Deacon calls on Immanuel Baptist pastor to resign over handling of abuse claims

Magnolia Banner News [Magnolia, AR]

January 17, 2024

By Frank E Lockwood

Deacon cites response to sex abuse

A member of the Immanuel Baptist Church board of deacons told his fellow deacons Thursday that Lead Pastor Steven Smith lacks integrity and needs to depart for the good of the Little Rock congregation.

In a nine-page letter addressed to his “Deacon Brothers,” David Choate accused Smith of repeatedly mishandling accusations of child sexual abuse and of intentionally misleading Immanuel’s members.

Staff members aware of Smith’s dishonesty, Choate said, have been threatened with loss of employment if they speak out.

“[S]adly Dr. Steven Smith has proven himself to be untruthful and untrustworthy. He has failed to take appropriate action to protect Immanuel children, he has knowingly lied to and misled the Immanuel congregation, and he has concealed key information from them that concerned the safety of their children and families. For all of these reasons, he is unfit to serve as lead pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, and he should resign immediately. Then we can begin the important work of restoring our church to serving Christ, standing for truth, protecting our children, and supporting our families,” Choate wrote.

Choate’s letter had been shared, initially, with an ad-hoc Investigation and Communication Committee, made up of nine deacons, that was formed last month to “share legal investigation, evaluation of results as well as communication thereof,” according to a copy of the committee charter.

It was shared Thursday with the other deacons ahead of the next board of deacons meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 21.

In an email to them, he said he had learned that the letter was already circulating among Immanuel members.

“Because of that, I wanted you — the deacons and my original intended recipients — to have a copy of the letter directly from me,” Choate wrote.

In a written statement, Smith noted that Choate had written a letter “outlining several past cases of abuse at the church dating back to 2016. He further called for my resignation. His letter was provided to our investigative committee that has been working with the lawyer looking into these matters. I provided the same lawyer with a 17-page response to Mr. Choate’s letter and I expect his final work will address both the letter and my response. I believe this letter can be addressed more appropriately at the conclusion of the investigation.”

Smith declined to release a copy of his own letter.

Choate’s letter contains a lengthy timeline detailing accusations of abuse and instances when Choate said Smith failed to safeguard Immanuel’s children or withheld facts from parents.

It also details instances in which attorneys offered to help Immanuel come up with policies to protect children only to have their overtures rejected or ignored.

Two young congregants have accused Patrick Stephen Miller, a former assistant director of children’s ministry at Immanuel, of sexually abusing them.

Miller was arrested in December 2018 after the first child stepped forward and eventually charged with second-degree sexual assault in connection with conduct that was said to have occurred in 2015.

In January 2022, Miller pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor harassment, which can occur when a defendant “strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise touches a person, subjects that person to offensive physical contact or attempts or threatens to do so.”

He was given a one-year suspended sentence, with 19 days credit for time served, and is attempting to have the criminal record sealed.

Smith was aware of Miller’s arrest but waited nearly five years to inform his congregation, doing so on Dec. 10, hours after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had published a story outlining the facts.

“I wish we would have told you about these crimes sooner,” Smith told his congregation that day.

A woman who volunteered at the church has also been accused of having sexual contact with a 15-year-old boy and of sending him nude selfies via Snapchat while drunk.

No charges have been filed in the case.

All three of the young people say that sexual abuse or misconduct occurred inside the church.

Smith, Immanuel’s lead pastor since January 2017, has described the volunteer, a Praise Team leader, as having had “physical contact” and an “inappropriate texting relationship” with the teenage boy.

He revealed the abuse in a Sept. 7 letter to members, saying the woman had recently confessed to the physical contact.

Courtney Reissig resigned as Immanuel’s discipleship content director one week later, writing that the “lack of transparency, accountability, and handling” of a recent “abuse situation makes my position here untenable.”

In an interview last month, Reissig said Smith had questioned the need to inform the congregation, maintaining that the boy’s family didn’t want the incident disclosed, that the boy was 16 when the sexual contact occurred and that no laws were broken. The boy’s family maintains that he was 15.

Reissig said she urged Smith to inform the congregation about the explicit photographs and to refrain from weighing in on the legality of the Praise Team leader’s conduct but that her advice had not been followed.

Last month Rachael Denhollander, a consultant to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, said it is “wholly inappropriate” for pastors with no legal training to offer legal opinions.

Speaking personally, Denhollander criticized Immanuel’s handling of sex abuse accusations.

“I don’t know how you get around, at this point in time, the reality that this church has intentionally lied to the congregation to cover up child sexual abuse,” she said.

Smith has emphasized his commitment to protecting the church’s children.

“In my important journey on the subject of sexual abuse and the church, I’ve learned why reporting abuse to the local law enforcement authorities is not enough,” Smith told his congregation last month, adding, “I will do better, we will do better and we will be safe.”

In a written statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Dec. 9, Smith had defended the church’s decision not to publicly discuss the case against Miller during the law enforcement investigation.

“There’s a very real concern that doing so could have undermined or negatively affected the ability of prosecutors to make their case and obtain a conviction,” he stated.

He also defended the decision not to inform the congregation about the new accusations against Miller that were made in 2022.

“In all cases, public discussions of criminal matters can undermine the ability of the prosecution to bring an offender to justice,” he said in the written statement.

Last month Marshall Blalock, former chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, said Smith’s handling of child sex abuse had been “disheartening” and “disappointing in so many ways.”

When accusations were first made, “they did one thing right — they called the police on the front end,” Blalock said. “From that point on, his instincts were all wrong.”

The failure to inform the congregation, once Miller was aware that a criminal investigation was underway, was surprising, Blalock said.

“Everyone knows, once the person who is being investigated knows they’re being investigated, you should publicize the case because it helps other potential victims to be able to come forward because they know something’s going to happen. There’s hope,” he said.

“Not doing that … was misunderstanding how to actually serve that church best,” Blalock said.

Choate maintains even deacons were not provided with full details when accusations of abuse were made.

This fall, when a policy review committee was formed “to recommend policies and procedures to protect Immanuel children,” its members were “not allowed to even be told about, let alone discuss or consider, the facts” surrounding the three abuse accusations, Choate wrote. Instead, the committee was only allowed to “look forward,” he added.

As a result, “the Committee was not allowed to use history, positive or negative, as guidance to make wise and informed decisions about how best to protect Immanuel children in the future” and “importantly for Dr. Smith, the Committee was not allowed to learn of past mistakes or wrongdoing on his part,” the deacon wrote.

Choate had planned to express his concerns about Smith’s leadership at a Dec. 17 meeting of the board of deacons, but said he was barred by a fellow deacon from even entering the room because he is related to one of the victims. Other than being allowed to witness the closing prayer, he said he was refused admittance throughout the meeting. Three other deacons were also kept out — two because they are related to victims and one because he is related to Miller, Choate said.

(Smith, in a written statement last month, said a lawyer provided by an “insurance company” had simply asked “personally involved” deacons to “step out of the Deacons meeting.”)

Choate, who joined Immanuel in 2011, has been a deacon since 2018 and is married to Katie Kirkpatrick Choate, a third-generation member. Both are attorneys.

The couple have two small children and teach Sunday School.

Immanuel Baptist Church, which was founded in 1892, has long been one of Little Rock’s largest congregations. At one point, it was reportedly the largest church in Arkansas.

In the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s 2022 annual report, the church was listed as having 2,386 members, with an average worship attendance of 925.