The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee (EC) will consider in June revising its proposed constitutional amendment on sex abuse and racism, and may recommend a new standing committee to assess claims of misconduct against churches.
Photo by Jim Veneman
In a cooperative effort, the SBC Bylaws Workgroup drafted the revisions, EC officers provided input and various leaders reviewed them, expressly SBC President J.D. Greear, EC President and CEO Ronnie Floyd, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, and Sexual Abuse Advisory Study participant Rachael Denhollander.
Bylaw changes would entail renaming and repurposing the current Credentials Committee into a Registration Committee, and naming a new standing Credentials Committee to assess claims of church misconduct brought at annual meetings and at other times during the year for alleged departures from Southern Baptist polity, doctrine or practice, and make recommendations to the EC.
“Over the last year,” Greear said, “it has become clear the SBC needs a clearer process for responding to abuse, as well as qualified individuals speaking into the process who ensure that we are a convention of churches who adhere to the legal standards of reporting abuse.
“This standing credentials committee is an important step in that direction,” Greear told Baptist Press. “This committee would be charged with handling any issues that may arise as to whether a church is in cooperation with the SBC, including (but not limited to) complaints of sexual abuse.
“This committee should inquire whether a church has cooperated fully with civil authorities as prescribed in Romans 13 and that it has fulfilled its Matthew 18 pastoral responsibilities,” Greear continued. “We must ensure that this committee contain qualified individual(s) who have experience in responding to abuse and caring for survivors.”
At its June 10 meeting in Birmingham preceding the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting, the EC will consider revising a proposed constitutional amendment the group unanimously adopted in February to define a cooperating church.
To establish a new standing Credentials Committee to assess misconduct claims, the EC would recommend to messengers revisions to SBC Bylaw 8 regarding Messenger Credentials and Registration, SBC Bylaw 15 governing the Committee on Nominations, and SBC Bylaw 29 on Participation in Convention Affairs.
Floyd has been working with other SBC leaders to build unity in addressing sexual abuse since before his April 2 election as EC president, he told Baptist Press (BP).
“The Southern Baptist Convention must get this right,” Floyd told BP. “Unquestionably, we must make a clear, compassionate, convictional, and compelling statement about this issue in every way we can. Every church must be a safe zone for our children. I am grateful President J. D. Greear, joined by Russell Moore and the ERLC staff and the individuals who have advised them, has made this a defining issue of his presidency.”
Under the new constitutional revision before the EC in June to be recommended to messengers at the annual meeting, according to documents provided to BP, “The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work (i.e., a ‘cooperating’ church as that term is used in the Convention’s governing documents) which: … – (4) Does not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse,” and “(5) Does not act to affirm, approve or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”
Establishing the new committee would be an “excellent step in addressing issues related to church sexual abuse,” Moore told BP.
“No one policy in a church or in a denomination is enough, but this is a monumental advance, as part of a larger, concerted effort at education, equipping, and response. As Baptists, we cooperate together on the basis of shared doctrine and a shared mission,” Moore said. “Having a better process for helping us to know when a church is or is not in friendly cooperation is positive and healthy. That’s especially true when it comes to churches that are negligent, or complicit, in the abuse of vulnerable people.
“This is not a one-year issue, but an ongoing project requiring constant vigilance and reform,” Moore said, expressing gratitude in working with Greear, Floyd and others. “I am thankful for this great move in such a direction, and I support it wholeheartedly.”
Any constitutional amendment the EC proposes would require a two-thirds approval of messengers at both the 2019 and 2020 SBC annual meetings. But the creation of the new Credentials Committee would only require messenger approval in 2019. Both proposed recommendations were emailed to the full EC May 30.
“The Executive Committee’s role,” Floyd said, “is to craft the language of our governing documents for the convention’s consideration, which is only part of a comprehensive approach of defining who we are and where we stand on the horrible evil of sexual abuse.
“I applaud the tireless efforts of our EC officers, staff, and bylaws workgroup for everything they have done to get us to this moment of consensus,” Floyd said. “I gladly stand with J. D. Greear, Russell Moore, and EC Chairman Mike Stone in affirming these changes to our constitution and bylaws.”
Stone also affirmed progress made to date in addressing sexual abuse.
“On March 4, I wrote in Baptist Press that the issue of sexual abuse presented an ‘all hands-on-deck’ and ‘all family members on their knees’ moment for the Southern Baptist Convention. In the last 3½ months, we have worked diligently to help lead Southern Baptists on a clear and unified path forward. Like Dr. Floyd, I am especially grateful for the tireless efforts of the staff, officers, and bylaws workgroup of the Executive Committee.
“My prayer is that Southern Baptists will gather in Birmingham with an unshakable spirit of unity, resolve, and humility,” Stone said. “As we take decisive action to help protect children, resource churches and keep the gospel above all, I am confident these proposals are ones around which virtually all Southern Baptists can unite to the glory of God.”
