The Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting will descend upon Dallas this week in the aftermath of the fall of one of its longtime leaders due to his alleged mishandling of sexual abuse allegations.
The gathering officially begins Tuesday morning at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, will address the convention on the first day.
Although longtime Southern Baptist luminary Paige Patterson withdrew from giving the keynote convention speech, the fallout from his firing will still hang over the meeting. Patterson was terminated from Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on May 30 over his handling of sexual abuse allegations. In a statement withdrawing from the keynote, Patterson denied mishandling any sexual assault cases.
A rally in support of women, especially abused women, is planned for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday outside the convention center. Called “For Such a Time as This Rally,” it will feature speakers and a sheet for attendees on best practices to handle abuse.
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“Nobody is anti-Southern Baptist Convention, but we see a desperate need for change,” said Cheryl Summers, who helped organize the rally. She’s not a full-time organizer or advocate, but she’s been involved in the Southern Baptist world most of her adult life and wanted to help make women’s voices heard in light of the Patterson firing. “We have to stop thinking of divorce as a worst offense or option than abuse.”
The rally organizers want to see mandatory education of pastors and seminary students on domestic abuse and sexual abuse and will call for a sex offender database for Southern Baptist churches so abusers can’t hop from church to church undetected.
Wade Burleson, a pastor and popular Southern Baptist blogger, introduced the idea of a sex offender database in 2007. It failed.
Renewing a call for the sex offender database is one resolution that may be presented to the convention to vote on in Dallas. Resolutions are submitted to the Committee on Resolutions, which reads through the resolutions and decides which will be taken to the floor for voting. Approved resolutions for voting will be released Tuesday evening.
Some have made the resolutions they submitted public. A few pointedly have to do with the treatment of women, including a resolution “on repudiating predatory behavior.” The resolution condemns the Southern Baptist Convention as having “historically failed” to stand up for victims and urges churches to provide safe “opportunities to minister to victims of this kind of behavior through mandatory reporting of such abuse and providing pastoral care.”
Another resolution, co-signed by major Southern Baptist leaders, is on “affirming the dignity of women.”
“We can work against our matrimony-shattering ‘no-fault’ divorce culture and shore up marriages,” the resolution reads. “But this needed work never means asking women to suffer abuse.”
Some attendees worry that discussing how churches handle sexual abuse will open the door for discussing women’s place in not only marriage but also in spiritual leadership. Many conservative Southern Baptists subscribe to complementarianism, in which men lead and women submit. It emphasizes different roles for men and women.
“When you hear sexual abuse, that’s a major issue. We need to have conversations like that,” said Darrick Holloman, a pastor in Kentucky. “But what you find on the coattails of that is, ‘Hey, while we’re talking about this, let’s have a conversation about women being pastors.’”
He added, “I think people are scared to have the conversation because of where it may end up going.”
Holloman said he’s looking for unity at the annual meeting, something he hopes will be easier to see with everyone face-to-face rather than with everyone sniping at each other over Twitter.
Megan Cox, who was seminary-educated but no longer considers herself Southern Baptist, endured an abusive relationship that she said was condoned by Southern Baptist leaders. She said she’d hoped that the firing of Patterson would cause leaders to reconsider their theology on women.
“Absolutely, women can teach Scripture," she said. "There’s no question in my mind.”
Cox is working on becoming a chaplain. When she was a Southern Baptist, she said, she “felt forlorn and empty, thinking God didn’t want me to study Scripture.”
With Patterson’s firing and withdrawal from the sermon, others are coming to the annual meeting wondering what it means for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
There’s Doug Sides, a pastor who on Twitter blamed a “globalist agenda” for Patterson’s ousting (he did not respond to a request for comment). Another, Matt Estes, blamed a “liberal coup” for ousting Patterson.
Sam Ranier, a pastor in Florida who plans on attending the convention, said people should start to move forward by repenting themselves.
"It begins with our churches, our local churches, doing the right thing," he said. "If you're not willing to get your own soul right, why would you expect your denomination or convention to be right?"
His goal for the convention as a whole, he said, is to be defined by joy.
"Maybe I'm an idealist," he said, "but I believe the gospel of Christ, the good news of Christ, can do this for us."