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Reformers Notch a “Fragile” Victory at Southern Baptist Convention Elections

With a new president, and hard-won commitments for survivors of the sex abuse scandal that shook the faithful, the organization takes a first halting step toward healing.

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmsville, Texas, speaks during the morning session of the June 14 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting
Adam Covington/Courtesy of Baptist Press
Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmsville, Texas, speaks during the morning session of the June 14 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. Barber was later elected SBC president in a run-off vote.

As the last rush of over 8,000 Southern Baptist Convention messengers poured into the Anaheim Convention Center this week, David Pittman, the director of sex abuse advocacy nonprofit Together We Heal, stood outside in a sensible button-up handing out teal ribbons. He asked those walking by to support sex abuse survivors on a day in which SBC messengers—everyday church representatives—would vote on potential reforms in response to the massive sex abuse scandal that has been the all-consuming focus of the SBC since a 2019 Houston Chronicle exposé scandalized the evangelical community, roiling its ranks.

Privately, Pittman told me about how that institutional transgression shaped his life. He details surviving molestation and anal rape suffered between the ages of 12 and 15, inflicted by his Southern Baptist youth minister, Frankie Wiley. The shadow of his abuse nearly wrecked his adult life. For a dozen years, he numbed himself with drugs and tried to avoid facing memories of the abuse. Since he got sober 17 years ago and his mind cleared, he has been fighting SBC to fix the systems that allow abuse to thrive and create lasting damage. Now, to the messengers, Pittman exudes hope and a gentle smile. Even with the annual meeting’s votes on sex abuse reforms and another for the next SBC president in the hands of these messengers, it was not clear from the outset that all the teal ribbons in the world would be enough. For all the attention the SBC’s woes have garnered, and all the internal soul-searching they have touched off, the membership had split into vocal camps, one hoping to turn over a new leaf, the other seeking to turn a blind eye.

Pittman had good reason to be skeptical there would be any institutional change within the nation’s largest evangelical denomination. For years, he and other survivors have been strategically ignored and mostly maligned for speaking up. Women survivors in particular were called “whore,” “Jezebel,” “professional victims,” “liars” by a mix of believers and SBC leaders. They were seen as a nuisance to important pastors; a distraction and threat to SBC’s mission work.

But by the end of the day, SBC messengers had given Pittman some degree of hope, adopting a number of reform measures to directly address the needs of sex abuse survivors and electing Texas-based pastor Bart Barber as SBC’s new president. Matt Henslee, the New Mexico pastor who nominated him, touted Barber as a “steadfast advocate for survivors of sexual abuse” and a unifier who would “lead us through the battleground of our disagreements.” Barber prevailed after going into a runoff against Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor and darling of right-wing Southern Baptist splinter group Conservative Baptist Network. If recent dissension leading up to that vote is any guide, deep divisions remain a feature of that battlefield and the SBC’s new figurehead will have his work cut out for him.

Tuesday’s vote came under the shadow of a recently released, explosive third-party investigation and report by Guidepost Solutions detailing the SBC’s mishandling of sexual abuse, which demonstrated the scope of the scandal. SBC’s Executive Committee—which manages the convention outside the annual two-day meeting—knew about and documented over 700 confessed, convicted, or credibly accused sexual abusers over 20 years. Emails showed Executive Committee leadership protected the reputation of accused pastors while dismissing and attacking survivors.

When Pittman came forward, the Georgia Baptist Convention told him Southern Baptist churches were autonomous. The state convention could not intervene; all it could do was pray. The report documents that Wiley gave a written confession to having numerous victims at a subsequent Georgia church. (Wiley remains a music minister at Trinity Community Church in Ashburn, Georgia, which has disaffiliated with SBC.)

At his morning sermon, outgoing president Ed Litton described the gut-punch of Guidepost Solution’s report. SBC’s response matters not just because the world was watching, Litton said, but because Jesus is watching SBC. Its response would answer Jesus’s two questions: “‘How long shall I stay with you?’ and, Southern Baptists, ‘How long shall I put up with you?’” Litton continued, “We can’t say we’re the greatest mission-sending agency in the world when we have a heart that lacks his compassion.”

