Small Steps to a Brighter Future

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RALEIGH, N.C.— On Wednesday, July 11th, Ashley Easter and Ian McPherson traveled to the central offices of The Summit. Ashley was reviewing her notes, preparing for any contingency as her friend Ian, a local pastor, listened to her lay out what she hoped to cover in the meeting.

The Summit is a gargantuan, multi-site megachurch where 10,000 attendees on nine campuses attend services in North Carolina’s capital and suburbs. Its senior pastor is J.D. Greear, who was recently-elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) at the convention’s 2018 annual meeting in Dallas. The world’s largest Protestant denomination, the SBC has become ground zero for the #MeToo Movement, also known as #ChurchToo among survivors. Today, Ashley was taking a chance, hoping J.D. Greear’s presidency will be one where victims and the abuse they go through is addressed before what victims’ advocates say is a long-overdue Day of Reckoning for Protestant Christianity, a day that may have already arrived.

Ashley requested this meeting, prompted by the many controversies and rumored corruption within Protestantism itself—ominous clouds of suspicion and distrust that erode any hope between pastor and survivor. Representing dozens of organizers for a demonstration she participated in called the “For Such A Time As This Rally,” Ashley clutched her meeting outline and reviewed the events in her head which led up to this fateful meeting.

The Southern Baptist Convention had gathered for its annual meeting in Dallas just a month prior on June 12th under a shadow of mounting controversies: Paige Patterson, a leader of the conservative revolt within the SBC decades ago and a darling among the old guard, had been fired as president weeks before from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as escalating complaints made his presence as a leader untenable. Audios of Patterson preaching how he advised a wife to endure abuse resulted in her receiving black eyes—for which he said he was “very pleased” because it got her husband to church, preaching how he ogled a teenage girl, and then emails indicating he met with a rape victim alone to “break her down” in order to assess if she was telling the truth was all too much for Southwestern’s Board of Trustees, who voted unanimously to remove Patterson from leadership on May 30th. The tension within the SBC did not relent as Patterson was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at this year's SBC annual meeting, for which he bowed out days before it began. Some members within the SBC were outraged at how Patterson was treated, with wealthy donors threatening to withdraw support from Southwestern unless the Board of Trustees reversed course. Other SBC leaders like Beth Moore, a popular Bible teacher and rising advocate in recent years spoke out in support of actively addressing abuse and treatment of women within the SBC. Moore wrote a heartfelt “open letter” about her experiences as a woman in the ministry and received no small amount of backlash. That uproar did not deter Moore, who spoke about confronting abuse in the Church the day before the annual meeting.

All this was not news to Ashley Easter. She has lived this life of constant headlines and heartbreak for years now. Every day is a new revelation for advocates where they see the underworld of the Church they love and yet has such a hard time loving people like them. Alienation is often the burden of people who see more than they should.

An abuse survivor herself, Ashley has labored intensely to educate her fellow Christians about the culture and conditions that make abuse so prevalent in Christianity. She knows how naiveté and innocence become the perfect cover for predators who misuse the theology of forgiveness and zero consequences of grace to prey upon the vulnerable.

Ashley was in Dallas for the recent SBC annual meeting also, but not as one of the many messengers sent by convention churches to vote on and establish church policy. Instead, she came representing the “For Such A Time As This Rally,” organized by Cheryl Summers in the wake of the Patterson scandal. Now that the SBC president was in her backyard, Ashley reached out to see if Greear would be open to discussing the ideas presented at the rally. Greear’s representatives agreed to meet, and Ashley asked Ian to join her.

As she reviewed her notes with Ian, Ashley knew she was more than prepared. Explaining to Ian the rally’s three objectives, Ashley also added a few reasons why these steps were important:

1.     Women should be respected and honored within the churches of the SBC.

Ashley knew that not every instance of disrespect results in abuse, but every story of abuse began with the dehumanization that she lived through. Recognizing and restoring human dignity is paramount among the goals of the rally and advocates worldwide.  

