More than 10,000 Southern Baptists gather for meeting that could bar churches with women pastors

More than 10,000 voting representatives gathered Tuesday for the opening of the Southern Baptist Convention’s two-day annual meeting, where they will vote on whether to ban churches with women pastors and deliberate yet again on how to respond to sexual abuse within churches.

Some 10,553 messengers, as delegates are known, are meeting in Indianapolis.

On Wednesday, they are expected to debate whether to amend their constitution to ban churches with any women pastors — from lead to associate roles. The measure received preliminary approval last year.

Early Tuesday, a small group of women stood outside the Indiana Convention Center in a low-key demonstration in support of women in ministry.

“I hope that people know women have equal value and can be pastors,” said the Rev. Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, an organization that originated within the SBC in the 1980s, but it now works with women in a variety of Baptist denominations.

Participants said that of the hundreds of messengers filing by, reactions ranged from sneers to subtle thumbs-up signs to a few voicing “thank you” out loud.

Joining them was Christa Brown, who has long advocated for fellow survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and criticized the denomination’s resistance to reforms, an effort she has chronicled in a new memoir, “Baptistland.”

She said there’s a direct connection between issues of abuse and the equality of women in ministry.

“When you squash some people, it sets up a lot more people to be squashed,” she said.

The SBC’s statement of faith says that while women and men are both “gifted for service” in the church, the office of pastor is reserved for men alone. Some interpret that to mean only senior pastors, but the amendment would also apply to women in associate roles even if the senior pastor is male.

The SBC can’t tell its independent churches what to do, but it can decide whether they are in or out. Since 2023, it has ousted some churches with women in pastoral positions, including Saddleback Church, a California megachurch.

Politics is also a factor in sideline events. On Monday, former President Donald Trump appeared in a videotaped message to attendees of a staunchly anti-abortion conservative group that met Monday next door to the convention center. Trump appealed to the attendees for their votes.

Later Tuesday, former Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to speak at another sideline event hosted by the denomination’s policy agency, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

An Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force recently concluded its work. While it has provided a curriculum for training churches on preventing and responding to abuse, it has not achieved the mandate of previous annual meetings to establish a database of offenders, which could help churches avoid hiring them.

Abuse survivor and advocate Megan Lively on Tuesday morning moved that the convention task the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with raising awareness about abuse and providing resources on preventing and responding to it. She is a delegate from Peace Church in Wilson, North Carolina.

Though some have advocated for reforms for the past two decades, the convention has particularly struggled to respond to sexual abuse in its churches since a 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It said that roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the previous two decades.

The denomination subsequently commissioned a report from a consulting firm, Guidepost Solutions. It concluded that leaders of the convention’s Executive Committee intimidated and mistreated survivors who sought help. The committee handles day-to-day business of the convention.

Jeff Iorg, the new president of the Executive Committee, told its members in a meeting Monday that the committee is facing a “financial crisis” because it indemnified Guidepost Solutions from any legal repercussions from the study. The convention is paying for the legal defense against two defamation lawsuits filed by two men named in the report.

“We have spent more than $2 million so far on that indemnification, and there is no end in sight,” Iorg said.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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