participating churches handle things differently. But the Executive Committee could at least use this information (reports) they were receiving to alert the convention so that the association of churches might remove such churches and find ways to work together (as they do) to prevent such things from happening in the future. And this is precisely what the Executive Committee failed to do. They simply sat on the information, claiming they couldn’t do anything because of church autonomy.
The conclusions of this investigation were released in May, just weeks before the 2022 annual SBC. (It’s nearly 400 pages; I’ve read the whole thing.) In it, they report that particular staff members of the Executive Committee were aware of and received claims of abuse. But, following the counsel of their legal aid, they refused to do anything with these complaints. They simply buried them. It was their lawyers’ opinion that, if they took action in response to these claims of abuse, it would imply that the association bears responsibility in these matters, thereby making them and the rest of the convention legally liable. So these committee members were acting out of what they felt were the legal, and thus financial, interests of the association. In other words, they prioritized legal safeguards, and avoiding potential financial losses, over protecting victims and preventing future victims.
To be clear, this scandal, as reported, concerns a select number of former Executive Committee members, not the entire convention, and not even the entire Executive Committee (many Executive Committee members were not even aware any of this was happening).
When participating churches found out this had been going on, most all of them were furious. Their convention votes in response were nearly unanimous. And remember, these churches were the ones who commissioned and paid for the investigation in the first place. In that sense, as bad as it obviously is that these abuses and mishandlings occurred, their investigation and the report itself are good things. In other words, the report is the result of a good and right response to a very bad thing.
Has the SBC taken steps to correct the mishandling of abuse detailed above?
Yes. Although remember, the investigation report was only released weeks before the convention. So admittedly they didn’t have a whole lot of time to research and construct proposed solutions. Most would recognize they took good initial actions, but a good deal of work still needs to be done.
As with almost everything in “SBC life,” there is infighting, and there’s a small (albeit loud and substantial) minority that seems to oppose some of the reform efforts. But they are losing in the votes that matter.
It’s my understanding that all of the Executive Committee members involved in the scandal have now resigned, as well as their legal counsel (lawyers) that were involved.