ANAHEIM, Calif. — Southern Baptists approved a series of sexual abuse reforms Tuesday, including a way to track accused ministers, and elected a new president in one of the denomination’s most consequential annual meetings in decades.
On the first official day of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting this week, voting delegates, known as messengers, picked Texas pastor Bart Barber to lead the SBC and voted for reforms to prevent sexual abuse within the church.
Sexual abuse will be one of the most significant issues facing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at its two-day annual meeting.
Guidepost Solutions, a third-party firm, investigated the history of SBC leaders’ mishandling abuse reports and recommendations for reform, and presented its findings in a shocking report released in late May.
Messengers voted in favor of two main abuse reform recommendations Tuesday: a new abuse reform implementation task force, and a “ministry check” database that keeps track of ministers credibly accused of sexual abuse.
The competitive presidential election, seen as a bellwether for larger political divisions in the SBC, came to a narrow runoff Tuesday evening following the vote on abuse reforms. Barber defeated Florida pastor Tom Ascol, receiving 60.87% of the vote.
“We need a man who can lead us through the battleground of our disagreements to the common ground of our cooperation,” Matt Henslee, a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas, said of Barber in a nomination speech.
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The series of abuse reform recommendations, while significant for the SBC, are the “bare minimum,” said Bruce Frank, chair of the SBC sexual abuse task force.
The task force oversaw the months-long investigation by Guidepost Solutions into two decades of SBC leaders’ handling of abuse reports and treatment of abuse victims.
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“I plead with you, on behalf of survivors who love our convention and love our survivors, please, let’s start the healing process today,” Brad Eubank, an abuse survivor and pastor from Mississippi, said during the session.
The messengers voted after 40 minutes of deliberation with a few speakers opposing the measures. Several opponents cited a tweet that Guidepost posted last week in celebration of Pride month.
Other opponents felt the recommendations would go against the Southern Baptist belief in church autonomy.
“It is an assault on our polity,” messenger Mark Coppenger said.
But the majority of the messengers felt differently. A sea of neon yellow ballots were raised in support of the recommendations.
Rachael Denhollander, an abuse survivor, attorney and member of the task force, said in a news conference after the vote she hopes when survivors look back on this moment, “they see every single ballot raised in the air and they know that was me being believed.”
“My voice can now be heard because of what the generation before me did. I think that the biggest takeaway today is the tireless effort of these survivors: Debbie Vasquez, Tiffany Thigpen, Jules Woodson, Christa Brown, Dave Pittman,” Denhollander said.
In the audience of the news conference, survivors Woodson and Thigpen smiled and nodded their heads, grasping each other’s hands as Denhollander called their names.
“Because they didn’t give up, those ballots went up today,” Denhollander said.
After the recommendations were passed, Woodson said she felt like she could “breathe” for the first time since setting foot at the convention.
“I just have felt like all eyes are on me and I don’t know who’s an ally or who’s against us,” she said. “It’s been really intimidating in a lot of ways, and to see the sea of yellow ballots be raised up in support of the sexual abuse task force reforms was just incredibly validating. I felt acknowledged and encouraged for the first time.”
Going forward, she hopes for a culture change in the SBC, which “doesn’t happen overnight.”
But she’s encouraged that there are steps in place with the appointment of the new task force.
“I think this is a healthy step in a long process,” Woodson said.
Divisions play out in presidential vote
Intense political and social divides among Southern Baptists were prominently on display during Tuesday’s presidential election.
Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida and the president of a Reformed Baptist group, was backed by the more conservative wing of the SBC.
Often spearheaded by a group called the Conservative Baptist Network, the convention’s more conservative wing has rallied around a desire to combat what they see as liberalism infiltrating the church through social justice, feminism, critical race theory and other “woke” issues.
“To defeat the sin of racism, we don’t need worldly ideologies, we have a book,” Georgia pastor Mike Stone said in his nomination speech for Ascol, a rebuke of critical race theory.
Ascol has been a fierce opponent of what he sees as a widespread embrace of critical race theory in the Nashville-based SBC and its seminaries. He is also an abortion “abolitionist,” meaning he thinks a woman who has an abortion should face criminal charges.
Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, identifies as an “incrementalist,” or the prohibition of abortion through a step-by-step process.
Barber also disagreed with Ascol’s claims that a “liberal drift” in the SBC was a serious issue in the church.
Both candidates condemned the crisis of sexual abuse in the SBC following the release of Guidepost’s report.
While Ascol wanted to address abuse through a local level in an effort to preserve church autonomy, a key SBC principle, Barber has expressed support for certain convention-wide measures seeking to address abuse, an approach largely supported by abuse survivors.
Follow Liam Adams on Twitter @liamsadams.