Southern Baptist Convention kicks off annual meeting as #MeToo cases, protests loom

Rocked by multiple sexual misconduct allegations, the Southern Baptist Convention is gathering in Dallas for its first meeting of the #MeToo era.
Claire Summers, 16, gets a high five from Casey Carter, a Southern Baptist Convention messenger from Kansas City, as she and her sister Ella Summers, 10, right, protest the convention's treatment of women on June 12, 2018 outside the convention's annual meeting in Dallas.Jeffrey McWhorter / AP

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By Elizabeth Chuck

The Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday opened its annual meeting, the first of the #MeToo era, amid a slew of recent scandals related to its treatment of women.

There's a lot on the agenda. The most contentious item: Delegates, called messengers, will vote on a resolution that acknowledges that male leaders and other members of the nation's largest evangelical denomination have "wronged women, abused women, silenced women, objectified women" throughout the church's history.

The draft resolution comes amid the turmoil of several sexual misconduct allegations. Last month, a longtime leader, Paige Patterson, was fired as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas following his response to two rape allegations years apart from students. Patterson, who had been slated to give the featured sermon at the national meeting, was also accused of making inappropriate comments about a teen girl's appearance and arguing that women in abusive relationships should almost always stay with their husbands.

Patterson is the most prominent of the convention's #MeToo cases. He withdrew from the meeting last Friday after pressure from other leaders in the church.

In March, the head of the convention's executive committee, Frank Page, resigned over what the church described as a "morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past." That same month, Andy Savage, a pastor in Memphis, resigned after acknowledging he had been involved in an inappropriate "sexual incident" with an underage high school student 20 years ago when he was a youth minister.

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On Tuesday afternoon, a small group of advocates pushing for better treatment of women in the church held a rally outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison convention center in Dallas, where the conference is being held.

Carolyn Deevrers, at a rally outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting Tuesday in Dallas, speaks about her marriage to a pastor who she says abused her. Demonstrators were protesting the church's treatment of women.Jeffrey McWhorter / AP

With purple ribbons pinned to their shirts — and carrying signs with slogans such as “Jesus never shamed women” and "Protect kids not predators" — rally organizers shared their own stories of sexual assault and domestic abuse and called on the denomination to create a database of clergy sex offenders.

They also demanded that all pastors and seminarians undergo training on addressing abuse and assault.

Earlier in the day, shortly after the two-day meeting kicked off with songs and prayers, Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott delivered remarks, calling it a "deep honor to welcome the Southern Baptist Convention to a God-fearing state."

He said America was facing a crisis as some people try to "silence the faithful and remove God from the public square."

"One thing that we all know is that the onslaught against religious liberty is going to continue to come in the coming years and now more than ever, we need your help to respond to this challenge," Abbott said.

Abbott also thanked Southern Baptists for their assistance in recent tragedies in Texas, including Hurricane Harvey, which killed dozens and left Texas and Louisiana reeling after it hit last September.

The governor, who uses a wheelchair, concluded his welcome by speaking about the accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 26 when lightning struck a tree that fell on him and crushed his vertebrae. The experience brought him "closer to God," he said.

On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence, who has called himself an "evangelical Catholic," is scheduled to speak, the Southern Baptist Convention said in a surprise announcement a day before the meeting began.

Associated Press contributed.