Denhollander, an attorney and advocate, expressed encouragement in response to the proposals the EC will consider in Birmingham.
“I am encouraged by this action as an important first step for Southern Baptists to begin creating a transparent process for responding to issues of sexual abuse,” said Denhollander, an abuse survivor who was the first gymnast to go public with charges against Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor convicted of serial abuse. “The test of conviction and commitment will be, of course, not just establishing an accountable process but the carrying out of that process in protecting people and standing clearly on abuse. I urge Southern Baptists to ensure a good process is carried out by qualified individuals.”
Floyd expressed gratitude for Denhollander’s work.
“I am pleased that Rachael Denhollander, who has provided such leadership and input to the presidential sexual abuse study initiative, sees this as an important part of the convention’s continuing work to address this matter,” Floyd told BP.
The proposed constitutional amendment stems from Greear’s release in February of the findings and recommendations of a Sexual Abuse Presidential Advisory Study he initiated in 2018. Greear announced 10 calls to action, including amending SBC governing documents to define the mishandling of abuse as a basis for disfellowshiping a church, and conducting background checks on all SBC trustees and standing committee members.
As approved in February, the original proposed constitutional amendment would have defined a cooperating church as one that, “has not been determined by the Executive Committee to have evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse that targets minors and other vulnerable persons and in caring for persons who have suffered because of sexual abuse.”
“Indifference,” according to the February proposal, “can be evidenced by, among other things, (a) employing a convicted sex offender, (b) allowing a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer in contact with minors, (c) continuing to employ a person who unlawfully concealed from law enforcement information regarding the sexual abuse of any person by an employee or volunteer of the church, or (d) willfully disregarding compliance with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.”
Regarding a constitutional amendment on racism, the proposal the EC adopted in February would only deem a church in friendly cooperation that “has not acted to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”
Proposed Credentials Committee
Nine members would comprise the Credentials Committee including the SBC registration secretary, the EC chair, three people nominated by the EC, and four people nominated by the SBC Committee on Nominations. Members excluding the registration secretary and EC chair would serve three year terms in a staggered rotation, according to the recommendation given to Baptist Press, and the committee would select its own chair.
The amendment as proposed would establish operating guidelines for the committee to inquire about claims made during annual meetings and at other times during the year, including guidelines for presenting its findings to the EC or messengers.
When charges are brought at annual meetings challenging a church’s cooperation and subsequent right to seat messengers, the messengers in question would be seated while the EC considers the Credential Committee’s findings and messengers weigh in, according to the proposal.
“When debate is concluded, the Convention may decide whether the church is a cooperating church or refer the matter to the Executive Committee for further review and a decision,” the proposal reads. “Unless the Convention decides that the church is not a cooperating church, messengers from the church shall be registered and seated in accordance with the Convention’s rules.”
Churches deemed not in cooperation may appeal their status to the convention, according to the proposal. Additionally, churches that take corrective actions regarding claims against them may apply to the Credentials Committee for a reconsideration of their status.
The EC would provide “appropriate staff and legal assistance” for the Credentials Committee to conduct its duties.
The full bylaw recommendation before the EC is included hereafter as written.
“Upon adoption of the above recommendation, SBC Bylaw 8. Messenger Credentials and Registration; SBC Bylaw 15. Committee on Nominations (Section B); and SBC Bylaw 29. Participation in Convention Affairs would read as follows:
8. Messenger Credentials, Registration Committee, and Credentials Committee:
A. Messenger Credentials: Each person elected by a church cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention as messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention shall be registered as a messenger to the Convention upon presentation of proper credentials. Credentials shall be presented by each messenger, in person, at the Convention registration desk and shall be in the following form:
(1) A completed, properly authorized, official Southern Baptist Convention registration document, certifying the messenger’s election in accordance with Article III. Composition, of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention; but if the messenger does not have the messenger registration document,
(2) A letter from the messenger’s church, signed by the pastor, clerk or moderator of the church, certifying the messenger’s election in accordance with Article III. Composition, of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention; or
(3) Some other document (which may include a fax, e-mail, or other physical or electronically transmitted document) from the messenger’s church which is deemed reliable by the Registration Committee or qualifies under guidelines approved by the registration secretary and the Registration Committee.
Messengers registered in accordance with this section shall constitute the Convention.
B. Registration Committee: The president of the Convention, in consultation with the vice presidents, shall appoint, at least thirty (30) days before the annual session, a Registration Committee to serve at the forthcoming sessions of the Convention. The registration secretary shall convene the Registration Committee at least one day prior to the annual meeting to supervise the registration of messengers, to oversee the operations of the registration desk, and to rule upon any questions which may arise in registration concerning the credentials of messengers.
