(RNS) — When leaders of a Southern Baptist task force chose an LBGTQ-friendly firm to set up a database to track abusive pastors, they tried their best to head off any opposition.
The work on a “Ministry Check” website that will track abusers, according to leaders of the SBC abuse reform implementation task force, would be overseen by Faith-Based Solutions, a division of the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions that works with religious groups.
That division is headed up by a Southern Baptist — which task force leaders hoped would help their fellow Southern Baptists trust their decision.
That hope failed.
In recent weeks, Baptist leaders in Florida urged the task force to cease working with Guidepost and “engage only providers that share a solidly biblical worldview to develop and maintain the ‘Ministry Check’ website database.” Leaders in Ohio did the same.
Several megachurch pastors, including Willy Rice, a failed SBC presidential candidate, criticized the decision to work with Guidepost and warned it might lead to their church rethinking its giving to the denomination. Rice dropped out of the presidential race last year after news became public that his church had a deacon with an abusive past.
On Tuesday (April 4), the abuse reform task force announced it will “consider alternative pathways” to set up the Ministry Check website. Those pathways include “dividing the work among smaller firms that share our values,” according to a task force statement.
“It is our prayer that leaders in our Convention will choose to work together as we move forward in a manner that is both unifying and effective,” the task force said in a statement.
Task force leaders have tried over the past year to talk a fine line between finding the best firm to do the work and finding a firm their fellow Southern Baptists would accept.
A secular company, Guidepost has become a go-to firm for evangelical groups dealing with the issue of sexual abuse, including Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and the SBC’s Executive Committee. Several state SBC conventions also hired the firm to work on their abuse reforms.
Last summer, an earlier SBC task force hired Guidepost to investigate how SBC leaders had dealt with the issue of abuse in recent decades. A report from that investigation found that top leaders mistreated abuse survivors for years, sought to downplay the issue of abuse and opposed any attempts to address the issue on a national level.
That report had been authorized by local church delegates during the denomination’s 2021 annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee — despite concerted efforts by national SBC leaders to thwart an independent investigation.
Guidepost became radioactive for some SBC leaders shortly after the report was released.
Those leaders were angered that a pro-LGBTQ-rights post appeared on the firm’s Twitter account, in support of Pride Month.
“We celebrate our collective progress toward equality for all and are proud to be an ally to our LGBTQ+ community,” the tweet read.
Almost immediately, critics of the report and state Baptist leaders began calling for the convention to dump Guidepost. Southern Baptists believe any sex outside a heterosexual marriage is sinful and have expelled churches in the past for having gay members.
Current SBC President Bart Barber told a gathering recently that he asked the current task force, which he appointed, not to work with Guidepost because of the controversy.
“I walked in the first meeting and said that one thing I ask you to do, please find anybody other than Guidepost Solutions to do this,” he said in a mid-March Baptist gathering. “And every single one of them said that’s our top goal.”
However, South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock, chair of the committee, explained in February that the task force felt that no other firm it looked at could do the job.
Task force leaders said Tuesday that they were grateful for the feedback they’d received from “local, state, and national leaders.” In the statement, the task force said it had been working toward finding a “unifying solution.”
The task force has not cut ties completely with the faith-based division of Guidepost.
In the statement Tuesday — which does not mention Guidepost by name — the group said Faith-Based Solutions would still oversee a hotline for reporting abuse.
“Given the sensitive and confidential nature of these submissions, and the significant privacy issues involved, it is paramount that the current process for receiving disclosures and securely maintaining these records remain in place,” the task force said in its statement.
The task force also updated its progress on the abuse reforms, including the process for adding names to the Ministry Check website. The list will include names of those who have been convicted, have confessed to abuse or who have had a civil judgment against them. Churches will also be able to add names if they conducted an independent investigation. An expert panel will review each case before names are added to the list, according to the update.
“Faith-Based Solutions was never involved in this portion of the process,” according to the update.
The abuse reforms still face significant long-term hurdles. There’s no long-term funding for the reforms, including the Ministry Check website. And since every SBC church is autonomous, the reforms rely completely on voluntary cooperation.
Southern Baptist leaders have long tried to control the abuse reform process — despite overwhelming support from local church delegates, known as messengers. In 2021, those leaders sought to control how much of the Guidepost report became public and to limit the information that investigators had access to.
Even though messengers at the 2022 annual meeting authorized the task force to implement the reforms, critics of Guidepost have sought to influence the task force’s choices.
Complicating matters, Guidepost and the SBC face a pair of lawsuits from alleged abusers named in the report. One of those lawsuits was filed by former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who claimed the report defamed him and invaded his privacy by including allegations he had sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife.
Despite the complicated nature of their work, the all-volunteer task force stressed the importance of implementing abuse reforms.
“We are grateful for the significant investment that Southern Baptists have made in the work of abuse reform,” the task force said in a statement. “Caring well for the vulnerable and abused is critical to fulfilling both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.”