A Letter From The Elders
[On Sunday, May 29, 2022, Len Greski read this letter to our church family in light of the recent report released by the Southern Baptist Convention's Sexual Abuse Task Force.]
Pastor Day's message last week about adultery, marriage and divorce, as well as this week's message about oaths are prophetic relative to the difficult family business we must conduct today. As many of you know, Shallowford Church has been associated with the Southern Baptist Convention for over 30 years. Since our beginning as a church plant in 1986 we have been supported in various ways by the SBC and SBC churches. The church was planted via collaboration between First Baptist Newman, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Piedmont Church and the Noonday Baptist Association.
Our property and building were financed by Noonday and the Georgia Baptist Association. Baptist churches and the Noonday Association have supported Shallowford through numerous pastoral transitions, culminating in a 2013 transition where Shallowford became a campus of First Baptist Church of Woodstock (FBCW). In turn, we have contributed to the work of the SBC through regular financial support, especially our participation in the Lottie Moon annual Christmas missions offering.
During recent years there has been a growing concern within Southern Baptist churches about SBC leadership's handling of sexual abuse within SBC churches, culminating at the 2021 Nashville Convention with the approval of a Task Force to supervise an independent investigation into the SBC Executive Committees's handling of sexual abuse investigations. The motion called for inquiry into actions and decisions of Executive Committee staff and members from January 1, 2000 to June 14, 2021 with respect to allegations of abuse, handling of abuse, mistreatment of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.
Sadly, the report released on May 15th included the following paragraph.
During our investigation an SBC pastor and his wife came forward to report that SBC president Jonny Hunt (2008 - 2010) had sexually assaulted the wife on July 25, 2010. We include this sexual assault allegation in the report because our investigators found the pastor and his wife to be credible; their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt's statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible.
While Dr. Hunt has disputed the finding of sexual assault, two days ago (May 27th) he wrote a letter to the FBCW congregation that stated, "It was during that summer that I allowed myself to get too close to a compromising situation with a woman who was not my wife.”
Given our relationship with the SBC and First Baptist Woodstock, the elders of Shallowford decided that we must publicly recognize the impact of this situation on the church in general, our congregation, and our pastoral staff. We grieve with the victims of sexual abuse within the church. We support public accountability for people who commit sexual abuse in the church, and we recognize that our larger community across multiple counties in Georgia as well as throughout the United States will go through a grieving process.
There are at least five different groups of people who have been impacted by the events described in the Sexual Abuse Task Force report. First, there are the people who have been victims of sexual abuse, regardless of whether the abuse took place in the church. Beyond the abuse itself, often these people have also been inappropriately blamed, shamed or intimidated into silence. Second, there are the people whose trust has been betrayed by the perpetrators. Sometimes the burden of the betrayal destroys people's faith in Christ or drives them from service in ministry. Next there are the leaders who failed to provide accountability as is described in 1 Timothy 5:19 - 20. These people are feeling shame right now.
The fourth category is the perpetrators, who may either be accepting the reality of what was described in the report, or more likely, attempting to spin the report as they struggle with some form of denial. Our challenge with them is to confront, encourage reconciliation and restoration over time. The fifth group is the pastors and counselors who have been counseling the betrayed this week, and will continue to carry this burden for months to come. Finally, there are the congregations who will receive disillusioned church members from churches where abuse was covered up for over a decade.
How does this affect Shallowford Church?
Our shared history with FBCW means that many of our members know some of the people involved in the Sexual Abuse Task Force report, and therefore are working through feelings of betrayal, or are counseling those who are grieving. We may also receive visitors from FBCW as they process their grief. We must listen, be gentle, and provide safety to them. Finally, we must acknowledge the counseling burden that is being placed on Jonny and Kerri Day, Matthew and Jessica Roy, and other members of the congregation who work as counselors. This week was an extremely challenging week of counseling as people at FBCW processed the Task Force report.
What is Shallowford Church Doing to Protect the Congregation?
The last thing I'd like to share is that the elders of Shallowford have already taken key actions to protect the congregation, starting with our bylaws. First, we established a plurality of elders leadership model. While the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message states that the scriptural offices of the church are "...bishops, or elders, and deacons", in 1963 this was changed to "Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons," in recognition of the large number of Baptist churches with a solo pastor as elder leadership model.
Our assessment of the history of Shallowford showed that with a single pastor as elder leadership model, each time there was a pastoral change the church descended into crisis. Therefore, we established a plurality of elders leadership model, which we believe is more consistent with the text of the New Testament. We also specified that a majority of the elders must be congregational (i.e. non-staff) elders, just like Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14 when they "appointed elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). Elders are also regularly affirmed by the congregation. Congregational elders also must periodically take a 1 year sabbatical away from the ministry in order to provide diversity among the leadership. These provisions protect the congregation from the concentration of leadership in a single individual.
Second, our bylaws include a process for confronting sin in the leadership through Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5:19 - 20. By codifying these processes in the bylaws, the congregation has the tools to hold its leaders publicly accountable, as Paul wrote to Timothy, "Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless is is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning."
Finally, please pray for the elders as we discern our role in ensuring public accountability for sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention.
I would like to close with a word of prayer. Please join me as we pray:
Lord, we pray for those who have been harmed by sexual abuse in the church. Give us the courage to publicly confront leadership sin when we see it. Give us the humility to accept that everyone needs Jesus, including church leaders. Give us wisdom to counsel those who have been harmed, the victims as well as the betrayed. Help us speak truth in love to the perpetrators, confronting sin yet encouraging reconciliation. And finally, help us cling more closely to You as our only hope of salvation.
In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
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