C. Credentials Committee: The Credentials Committee, a standing committee, shall be composed of the registration secretary, the chair of the Executive Committee, three members nominated by the Executive Committee, and four members nominated by the Committee on Nominations. Committee members may serve simultaneously on another board, institution, commission, or committee of the Convention or as a member of the Executive Committee. The names of the Executive Committee chair and the members nominated by the Executive Committee shall appear in the Committee on Nomination’s report to the annual meeting, along with the names of members being nominated by the Committee on Nominations, for election by the Convention. Members other than the registration secretary and the Executive Committee chair shall serve a term of three (3) years. The committee shall elect its own chair. Members of the Credentials Committee shall be divided into three groups of three persons each with the registration secretary and the Executive Committee chair assigned to different groups. The term of office of one of the three groups shall expire each year. A member’s term of office shall begin and expire at the conclusion of the Convention’s annual meeting. Members having served one full term of three (3) years shall not be eligible for re-election until as much as one (1) year has elapsed after the last term of service has concluded. Vacancies occurring on the committee between annual meetings shall be filled by the Executive Committee, provided that any vacancy shall be filled only until the next annual meeting.
(1) The Credentials Committee shall meet on the call of its chair or of any two of its members after reasonable notice of the time and place for the meeting. Meetings and reports of the committee may be private or public in order to maintain the degree of confidentiality which is appropriate under the circumstances to serve the best interests of the Convention and individual churches. When practical, meetings shall be held in conjunction with meetings of the Executive Committee or electronically. The committee may meet by teleconference, videoconference, or any other lawful means. Appropriate staff and legal assistance shall be provided for the Credentials Committee by the Executive Committee.
(2) When, during an annual meeting, an issue arises whether a church is in cooperation with the Convention, the Credentials Committee shall consider the matter and review any information available to it. The committee shall either: (a) consider the question in the manner described in section (3)a below and, when prepared, recommend any action to the Executive Committee, in which case messengers from the church shall be seated pending any action by the Executive Committee; or (b) at the earliest opportunity, recommend to the Convention whether the church should be considered a cooperating church. The Convention shall immediately consider the committee’s recommendation. One representative of the church under consideration and one representative of the Credentials Committee shall be permitted to speak to the question, subject to the normal rules of debate. When debate is concluded, the Convention may decide whether the church is a cooperating church or refer the matter to the Executive Committee for further review and a decision. Unless the Convention decides that the church is not a cooperating church, messengers from the church shall be registered and seated in accordance with the Convention’s rules.
(3) When an issue arises between annual meetings whether a church is in cooperation with the Convention, the Credentials Committee shall consider the matter and review any information available to it.
a. If the committee forms the opinion that a church is not in friendly cooperation with the Convention as described in Article III, Composition, of the Constitution, the committee shall submit to the Executive Committee a report stating that opinion and the committee’s reasons for its opinion. The Executive Committee shall, at its next meeting, consider the report of the Credentials Committee and determine whether the church is in cooperation with the Convention. The Executive Committee’s decision shall be final unless the church appeals the decision to the Convention during the next annual meeting.
b. A church which has been found not to be in cooperation may appeal the decision to the Convention by submitting a written appeal to the chair of the Credentials Committee at least 30 days prior to the Convention’s annual meeting. The Credentials Committee chair shall immediately notify the Credentials Committee, the chair of the Committee on Order of Business, and the President that an appeal to the Convention has been lodged.
c. The registration secretary shall notify the Convention of the appeal in the initial registration report to the Convention.
d. The Convention shall consider the appeal during a time established for miscellaneous business on the afternoon of the first day of the Convention. The question before the messengers will be “Shall the decision of the Credentials Committee and the Executive Committee that [name of the church in question]; is not in cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention be sustained?” One representative of the church under consideration and one representative of the Credentials Committee or Executive Committee shall be permitted to speak to the question, subject to the normal rules of debate. When debate is concluded, the Convention shall vote whether to sustain the Executive Committee’s ruling. If the ruling of the Executive Committee is reversed, messengers from the church shall immediately be registered and seated in accordance with the Convention’s rules.
(4) If a church which has been found not to be in cooperation with the Convention addresses the issues which led to that finding, it may apply to the Credentials Committee for a reconsideration of its status. If the circumstances warrant, the Credentials Committee may recommend to the Executive Committee that the church be once again considered a cooperating church.
(5) The committee may make inquiries of a church, but shall never attempt to exercise any authority over a church through an investigation or other process that would violate Article IV of the Constitution.
15. Committee on Nominations:
B. The Committee on Nominations thus elected shall prepare its report through the year, carefully following the provisions of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Convention and the documents of the respective Convention entities, and shall recommend to the next Convention the following:
(1) Members of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention
(2) Directors/trustees of the boards of the Convention
(3) Trustees of the institutions of the Convention
(4) Trustees of the commissions of the Convention
(5) Members of any standing committees, except certain members of the Credentials Committee as expressly provided by Bylaw 8.
29. Participation in Convention Affairs. To promote broad participation in the affairs of the Convention, a person need not be a registered messenger to serve as a Convention committee member or volunteer (such as an usher or teller), but must be a member of a church cooperating with the Convention.