The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee (EC) announced Oct. 16 that it is reorganizing its communications department and seeking new editorial leadership for its news outlet, Baptist Press.
The announcement came the day after Baptist Press apologized for mishandling a news report about sex abuse allegations brought by LifeWay employee Jennifer Lyell against David Sills, former professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
EC President Ronnie Floyd said changes were needed to “create a healthier culture” both inside the organization and across the national convention of churches.
Jonathan Howe, the EC’s new vice president for communications, said the organization is developing policies to ensure Baptist Press reports on sex abuse and other important topics “with the greatest integrity, truth and accuracy.”
Sing Oldham, who formerly served as vice president for communications, transitioned to vice president for convention relations on Sept. 5.
The EC had already seen three key staff departures in the months preceding the reorganization announcement: David Roach, former national correspondent; Art Toalston, former senior editor who retired Sept. 30; and Augie Boto, former EC executive vice president who also retired Sept. 30. Boto served as interim president for 13 months prior to Floyd's arrival May 20.
The editor position, held by Shawn Hendricks, was deleted as part of the restructure, an EC spokesperson told the Biblical Recorder on Oct. 16.
Baptist Press reported Oct. 28 that Oldham and Ken Weathersby, vice president for convention advancement, were retiring in the coming weeks.
In early 2019, Lyell alleged in a statement to Baptist Press that Sills first “sexually acted against” her in 2004 while she was a seminary student, and continued to sexually abuse her for more than a decade.
The article published by Baptist Press on March 8 described the situation with generic language – calling it a “morally inappropriate relationship” – that led many readers to believe Lyell and Sills were in a consensual affair. Lyell said she has experienced harassment due to the misreporting of her allegations, and the situation has “resulted in significant loss, harm and pain.”
Baptist Press admitted the error Oct. 15 and said “un-Christlike slurs” were even hurled at Lyell in comments on its social media posts linking to the article.
The news outlet also admitted that an early draft of the story “clearly communicated the emotional and sexual abuse” according to Lyell’s allegations. Roach, the reporter who authored the draft, told the Recorder he “sought to be fair and accurate.”
Lyell claimed it was the “leadership” of Boto, Hendricks and Oldham that led to “inaccurate reporting.” Multiple sources either declined to comment or could not confirm Boto, Hendricks or Oldham’s involvement in the editorial process. Neither Hendricks nor Boto could be reached for comment. When the Recorder asked for comment from Floyd and Oldham, an EC spokesperson referred to the latest statement from Baptist Press.
The controversial news article was removed from BPnews.net on July 30. Lyell said she has appealed unsuccessfully to both Floyd and Oldham for Baptist Press to issue a correction and repost the article.
In addition to criticism about the March 8 news article, the EC has also come under scrutiny for its initial response to SBC President J.D. Greear’s public call to address sex abuse, coverups and lack of care for victims in Southern Baptist churches.
In a presentation to the EC on Feb. 18, Greear asked the bylaws workgroup of the administrative committee to review the standing of 10 churches that were named in news reports. The bylaws workgroup called special meetings Feb. 22-23 and determined only three of the 10 churches warranted “further inquiry.”
Rodney Brown, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Ashburn, Ga., one of the churches taken off the “further inquiry needed” list, said in a sermon the following week that two SBC leaders also called to “apologize” for Greear’s actions. Those leaders were Boto, who was interim president at the time, and Thomas Hammond, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
Rachael Denhollander, a sex abuse survivor, advocate and member of Greear’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, has criticized the EC publicly for allegedly undermining Greear’s call to action.
EC Chairman Mike Stone, a sex abuse survivor, told the Recorder the SBC’s newly formed Credentials Committee is “working prayerfully and intently” to establish an inquiry process and develop procedures for “dealing compassionately” with individuals who report misconduct.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – The Biblical Recorder posted the March 8 news story by Baptist Press shortly after its publication, but revised the article to accurately reflect Jennifer Lyell’s allegations the same day after receiving her full statement.)