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Southern Baptists shun church with female pastor, two others for defying sex abuse policy

The Southern Baptist Convention has expelled four congregations: one for having a female senior minister, two for sexual abuse, and a fourth for not financially participating.

The Southern Baptist Convention's top administrative body voted Tuesday to oust four congregations — one for having a woman as senior minister, two for what it said were failures related to the denomination's sexual-abuse policy and one for lack of financial participation.

The SBC's Executive Committee announced the decision after a closed-door session at the end of its two-day meeting in Nashville. These are the latest in a series of expulsions in recent years, most notably when it ousted one of its largest, California's Saddleback Church, and a Louisville, Kentucky congregation for having women in ministry leadership roles.

On Tuesday, the committee ousted Immanuel Baptist Church of Paducah, Kentucky, whose senior minister is a woman. The SBC's official statement of faith says the office of pastor is open only to men.

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Immanuel said in a Facebook statement that it affirmed its "decision to call Rev. Katie McKown to serve with and among us." It cited Baptist tenets emphasizing the autonomy of congregations and individuals, and it offered prayers that the SBC "be blessed with wisdom and discernment as it moves forward."

Each Southern Baptist church is independent, so the denomination can't tell churches what to do. But it can decide whether churches can be members or be ousted.

The committee ousted Grove Road Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, for allegedly showing a "lack of intent to cooperate in resolving a concern regarding the pastor's mishandling of an allegation of sexual abuse."

It also expelled West Hendersonville Baptist Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, for allegedly failing to comply with the denomination's beliefs about sexual abuse by having a "biblically disqualified" pastor.

The fourth church, New Hope Baptist of Gastonia, North Carolina, had failed to participate financially in the convention and showed no intent "to resolve a question of faith and practice," the committee said without elaboration.

The churches have the right of appeal to the full annual meeting of the SBC in June in Indianapolis.

The conservative denomination has previously ousted congregations for pro-LGBTQ+ stances and having women in ministry. It’s also expelled churches over alleged racism and failure to address abuse, an area the denomination has long faced pressure to address.

On Monday, the committee learned of plans for an independent commission that would keep track of clergy predators. It's the latest plan by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in their halting efforts to safeguard against sexual abuse by ministers — but the new nonprofit needs funding from the denomination to get up and running.

The new Abuse Response Commission would create a database listing ministers who have been found to be sexually abusive through criminal convictions and civil judgments.

The "Ministry Watch" database has been seen as essential in a denomination in which each congregation is self-governing, meaning that a clergy predator could be ousted from one church but go to work at another that may not know the minister's background.

"An independent organization will have more credibility with survivors," Josh Wester, chairman of the SBC's Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, told the denomination's Executive Committee on Monday. "It will have more flexibility to help our churches and more success in accomplishing the mandate given to us by the messengers."

To become a reality, Wester said, the task force is asking agencies of the SBC to help find the money needed to operate.

The nation's largest Protestant denomination has faced a reckoning over its handling of sexual abuse since a 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News, documenting hundreds of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches. That led to a 2022 independent consultant's report saying top SBC leaders responded to abuse survivors with "resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility."

The 2022 SBC annual meeting called for a series of reforms, including the database creation. That faced delays, including a backlash from many in the conservative denomination over the company originally designated to oversee it, due to its posting of a pro-LGBTQ+ message on social media.

Survivors of sexual abuse and their advocates have noted other reasons to be skeptical of Southern Baptist leaders' commitment to reform.

The controversy flared up last year with news that the Executive Committee and other SBC entities filed a brief before the Kentucky Supreme Court in favor of dismissing an abuse-related lawsuit against the city of Louisville.

Although the SBC wasn't involved in that case, its entities face similar litigation, and it argued the case should be dismissed as being filed too late under the statute of limitations. The court ultimately agreed.

That controversy prompted the Executive Committee to create a study group to review what the SBC believes about the justice system, including statutes of limitations, and how it makes its legal decisions. It's seeking "input from leading biblical scholars, trauma consultants and legal experts," said Josh Hetzler, chair of the Executive Committee's Legal Strategies Committee.

Southern Baptist sex abuse survivor Christa Brown, who has long criticized the SBC's response to abuse as more theater than substance, noted that the denomination hasn't yet provided funding for the new independent commission.

"So I’m gonna wait for real-deal deeds before I cheer... and I’m NOT optimistic," she posted on X, formerly Twitter.

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