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Southern Baptist Leaders Meet To Reckon With Issues Like Sexual Abuse In The Church

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The leader of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. said today that Southern Baptists might be at the most important crossroads of a generation. The statement comes as leaders are deciding how to address sexual abuse in churches. Southern Baptist congregations are in Nashville this week for their annual meeting, and they're grappling with some newly released secret recordings. The audio was made public by a leading pastor, trying to show the convention has been more concerned about preserving the core of the denomination than caring for survivors. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Thousands of Southern Baptist Convention churches send delegates, known as messengers, to these annual meetings, and they vote on all sorts of proposals and position statements. This morning, Pastor Grant Gaines of Murfreesboro, Tenn., stood at a microphone in the sea of people, flanked by a church abuse survivor with tears in her eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRANT GAINES: Quite frankly, SBC messengers and especially SBC abuse survivors deserve to know the truth.

FARMER: Gaines and others have pushed for the denomination's leaders to widen a probe into sexual abuse and attempts to conceal those incidents. Tonya Price, who represents a church outside Lexington, Ky., says everyone deserves more transparency.

TONYA PRICE: There are victims. There are real life hurting people that God would never want us to abandon those people and to leave them in a situation where they continue to hurt.

FARMER: But the denomination's executive committee has resisted calls for an open-ended outside investigation. The panel's leader, Ronnie Floyd, says the investigation he's authorized is sufficient. He notes the denomination has amended its constitution to allow dropping any churches that continue employing abusers. Floyd's bigger focus has been on the backbiting, though he says he welcomes scrutiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONNIE FLOYD: But individuals and groups should do so in a biblical manner, a biblical manner, without attacking one another and creating suspicion about the character of one another.

FARMER: Last week, another minister from Texas released audio recordings that he said show Floyd has been more concerned about preserving big church donors than hearing from victims. Floyd is seen as a more conservative leader of the already conservative denomination, and much of this discord has been with those seen as relatively more progressive, like Russell Moore, who stepped down last month. He was constantly rebuking President Trump when he was in office, even though the denomination has been closely tied to the Republican Party. It turns out that, behind the scenes, his push to address abuse more publicly ruffled the most feathers. One of Moore's allies is the outgoing elected leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear. He used his last sermon today as president to discourage members from acting like the religious leaders of Jesus's day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J D GREEAR: I can assure you it happens when we care more about our reputation than the victim's safety or when we defer to protection of the institution rather than the protection of the vulnerable for whom Jesus died.

FARMER: Greear says the denomination's future is on the line. Southern Baptists are already struggling to attract their new generation. He says the convention's mishandling of hot-button issues hurts the cause. The SBC's down to 14 million members as Christian denominations of all kinds battled sliding numbers. Departures in the last year include Maina Mwaura of Atlanta, who served as a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention.

MAINA MWAURA: We didn't leave it. It left us.

FARMER: Mwaura says he looked at his daughter and saw a church where she could still never be a pastor or a place where his gay friends may be welcomed but uncomfortable. With the sexual assault investigation, he says Southern Baptists have an opportunity to show they want to make things right.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.