Acting on a recommendation by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Credentials Committee, the SBC Executive Committee (EC) voted Feb. 18 to disfellowship Ranchland Heights Baptist Church of Midland, Texas, from the SBC because of its employment of a lifetime registered sex offender as pastor. The complete text of the Credentials Committee’s recommendation follows this article.
Phillip Rutledge, who was convicted in 2003 of aggravated sexual assault charges against two girls ages 11 and 12, respectively, has been pastor at Ranchland Heights since 2016.
Stacy Bramlett, chairman of the Credentials Committee, called the process “very difficult” because of its weight, but added, “I do believe in what we set in place. I’m very confident it’s working.”
SBC EC President and CEO Ronnie Floyd commended the strong action.
“We have spoken against matters of sexual abuse, and we have taken some major, demonstrative steps as a convention of churches,” Floyd said. “Also, churches are being equipped more effectively in matters related to sexual abuse. … Today, we’ve seen this process in action with the disfellowshipping of (Ranchland Heights).”
Through a change in SBC bylaws, messengers to the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting revised the function of the Credentials Committee, allowing it to receive reports of a church’s suspected departure from Southern Baptist polity, doctrine or practice and to make recommendations to the SBC Executive Committee regarding the possible disfellowship of churches from the SBC.
Ranchland Heights is the first church disfellowshipped in the process. Bramlett declined to discuss other submissions the Credentials Committee may have received.
Ranchland Heights was informed of the EC’s decision in a phone call and subsequent email from EC staff. Calls by Baptist Press to Ranchland Heights and its leadership had not been returned by Tuesday afternoon.
The EC’s decision can be appealed until 30 days before the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting, which begins June 9 in Orlando, Fla. Any appeal would be considered as part of miscellaneous business on the first day of the meeting. But Bramlett said based on the Credentials Committee’s previous interaction with Ranchland Heights, she does not anticipate an appeal.
Although it’s not known what other churches might have been under inquiry by the committee, at least two churches have voluntarily withdrawn from the SBC since February 2019, when SBC president J.D. Greear named 10 churches he said should receive further scrutiny. Those churches were named in articles in a Houston Chronicle series investigating sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches over a period of two decades.
Rutledge was named by the newspaper. After he was named pastor of Ranchland Heights in 2016, one of the church’s deacons told KOSA-TV in Odessa, Texas, “the vast majority” of the church members knew Rutledge was a registered sex offender.
“We make sure children are never by themselves in the sanctuary or any activities alone with the pastor,” D.J. Rambo, a deacon at Ranchland Heights, told KOSA-TV at the time. “He is very cautious of it as well.”
The EC’s action followed the message Greear delivered to EC members Feb. 17, when he said Southern Baptists “are a people who are defined by love and protection of the vulnerable.”
“This is a gospel issue, not a distraction,” Greear continued, “because we know that preaching a gospel about a God who gave His life for His children means doing all we can to make our churches safe places for those children.”
Before considering specific cases, the Credentials Committee first had to create processes and policies. It meets on a monthly basis to review submissions submitted via an online portal, which was established last year. The form may be used to report concerns related to a church’s handling of sexual abuse, racism and various other pertinent issues.
The review process remains private unless action is taken by the EC to disfellowship the church.
The online portal also includes a support phone call in cases related to abuse. The call would be from an outside party trained to assist victims of sexual or other forms of abuse.
Ranchland Heights was among the cases already assigned when the Credentials Committee was established last June. The committee voted Feb. 3 to recommend to the SBC EC that Ranchland Heights “no longer be considered in friendly cooperation with the (SBC) as outlined in SBC Constitution Article III.”
Ranchland Heights last reported 75 members and an average church attendance of 60 in 2017, but reported no Cooperative Program giving.
Bramlett said the Credentials Committee members are continuing “to perfect the process,” and learning as they go, and will make adjustments if necessary with the goal of protecting Southern Baptists.
“You have survivors when there’s sexual abuse, you have churches,” she said. “Every committee member takes it very much to heart.”
Full text of recommendation:
That the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recommend to the SBC Executive Committee that Ranchland Heights Baptist Church in Midland, Tex., no longer be considered in friendly cooperation with the Convention as outlined in SBC Constitution Article III.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – George Shcroeder is associate vice president for convention news at the SBC EC.)