Miller believes the SBC’s structure of church autonomy can be both a blessing and a curse. Each church and SBC entity essentially has the autonomy to decide how they will respond to allegations of abuse. While J.D. Greear (current President of the SBC) can commission committees to guide churches in best practices when responding to abuse allegations, it’s up to the churches to follow through.
Miller says church entities are often paralyzed by a fear of being sued.
Recently, I was invited to sit in and share with an SBC organization about some policy changes within their own walls. Before the trustee presenting the proposal could even get past his opening lines, there was push back because of fears of potential lawsuits. As I made a final statement, I charged them with, “I know you’re concerned about being sued, and I’m not saying you should be poor stewards of your finances. But isn’t standing up for abuse survivors a cause where you’d be willing to take a hit? What better message could you send to the world and survivors that you’re not afraid of lawsuits. You do the right thing.” Unfortunately, my message didn’t hold much water in the group, although a few members said they supported what I said.
Ultimately what Miller would like to see is all SBC entities, like the IMB and the SBC’s various seminaries, abide by the same standards churches are expected to hold. “If any SBC entity hides abuse, knowingly hires a credibly accused offender or allows someone else to hire one, they should face consequences for doing so. The IMB’s actions of inappropriately investigating Aderholt internally, causing more trauma, not reporting it, and allowing him to knowingly continue in ministry unchecked is unacceptable, and they should face serious consequences from the SBC. As the SBC tries to sort through this, they should invite survivors of abuse within the SBC as well as trauma-informed professionals to assist them in re-writing policy and procedure,” she says.
The push to include survivors of abuse and victims advocates in policy revisions that the SBC is currently engaged in is something groups like the For Such a Time as This Rally has been lobbying for.
Others, like SBC pastor Wade Burleson, are mounting pressure on the leadership of the SBC to finish what the Houston Chronicle and Star Telegram started by compiling a database SBC clergy accused of sexual abuse.
The Secular vs. Religious Divide in the Conversation on Sexual Abuse
The question of why Miller might recommend a victim of clergy sexual abuse take a step back from the church to heal might be answered in the way she was received while telling her story to reporters for secular media outlets. Miller was interviewed for the Houston Chronicle and Star Telegram’s big expose ́on abuse within the SBC. She says the reporters involved “welcomed my story and respected it and respected me.”
Miller shares that in each secular interview she participated in, she was given “space and time and confidentiality…I never felt judged, or felt like the conversations were transactional.” Miller said in one interview a newspaper reporter gave her time to cry, which she describes as a “holy moment.” She also cried on NPR’s Morning Edition when she admitted in the hearing of 13 million listeners that she wasn’t sure if she could “see church as a safe place again.”
Contrasted with the secular reporters, Miller says when she speaks to people inside the church, sometimes “it feels more intrusive, like they’re looking for an ulterior motive or a hole in my story so they can reconcile what’s happened to their perceived ideal of ‘church.’”
Perhaps this desire to protect an image or an ideal is what has kept some churches and denominations from engaging fully in the work of responding appropriately to allegations of abuse. Unfortunately, Miller sees the culture as ahead of the church in this vital work.
I think in comparison to the church, generally speaking, women and the vulnerable are more valued and respected and believed in culture. In the church, abuse victims are seen as “sinning” by some and abuse is a moral issue, not a criminal one. I think the church is afraid the hypocrisy of abuse will reflect poorly on the church or on God’s reputation—neither of which need defending. When the world can see that we love and support the broken, while recognizing our own brokenness, they’ll see a posture of humility and grace. It’s hard to see God’s light shine through when there aren’t cracks. The church has been wasting time and energy trying to throw bandages on what’s broken, instead of allowing God to mend us with his supernatural love. That’s what the world needs to see. That’s what survivors need to see: His unconditional light and love.
LifeWay partnership or no, Miller’s book is marching forward. She is working to have it on the market this summer. And she’s not angry at LifeWay for sticking to their bylaws, even if she wishes they might reconsider them in light of more information. “My goal is to maintain peace and goodwill while staying true to my experience, my values, and incorporating what evidence-based research says about trauma,” she says.
As the church in general stumbles and learns how to respond to victims of abuse, one thing is certain: We need to hear from the survivors to formulate our guidelines, even if they haven’t been able to return to the institutions that turned a negligent eye to the abuse they suffered.