Shepherding and Southern Baptist reforms
Outgoing Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee chairman Rolland Slade speaks about the denomination’s sex abuse prevention efforts
ANAHEIM, Calif.—California pastor Rolland Slade, 63, led the Southern Baptist Convention’s top leadership body through two tumultuous years. During his tenure, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination dealt with a public reckoning over how it has handled sexual abuse claims.
Slade pastors Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon and is the outgoing chairman of the SBC Executive Committee. The elected board oversees the denomination’s business in between annual meetings. After several contentious meetings last fall, the committee waived attorney-client privilege to allow a third-party investigation to proceed into the ways Executive Committee members and staff handled sexual abuse cases and treated survivors in recent decades. The results of the investigation, compiled by the firm Guidepost Solutions, were made public May 22.
Slade reflected on his time as chairman during our one-hour interview at the SBC annual meeting earlier this month.
Here’s our conversation, edited and shortened.
What’s it been like to lead the SBC Executive Committee during this difficult season? It’s helped me to grow and mature. It’s made me a better pastor, because I learned how important it was for me to listen. It’s taught me how to be a shepherd. Sometimes to calm rushing waters, the shepherd has to step into the water. I needed to step into the water to lead folks.
Church delegates just approved reforms that attempt to set the SBC on a course of keeping churches safer from sexual predators. How do you feel about the direction the denomination is headed? Let me describe it this way: If we were on a football field, we wouldn’t have reached midfield. We’re headed toward a touchdown—we’re somewhere probably around the 35-40 yard line. If the goal line is making our churches as safe as possible and caring for survivors and understanding what it means to be a mandatory reporter, we’re moving in the right direction. But we haven’t gotten even to midfield yet.
How was your role as chairman of the Executive Committee different than you expected? When I began, it was a lot of information. I was like a deer in the headlights. What I’ve learned is: Do your due diligence. Read all the information. For me, that’s interesting, almost kind of funny, because I have a reading disability. So the good thing about that is it causes me to slow down and read everything carefully. And fortunately, on the opposite side, God has given me a good memory, an ability to remember the details of what I read.
I imagine it was a challenge sorting through what you were hearing from various sides of the debate on sexual abuse, as well as from survivors. The role of the chairman was to facilitate the movement of the entire group, not just the movement of one side—not throwing someone off the boat because they didn’t agree. I asked folks to trust us, for us to tell the truth and to be transparent. And, you know, trust is earned through relationships. That’s why I say relationships matter. So we had to rebuild some relationships as an Executive Committee and understand what our role is in Southern Baptist life.
What would you say was the most critical moment during your tenure as chairman? When we voted to waive attorney-client privilege. It was a breakthrough moment. It also was a sad moment. Because I knew once we did that, people were going to resign. And we’d be different from that day forward. But I also saw it as one of those times when, like I said, as a shepherd you have to step into the water and calm things and let people know, “We’re going to be OK going forward. But it’s something we’ve got to walk through.”
One reform church delegates approved is a database to track “credibly accused” abusers so they can’t move from church to church. Can you address concerns over who will qualify as “credibly accused?” We know the recidivism of an abuser. It’s a stain that stays. Restoration doesn’t always mean you get to go back and be a leader. There may be restrictions. You may not be able to go near kids. As shepherds, we need to put those policies and procedures in place to make sure the churches we shepherd are the safest places. We arrived at this point because there were pastors who didn’t do that right.
I think that an independent third party will work on [the database] with folks in leadership. I think of it this way: They’re not trying to destroy someone’s career. They’re trying to protect someone who has been hurt. And they’re trying to protect others from being hurt. So it would be, if a name has been submitted, [the accusations] would be credible. They’re going to go through that investigative part. It’s not for the church to do it, but for the experts to do it. So if the name ends up going on the database, there’s a legitimate reason for that.
More broadly, there are some who are genuinely concerned that the denomination is headed in the wrong direction. If you get to know people, you'll see that there isn’t a liberal drift. There’s a small number of people who are not satisfied with the direction that we’re going. Let’s take the time to be informed and come out of the confines of our own ministries and get to know other people. You know, if you really think our seminaries are liberal, go audit a seminary course. Find out for yourself. Stop accusing from a distance. You’ll see there are things that they can improve. There’s no perfect institution. Maybe it’s because of the pandemic these last couple of years, but we’ve gotten really critical of people through a keyboard, rather than talking to them, calling them up, grabbing a cup of coffee, something like that.
Some say that what happens in the SBC in the coming years will influence other denominations. We can’t look and say: Oh, this is what we’re doing for the watching world. This is what we’re doing for the glory of God, to represent Him well. For He gave His life for us, to have the right to be called sons and daughters of God. So the world standard is a good place to start, but it’s not where we finish. We need to up our game to God’s standard. How do we reflect Him? Are we doing all that we can to make our churches safe to talk to survivors?
What have you learned from survivors you engaged with during your tenure? [Sexual abuse survivor] Christa Brown stood with courage in the face of this huge, huge organization just to be heard. I feel bad because one of the things I did during our Executive Committee meeting was I asked survivors to stand. I should have just recognized they were in the room. I should have just said I see you, thank you for being here, so as not to single them out, and not make a spectacle of their presence. But they were kind enough to stand. They didn’t have to, but still, they stood. It touched me because that said they trusted me, they trusted that my heart was not to hurt them or embarrass them.
Many survivors have not been present at Executive Committee meetings. I’ve been approached by people here [at the SBC annual meeting in Anaheim] asking if they can have a hug. To be trusted on that level—that’s a level I never in my life thought I would be at. I’m blessed to be on the planet.
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