The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention will consider a significant proposal to establish a standing Credentials Committee. This committee will be tasked with handling disputes that arise related to whether churches are in friendly cooperation with the SBC, including concerns with churches over their handling of sexual abuse. The full text of the proposal is available at the end of this article. If this proposal is approved by the Executive Committee and then passed by a two-thirds vote at the annual meeting, the Credentials Committee will immediately become the Southern Baptist denominational body responsible for this process.
The intention of this article is to serve as a guide to help Southern Baptists and others understand the purpose and process of this proposal so that everyone can have a clearer picture as it comes up for consideration at the annual meeting. The proposal would make substantive additions and alterations to several SBC bylaws in order to codify the changes. The proposal may be hard for some to understand because it is lengthy and uses technical language to address a variety of questions related to the process involving legal, administrative, or denominational matters.
What is the proposal?
This proposal would establish a standing Credentials Committee that would be empowered to “make inquiries of a church” in instances where a dispute regarding friendly cooperation arises. This committee would now be responsible for handling issues arising from churches that act in a manner that is inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse. The committee would not just address issues of abuse but other subjects such as homosexuality or racism, in accordance with Article 3 of the SBC Constitution.
The Credentials Committee can conduct an inquiry process in which it would “consider the matter and review any information available to it” to assess if a church is in friendly cooperation with the convention, as established in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution. If an inquiry process is completed between annual meetings, the Credentials Committee could make a recommendation to the Executive Committee who would then “determine whether the church is in cooperation with the Convention.” While the Convention and the Executive Committee retain their authority to make final determinations regarding whether a church is in cooperation with the Convention, this committee is authorized to assess and recommend action to the larger body.
What is the purpose of the proposal?
The purpose of this proposal is to establish a stand-alone committee that is empowered to assess and address issues such as abuse that could warrant disfellowshipping a church. It attempts to comprehensively address the composition and purpose of this committee. As J.D. Greear described it in the Baptist Press article, “This committee would be charged with handling any issues that may arise as to whether a church is in cooperation with the SBC, including (but not limited to) complaints of sexual abuse.” The proposal is a proactive step taken by the Executive Committee to position the Convention to more effectively address the abuse crisis. The Credentials Committee would carry out responsibilities currently handled by the Bylaws Workgroup of the Executive Committee.
Is this proposal a good idea?
Yes, it is an encouraging next step to address the Southern Baptist abuse crisis. The Executive Committee has sought to establish a process that fosters transparency and accountability while operating within the unique polity of the SBC. This decision places the Convention in line with approximately half of all state conventions that have some type of standing credentials committee. Survivors, advocates, and Southern Baptists should be heartened by this initial step, even as they await clarity about the committee’s inquiry process. It would fulfill one of J.D. Greear’s 10 calls to action on abuse and aligns well with the ongoing work of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.
What are the main concepts in the proposal?
The proposal includes the following primary concepts:
- Responsibilities: This committee will “make inquiries of a church” and issue recommendations regarding friendly cooperation, in accordance with specific processes.
- Standing committee: In contrast to the current iteration of the Credentials Committee that focuses on issues of messenger registration at the annual meeting, this standing committee would operate throughout the year and focus on disputes regarding friendly cooperation.
- Composition: This committee would consist of nine members “composed of the registration secretary, the chair of the Executive Committee, three members nominated by the Executive Committee, and four members nominated by the Committee on Nominations.”
- Term: Committee members other than the registration secretary and chair of the Executive Committee would serve a term of three years and not be eligible for re-election until one year elapsed.
- Messenger approval of members: All committee members would be elected at some point by the messengers.
- Appeals process: The proposal creates an appeals process for churches to the SBC while in session at an annual meeting.
- Autonomy: The proposal respects the autonomy of churches while empowering the committee to conduct an inquiry process.
- Inception: The committee would be created immediately after the Birmingham SBC annual meeting.
