It happened again.
This time, tears welled in my eyes as I turned up the volume to watch a video of a brave survivor courageously sharing her story of being sexually assaulted by a Baptist pastor from my college town.
Anger filled me as I remembered how I had trusted this pastor to lead me in worship occasionally during those formative years. Fear crept in as I had the horrifying question asking if any other victims were out there.
Disgust came as the video ended and the survivor explained the church’s only response to this assault was eventually to allow the minister to resign months later and to pay for her to attend counseling.
The painful, tiring truth is that this awful incident is not isolated.
Report after report has shared that Baptists and free church people have a sexual assault problem. Local church governance leaves few formal mechanisms to respond when pastors abuse their power and their people.
For goodness’ sake, the Houston Chronicle had to create a database of abusers in the Southern Baptist Convention because no such database previously existed.
Progress has been made in recent efforts to address this problem through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Women in Ministry. Yet, clergy sexual abuse is often covered up, ignored or forgotten when it occurs within the context of Baptist churches.
Survivors are often silenced, shamed or gaslit. Enough is enough. It is time for repentance.
Though I have spent my life learning, worshipping and growing in the Baptist tradition, I find myself at this moment ministering in one of our sibling denominations: the United Church of Christ, a free church covenantal people with roots in the German Evangelical and Reformed and Christian Congregationalist traditions.
Our denominations have much to learn from one another.
For instance, the UCC could have a fruitful interaction learning from the creativity and passion that Baptists bring to their Bible study and biblical preaching.
On the matter of clergy misconduct, however, Baptists could use a crash course in the covenantal free church governance that undergirds UCC life.
The United Church of Christ maintains a structure many might describe as “free church”: local churches voluntarily covenant with one another to form local associations, regional conferences and the national setting of the church.
Local congregations are free, as in Baptist life, to hire or fire whomever they perceive to be called to ministry for their context. No larger church body can ever tell a UCC congregation what to do.
The difference, however, comes in the covenant that emerges at the center of UCC life.
Every UCC church agrees to submit to Christ as the sole head of the church. With this understanding of Christ as head, churches then make covenant with each other to “listen, hear and carefully consider the advice, counsel and requests” of each other as we pray for one another and keep each other in Christian concern.
Because a local church holds and is held by their association and conference in covenantal concern, the larger bodies keep high standards for which clergy they will allow to have standing in our common life together.
While a local UCC church can hire anyone they wish as a minister, that minister must have authorized ministerial standing to represent, speak to or make covenant with any other expression of the larger UCC.
Therefore, local associations combine the gifts of the people in their churches to create a “committee on ministry,” which examines candidates for licensed and ordained ministry and holds these ministers accountable as they live into their God-given vocation.
For a minister to have standing in the UCC, they will need a background check, a continually renewed class in boundary training, a psychological evaluation and the recommendation of the committee on ministry and the delegates of their local association.
Once the minister has received standing in the larger church, the local congregation steps in and ordains their minister by their own process. Clergy are given a code by which to live, a set of “marks” they aim to achieve and covenantal relationships to help them on their journey.
Should a legal or ethical lapse occur, the association or conference then has the power to discipline or defrock the minister. The association then can begin helping the congregation walk through the ensuing stages of acknowledgement, grief, transition, and if needed, termination and prosecution.
The autonomy of the local church is maintained, while the covenants and care that the congregation has been a part of creating can help them through the darkest hours of their shared life together.
No church expects ever to go through this painful experience. No survivor ever expects to have been so deeply betrayed and hurt.
This pain is only exasperated when a Baptist free church governance is exploited to protect the aggressor and silence a survivor.
There is a way forward, though, in freedom and covenantal love for one another.
We can choose to do the hard work of not just building a “lone ranger” church in the wilderness but maintaining our freedom as we pursue a covenanted care for one another.
God will be with us as we work for better churches, where all people can worship, learn, grow and serve safely.
Acting Pastor of St. John United Church of Christ in Robinson, TX and a May 2020 MDiv/MBA graduate from Baylor University. He is a Licensed Baptist minister and a Member in Discernment for Ordination in the United Church of Christ.