2.     Establishment of a clergy abuse offender database for the SBC.

Unlike the Catholic Church scandals which erupted in the 2000’s, Protestant churches are scattered and sometimes have autonomous authority structures that make tracking predatory pastors and church members impossible. Considering the average predator has abused hundreds of people before they are caught, the need for a tracking system within America’s largest denomination is obvious to many.

3.     Educating all pastors and seminarians with mandatory best practices regarding abuse, sexual assault, and domestic abuse, ensuring ministry leaders recognize and respond properly and handle incidents or disclosure with the necessary seriousness and care.

Lastly, Ashley and the organizers of the For Such A Time As This rally know that dealing with abuse requires more than a Whack-a-Mole approach; culture change is necessary. Getting each church on board within the SBC will be a challenge, but the rising outcry of victims who have been harmed inside and outside the Church requires an educated leadership, able to support the hurting and show what love really looks like in hard situations.

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Ashley Easter met with one of J.D. Greear’s associate pastors, Todd Unzicker. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, Unzicker explained Pastor Greear was unable to attend this meeting but was hoping to be present for future ones. Ashley explained that her attendance was not on behalf of herself or her work, but on behalf of the For Such A Time As This Rally. Ashley gave Todd the page of resources developed by the rally organizers and was distributed to SBC attendees earlier in the month. Explaining the different types of abuse and ways to spot it, the page also provides the titles of books and websites advocates like Ashley frequently refer others to for education, awareness, or solace.

“Overall, the meeting was a positive experience,” Ashley later told me.  “Pastor Todd indicated that both he and J.D. deeply care about the issue of abuse and want to learn from survivors and truly see a positive change within the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Ashley said much of the meeting was spent discussing their third goal of training and educating ministry leaders on handling abuse disclosures or instances, and the potential obstacles mandating education would be for an organization where membership is voluntary. Ashley proposed that a collaborative team be formed to achieve the training and safety goals that the SBC lacks.

Unzicker indicated future meetings, possibly even with Greear, might even happen in the next month or two, where Ashley hopes to develop with them proposals consistent with Greear’s desires and the rally’s goals. “We think one of the first steps would be for the rally to establish a list of potential team members who can be a resource to SBC leaders on abuse prevention and response,” Ashley said, “as well as gather the resources for best practices to demonstrate the value of what we have to offer SBC churches and seminaries.”

Ashley shared with Unzicker that the For Such A Time As This Rally has been in touch with representatives from the advocacy organization G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) led by Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian.  Tchividjian and his team have existing training curriculum for churches and seminaries and have a Certification Program that trains churches and other organizations how to implement protocols that prevent and effectively respond to abuse, which would be perfect to offer every pastor and seminary in the convention.

For his part, Todd Unzicker expressed willingness to continue future conversations. Despite citing several obstacles to the partnership and the goals Ashley explained, she assured Todd that the perseverance of the victim advocacy community is unflappable. “Because we’ve overcome abuse itself, any obstacle is minuscule in comparison,” Ashley said. “I think our partnership with Pastor Greear and the SBC can be a strong force for positive change, and we intend to collaborate on ways to overcome these challenges because the gospel of love demands it.”

After thanking him for the opportunity to share, Ashley left the meeting with a cautious optimism. “As a victim advocate, when I speak with pastors and church leaders it is not uncommon for them to profess interest and affirm the seriousness of the issue of abuse but later haven’t followed-up,” Ashley said. “However, my great hope is that J.D. Greear, Todd Unzicker, The Summit church, and the entire SBC denomination will be different than what too many of us have experienced before. I believe we can collaborate to make a safer SBC, each small step bringing us closer to a brighter future.”

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See attached Meeting Outline and Resource Page for more information on what was shared at the meeting between Ashley Easter and Todd Unzicker.

Special thanks to Cheryl Summers for editing.

Ryan Ashton