Ordination should include sex abuse screening, experts say

October 1st, 2019 / By: David Roach | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Ordination should include sex abuse screening, experts say

As the Southern Baptist Convention continues its battle to prevent and confront sexual abuse, a growing chorus within the convention is calling churches to include screening for sexual predators in the ordination processes.

“I’m asking our Executive Committee to work with us to review and strengthen guidelines for our ordination processes so that we are only ordaining into ministry those who are above reproach in this area” of sexual abuse, SBC President J.D. Greear said at June’s SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala.

Ministerial ordination is “addressed strictly on a local church level,” among Southern Baptists, according to sbc.net, so “there is no standard process or policy concerning ordination in the SBC.”

Yet convention leaders and sexual abuse experts alike are warning churches not to overlook a candidate’s sexual purity when considering him for ordination.

‘Observed over time’
Just 30.2 percent of ordained Southern Baptist ministers were required to have a background check as part of their ordination process, according to a study of 555 ministers released in May by Kentucky associational leader Jason Lowe. Only 29.4 percent were asked about their sexual purity.

Still, since 2010 there has been an uptick in ordination councils covering sexual purity, reported Lowe, associational missions strategist for the Pike Association of Southern Baptists and executive pastor of First Baptist Church in Pikeville, Ky. Forty-one percent of ministers ordained since 2010 said they were asked about sexual purity in the ordination process, a higher percentage than in any of the previous five decades.

This year, calls for more rigorous examination of ordination candidates in light of sexual abuse have been issued by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., former LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Executive Vice President Phillip Bethancourt, among others. Second Baptist Church in Houston pointed to its ordination process in a document released to the media in February noting ways the church seeks to unmask sexual abusers.

SBTC President Juan Sanchez said churches should not merely convene “a group of people that ask questions” of the candidate “the afternoon before the ordination” and “then you have the ordination service. You have to be thorough in your investigation.”

“Candidates for ministry are to be observed over time,” said Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, which, in the tradition of Charles Spurgeon, does not practice formal ordination but does set aside men as ministers. “And 1 Timothy 5 warrants that.”

Abuse in churches is not attributable merely to lax ordination standards, Sanchez added, noting “the Roman Catholic Church” has “strict ordination standards” yet has experienced sexual abuse by clergy.

‘No business in ministry’
Kimberlee Norris, an attorney and cofounder of MinistrySafe, a Fort Worth-based organization that helps churches reduce the risk of child sexual abuse, said the ordination process should include a written application, a face-to-face interview, questions about every ministry setting where the candidate has served children, a criminal background check and reference checks. Churches should use questions that are meant to reveal risk indicators, she said, and learn to recognize high-risk responses and behaviors.

“If you’ve perpetrated child sexual abuse in your past, you have no business in a vocational ministry position,” Norris told the TEXAN.

Male predators typically have a history working with children of the same age and gender in various settings, Norris said. “They tend to leave out employment history where inappropriate behaviors were reported to supervisors, and this creates gaps in employment on an application. They take the offensive when confronted with boundary or policy violations and attempt to justify their violations.”

Ordination councils should look for known patterns of offender behavior among ministry candidates, Norris said. “In 2019, we have access to literally decades of offender studies,” she said, “and churches and Christ-based ministries must become more skilled in recognizing predatory behaviors.”

Brad Hambrick, general editor of the study “Being a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” made similar recommendations. He also urges that ordination candidates be required to read the study—published by B&H in partnership with Greear’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Study—and give their thoughts.

Among questions Hambrick suggested ordination councils ask: “How do you feel about working with a social worker who is overseeing the Romans 13 part of an abuse case while, as a pastor, you lead the church in handling the Matthew 18 part of the case?”

If an ordination candidate is “uncomfortable working with somebody outside the church” on a sexual abuse case and deems abuse exclusively “an issue of pastoral care,” the ordination council should be concerned, said Hambrick, pastor of counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., where Greear is pastor.

‘Honest answers’
Malcolm Yarnell, research professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said most Baptists historically have viewed ordination as a church’s recognition “that there is a calling by the Holy Spirit on a person’s life.” Citing the setting apart of Saul and Barnabas in Acts 13, he called ordination “an external, public recognition of an internal, private calling.”

The weight of ordination demands that a candidate “be questioned on his personal sexual morality,” Yarnell said. “There need to be honest answers to those questions.”