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More than 10,000 Southern Baptists gather for meeting that could bar churches with women pastors

By PETER SMITH, , Associated Press
Published: June 11, 2024, 1:12pm

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — More than 10,000 voting representatives gathered Tuesday for the opening of the Southern Baptist Convention’s two-day annual meeting, where they will vote on whether to ban churches with women pastors and deliberate yet again on how to respond to sexual abuse within churches.

Some 10,553 messengers, as delegates are known, are meeting in Indianapolis.

On Wednesday, they are expected to debate whether to amend their constitution to ban churches with any women pastors — from lead to associate roles. The measure received preliminary approval last year.

Early Tuesday, a small group of women stood outside the Indiana Convention Center in a low-key demonstration in support of women in ministry.

“I hope that people know women have equal value and can be pastors,” said the Rev. Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, an organization that originated within the SBC in the 1980s, but it now works with women in a variety of Baptist denominations.

Participants said that of the hundreds of messengers filing by, reactions ranged from sneers to subtle thumbs-up signs to a few voicing “thank you” out loud.

Joining them was Christa Brown, who has long advocated for fellow survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and criticized the denomination’s resistance to reforms, an effort she has chronicled in a new memoir, “Baptistland.”

She said there’s a direct connection between issues of abuse and the equality of women in ministry.

“When you squash some people, it sets up a lot more people to be squashed,” she said.

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The SBC’s statement of faith says that while women and men are both “gifted for service” in the church, the office of pastor is reserved for men alone. Some interpret that to mean only senior pastors, but the amendment would also apply to women in associate roles even if the senior pastor is male.

The SBC can’t tell its independent churches what to do, but it can decide whether they are in or out. Since 2023, it has ousted some churches with women in pastoral positions, including Saddleback Church, a California megachurch.

Politics is also a factor in sideline events. On Monday, former President Donald Trump appeared in a videotaped message to attendees of a staunchly anti-abortion conservative group that met Monday next door to the convention center. Trump appealed to the attendees for their votes.

Later Tuesday, former Vice President Mike Pence told an audience at a sideline event that he would “never” vote for President Joe Biden, criticizing him on border, abortion and other policies. But Pence stopped short of endorsing his estranged onetime running mate, former President Donald Trump.

Pence repeatedly called on GOP leadership to return to an agenda defined under former President Ronald Reagan, which he described in broad brushstrokes as promoting prosperity, freedom, international leadership, opposition to abortion and defense of religious liberty.

Pence offered a strong dose of religious themes in a question-and-answer session with Brent Leatherwood, president of the SBC’s public policy agency, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. About 500 people attended the luncheon and gave Pence a standing ovation.

Without criticizing Trump by name, Pence criticized those who would leave the abortion issue to the states, saying that when the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, it actually turned the issue to the states and “the American people,” and he called for officials at every level of government “to advance the sanctity of life.” He compared the “off to the states” argument with those who sought to keep slavery a states’ rights issue in the 19th century.

Trump has repeatedly taken credit for the overturning of a federally guaranteed right to abortion — having nominated three of the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade — but has resisted supporting a national abortion ban and says he wants to leave the issue to the states.

Pence said he was proud to be part of the administration whose appointments helped put Roe “onto the ash heap of history.”

He peppered in self-deprecating jokes about having been “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” when hosting a mild-mannered radio show, and how Trump teased him over controversy of Pence’s following the “Billy Graham rule” of never dining alone with a woman other than his wife. Trump, he recalled said that “after all they said about me, they’re attacking Mike Pence for being faithful to his wife.”

Pence said he remains convinced he did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, in fulfilling his role in certifying Biden’s election in the face of a riot and President Trump’s insistence that Pence could do otherwise. Pence said there’s nothing more un-American than the idea that one man, as vice president, could thwart the will of the electorate.

“I always believed by God’s grace on that tragic day we did our duty,” he said.

Bart Barber, a Texas pastor concluding his two-year tenure as SBC president, told messengers on Tuesday that their churches need to provide a “safe place” to worship and gather.

An Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force recently concluded its work. While it has provided a curriculum for training churches on preventing and responding to abuse, it has not achieved the mandate of previous annual meetings to establish a database of offenders, which could help churches avoid hiring them.

Abuse survivor and advocate Megan Lively on Tuesday morning moved that the convention task the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with raising awareness about abuse and providing resources on preventing and responding to it. She is a delegate from Peace Church in Wilson, North Carolina.

Though some have advocated for reforms for the past two decades, the convention has particularly struggled to respond to sexual abuse in its churches since a 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It said that roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the previous two decades.

The denomination subsequently commissioned a report from a consulting firm, Guidepost Solutions. It concluded that leaders of the convention’s Executive Committee intimidated and mistreated survivors who sought help. The committee handles day-to-day business of the convention.

Jeff Iorg, the new president of the Executive Committee, told its members in a meeting Monday that the committee is facing a “financial crisis” because it indemnified Guidepost Solutions from any legal repercussions from the study. The convention is paying for the legal defense against two defamation lawsuits filed by two men named in the report.

“We have spent more than $2 million so far on that indemnification, and there is no end in sight,” Iorg said.