The Southern Baptist Convention’s top administrative body voted to cut ties with two congregations on Tuesday — an LGBTQ-friendly church in Greensboro that had itself quit the denomination decades ago and a New Jersey congregation it cited for “alleged discriminatory behavior.”
The votes of the Executive Committee came at the end of a two-day meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, even as the committee copes with a Department of Justice investigation. The federal-level scrutiny follows a blistering report by a consultant earlier this year into sexual abuse in Southern Baptist settings and mistreatment of survivors by past Executive Committee officials.
The committee on Tuesday approved a statement that College Park Baptist Church of Greensboro was not in “friendly cooperation” due to its “open affirmation, approval and endorsement of homosexual behavior,” which conflicts with the denomination’s theological conservative positions.
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In fact, College Park had voted in 1999 to leave the denomination, and its website makes a point about it not being a member of the Southern Baptist Convention but rather of more progressive Baptist bodies.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the Executive Committee decided now to put the matter to a vote. But Executive Committee Chairman Jared Wellman said afterward that the convention still had the congregation on its rolls until now.
On its website, the church describes itself as an “LGBTQIA Affirming Baptist Church” and says it “fully welcomes and affirms all persons without distinction regarding race, ethnicity, national origin, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other human category.”
When College Park separated from the convention in 1999, the vote was painful, members told the News & Record at the time. The vote announcement was met with silence, not applause. Many who voted to leave were moved to tears, Janice Kirkman, a former chairwoman of the deacon board, told the News & Record at the time.
Kirkman, a life-long Southern Baptist, said she voted to cut the ties because of the denomination’s exclusive positions toward homosexuals, divorced people and women pastors and deacons — a position she said wasn’t Christ-like.
“I had to take a stand on who I am, and not what the Southern Baptist Convention represents me as being,” she said in 1999.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, in a separate vote Tuesday, declared that Amazing Grace Community Church of Franklinville, New Jersey, was no longer in friendly cooperation. It cited its “lack of cooperation ... to resolve concerns regarding alleged discriminatory behavior.”
Requests for comment from both congregations via phone and email were not immediately returned.
Since Baptist congregations are self-governing, the denomination can’t force them to follow their policies, but it can effectively expel them by declaring them not in “friendly cooperation” if they don’t conform to denominational stances in particular areas, such as for pro-LGBTQ polices, alleged support for racism or alleged failure in responding adequately to child sexual abuse, such as employing offenders as pastors.
There could be more congregations in the last category in the pipeline.
The committee learned that more than 200 referrals had been made to a newly established hotline about alleged mishandling of abuse cases by SBC churches or organizations.
That news came from the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force — created after the release of consultant Guidepost Solutions’ scathing report earlier this year into the sexual abuse of children in SBC settings and the mistreatment of survivors by the Executive Committee.
Mike Keahbone, vice chair of the task force, said it is working to hire personnel to receive and investigate reports of abuse and of mishandling abuse in Southern Baptist circles.
The convention said in August that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the convention. The DOJ didn’t confirm the report, but the convention suggested in a statement that it related to sexual abuse. On Tuesday, the committee voted to transfer $500,000 from investments to its operating budget, in part to respond to that investigation.
The Executive Committee on Tuesday also added a “Caring Well Sunday” to the official Southern Baptist calendar of activities, which would aim to spread awareness and education about abuse. Churches have the option whether to observe such dates. But Wellman urged them to do so: “We want to be building a culture that addresses and prevents abuse, and this is a really great educational opportunity.”
“Our dream ... is that our churches would be safe for the vulnerable and unsafe for abusers,” Wellman said, citing numerous reforms underway. “There is no place, there is no tolerance for abuse in a Southern Baptist church.”
Some abuse survivors, following the meeting on social media, found the committee’s actions lacking. Long-time advocate and survivor Christa Brown criticized it for “self-congratulatory” talk on Twitter and said it’s failed to take concrete steps toward making amends to survivors or to take disciplinary steps toward former officials faulted in the Guidepost report.
Keahbone said he understands the criticism and that compared to what survivors endured, “there’s nothing we could say or do that would be worthy of any praise at all.” He said the task force is doing what it can to implement reforms correctly.
“We’re not celebrating anything,” he said. “We’re just trying to have markers of improvement.”
Wellman echoed the thought. “I’ve just grieved and been broken-hearted for what they’ve experienced,” he said. “We recognize we have a really long way to go.”