New podcast: Those Southern Baptist sex-abuse battles are not just about Southern Baptists

Get Religion

October 8, 2021

By Terry Mattingly

The Southern Baptist Convention’s ongoing fights about how to handle sexual-abuse claims against ministers and other church personnel and volunteers is a perfect example of the kind of story that drives newspaper editors crazy.

It’s big and complicated and it seems like something crazy or important (or both) happens every other day. But it also seems like it’s impossible to yank a big, dramatic headline out of this sprawling, complicated story.

The story never seems to end and the amount of background material needed — in story after story after story — makes it impossible to cover this stuff in tidy 500-word stories. But if a newsroom skips a few of the major developments, that makes it even harder to get back in the game and explain to readers what is happening. Oh, and did I mention that newsroom managers pretty much have to assign a reporter to this story full-time or near full-time? That’s expensive in this day and age. Obviously, this reporter has to have religion-beat experience and speak fluent Southern Baptist.

At the same time, in my experience, there will almost always be one or two editors who say (or think) something like this: “I know the SBC is huge and there are billions of dollars involved and we have lots of Southern Baptist churches (and maybe a college) in our news territory, but … I don’t ‘get’ why this story really matters to average readers. I mean, it’s not about sports or politics or something important (to me).”

As a Charlotte editor once told me, when I was poised to break a national-level SBC story in the early 1980s: Nobody reads this stuff but fanatics and every time you write about it we get too many letters to the editor.

This brings us to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on why the SBC’s struggles with sexual-abuse are important, and NOT just to Southern Baptists (click here to tune that in). The key is to identify major stories LINKED to sexual-abuse scandals that involve ethical, moral, legal and theological issues that can be seen in religious groups of all kinds (and many secular nonprofits and organizations as well). To illustrate this, let me tell you a story about an important evangelical counseling pioneer — the late Dr. Louis McBurney, founder of the Marble Retreat Center in Colorado.

McBurney was a Mayo Clinic level doctor and counselor who worked with “crashed” clergy and their spouses, trying to save marriages. Anxiety, stress and workaholism (and crazy church members) were big issues. As one pastor put it: “There’s nothing wrong with my church that wouldn’t be solved by a few well-placed funerals.” See this 2009 “On Religion” tribute to McBurney: “Memory eternal: Healer for the healers.”

The bottom line: The vast majority of the cases he handled also involved sexual affairs and related issues, since that was what “crashed” the system in most churches. Let me stress that sexual-abuse was not involved in all or even most of these cases. But, to say the least, there were cases — especially those involving youth ministers — in which all kinds of lines were being blurred.

Many of the problems involved a trend — “pastoral counseling” — that, starting in the 1970s or thereabouts, began to shape the lives of pastors in every imaginable religious tradition. The whole idea was that pastors could — sometimes with little or no formal training — serve as “counselors” for troubled members of their flocks. This often left male clergy one-on-one with women who needed help facing a marriage or family crisis. Many pastors, to be blunt, were not trained to handle this. In that 2009 column I put it this way:

Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be “as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper,” McBurney said.

You can imagine many other variations on that scene, including pastors helping hide abuse in families and failing to help women get the professional, or even legal, help that they needed.

Abuse? Hiding abuse? In many cases, yes.

The “pastoral counseling” puzzle is a story — a big story in churches, synagogues and other religious institutions from coast to coast.

Let me note several other trends that we discussed in this podcast.

* The SBC is America’s largest non-Catholic denomination — but there are thousands of other Baptist bodies and independent Baptist congregations, as well. Why does this matter? Here is a chunk of an essential “explainer” piece (“A brief guide to the Southern Baptist meltdown over sexual abuse”) by religion-beat (and Nashville) veteran Bob Smietana:

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church or other denominations with a strong hierarchy, national leaders of the SBC have little control over what happens in local churches, including the hiring and firing of pastors and other staff. While SBC leaders have condemned abuse, they’ve long claimed that no direct denominational action is possible.

However, it may be possible for victims to sue individual SBC related institutions that hid abuse cases, such as local congregations, colleges, seminaries, mission agencies and, yes, the SBC’s executive committee. These individual institutions have budgets and properties and, well, they had better have insurance policies linked to counseling and abuse.

* Sexual-abuse cases in Baptist settings are a window into the fastest growing sector of the American religious marketplace — totally independent and non-denominational churches and megachurches with ZERO legal ties to any larger body. They may be charismatic, evangelical, Reformed or whatever. The reality is that victims may have few, if any, options in terms of getting help from denominational leaders or authority structures.

* There are other major Protestant bodies with congregational structures and polity similar to the SBC, including the Churches of Christ, the Assemblies of God, evangelical Presbyterian denominations, etc. Similar legal structures may equal similar legal questions in abuse cases.

* Denominations in which bishops or regional bodies ordain all clergy and play a major role in their appointment to local congregations may be even more vulnerable, in terms of legal ties that bind them to abuse cases. Obviously, we have seen this in the Roman Catholic scandals, but there are similar patterns in other hierarchical churches (think Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.)

* As I said, flaws in “pastoral counseling” is an important story in many settings. So is the role of lawyers who urge victims to sign nondisclosure agreements. Do many religious bodies have written policies on this matter?

I could go on and on. Journalists (especially editors) need to read the Smietana piece mentioned earlier, to “get” the SBC basics. I hope journalists can note some of the story prompts linked to the issues I have listed in this post. Needless to say, local, regional and national religious leaders need to be wrestling with many of these issues, as well.

The sexual-abuse crisis is much, much bigger than a “Southern Baptist” story.