But the SBC’s membership has remained doggedly divided even in the face of this fact-finding, with a substantial faction denying the magnitude of the crisis and devoted to the idea that opening SBC to independent, third-party investigators and experts was tantamount to allowing the World to influence the church. Ever since the 2019 Houston Chronicle exposé, the SBC’s stilted public gestures at a reckoning with its sexual abuse scandal have occurred simultaneously with in-fighting over larger culture-war matters such as “critical race theory.” Battles against such “wokeism” catalyzed the creation of the Conservative Baptist Network.

Founded to battle what its “grassroots” members perceived as a liberal drift within SBC, the network decried critical race theory in seminaries and expressed alarm over women preaching and softening by some on LGBTQ issues, as well as what some deemed to be a fixation on the sexual abuse scandal. The group aimed to rally messengers at the Anaheim annual meeting to “save the SBC” by supporting conservative candidates. As the Conservative Baptist Network’s website explains, “‘as goes the Southern Baptist Convention, so goes the nation.’ The SBC is one of few remaining roadblocks keeping liberalism from overtaking the United States.”

The Conservative Baptist Network backed Tom Ascol as its presidential nominee. Ascol has a history of trying to extract what he perceives as critical race theory and intersectionality from the denomination. He was endorsed by Prestonwood Baptist megachurch head pastor Jack Graham, who was also noted in the Guidepost Solutions report for allowing music minister John Langworthy to be dismissed quietly without reporting sexual abuse to the police. (Graham and Paige Patterson, both former SBC presidents, also both declined to speak with Guidepost Solutions investigators.)

The night before SBC’s presidential vote, Ascol held an impromptu Q&A on the walk outside the convention center, in which he argued the challenges facing SBC could be resolved by a return to the Bible. In a smaller election for SBC Pastor’s Conference president, the Conservative Baptist Network nominated Voddie Baucham, a proponent of Christian patriarchy. Baucham lost to Daniel Dickard. Later, accusations spread concerning ballot stuffing, but the vote held.

Early in the morning the day of the SBC presidential vote, the Conservative Baptist Network hosted a breakfast featuring Charlie Kirk, founder of right-wing Turning Point USA. Kirk bemoaned critical race theory and pastors who hang Pride flags. In attendance too was Patterson, the disgraced former SBC president who was ousted  from his position as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president in 2018 after stories surfaced of his telling a seminary student not to report her rape in 2003 and, in 2015, planning to meet with a different student who had reported assault in order to “break her down.” The best way to avoid future persecution of Christians, Kirk told the group, was to vote for Ascol.

Candidate Barber had ties to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary too. He’d been a trustee when the seminary pushed out Patterson and was part of the board that stripped Patterson of his “emeritus” title.

In the annual meeting’s main exhibit hall the day before the vote, survivors Jules Woodson, Debbie Vasquez, Tiffany Thigpen, and Pittman had handed out ribbons and a flyer calling for an independent commission with trauma-trained professionals to receive reports, an independently administered database, and a survivor restoration fund. But this was the first time survivors had been allowed space inside the annual meeting hall. In years past, they’d been denied a gathering place—one year resorting to rallying next to an outdoor dumpster.

At Monday’s Executive Committee meeting, as state convention leaders and others were asked to stand and were welcomed, exiting Executive Committee chair Rolland Slade spotted survivors in the room and invited them to stand and be recognized too. The days leading up to the vote were littered with these small gestures—applause of recognition, a room set aside for survivors hosted by the Sex Abuse Task Force. On the heels of documented institutional failures toward survivors, that the meeting showed signs of care, or at least civility, was a marked improvement. It seemed to have taken shame on a global scale to earn survivors that much.

