Sexual abuse prevention stronger in Southern Baptist churches than stats suggest, leaders say

NAPLES, Fla. (BP) – Florida pastor Alan Brumback believes a fence at the top of a cliff always beats an ambulance at the bottom. He takes the philosophy to heart in guarding First Baptist Church of Naples against sexual abuse.

“We take this seriously,” Brumback told Baptist Press. “We want the church to be the safest place that people can go where the vulnerable are not exploited and Christ and the gospel are the main things.”

As a charter member of the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention (ECAP), First Baptist Naples at least annually conducts mandatory training for all church employees, requires background checks and screenings for all staff and volunteers – with periodic updates, provides sexual abuse prevention resources and conducts a counseling ministry.

“To be a charter member of ECAP – and we really wanted to be on the frontend of this – was important for us,” Brumback said. “It’s a lot of work. And it’s ongoing continuing education. It’s not like you’re ever done.”

But the sexual abuse prevention and counseling work of FBC Naples and hundreds more Florida Baptist churches Sunday is not included in the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Church Profile (ACP). While the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) has encouraged its 2,740 cooperating congregations to seek ECAP certification, it does not yet include sexual abuse prevention related questions in its ACP data.

The Great Commission Resurgence (GCR)  Evaluation Task Force recommended this week that two questions addressing ongoing sexual abuse reporting reforms be added to ACP questions.

For the 1,700 students First Naples has enrolled in Vacation Bible School (VBS) June 3-7, all 500 volunteers required to conduct the event were fingerprinted and background checked, Brumback said.

“Churches are unfortunately a place where predators exploit their opportunities,” Brumback said. “And so we want to be extra vigilant.”

According to the most recent ACP results, 58 percent of the approximately 47,000 Southern Baptist churches nationwide conduct background checks, 36 percent have staff trained in reporting sexual abuse allegations and 16 percent have staff trained in caring for victims. Currently, 30 of the SBC’s 41 state conventions include such data in their ACP.

Serving 304 churches in Pennsylvania and South Jersey, the Baptist Resource Network (BRN) is among the SBC’s smallest state conventions, but it reported the highest ACP percentages in sexual-abuse-prevention-related questions. In the BRN, 73 percent, or 224, churches included answers to the questions in their ACP reports. Of those, 93 percent (208 churches) conduct background checks, 72 percent (161 churches) are trained in reporting sexual abuse allegations and 34 percent (76) are trained in caring for survivors.

“Because of this Board’s commitment to take the issue of abuse seriously, our state convention finished first amongst all 41 state conventions in their reporting of these abuse questions provided on the ACP,” BRN Executive Director Barry Whitworth said at a recent BRN Executive Board meeting. “I highly commend you, and the work of our team, for being the best amongst Southern Baptists in doing everything we can to protect the vulnerable against abuse.”

BRN Executive Board President Brian King said he anticipated high participation among BRN churches and told Baptist Press he hopes “member churches would not see getting clearances and conducting abuse training as an infringement on their autonomy or unnecessary, but as a responsibility to protect our Lord’s church.”

While the lowest sexual abuse prevention metrics, percentage wise, were reported among Mississippi’s 2,082 churches, Jon Martin, Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB) chief strategy officer, told Baptist Press the ACP numbers don’t show a true picture of involvement.

There, 35 percent (728) of responding churches said they conduct background checks, 21 percent (437) said they have staff trained in reporting sexual abuse allegations, and 10 percent (208) have staff trained in survivor care. 

“We feel like that number is larger considering the percentage of respondents and the option of ‘Prefer not to Answer’ that was provided,” Martin told Baptist Press. “The Mississippi Baptist Convention continues to assist churches to help create a culture of Sexual Abuse Prevention. We also have focused on Survivor Care by providing access to resources for churches.”

Morrison Heights Baptist Church, a congregation in Clinton, Miss., averaging 802 in Sunday morning attendance, answered affirmatively on all three questions tracking sexual abuse prevention.

Senior Pastor Greg Belser said every church worker and volunteer, including those serving at VBS, have been required since 2010 to submit to background checks. The church uses Ministry Safe and Caring Well resources in its preventative and responsive measures, requiring all staff to get training every two years. Training and interviews are also required for volunteers, Belser said.

“We agree that minor children are vulnerable, and we agree that we don’t want any part of their being hurt or wounded or abused in any way. We don’t want to be guilty of that,” Belser told Baptist Press. “Secondly, we think it’s very important that the parents who entrust their children to us can be provided as much peace of mind as is possible.”

Belser appreciates the MBCB emphasis on sexual abuse prevention and care.

“I’m comforted to know that the state convention here in Mississippi has done everything again, that seems reasonable to help churches,” Belser said, referencing resources and encouragement.

In Florida, “multiple churches” are developing sexual abuse prevention programs that align with ECAP’s standards, FBC Executive Director Tommy Green told Baptist Press, but exact numbers were not available.

“Creating and implementing a comprehensive abuse prevention program is a lengthy process that requires a church to dedicate considerable time to the development and implementation of its abuse prevention policies and procedures,” Green said. “We are encouraged that several churches are nearing the milestone of moving from candidate to accreditation status.”

The FBC convention has allocated $30,000 to help smaller churches cover the costs of seeking ECAP accreditation, which indicates a church meets defined standards of abuse prevention and care.

“The convention remains committed to emphasizing the critical importance of abuse prevention in the local church by providing training events each year,” Green said. “We believe ECAP has developed the gold standard for abuse prevention and remain hopeful that more Florida Baptist churches will engage in the full accreditation process.”

First Baptist Naples is among four Fla. churches that are charter members of ECAP, founded in 2019. Joining First Naples are Shindler Drive Baptist Church and Church of Eleven22, both in Jacksonville, and First Baptist Church of Orlando.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)

The post Sexual abuse prevention stronger in Southern Baptist churches than stats suggest, leaders say appeared first on Biblical Recorder.