What can churches do to prevent sexual abuse?

For some of us, anticipating the series last week in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News was a grueling experience. We wondered what the reporters would dig up and whether they would be fair. On the whole, it comports with what many of us know to be true. Too many of our churches have been slack in vetting or overseeing staff members and volunteers, and some churches have allowed accused offenders to move quietly into another ministry—trying to handle the problem in-house for the sake of the ministry’s reputation. Lord, have mercy on us. The newspaper articles showed us the people who were harmed by these realities, and also showed us that ministry reputations were not, in fact, spared.

This week, SBC President J.D. Greear proposed some actions to close the door against predators and what looks like indifference on the part of some of our churches. Some of his initiatives were not prompted by the news stories last week; he’s been working on this issue since he was elected last June. But the urgency and timeliness of his leadership against sexual abuse in churches was magnified by the recent publicity. He proposed for example that churches should do background checks on the men they consider for ordination. I hope this is broadly adopted, even that ordination councils will again become thorough, grueling examinations. We should know the people we endorse very well. One of the startling things he proposed was to investigate the churches mentioned in the articles to see if they have been willfully indifferent to sexual abuse victims. Six of the 10 churches he mentioned are in Texas—naturally, since both the investigating papers are in Texas.

We know our ministries have not been generally as diligent as our commission warrants. Even the majority of negligent ministries that did not blow up in sexual abuse are riddled with unqualified leaders. Those ministries languish whether anything horrible happens or not. So, let’s use this moment of stress to consider some responses. What can happen as we take seriously the consequences of our inattention, or even our sinful denial of real human catastrophes?

  • Greater urgency to do prudent things: When we hire staff, enlist volunteers, supervise ministries or even call a pastor, there is a better way to do it. Talk to pastoral ministry experts (at the seminary, associational office, SBTC Pastor/Church Relations) about what to ask and where to look when calling a ministry staff leader—even bi-vocational or volunteer leaders who will be operating in a pastoral role. Approach the search or enlistment as if the work is crucial and the cost of failure is high.
  • Greater awareness of the consequences of failure: Even when the church doesn’t get sued, there are lives broken when a ministry leader violates his spiritual trust. If no crime takes place, even still a ministry can fail by depending on immature, unspiritual or even lost leaders. If you’ve been around a couple of decades, you’ve seen it.
  • Greater use of available resources: After the tragedy at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in November 2017, hundreds of people clamored for better training in church security. That’s good and hopefully our churches are generally more aware of how to safeguard the physical safety of their ministries. After this revelation of the decades-old tragedy of sexual abuse by spiritual leaders, I hope that same desperation can apply to protect from internal threats those who come to our church. We partner with MinistrySafe to help churches recognize warning signs of predators and to harden their ministries against those who move from church to church seeking victims. As I mentioned above, there are also wise and experienced leaders who will talk with your church about its particular needs in this regard. It’s time to ask for help.
  • Greater awareness of sin: We are called to “believe all things and hope all things.” To me that means that we desire and work to effect God’s best in everyone we meet. We pray and work God’s best on those around us. It doesn’t mean that we assume the best about everyone we meet. It especially means that we cannot assume the best about new leaders we don’t know well undertaking ministries for which we are all responsible before God. We of all people in the world believe in redemption and restoration. But we of all people also believe that all of sinned, and do sin, and will continue to sin until the end of our lives. That’s not paranoid or even cynical. We work for the Good Shepherd as under shepherds, some have said. A shepherd’s sling and staff were used to protect the sheep from wolves and lions. That’s not mean or dark; it’s loving and it’s the model of the Great Shepherd.

These actions and attitudes will save lives from ruin. I believe this improvement in the leadership and oversight of our ministries will also bear other fruit. Although some monsters are winsome and effective communicators—some have learned from them or been won to Christ through them—generally they are ineffective charlatans that “didn’t seem quite right” from the start. They do little good at best. Our ministries will bear fruit if they are led by saved, spiritual, qualified people who get the benefit of more mature believers from the start of their ministries. Do you know that about the ministries of your church?

Whether the number of lives that are saved is great or small, the number of churches and ministries being under-led and under-supervised is huge. Greater diligence to these things we consider important enough to do in the first place might well result in the fruit that has eluded us for decades.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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