Four intense sessions by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee over the course of two weeks may have provided more education about Baptist polity than an entire semester in seminary.
Southern Baptists across the nation tuned in via live stream during each of the Sept. 20, 21, 28 and Oct. 5 meetings held to finalize details related to the upcoming investigation into how the EC handled reports of sexual abuse between Jan. 1, 2000, and June 14, 2021.
Close to 2,000 people watched online as the final vote of 44 to 31 on Oct. 5 meant the Executive Committee board members shifted pass the deadlock to officially waive attorney-client privilege.
During the October meeting, four members of the Executive Committee did not vote, and six members had resigned after the Sept. 28 meeting (Melissa Golden of Alabama, Ron Hale of Tennessee, Robyn Hari of Tennessee, Paul Hicks of Alabama, Gene McPherson of Arkansas and Chuck Williams of Tennessee). Those resignations, along with an unrelated resignation in June (Modena J. Henderson of North Carolina), meant only 79 members of the 86-member board remained for the historic vote Oct. 5.
Waiving attorney-client privilege is unprecedented in a situation like the pending investigation, attorneys advising the Executive Committee said. Attorneys and some business professionals serving on the EC board agreed.
But in the end, the motion by EC member Jared Wellman of Texas prevailed. It reads:
“I would like to make a motion that represents the will of the messengers of a selective waiver that includes an investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives of the actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021. I move that the Executive Committee authorize our Chairman to execute the contract with Guidepost that we received on October 1, 2021, which includes waiver of attorney-client privilege in accordance with the action of the messengers to the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention.”
Two additional EC members resigned — Phyllis Ingram of Alabama and Stephen Swofford of Texas — after the Oct. 5 meeting, bringing the number on the board to 77, and more are anticipated.
While pressure from groups of pastors across the nation, state convention executive directors and the six SBC seminary presidents intensified in support of waiving privilege during the final hours leading up to the vote, many voices across the denomination are now calling for graciousness and unity.
Concern about behavior
EC chairman Rolland Slade gave the strongest challenge to the group and apologized to Southern Baptists for how some members were behaving.
Slade also was authorized to appoint two EC members to serve on the Committee of Cooperation of the Executive Committee as outlined by the contract with Guidepost Solutions, the third-party investigation firm.
Along with Slade’s appointees, the Sexual Abuse Task Force will select two members. All four are to come from the current EC membership and the committee will be led by SBC President Ed Litton.
Now that the decision has been made by the governing body of the EC — the trustees — Ronnie Floyd, who serves on staff as president and CEO, assured Southern Baptists “the leadership and staff of the Executive Committee will provide support to Guidepost on implementing next steps to facilitate their investigation.”
Litton noted that while he is “grateful, especially after many difficult weeks of discussion, that the full, transparent, and unimpeded investigation will now commence,” the vote “marks not the end but the beginning of this process.”
“Sexual abuse is antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It has no place in the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said in an Oct. 5 statement.
“And it is my prayer that all Southern Baptists will remain resolute in our commitment to preventing abuse, caring for survivors and taking whatever steps are necessary to implement reforms.”
Details about the investigation
The Sexual Abuse Task Force has detailed information on its website — sataskforce.net — explaining all aspects of the investigation plans and the contract with Guidepost, which was expected to be signed by the end of the week (see below for update).
Concerns about how far-reaching the waiving of privilege goes also are addressed, noting it is limited in scope to the dates outlined and to “any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives. The investigation shall include actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee.”
Information not relevant to the outlined scope will not be requested, according to the task force’s Oct. 4 update on the site. Providing survivor care also will be a priority.
While periodic updates are expected, the official written report is due to the task force from Guidepost 30 days prior to the 2022 SBC annual meeting, which means no later than May 14, 2022. The task force will then have one week to release the full report to the public along with its suggestions for action to be taken by convention messengers in June.
Update (10-07-21, 4:55 p.m. CT) — An Oct. 7 report in Baptist Press states the contract has been signed and Guidepost representatives have started the research and investigation process.
Update (10-14-21, 4:45 p.m. CT) — Two more trustees have resigned since the last update at Oct. 7 — Chad Garrison of Arizona and Mark Elliott of Kansas–Nebraska.
Update (10-20-21, 11:30 a.m. CT) — Two more resignations were reported Oct. 19: Kim Grueser of Pennsylvania and Barbara Norris of Texas. That takes the total to 12 who have resigned since the September meeting plus the one unrelated resignation from earlier in the year.
Update (10-27-21, 11:20 a.m. CT) — Rob Showers of Virginia is the next EC trustee to resign, bringing the total to 13 who have resigned since the September meeting plus the one unrelated resignation from earlier in the year. That leaves the number of active trustees at 72 out of 86 seats and three Baptist state conventions — in Arizona, Nebraska and Pennsylvania — without EC representation.