#MeToo Movement Confronts Small Churches & Bivocational Pastors

Amid the #MeToo movement, conferences and seminaries have heightened their focus on training pastors to prevent and report sexual abuse.

But associational leader Sean McMahon worries those training efforts are leaving out a sizable group of pastors: small church and bivocational “heroes” who “work 55-60 hours a week in their normal job,” serve 20 hours with the church and “never take a Sunday off.”

“Most bivocational pastors don’t get to go to conferences,” said McMahon, executive director of the Florida Baptist Association in Tallahassee. “Most bivocational pastors never set foot on a seminary campus…. To be able to get some real training in their hands” on abuse prevention and reporting “is huge.”

The Florida Association is just one of the associations, state conventions, Southern Baptist Convention entities and churches seeking to communicate the urgency of abuse prevention and reporting to smaller congregations and their pastors. According to data from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 67 percent of Southern Baptist churches average 100 or fewer in worship; 89 percent average 250 or fewer.

This year’s SBC annual meeting in Dallas, with its emphasis on abuse, spurred McMahon and other leaders of the Florida Association to schedule a Sept. 20 event for three north Florida associations where congregations of all sizes will be trained about a church’s biblical, moral and legal responsibilities related to abuse. McMahon hopes for an attendance of 60-80 church leaders, some from congregations with 20 or fewer worship attendees.

For some pastors, their training on abuse began at the Dallas annual meeting, where messengers affirmed the dignity and worth of women and heard reports of policies SBC seminaries have enacted to address any allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Several motions and messenger questions related to the May 30 firing of former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, who allegedly mishandled a 2003 report of sexual assault at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary during his presidency there.

Beyond the convention floor, a panel discussion in the SBC exhibit hall considered “sexual abuse in the church” and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission sponsored a panel discussion on “Gospel sexuality in a #MeToo culture.”

The annual meeting’s 9,632 registered messengers came from 3,796 churches in 48 states, and 35 percent were first-time attendees, according to a messenger survey.

Yet implementing best practices learned at a convention can be especially difficult for small churches, McMahon told Baptist Press. By reporting suspected abuse to the authorities in a small, family church, “you’re going to potentially alienate your whole church” because nearly everyone is related to the accused. “But you have a moral obligation” to report.

“There is concern among associational leaders about how churches are responding to [abuse] and how churches are identifying issues of abuse,” McMahon said.

State conventions also are seeking to train smaller churches on abuse prevention and reporting. Resources from three state conventions — Alabama, Arizona and the Baptist General Convention of Texas — are listed under the “Resources for Sexual Abuse Prevention” section of SBC.net.

The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s facilities and risk management manager Mark LeMay has led 50 free risk management conferences since November for some 130 Tennessee churches, he said, including training on how to prevent abuse. To highlight the importance of minimizing the risk of sexual abuse and other dangers, the Tennessee mission board changed LeMay’s title in the last several years to include risk management.

Small churches are giving more attention to sexual abuse amid the #MeToo movement, LeMay told BP. “But as a general rule, it’s not on their plate” because they have fewer “resources of people to address it.”

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Source: Baptist Press

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