Pastors who counseled Johnny Hunt say he should return to ministry

Recommendation to restore faces backlash
Southern Baptist Convention President Rev. Johnny Hunt from Woodstock, Ga., addresses members on the final day of their national assembly in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday, June 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Southern Baptist Convention President Rev. Johnny Hunt from Woodstock, Ga., addresses members on the final day of their national assembly in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday, June 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Four pastors who spent months counseling Johnny Hunt are drawing criticism from victim advocates and some Southern Baptist Convention leaders for saying the disgraced evangelical leader is restored and ready to return to ministry.

Hunt, a former SBC president, was named in a landmark third-party investigation by Guidepost Solutions into the mishandling of sex abuse allegations in the denomination after the wife of a fellow pastor claimed he sexually assaulted her in 2010 in a Florida condo.

Hunt denied the allegations of assault or abuse and apologized for what he calls “a brief, but improper encounter” with the woman, who was not identified. He said it was consensual.

The report, released in May, found the allegations to be credible, although Hunt has never been charged with a crime.

The fallout was swift.

Organizers asked Hunt not to participate in the 2023 Great Commission Weekend event at a Florida church.

His title of pastor emeritus is still suspended at the Woodstock church he led for more than three decades and his name has been removed from an academic chair, a five-year bachelor’s degree and other things at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, which Hunt attended.

When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the school via email about the status of those efforts, a school spokeswoman said President Daniel L. Akin’s response was: “Tell her they were removed, will be renamed, and will not be brought back.”

The restoration also did not sit well with current SBC President Bart Barber, who said in a statement that he would “permanently ‘defrock’ Johnny Hunt if I had the authority to do so,” according to articles in the Religion News Service and The Washington Post.

He said SBC churches are autonomous and that he did not have the authority to permanently remove Hunt from ministry.

“Yet it must be said that neither do these four pastors have the authority to declare Johnny Hunt to be “restored.” he said in the statement. “They do not speak for the Southern Baptist Convention. Indeed, it is not clear that they even speak for their own churches.

The four pastors said Hunt, who served more than three decades as senior pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock, and his family have participated in private counseling sessions with a “spiritual care” team.

Over the course of several months, Pastor Steven L. Kyle , senior pastor of Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla, said in a video that Hunt and his family entered into “an intentional and an intense season of transparency, reflection and restoration.”

He said the pastors believed that the “greatest days of ministry for Johnny Hunt are the days ahead.”

The Rev. Jeremy Morton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock, said Hunt’s title of pastor emeritus is still suspended.

In an email. Morton said that the church was not involved in the recent restoration/counseling.

Hunt did not respond to several emails seeking comment, but in the video that included a segment with him and his wife, Janet, he said the counseling left them in a stronger place.

“We are all broken people and yes, it is true, we all need Jesus,” Hunt said.

The counseling was similar to a process that Hunt instituted as pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock years ago, said Kyle, but all parties agreed to move it elsewhere so they could have “space and privacy”.

Other pastors involved in the counseling work were Benny Tate, senior pastor of Rock Springs Church in Milner, Ga.; Mark Hoover, lead pastor of NewSpring Church in Wichita, Kansas and Mike Whitson, of First Baptist in Indian Trail, N.C.

Some were surprised and upset by the recommendation of Hunt’s “restoration.”

“As a victim I am furious,” said David Pittman, who grew up Tucker and now serves as director of the Florida-based Together We Heal, a nonprofit that advocates for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and as a trainer for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). “Where were the victims’ voices in this process?”

Victim advocate and survivor, Christa Brown was also livid about Hunt’s restoration.

“Seven months? Are you kidding me,” said Brown, who is also an attorney. “Whatever it was, it was short. This feels like a stab in the gut...the implicit message to survivors is that what was done to you as a victim doesn’t matter.”

Hunt and his wife of more than 50 years, Janet, underwent the counseling together and Hunt, also separately, according to the video.

Rock Springs pastor Tate, one of the counseling pastors, who at times became emotional, said when he heard about the allegations against Hunt rather than run away from him, “I wanted to run to him. I wanted to help him.”

He said Hunt has help. “I wanted to be a good Samaritan and help my friend,” said Tate.

Tate could not be reached for additional comment.

The Hunts have moved their membership to the church where the restoration took place, according to the video.

This isn’t to say Hunt doesn’t have his supporters.

Michelle Herring of Acworth is a former member of First Baptist Church Woodstock.

She said she raised her children, who are now adults, listening to Hunt preach.

“The biggest sin of all is for Johnny Hunt not to preach,” she said in an interview. “That man knows the Bible and knows how to bring people to God...If his wife can forgive him, who are we to hold anything against him?”