- Registration committee: The proposal would also rename and repurpose the existing credentials committee in a separate registration committee to handle issues of messenger registration at the annual meeting.
What does this proposal not do?
While this proposal would address a number of key issues, there are several things it does not do:
- The proposal does not authorize the Credentials Committee to “clear” churches. The purpose of the committee is to assess disputes over a church’s friendly cooperation with the Convention. It is not tasked with certifying or clearing churches to affirm that they are in friendly cooperation.
- The proposal does not address how to handle any SBC entities other than cooperating churches. Other Southern Baptist organizations such as entities, state conventions, etc., have their own trustee boards who are responsible for handling this issue.
- The proposal does not address pending inquiries. The proposal is not intended to address any inquiries of churches that have occurred or are currently pending. Instead, it would establish that any inquiries would now be handled by the Credentials Committee instead of the Bylaws Workgroup of the Executive Committee.
- The proposal does not establish the committee’s inquiry process. While the proposal provides extensive detail about many key elements, it does not prescribe how the committee will conduct its inquiry process. This likely means that, once the committee is constituted, one of its top priorities will be to establish its inquiry process.
Are there any areas of potential confusion in the proposal?
Because this is a long, complex proposal, there are a few spots that could create confusion:
- Does the proposal authorize secrecy to minimize transparency? Some may be concerned by the language in section 8.C.1 that states, “Meetings and reports of the committee may be private or public in order to maintain the degree of confidentiality which is appropriate under the circumstances…” The purpose of this provision is not to create a shroud of secrecy to minimize transparency. Instead, it is to protect confidentiality that is fitting for the best interests of the Convention, churches, and others involved in the process, such as survivors in the case of an inquiry related to sexual abuse.
- Does the proposal create a fair appeals process where people on all sides can speak into the debate? Some may be concerned by the language in section 8.C.2 that states, “One representative of the church under consideration and one representative of the Credentials Committee shall be permitted to speak to the question, subject to the normal rules of debate.” The purpose of this provision is to ensure that messengers will hear from the church and from the committee, but it does not foreclose the possibility of additional messengers speaking for or against the issue in accordance with the normal rules of debate.
- Does the proposal limit the scope of the committee’s inquiry process? Some may be concerned by the language in section 8.C.5 that states, “The committee may make inquiries of a church, but shall never attempt to exercise any authority over a church through an investigation or other process that would violate Article IV of the Constitution.” This provision does not limit the scope of how the committee can conduct its inquiry process; nor does it prevent or discourage law enforcement investigations from occurring. Instead, it conveys that, by nature, this committee is not an investigative body while also ensuring that the committee will respect local church autonomy while conducting its inquiry process.
What happens from here?
This proposal will be taken up by the Executive Committee at its meetings in Birmingham and then be presented to the messengers for deliberation and a vote at the annual meeting. This proposal would require approval from the Administrative Committee of the Executive Committee before coming before the full board for approval on Monday, June 10. Upon approval, it would be presented to the messengers on Tuesday, June 11, for deliberation and a vote. As a bylaw amendment, this proposal would require a two-thirds vote from the messengers to pass. If it passes, the credentials committee would be immediately constituted at the adjournment of the annual meeting. Then, the Credentials Committee would be responsible for developing its own inquiry and administrative processes as it begins to carry out its responsibilities.
What else is happening related to abuse in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting?
In addition to this important Credentials Committee proposal, there are several other significant things happening related to abuse in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting.
- A proposal for a simplified constitutional amendment: The Baptist Press report also explains that the Executive Committee will consider and present a simplified version of the constitutional amendment it voted on in February. The updated version eliminates the four criteria specified in the original amendment in order to allow for broader application of the amendment language. The new language states: “The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work (i.e., a 'cooperating' church as that term is used in the Convention’s governing documents) which: (4) Does not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention's beliefs regarding sexual abuse," and "(5) Does not act to affirm, approve or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity." A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds approval of messengers at both the 2019 and 2020 SBC annual meetings.
