Nine months after The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) professor David Sills resigned for undisclosed reasons, a woman has released a statement of allegations including details of what she describes as sexual abuse by Sills, beginning while she was a Southern Seminary student.
In a release to Baptist Press (BP) and others, Jennifer Lyell, now 41 and director of the books ministry area at LifeWay Christian Resources, alleges Sills initiated sexual contact with her on a mission trip in 2004. At the time, she was a 26-year-old master of divinity student, and the alleged relationship continued until she was 38, spanning a period in which Lyell moved from Louisville, Ky., to Chicago and then to Nashville, she told BP. She graduated from Southern with a master of divinity in 2006 and enrolled in an SBTS doctoral program for one year after that.
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told Baptist Press he could not disclose why Sills’ employment at the seminary ended. But Mohler confirmed that Lyell shared allegations with him in May 2018 and that Southern, as Lyell stated, “immediately took action.”
Lyell said in her statement, “The denominational institutions, the local church, and the missions agency [Sills led] ultimately believed me, supported me, and took the action for which they were responsible.”
Baptist Press reported Sills’ resignation in June 2018 based on reporting by North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder news journal, which cited a statement from the seminary affirming that Mohler “received the resignation of Dr. David Sills from the Southern Seminary faculty on May 23, 2018.”
It further stated, “Southern Seminary is committed to the highest standards of both principle and policy. Our policies and procedures are clear and are consistently applied. Because this is a personnel matter, we cannot comment further.”
Sills, former professor of missions and cultural anthropology at Southern, did not respond to request for comment.
Part of Lyell’s reason for being "compliant at times" and remaining silent for as long as she did, she stated, was because she “became like part of [Sills’] family” and feared “the collateral damage that telling would cause for those around him.” In her statement, Lyell accused Sills of “grooming and taking advantage of his student.”
Lyell first disclosed the situation to a therapist in March 2016, she said. Just over two years later, she stated the allegations to then-LifeWay Senior Vice President Eric Geiger and Mohler.
“When I shared what had happened to me with my boss at LifeWay [Geiger] and then later with SBTS President Dr. R. Albert Mohler, I was quick to also share the responsibility I bore for being compliant at times, for not telling immediately and for so idolizing the idea of a whole family that I protected it despite what was happening within it,” Lyell said. “I am not a sinless victim. But I am a victim nonetheless.”
Geiger, senior pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif., confirmed to BP that Lyell shared her allegations with him. Geiger told Lyell he was “responsible to share” the allegations with Southern and invited her to participate in the process, Geiger recounted to Baptist Press. The same day, Geiger and Lyell contacted Mohler, he said.
Mohler said his “encouragement from the start in any case such as this is that authorities be contacted” and that only law enforcement should judge whether laws may have been violated in such situations. Yet victims who are not minors must decide for themselves whether to contact authorities, he said. Lyell told Baptist Press she has attempted to contact the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Special Victims Unit.
Mohler commended Lyell’s courage in coming forward. “I stand behind her in [her public statement] and believe she is acting righteously,” he told BP.
The Louisville, Ky., church where Sills was a member, Lyell said, also “took action” following Sills’ resignation.
Louisville’s Ninth and O Baptist Church told BP it is the congregation referenced in Lyell’s statement. The church said it acted “swiftly and firmly” and that Sills is no longer a member.
Sills also served as an International Mission Board (IMB) trustee and a member of the IMB’s presidential search committee. He resigned from his trustee post, and as a result from the search committee, in May 2018.
Lyell decided to make her allegations public, she said, when she “learned that Dr. Sills had been appointed as a missionary with a non-SBC missions agency.”
“I now realize that despite SBTS handling the situation justly and as I asked – without stating the reason for his resignation – it led to the exact kind of scenario the SBC is now trying to prevent,” she said.
“If I were not to come forward with this [statement], a church or ministry who receives Dr. Sills’ [resume] and does an internet search for him would have no way to know the truth behind his resignation. There are plenty of reasons to stay silent in a situation such as this. But we must not be silent.”
Geiger said he contacted the other missions agency – which he identified as Global Outreach International – and they removed Sills from their employment.
In June, BP reported Sills also had resigned as president of Reaching and Teaching International Ministries, a missions organization that engages in discipleship and theological education internationally. Lyell is a former Reaching and Teaching International board member.
Reaching and Teaching International told BP in a statement that they are aware of a statement by Lyell regarding her allegations and “are committed to ensuring a culture of transparency and accountability.”
Lyell said, “It is my hope that my story, one in which a SBC entity and its leaders acted swiftly and justly … but in which that same individual was also in a ministry position only months later, will also help to illustrate the need for some form of a reporting tool that can ensure that those who have victimized others from a ministry position are unable to ever do so again.”
(EDITOR'S NOTE – This story has been edited by Biblical Recorder staff.)