By Sharon Mager
LA PLATA, Md.—In response to a continued flow of news regarding sexual assault, marital abuse, and child neglect, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) hosted “With All Purity: Brothers & Sisters in Congregational Life” on August 28 at La Plata Baptist Church.
BCM/D Executive Director Kevin Smith led the discussions with special guests Police Chief Carl Schinner, Bucas Sterling III, pastor of Kettering Baptist Church, and Zach Schlegel, pastor of First Baptist Church of Upper Marlboro. The discussions on the sensitive issues were offered from a biblical and legal perspective.
Smith, referring to the #MeToo movement in the news and in the church, said, “It’s an old, old story. Look at King David, who used his power and authority to manipulate Bathsheba. There’s nothing new under the sun.”
There are, however, new ways to address things, he asserted. Referencing the sons of Issachar, who in 1 Chronicles 12:32 “understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” Smith emphasized that Christian leaders, too, must know what to do—both from a legal and a pastoral standpoint.
To prompt conversation, Smith showed two video interviews of local pastors. The first pastor learned firsthand the pain in dealing with sexual misconduct in his congregation.
Speaking in a soft, gentle manner, he shared how he received a phone call from the mother of a girl who told her that one of the male chaperones on a church mission trip had several girls in his room.
“At first I didn’t take it very seriously, being very naive,” the pastor admitted. But after speaking to a few of the girls who had been on the trip, he later became very concerned.
“I certainly became aware that what had occurred was sexual misconduct,” he said.
It was painful. The pastor was close to the family of the young man and knew there would be hard feelings in the church.
He reported the incident to the authorities, as was mandated. Shortly thereafter, church leaders tried to pressure him. “When my deacons came and told me not to report it, I told them, ‘Well, I’ve already reported it.’
“Would I have reported it anyway? Well, I hope so! But by going ahead and making that one of the first decisions, then that kind of frees me up in the future when the pressure is applied to do otherwise,” he said.
The incident was investigated, and the young man was charged. A few months later, the pastor was asked to resign and was given three months to move out of the parsonage. The pastor admitted it was hard on their whole family.
Notwithstanding, what would that 2018 further-trained, further-experienced pastor tell the pastor he was 16 years ago?
“Well, first of all, take the phone call very seriously,” he said.
The second pastor interviewed echoed the same sentiment regarding the mandatory reporting law.
“I would say the legal obligations relieve you of that struggle. Even if you do struggle, you have no choice. You have to report it. If you don’t, if you try to handle it pastorally on your own, you’re under some legal jeopardy yourself.”
Chief Schinner, also a member of a local BCM/D church, echoed the importance of the reporting and shared the procedures following a sexual misconduct or abuse report.
“Whether child abuse or robbery, the investigation goes down the same path – fact finding,” Schinner said.
“It’s like an onion,” he said, explaining investigators peel it little by little to get to the facts. That includes verifying that witnesses are credible, questioning the suspect, and making sure no one else has been affected.
“As a law enforcement officer, I’m going to want to know, are there other victims out there? That’s usually where it doesn’t stay quiet,” Schinner said. That’s because the police then need to begin asking about other activities and talking with others involved, so word gets around quickly.
When the facts are discerned, the information goes to the state’s attorney for guidance to decide how to proceed.
Schinner said preparing, pre-planning and educating people may prevent a lot of the difficult issues from occurring. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said. He encouraged pastors to talk to the local sheriff or police chief and ask for safety training with volunteers and staff.
Regarding domestic abuse, Schinner admitted it can be complicated. “We have to be a little bit more cautious because it involves an adult,” he said.
Sometimes a person has nowhere else to live, and he or she can’t get out to get an apartment. Police involvement could make things worse for them, which, he said, is sad.
Schinner said sometimes an officer in plain clothes will meet with an abuse victim at a coffeeshop to work through options, helping her get temporary shelter, and help for the children on a short-term basis.
When asked about verbal abuse, Schinner said, though it is acknowledged abuse, it is very hard for the legal system to evaluate that.
In a panel discussion, Schlegel said he believes the sexual misconduct coming to light is positive and has encouraged discussion between him and other church leaders.
Sterling, responding to a question about leading in a situation where sin has caused discord, said the Bible has to be the standard, so that there is no exception to anything outside of it. “It has to be the culture of the church” in presentation, preaching, and what you practice, he said.
Regarding the balance of biblical faithfulness, fidelity to marriage, covenant marriage, sexual, domestic violence and divorce, Schlegel said, “I think that teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage is pretty straight forward, but the application is very complicated,” he said. It’s difficult to care for each spouse and for the children in the family.
Schlegel emphasized leadership must be united. “You want to have a conversation where you’re walking through the key biblical texts that deal with divorce and marriage and figure out where you fall. If you have a certain conviction about how this is going to apply in a certain scenario and your leaders are in disagreement, it’s going to be a mess when it happens, and it’s going to happen,” he said.
He said temporary separation is a good option to encourage people to take a step back, make sure everyone is safe, and sort it out.
Sterling, responding, said that unfortunately, “divorce happens.”
“It’s a sin God hates, and a sin we shouldn’t pursue but the reality is, it is sin, and God forgives all sins.” So, he said, the church works through it using the Bible, counseling and other methods.
Sterling said if the person involved is in a ministry, they may need to step down from the ministry to heal and work through the issues.
He agreed with Schlegel that the church must have a unified attitude on “how we’re going to stand, where we’re going to stand, and how we’re going to deal with it.”
Responding to a question about dealing with both the accuser and the accused in the same congregation, Sterling encouraged preemptive discussions, having a plan ahead of time and involving the deacons and leaders. “I don’t want to go through it alone,” he said.
Discussing how to treat women in the church, Schlegel said older men must model to younger men how to treat women. Men must be discipled, instructing them how to treat a woman with respect and honor. “Hopefully over time that becomes the culture of the church.”
Sterling said he is intentional in mentioning his wife when he preaches, sharing how he cares for her and strives to meet her needs. The church also has programs for men where they are intentionally discipled. Also, at women’s events, men provide security. They “cover” their women.
Looking at the whole picture of purity, Schlegel said he wants to make sure he is personally accountable to God and to other men who ask him tough questions. “Part of this question is asking, ‘What do I have in place personally?’”
The meeting ended with prayer. As all held hands in a circle, Mark Dooley, pastor of Leonardtown Baptist Church, prayed, “You are a God of who delights in restoring.”
Praying that the church would have the “aroma of life” in a culture that has the “aroma of death,” he urged, “Be at work in Your body, use Your body to bring the glory of God to the nations.”