- “Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention”: The Sexual Abuse Advisory Group and the ERLC are partnering together to host over 1,000 attendees for a candid conversation about Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention. This event, featuring Rachael Denhollander, Beth Moore, Russell Moore, J.D. Greear, and Susan Codone, will cover wide-ranging issues related to the abuse crisis in the SBC.
- Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum: The new, free video-based curriculum produced by the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group in partnership with LifeWay will debut at the annual meeting. This curriculum is designed to equip churches to care well for abuse survivors.
- Sexual Abuse Advisory Group Report: On Wednesday afternoon, the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group will facilitate a time of prayer and lament as well as issue a report on the subject of Southern Baptist sexual abuse. This report will highlight the ongoing work of the advisory group and look ahead to the future.
Editor’s note: As additional information becomes available about this proposal, this article may be updated.
The full text of the proposal, as it appears in Baptist Press:
"Upon adoption of the above recommendation, SBC Bylaw 8. Messenger Credentials and Registration; SBC Bylaw 15. Committee on Nominations (Section B); and SBC Bylaw 29. Participation in Convention Affairs would read as follows:
8. Messenger Credentials, Registration Committee, and Credentials Committee:
A.Messenger Credentials: Each person elected by a church cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention as messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention shall be registered as a messenger to the Convention upon presentation of proper credentials. Credentials shall be presented by each messenger, in person, at the Convention registration desk and shall be in the following form:
(1) A completed, properly authorized, official Southern Baptist Convention registration document, certifying the messenger’s election in accordance with Article III. Composition, of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention; but if the messenger does not have the messenger registration document,
(2) A letter from the messenger’s church, signed by the pastor, clerk or moderator of the church, certifying the messenger’s election in accordance with Article III. Composition, of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention; or
(3) Some other document (which may include a fax, e-mail, or other physical or electronically transmitted document) from the messenger’s church which is deemed reliable by the Registration Committee or qualifies under guidelines approved by the registration secretary and the Registration Committee.
Messengers registered in accordance with this section shall constitute the Convention.
B. Registration Committee: The president of the Convention, in consultation with the vice presidents, shall appoint, at least thirty (30) days before the annual session, a Registration Committee to serve at the forthcoming sessions of the Convention. The registration secretary shall convene the Registration Committee at least one day prior to the annual meeting to supervise the registration of messengers, to oversee the operations of the registration desk, and to rule upon any questions which may arise in registration concerning the credentials of messengers.
C. Credentials Committee: The Credentials Committee, a standing committee, shall be composed of the registration secretary, the chair of the Executive Committee, three members nominated by the Executive Committee, and four members nominated by the Committee on Nominations. Committee members may serve simultaneously on another board, institution, commission, or committee of the Convention or as a member of the Executive Committee. The names of the Executive Committee chair and the members nominated by the Executive Committee shall appear in the Committee on Nomination’s report to the annual meeting, along with the names of members being nominated by the Committee on Nominations, for election by the Convention. Members other than the registration secretary and the Executive Committee chair shall serve a term of three (3) years. The committee shall elect its own chair. Members of the Credentials Committee shall be divided into three groups of three persons each with the registration secretary and the Executive Committee chair assigned to different groups. The term of office of one of the three groups shall expire each year. A member’s term of office shall begin and expire at the conclusion of the Convention’s annual meeting. Members having served one full term of three (3) years shall not be eligible for re-election until as much as one (1) year has elapsed after the last term of service has concluded. Vacancies occurring on the committee between annual meetings shall be filled by the Executive Committee, provided that any vacancy shall be filled only until the next annual meeting.