The demands enumerated on Thigpen and Pittman’s flyer represented long-shot suggestions. It was unclear at the time whether the Sex Abuse Task Force’s more modest recommendations would even be adopted. These were laid out by the task force chair, Pastor Bruce Frank, of Biltmore Baptist Church, North Carolina. They included a “Ministry Check” database of confessed, convicted, or credibly accused SBC sexual abusers and an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, renewable annually, that would be tasked with studying feasibility of best practices and bring a report back to next year’s annual meeting detailing how those improvements can be implemented.

Woodson and Thigpen had signed onto a statement urging more substantial demands, including an independent commission in perpetuity (not just annually renewed) and a permanent memorial outside SBC headquarters in Nashville dedicated to sex abuse survivors. Their call for heftier commitments aligned them with the wishes of fellow survivor Christa Brown—who has relentlessly demanded reform from SBC since 2005 and received the most aggressive public scorn from SBC leaders over the years. (Brown did not attend the annual meeting herself, tweeting that she felt too much anxiety. “This is what I’m left with after so much meanness for so long from so many. It’s not damage from the sexual abuse. It’s damage from the MANY others.”)

Some of those “many others” were readily on hand. A few messengers stood at mics around the room to speak against the Sex Abuse Task Force recommendations. One in particular suggested that the entire enterprise had been stimulated by The Houston Chronicle, similar to the way the The 1619 Project whipped up energy. He further suggested that given the total number of Southern Baptists over 20 years, the number of those convicted for sexual abuse was fairly small. A mechanism already exists for dealing with sexual abuse within SBC, he said. He minimized the problem—as SBC leaders had for years.

Pittman could not stand listening to those “bold-faced lies” and the “people in the crowd applauding those lies.” He left the building and was still outside when the vote took place. But Woodson and Thigpen were on hand to witness what happened next: When the recommendations came up for a vote, they were surrounded by a sea of yellow messenger ballots thrust into the air around them affirming the reforms. The resolution passed. An overwhelming majority of SBC messengers wanted to take the first step toward change.

Even for Woodson, the reforms on offer were just “a small step, but it gets the ball rolling.” She told me, “We’re going to be watching … I’m here for the long game.” But the first step in change was crucial. Those resisting reform might have been loud, but on this day, they were far outnumbered.

Later Pittman would tell me, marveling, that a photo of Wiley had run on CBS national news that night, along with his story. It was an enormous relief. Finally. Pittman had spent years trying to protect kids from experiencing what had happened to him. Due to the statute of limitations, the police couldn’t help. All these years, SBC wouldn’t. Pittman had done everything he could.

The same afternoon, Barber would eventually prevail over Ascol in the runoff election to be SBC’s president, I sat with Woodson while we waited for the results. She’d spoken to Barber just days before and suggested to him that if willing, some members of the current Sex Abuse Task Force would be well placed to roll into the new Task Force. “They’ve gained so much knowledge over the past year,” she told Barber. She didn’t mention any commitments yet, but what was most notable to Woodson was that Barber was willing at least to listen to her thoughts. For that, Woodson was extraordinarily grateful: “I’m just Jules. I’m a mom. I’m a flight attendant. I’m divorced … but I’m here. It happened to me, but I’m not living in the sadness and the depression and the grief and anxiety anymore—I’m doing something about it for God’s kingdom.”

Earlier in the day, Pittman said he would have believed SBC had a 50-50 chance of real reform taking hold in a lasting way. By the end of the day, he was daring to believe the denomination has a 60-40 shot. His optimism still felt guarded. He didn’t want to get too caught up in the moment. As he noted, it had taken SBC’s Conservative Resurgence 10 years “to really have total control and direction of all SBC entities.” To his mind, that meant reformers were going to have to gird themselves for a longer fight: To his imagining, it would take at least five consecutive SBC presidents, willing to protect children no matter what it costs monetarily or in personal reputation, to correct course. “It is fragile,” he said. But maybe the odds are turning in his favor.