#MeToo confronts small churches, bivocational pastors

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Amid the #MeToo movement, conferences and seminaries have heightened their focus on training pastors to prevent and report sexual abuse.

Amid the #MeToo movement, conferences and seminaries have heightened their focus on training pastors to prevent and report sexual abuse. But associational leader Sean McMahon worries those training efforts are leaving out small church and bivocational "heroes."
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But associational leader Sean McMahon worries those training efforts are leaving out a sizable group of pastors: small church and bivocational "heroes" who "work 55-60 hours a week in their normal job," serve 20 hours with the church and "never take a Sunday off."

"Most bivocational pastors don't get to go to conferences," said McMahon, executive director of the Florida Baptist Association in Tallahassee. "Most bivocational pastors never set foot on a seminary campus.... To be able to get some real training in their hands" on abuse prevention and reporting "is huge."

The Florida Association is just one of the associations, state conventions, Southern Baptist Convention entities and churches seeking to communicate the urgency of abuse prevention and reporting to smaller congregations and their pastors. According to data from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 67 percent of Southern Baptist churches average 100 or fewer in worship; 89 percent average 250 or fewer.

This year's SBC annual meeting in Dallas, with its emphasis on abuse, spurred McMahon and other leaders of the Florida Association to schedule a Sept. 20 event for three north Florida associations where congregations of all sizes will be trained about a church's biblical, moral and legal responsibilities related to abuse. McMahon hopes for an attendance of 60-80 church leaders, some from congregations with 20 or fewer worship attendees.

For some pastors, their training on abuse began at the Dallas annual meeting, where messengers affirmed the dignity and worth of women and heard reports of policies SBC seminaries have enacted to address any allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Several motions and messenger questions related to the May 30 firing of former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, who allegedly mishandled a 2003 report of sexual assault at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary during his presidency there.

Beyond the convention floor, a panel discussion in the SBC exhibit hall considered "sexual abuse in the church" and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission sponsored a panel discussion on "Gospel sexuality in a #MeToo culture."

The annual meeting's 9,632 registered messengers came from 3,796 churches in 48 states, and 35 percent were first-time attendees, according to a messenger survey.

Yet implementing best practices learned at a convention can be especially difficult for small churches, McMahon told Baptist Press. By reporting suspected abuse to the authorities in a small, family church, "you're going to potentially alienate your whole church" because nearly everyone is related to the accused. "But you have a moral obligation" to report.

"There is concern among associational leaders about how churches are responding to [abuse] and how churches are identifying issues of abuse," McMahon said.

State conventions also are seeking to train smaller churches on abuse prevention and reporting. Resources from three state conventions -- Alabama, Arizona and the Baptist General Convention of Texas -- are listed under the "Resources for Sexual Abuse Prevention" section of SBC.net.

The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board's facilities and risk management manager Mark LeMay has led 50 free risk management conferences since November for some 130 Tennessee churches, he said, including training on how to prevent abuse. To highlight the importance of minimizing the risk of sexual abuse and other dangers, the Tennessee mission board changed LeMay's title in the last several years to include risk management.

Small churches are giving more attention to sexual abuse amid the #MeToo movement, LeMay told BP. "But as a general rule, it's not on their plate" because they have fewer "resources of people to address it."

LeMay cited one common practice of smaller churches that needs to change: "An adult goes into a closed room with minors. There's no windows in the door. There's nobody checking. There's no background checks that have been done on those adults."

Churches "should never put a church family member in a situation where they could be accused," LeMay said.

Among SBC entities, GuideStone Financial Resources has developed an online "safety toolkit" that addresses sexual abuse along with other topics. GuideStone also has developed a relationship with the Texas law firm of Love & Norris, which trains churches to prevent and report sexual abuse through MinistrySafe conferences.

"GuideStone is committed to providing risk management solutions for churches, and these are just a couple of areas where we can help our SBC churches be prepared as they proactively seek to make their churches a welcoming and safe place for their members and broader community," GuideStone spokesman Timothy Head told BP via email.

LifeWay Christian Resources offers a variety of online resources on sexual abuse, including podcasts by LifeWay President Thom Rainer, articles published in Facts & Trends magazine and a collection of videos and resources on protecting children available through the MinistryGrid training service.

Eric Geiger, a LifeWay senior vice president, has written a book titled "How to Ruin Your Life," which discusses avoiding moral failure and repenting when it occurs.

A motion at this year's SBC annual meeting proposing a task force to help churches protect themselves against sexual predators was referred to the ERLC.

Seminary Extension -- a ministry of the Council of Seminary Presidents providing non-degree education for pastors who cannot attend seminary -- offers multiple courses with sections on personal integrity, Seminary Extension director Randal Williams told BP. Field mentors who guide students through courses also can give counsel on #MeToo-related issues, he said.

Among resources available from churches, North Carolina's The Summit Church, pastored by SBC President J.D. Greear, published on its Vimeo channel in April a video explaining legal and moral obligations for reporting suspected abuse of children and adults. Several media outlets, including ChurchLeaders.com and Christianity Today, have publicized the video, available at https://vimeo.com/264504579.

McMahon, the Florida associational leader, noted that sexual abuse "has been around for a long time," and "we haven't talked about it. Well, now we've got to."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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