Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]
February 17, 2023
By Mark Wingfield
An Indiana pastor who reported two congregations to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Credentials Committee for platforming accused sexual abuser Johnny Hunt has resigned from the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.
Todd Benkert’s sudden resignation from the task force came just two days after one of the reported congregations, Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City Beach, Fla., declared it would not be accountable to the Credentials Committee and cast doubt on the report of an independent investigation that found credible evidence Hunt abused a pastor’s wife shortly after ending his term as SBC president.
Despite Hunt’s fall from grace in the SBC and his resignation as executive vice president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, there remains a group of Hunt allies and friends in the SBC who have denied the documented allegations against him or downplayed their significance.
Benkert is not among those. Instead, he has been a fierce ally of abuse victims and has repeatedly called for the SBC to be more accountable and transparent.
Publicly, the concern expressed by Benkert’s critics is that a member of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Forceshould not have been the one to report a church to the Credentials Committee. Thus, the concern is procedural.
Privately, Benkert has been a thorn in the side of a group of SBC pastors who deny the reality of the denomination’s sexual abuse crisis and have worked to discredit the independent investigator, Guidepost Solutions. Some of these far-right Southern Baptists have called Benkert a “liberal” or a “Marxist” or “woke” because he has spoken relentlessly in support of abuse victims.
Benkert serves as pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Ind. Two years ago, he was among those who called for an investigation into the SBC’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases. When SBC leaders at the 2021 annual meeting attempted to shuffle the request off to an existing committee for review, Benkert went to a microphone and challenged that action, forcing a vote that overruled the platform leaders and created the independent investigation.
Even that wasn’t enough, however, to stop some denominational leaders from attempting to scuttle the independent investigation. Over the next three months, leadership of the SBC Executive Committee ended up in a showdown with Benkert and others who insisted an “independent investigation” meant the Executive Committee would have to relinquish control and oversight of the investigation of the Executive Committee. This ultimately led to the resignation of the Executive Committee’s two top staff members and a number of trustees.
When Hunt was named specifically in the Guidepost report — including graphic detail of an alleged incident with a pastor’s wife in a Florida beach condo — Hunt’s network of defenders jumped to condemn Guidepost as unreliable.
That drumbeat of criticism has continued for eight months now. And Hunt continues to make headlines because he has refused to step aside from the spotlight even though he is 70 years old. Rather than quietly sliding into retirement, Hunt appointed his own committee of four male pastors who in short order declared him “restored” and fit to return to ministry.
That did not set well with elected leadership of the SBC, including President Bart Barber who, like Benkert, has been a consistent ally of abuse victims. Barber said Hunt should be “defrocked.”
But Hiland Park Pastor Steven Kyle invited Hunt to preach at his church and to lead a men’s conference at a mission congregation of Hiland Park. Hunt and his wife, Janet, own a $1.7 million condo in Panama City Beach. After the Woodstock, Ga., church Hunt served as pastor for three decades disowned him over the abuse allegations, he moved his membership to Hiland Park — even though he owns another million-dollar residence in Woodstock, too.
New Season Church in Hiram, Ga., also invited Hunt to lead a men’s retreat and preach. The pastor at New Season Church is Steven Flockhart, who in 2006 was forced to resign as pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach after church members learned he had lied on his resume. It was true, however, that he had been highly recommended to the church by his mentor, Johnny Hunt.
Hiland Park and New Season are the two churches Benkert reported to the SBC Credentials Committee, asking the committee to investigate whether they should be declared out of fellowship with the SBC for platforming an accused sexual abuser.
According to SBC rules, any member of an SBC church may submit information to the Credentials Committee. The rub here is that Benkert isn’t just any person. Although he acted as an individual, he is known as a member of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.
In a brief statement announcing his resignation Feb. 17, Benkert said he had joined the task force “in order to speak to the task force rather than speaking for the task force.”
Now, “in order to maintain my ability to speak and act according to my conscience on these issues without representing the task force, it is clear I can best support survivors and advance reform in my role as an advocate rather than a task force member.”
Benkert said he will continue to advocate for “broader reform measures across our convention of churches.”
Task force chairman Marshall Blalock issued a three-sentence statement thanking Benkert for his service and his passion to help abuse survivors.