Southern Baptists face issues including women in pulpit, sex abuse reform

Georgia pastor among two candidates seeking top spot

When more than 12,000 Southern Baptist messengers gather in New Orleans on Tuesday and Wednesday for the 2023 annual meeting they will tackle a host of issues that some say will shape the evangelical denomination in the future.

The hot-button issues focus on women in the pulpit, how the SBC has handled sex abuse reform, and its use of Guidepost Solutions, a third-party investigator, which was condemned for a tweet supporting the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month.

In addition, a Georgia minister, the Rev. Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear and former chairman of the denomination’s executive committee, is making his second bid to lead the Southern Baptist Convention. He is campaigning to take it further to the right than it is already.

The convention and election are shaping up to be a battle between the “very conservative” and the “pretty conservative”, said Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.

“The SBC is a microcosm of what’s going on in America,” he said. “I think this is between Trump style versus George Bush style candidates. "

[Griffin church mistakenly ousted by SBC for female pastor]

Stone is running against Bart Barber, the current president and Texas pastor. Barber is also a conservative and thinks that homosexuality a sin and abortion is wrong. Yet Barber has also led the way on sexual abuse reforms.

“There’s a lot of serious issues to walk through next week,” said Maina Mwaura, an Atlanta-based reporter for Baptist News Global and author. “This will decide whether they stand on the island alone or whether they want others. I truly think that if they’re not careful there will be no boat back to the mainline. You can’t ignore secular culture and they are ignoring culture.”

The SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with roughly 13 million members, down from a peak of more than 16 million in 2006, said Burge, who has tracked membership in the SBC.

According to the Georgia Baptist Convention, there are more than 1.2 million Southern Baptists in the state and 3,400 local autonomous churches.

It’s been a roller coast ride, Burge said, where the SBC “got to the top, sat there for a second, slowly started to decline then accelerated. In the last three years it lost 1.3 million members.”

Two of the biggest factors are the number of people who aren’t affiliated with a particular religion, may be agnostic or atheists and the growth of nondenominational churches, said Burge.

“It’s harder and harder to get younger people in the door anymore. They’re not listening to you, Burge said.

Last year, the sex abuse scandal dominated the headlines before the annual meeting in Anaheim. This year, it’s likely to be women in the pulpit.

[Former SBC President Johnny Hunt sues denomination, others for defamation]

In February, the SBC California’s Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. were removed from the denomination for allowing women to preach or serve as lead pastors. Both churches are appealing.

The denomination prohibits women from serving as the senior or lead pastor. Many were surprised that Saddleback — the denomination’s second-largest congregation — was among those dropped.

Saddleback was founded by Rick Warren, an influential pastor, much sought-after speaker and author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life.” Warren, who retired as senior pastor in 2022, will address the convention on Tuesday

Josh Saefkow, pastor of Fayetteville’s Flat Creek Baptist Church and president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, agrees with the SBC policy on women. “One of the beautiful things about being part of a big family is we have disagreements and walk out of this unified, he said. “What unifies us is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Jim Conrad whose church was ousted from the SBC, was surprised when Saddleback was also removed.

Not long ago, “no one would have ever questioned Rick Warren’s conservative credentials,” said Conrad, pastor of Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, which was removed from the rolls in 2021 over its full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

But he sees an extreme right faction exerting its influence over his former denomination.

“I don’t know the way forward for the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Conrad, whose church is now part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “I think they have to find ways to present themselves as ministry-focused or people-focused rather than continually being defined by what they’re against. That doesn’t resonate for people under 40 and certainly not those under 30.”.

It’s a long brewing issue.

“It’s sad that it’s still an issue,” said the Rev. Mimi Walker, senior pastor of the Church at Ponce & Highland in Atlanta. The Georgia Baptist Convention decided in 2010 to remove Druid Hills Baptist Church, later renamed the Church at Ponce & Highland, from its rolls because Walker served as co-pastor with her husband, Graham, who is a professor at Mercer University.

“It shouldn’t be after all these years..,” she said. “Members of that organization are trying to maintain that stance. They call it complementarianism, but it’s still keeping women subservient to men,” Walker said.

A third church, Freedom Church in Vero Beach, Florida, is appealing their removal over concerns they did not satisfactorily resolve an abuse allegation.

Sex abuse reform is another issue also likely to command attention at the gathering,

During the annual meeting messengers will get their first look at the new website that addresses sex abuse reform, according to the “Baptist Press,” the house organ for the SBC.

The website will provide information to help prevent and report abuse and how to care for victims. There will also be a searchable database of those credibly accused in local SBC churches.

A 2022 report of alleged abusers in SBC churches named 34 people who pastored, worked in or volunteered at churches in Georgia.

Among those named was Georgia Pastor Johnny Hunt, a former SBC president, who allegedly sexually assaulted the wife of a former pastor. Hunt said it was consensual and is suing the denomination, the executive committee and Guidepost Solutions alleging defamation and invasion of privacy.

The report by Guidepost found SBC leaders mishandled complaints about sexual abuse allegations and mistreated or ignored victims.

The denomination has instituted a number of reforms including establishment of a hotline for victims to report alleged abuse, and

Saefkow, of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said sex abuse is something that the denomination should and has taken seriously.

“I think the convention has done a good job and raised awareness among its autonomous churches about this matter and the need to protect the most vulnerable in our churches.”

The Rev. Tommy Fountain Sr., senior pastor of 1025 Church in Monroe, supports Stone as president and hopes that the conservative resurgence continues unabated.

While he supports efforts to address sexual abuse in the denomination, he’s not a fan of Guidepost “in the sense they are much more liberal in their view of the homosexual lifestyle and most of us who are Southern Baptist stand true to Scripture that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Fountain said, “As Southern Baptists, we have to get back to focusing on evangelism and missions.”