By Elizabeth Young

In an ongoing effort to help churches respond to the sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention and be proactive in addressing it, an Arizona Southern Baptist team attended a national conference Oct. 3-5 in Grapevine, Texas. The team has begun discussing how to equip Arizona Southern Baptist churches.

The conference, “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis, ” was hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in partnership with the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.

“The Caring Well conference was eye opening,” said Keith Durham, AZSBC church revitalization specialist and pastor of First Baptist Church, Arizona City. “As a small church pastor, I learned that protecting the flock is more extensive and time intensive than I had previously believed. Sexual predators can be found in any size church. Our church is reevaluating all of our current policies and procedures to ensure we care well for every person God entrusts to us.”

Sandy De Jesus, team leader and leader of AZSBC information services, said addressing the sexual abuse crisis will require education and action by individual churches.

“It’s important to understand that this isn’t a matter of just updating (or creating) policies,” she said. “Churches need to begin to understand the nature of abuse and how it can occur in a church environment. It will take an ongoing effort in the church to bring awareness, prevention, and healing to those impacted by abuse.”

Chad Murrell, lead pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Scottsdale, shared his thoughts after the conference.

“As pastors in the AZSBC,” he said, “we need to understand that: 

1. There is a serious abuse problem in our churches that is being ignored. 
2. We must respond by being informed and educated, implementing abuse prevention systems, and learning how to respond to victims when they come to us. 
3. As shepherds, our responsibility is to help the sheep not the wolves (which we, historically, have done a poor job at). 
4. No one group is the problem, abusers in sin and those who hide and/or ignore their sins are the problem.”

With statistics showing how widespread sexual abuse is in the United States and how few sexual offenders are prosecuted, said Lacey Bastman, AZSBC administrative assistant, “we have a recipe for unsafe churches and unprotected people. The statistical likelihood is that it has already happened and is currently happening in our churches. It also means that many harmed by abuse are already walking among us.”

She continued, “It’s important that leaders and members get informed about the reality of sexual abuse, how abusers function, how we can prevent them from abusing in our ministries, and how we can learn to care for survivors the way Jesus does. Our churches need to be safe for those wounded by abuse, and categorically unsafe for those that would abuse. We desperately need to seek the heart of God on this issue.”

David Johnson, AZSBC executive director, told the Convention Council about the work of the team in their September meeting. “[The] team will be making recommendations about how we can address this issue in Arizona and equip our churches in how to prevent sexual abuse, deal with it when it happens, and minister to the families that are affected by it.”

Other members of the team are Joshua Tompkins, associate pastor of community ministry and youth, and Hillside Baptist Church, Phoenix, and Elizabeth Young, AZSBC director of communications.

Copies of the book Caring Well for Victims of Sexual Abuse will be distributed at the AZSBC annual meeting in November. For more information about resources and the Caring Well Challenge, go to caringwell.com.

Read stories from Baptist Press about the ERLC conference at portraits.azsbc.org.

People can access main session videos from the conference on the ERLC Vimeo page https://vimeo.com/showcase/6383529?page=1