By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Three Tennessee members of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention resigned from the entity Oct. 5 prior to the remaining EC members voting to waive attorney-client privileges — a sticking point in the past several weeks to allowing a third-party investigator to move forward with its investigation of Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse cases as mandated by messengers of the 2021 SBC annual meeting.
Tennesseans Ron Hale, Chuck Williams and Robyn Hari each resigned for different reasons. The trio made up three of five Tennessee Baptists serving on the EC.
From the beginning, waiving attorney-client privilege was at the heart of the discussions between the EC and the Sexual Abuse Task Force appointed by SBC President Ed Litton, and that stipulation was included in the motion adopted by messengers in June. The EC voted twice in September to not waive attorney-client privilege. After the last attempt failed Sept. 28, the EC was given seven more days to work out details that would satisfy both the EC and the task force, according to Baptist Press reports.
The EC met again Oct. 5 in a special called Zoom meeting to receive a report from the officers on the motion approved in the SBC Executive Committee meeting on Sept. 28. The officers, however, were still at a stalemate and offered no recommendation.
EC member Jared Wellman of Texas then made the following motion (similar to what was presented at the past two meetings): “I would like to make a motion that represents the will of the messengers of a selective waiver that includes an investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives of the actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from Jan. 1, 2000 to June 14, 2021. I move that the Executive Committee authorize our chairman to execute the contract with Guidepost [Solutions] that we received on Oct. 1, 2021 which includes waiver of attorney-client privilege in accordance with the action of the messengers to the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention.”
Guidepost Solutions is the third-party contractor being hired to handle the investigation.
After more than three hours of debate, much of it in executive session, the EC voted 44-31 to approve the motion, effectively waiving the convention’s attorney-client privilege. Four members did not vote and six members resigned before the meeting, including the three from Tennessee.
Tennessee trustee reactions
Hale, a retired Tennessee Baptist pastor, former director of missions, employee with the North American Mission Board and member of West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, resigned on Oct. 1. In a statement to the Baptist and Reflector, Hale said it was his “hope that every action going forward will help all sexual abuse victims in the SBC find help, healing and justice while holding every abuser accountable for their actions.
“Every EC member had to listen to advice on all sides and everyone prayerfully struggled to do the right thing and stand by their convictions. May God be glorified!”
Chuck Williams, a retired West Tennessee pastor currently serving as interim pastor of First Baptist Church, Milan, provided a copy of his resignation letter, which he submitted to Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, on Oct. 1.
Williams did not cite the current situation with the EC as a reason for his resignation. He wrote, “I am resigning from the Executive Committee effective immediately. I recently retired after 46 years of full time pastoral ministry to take care of my wife who has been bedridden and in poor health for almost 18 months. She is slowly improving. My plan is to focus on her and the interim pastor work the Lord opens up.”
Williams also informed Floyd in the letter that “I love you, support you and truly believe you have done the best you could with the problems you inherited. I pray for His strength to be given to you in a mighty way.”
Robyn Hari, a member of ClearView Baptist Church, Franklin, and chair of the EC’s Committee on Convention Finances and Stewardship Development, stepped down just prior to the meeting on Oct. 5. “The past few weeks have been incredibly challenging across our Southern Baptist family,” she observed.
“While we agreed fully on what needed to be done, the differing views on the structure of the investigation and contract language continued to divide us. Regardless of where you stood on those matters, a decision has been made, and it is time to move forward with a renewed commitment to protecting the vulnerable and caring for abuse survivors. That is something we all agree on,” Hari said.
“Even though it became necessary for me to resign from the Executive Committee, I am continuing to pray for healing, unity and trust to be restored across our convention,” she added.
Tennessee’s other two members of the EC — Stacy Bramlette of First Baptist Church, Colllierville, and Ted Murphy of Forest Hills Baptist Church, Nashville — voted in favor of the motion. Attempts to reach Bramlette and Murphy for comments were unsuccessful.
Approximately 1,900 people were watching online during the vote.
Following the vote, EC member Jim Gregory of Idaho argued that the vote was out of order. As a special called meeting, the EC could only act on what the meeting was called for and that was to hear a report from EC officers, Gregory said. “Everything that happened after the report was out of order because the meeting should have ended after the report,” he said.
Parliamentarian Barry McCarty disagreed. “The purpose of this special meeting was to receive a report from the officers on the matter that the Executive Committee had referred to them (from Sept. 28). That matter was the negotiation of a contract,” he said.
“The officers did not come to a conclusion or a recommendation but the matter was still pending before the EC,” McCarty continued.
He noted that with no recommendation from the officers, the EC was free to consider any motions that arose. “It is our opinion that the meeting has been in order and that the action taken is the legitimate expression of the will of the majority of the Executive Committee,” McCarty said.
At the beginning of the meeting, EC chairman Rolland Slade apologized for the way EC members conducted themselves during the previous special called meeting (Sept. 28) and outlined a more organized and structured format for the Oct. 5 meeting, which included keeping members on mute until they were recognized by the chair and unmuted. He also shared Proverbs 3:5–6 and led a prayer for clarity and unity.
“We must stop fighting one another,” Slade pleaded.
Slade echoed that plea after the vote. “Now, that our path has been set before us, it is time to stop attacking one another and to move down the road together,” he said. “More importantly, it is time to know for sure where we have fallen short on the issue of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention so we can correct any errors as a convention that is most safe for our most vulnerable members,” he said.
After the meeting, Ronnie Floyd, president of the Executive Committee, pledged he EC will work with the task force as they move forward. “Now that the Executive Committee’s board of trustees have made their decision, the leadership and staff of the Executive Committee will provide support to Guidepost on implementing next steps to facilitate their investigation,” he said.
Bruce Frank, task force chair, responded to the EC on behalf of the task force, saying, “The task force is pleased with the strong vote today by the Executive Committee to abide by the moral imperative directed by the messengers, seminary presidents, state leaders and many, many more.”
Frank said Guidepost will begin its investigative work immediately. It is required to present a public report 30 days before the 2022 SBC annual meeting in Anaheim.
Tennessee pastors send letter
Tennessee Baptist pastor Grant Gaines of Belle Aire Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, and more than 50 other Tennessee Baptist pastors sent a letter to the EC on Sept. 30, urging the EC “to fulfill the will of the messengers expressed at the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville by agreeing to a fully independent investigation into the Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse cases.” Other state conventions and SBC leaders sent similar messages as well prior to the Oct. 5 meeting (see “Southern Baptist pastors, leaders weigh-in on EC-Task Force stalemate” at baptistpress.net).
The pastors wrote that they “consider as unacceptable any investigatory agreement that does not include waiving privilege and a complete, unredacted report of the investigation’s findings. The actions of the Executive Committee of late are leading us to have unprecedented conversations with our churches about our stewardship and cooperation. Our prayer is that the right decisions will be made so that we can move forward together.”
Gaines, who made the motion during the SBC annual meeting, said in a statement to the Baptist and Reflector that he “is happy that the Executive Committee has finally voted to waive their attorney-client privilege. By doing so, they followed the will of SBC messengers and have taken an important step in ensuring this investigation is thorough,” he said.
“The investigation of how our Executive Committee has handled sexual abuse can now begin. The real test for Southern Baptists is how well we implement these suggested reforms that may result from the investigation,” he said. B&R — This article includes reporting by Jennifer Rash of The Alabama Baptist and Brandon Porter of Baptist Press.