(1) The Credentials Committee shall meet on the call of its chair or of any two of its members after reasonable notice of the time and place for the meeting. Meetings and reports of the committee may be private or public in order to maintain the degree of confidentiality which is appropriate under the circumstances to serve the best interests of the Convention and individual churches. When practical, meetings shall be held in conjunction with meetings of the Executive Committee or electronically. The committee may meet by teleconference, videoconference, or any other lawful means. Appropriate staff and legal assistance shall be provided for the Credentials Committee by the Executive Committee.
(2) When, during an annual meeting, an issue arises whether a church is in cooperation with the Convention, the Credentials Committee shall consider the matter and review any information available to it. The committee shall either: (a) consider the question in the manner described in section (3)a below and, when prepared, recommend any action to the Executive Committee, in which case messengers from the church shall be seated pending any action by the Executive Committee; or (b) at the earliest opportunity, recommend to the Convention whether the church should be considered a cooperating church. The Convention shall immediately consider the committee’s recommendation. One representative of the church under consideration and one representative of the Credentials Committee shall be permitted to speak to the question, subject to the normal rules of debate. When debate is concluded, the Convention may decide whether the church is a cooperating church or refer the matter to the Executive Committee for further review and a decision. Unless the Convention decides that the church is not a cooperating church, messengers from the church shall be registered and seated in accordance with the Convention's rules.
(3) When an issue arises between annual meetings whether a church is in cooperation with the Convention, the Credentials Committee shall consider the matter and review any information available to it.
a. If the committee forms the opinion that a church is not in friendly cooperation with the Convention as described in Article III, Composition, of the Constitution, the committee shall submit to the Executive Committee a report stating that opinion and the committee’s reasons for its opinion. The Executive Committee shall, at its next meeting, consider the report of the Credentials Committee and determine whether the church is in cooperation with the Convention. The Executive Committee’s decision shall be final unless the church appeals the decision to the Convention during the next annual meeting.
b. A church which has been found not to be in cooperation may appeal the decision to the Convention by submitting a written appeal to the chair of the Credentials Committee at least 30 days prior to the Convention’s annual meeting. The Credentials Committee chair shall immediately notify the Credentials Committee, the chair of the Committee on Order of Business, and the President that an appeal to the Convention has been lodged.
c. The registration secretary shall notify the Convention of the appeal in the initial registration report to the Convention.
d. The Convention shall consider the appeal during a time established for miscellaneous business on the afternoon of the first day of the Convention. The question before the messengers will be “Shall the decision of the Credentials Committee and the Executive Committee that [name of the church in question] is not in cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention be sustained?” One representative of the church under consideration and one representative of the Credentials Committee or Executive Committee shall be permitted to speak to the question, subject to the normal rules of debate. When debate is concluded, the Convention shall vote whether to sustain the Executive Committee’s ruling. If the ruling of the Executive Committee is reversed, messengers from the church shall immediately be registered and seated in accordance with the Convention’s rules.
(4) If a church which has been found not to be in cooperation with the Convention addresses the issues which led to that finding, it may apply to the Credentials Committee for a reconsideration of its status. If the circumstances warrant, the Credentials Committee may recommend to the Executive Committee that the church be once again considered a cooperating church.
(5) The committee may make inquiries of a church, but shall never attempt to exercise any authority over a church through an investigation or other process that would violate Article IV of the Constitution.
15. Committee on Nominations:
B. The Committee on Nominations thus elected shall prepare its report through the year, carefully following the provisions of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Convention and the documents of the respective Convention entities, and shall recommend to the next Convention the following:
(1) Members of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention
(2) Directors/trustees of the boards of the Convention
(3) Trustees of the institutions of the Convention
(4) Trustees of the commissions of the Convention
(5) Members of any standing committees, except certain members of the Credentials Committee as expressly provided by Bylaw 8.
29. Participation in Convention Affairs. To promote broad participation in the affairs of the Convention, a person need not be a registered messenger to serve as a Convention committee member or volunteer (such as an usher or teller), but must be a member of a church cooperating with the Convention.