I grew up in Southern Baptist life. My father was a Southern Baptist pastor. I was ordained in a Southern Baptist church, and educated in Southern Baptist institutions. I served SBC churches in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas. My personal departure from SBC life came due to my inability to reconcile the denomination’s position on women and women in ministry. There was a disconnect between a hermeneutic that, on one hand, was woodenly literal, while on the other hand adapted perspectives based on cultural shifts.
Today and tomorrow nearly 20,000 delegates of the SBC’s churches will descend upon Nashville, Tennessee to conduct denominational business for the first time since the pandemic. While positive reports will be celebrated of the number of new churches that are planted and new missionaries that are commissioned for service, a cloud looms large overhead. The SBC, like other denominations, is challenged by the #metoo movement, which trends heavily in Twitter as #SBCtoo. It appears that the SBC is facing pressure to act on these local church issues, which is sticky given the denomination’s strong stance on church autonomy. The question to be considered surrounds whether or not this is a denominational issue and whether or not the SBC actually has any power over a church other than to withdraw fellowship. Is the denomination culpable for the behavior of ordained ministers that, in fact, they didn’t ordain?
Ordination in the SBC has been left to the local churches to determine and administer. There is no hierarchical process for qualifying candidates, credentialing candidates, or monitoring candidates. No educational requirements are in place. Generally speaking, the only limitations are that a candidate be male, and preferably not divorced.
Most mainline denominations have more stringent guidelines. When I became a part of the ABC-USA denomination in 2012, I found that ordination and credentialing came from the denomination, not the local church. A Master of Divinity was the baseline requirement. I was also required to sign that I would be compliant with a standardized code of conduct. Since my ordination was through the denomination, I was entered into the denomination’s national data base, which serves as the clearing house for ministers. I would be expected to keep my profile updated. They verified my education and employment history. If I was open to a relocation, I would notify the national data base who would make it known that I was open for a transition. If a church’s pulpit was vacant, they would notify the denomination who, in turn, would connect available candidates with the open church. If a candidate had a professional misconduct issue, their profile was flagged. The denomination’s system probably wasn’t perfect, and they certainly didn’t enforce candidates on churches who still were responsible for their selection process. But it did provide reduced risk for churches that sometimes don’t ask all the right questions, dive deeply enough into candidates backgrounds, or who found themselves at the mercy of the candidate’s personal references.
I don’t anticipate that the SBC will institute a process such as I have outlined. But until a system for transparency and communication is attempted, #SBCtoo is going to be an ongoing problem. Membership in any organization is not a right, it’s a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility for transparency and communication that is mutually shared by clergy, congregations, and the denomination as a whole.