STOVER, MO. • Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.
Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.
Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.
Instead, authority resides at the local church level. And that’s true even amid allegations of clergy misconduct.
So while Catholic bishops have the authority to remove abusive clergy throughout their dioceses, to Southern Baptists that task falls to individual congregations.
In any denomination, Christians confronted with the shocking news that their often-beloved pastor has been accused of sexual misconduct, many congregations circle the wagons, some experts say.
“When a church rallies around its pastor, there’s disbelief that someone they trust could do something like this,” said Diana Garland, dean of the school of social work at Baylor University. “It often feels so much safer to blame the victims for causing his downfall, rather than accept that the power of a religious leader has been abused.”
In those denominations with a centralized hierarchy, it is often a high-ranking church official who provides incontrovertible evidence that an accusation against a pastor is credible, forcing the congregation to face reality.
But what happens when those circling the wagons around their pastor are also those who have to make the ultimate decision about his fate — his career, his paycheck, his reputation?
A deacon at First Baptist Church of Stover said that at its last monthly business meeting no one from the congregation even put forward a motion to dismiss Smith, the first step in a longer process to remove the pastor.
“These are old charges, and if they’re true, why weren’t they brought up when they occurred?” said Phil Marriott. “We’ll wait for the court system to address them and let justice take its course.”
ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES
First Baptist Church sits at Cherry and First Streets in Stover, a small, mid-Missouri rural town of 1,000 residents 50 miles southwest of Jefferson City. Satellite dishes stick out from the roofs of small homes, on small lots with pickups parked in front; two gas stations across from one another on Highway 52 are Stover’s most prominent businesses.
The most recent accusations against Smith, 42, by two different women, stem from alleged incidents in 1998, 1999 and 2005, when the women were minors. Those allegations led to what the Missouri Highway Patrol called a “lengthy investigation.” The Moniteau County prosecutor has charged Smith with six felonies, including sexual abuse, second-degree statutory rape and forcible rape.
Smith declined a request to speak with a reporter after Sunday’s service, and his attorney also declined to comment.
Smith “was rough around the edges when he was younger, and that’s where all this comes from,” Marriott said. “But he has a good heart, and he’s good for our church.”
In 2010, according to news reports and law enforcement officials, Smith was arrested after a 14-year-old girl, a friend of his daughter, accused him of molesting her during a fishing trip. Another girl then came forward and said Smith began having sex with her, in 2005, when she was 15. Both girls were members of his congregation.
Last year, Smith was acquitted in one case and the other was dropped. A year later, he was arrested on the current charges, which involve different girls.
INDEPENDENT AND SOVEREIGN
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention prefer to say that the denomination is a network of autonomous churches, with a total membership of 16 million. And, indeed, the Convention is, perhaps, the most autonomous of congregational denominations. Its organizational theology has its roots in the apostle Paul’s founding of independent churches around the Mediterranean Sea.
The denomination’s constitution claims that each church is “independent and sovereign in its own sphere,” and that the Convention “does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body.”
According to church leaders, that structure gives the headquarters of the denomination, in Nashville, Tenn., no power when it comes to mandating background checks for prospective clergy, ordaining pastors or removing pastors accused of sexual abuse of minors.
In a statement, Rob Phillips, a spokesman for the Missouri Baptist Convention said the Convention has “no direct authority over” First Baptist Church of Stover, but that it was “deeply grieved by the allegations,” and prays that “the church members will have the wisdom, grace and courage to act biblically in their dealings with their pastor.”
Citing verses from the New Testament books of Timothy and Titus, Phillips said that a church’s pastor “must be above reproach — and even above suspicion.”
Rafael Murillo is director of missions for the Lamine Baptist Association, a regional collection of Baptist churches in mid-Missouri, including First Baptist Church of Stover. He said if the church asks him to intervene, he will.
“But the church hasn’t asked me,” Murillo said.“They’ve only asked us to pray for them, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Advocates for clergy sexual abuse victims say Southern Baptist leaders are hiding behind their governing structure to avoid taking responsibility for the misconduct of Southern Baptist pastors.
“There’s nothing about autonomy that precludes denominational structures,” said Christa Brown, author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.” “Other large congregational faith groups have regional bodies that assess a minister’s fitness to continue ministry.”
The congregations of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with about 1 million members, are autonomous, but they work together closely through associations and committees. The UCC’s Committee on Ministry, for example, has a Fitness Review Process for clergy — a mechanism for individual churches to register complaints about a minister, and have them adjudicated.
David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, said denominations have to weigh responsibility and liability issues when it comes to clergy sexual misconduct.
“If a clergyperson holds standing in the conference or denomination, if there’s a supervisory role, there are liability issues,” Roozen said. “Usually a national office has much deeper pockets than an individual church, and if you’re going to sue, you’re going to sue everyone who has a stake in supervising the clergy.”
If the organizing body of a denomination claims no responsibility for supervising, or even ordaining clergy, it may be harder to hold it responsible when a pastor molests a child.
Even so, a Florida jury in May found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy by former pastor Douglas W. Myers. Jurors decided the convention failed to check Myers’ background, which included a history of sexual abuse in Maryland and Alabama, according to news reports.
The incident is among dozens of sex abuse cases by pastors at Southern Baptist churches listed on Brown’s website stopbaptistpredators.org.
Among them is the previous Missouri case of Shawn Davis, a former youth minister at Greenwood First Baptist Church in Greenwood, Mo., who was sentenced in 2007 to 20 years in prison for sexual abuse involving several children from 2003 to 2005.
Roger Oldham, vice president for Convention communications and relations with the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, said the Convention believes strongly in the protection of children, and encourages anyone who suspects sexual misconduct of a child in church to go to law enforcement authorities.
In 2002 and 2007, the Convention passed resolutions at its annual meeting, encouraging churches confronted with clergy sexual misconduct “to rid their ranks of predatory ministers.”
The Convention provides a link to a U.S. Department of Justice sex offender database on its website, and encourages churches to perform background checks on prospective pastors, offering discounted rates to perform those checks at its headquarters.
“While we have no authority to tell any church what it should or should not do, we do have the power of influence,” Oldham said. “We do have the right to identify churches that are rightly associated with the Convention, and if a church knowingly keeps employing a sexual predator, the Convention reserves right to disassociate them.”
But critics say the Convention could do more. At its 2008 national meeting, the Convention rejected a proposal that would have created a database of clergy that had admitted to, been convicted of, or had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. The reason: it had no authority to impel local churches to report instances of abuse.
“When a Southern Baptist church faces a crisis like this, the easiest thing to do is just let the guy go — he moves to a different state, gets a job at another church and there’s no record of his actions,” Brown said. “If a minister is not literally sitting in prison, he can find a Southern Baptist pulpit to stand in.”
A DELICATE SITUATION
Roozen said a natural congregational reaction to a pastor’s sexual misconduct is the desire to keep the issue rooted in theology.
“Church leaders will say ‘what God asks of us is forgiveness,’” he said. “‘This is not ours to judge; it’s for God to forgive.’”
The Missouri Baptist Convention’s Rob Phillips said of the Stover case: “God is gracious to forgive all sins — even grievous sins — and we should be forgiving as well if and when our leaders suffer moral failures.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we should understand the Lord holds leaders in the church to a higher standard that, when violated, disqualifies them from continuing in their leadership role.”
That theological tension between God’s invitation to forgive and his expectations of his servants has hung a burden on the congregants of First Baptist Church of Stover.
“This is a delicate situation for our church,” said Marriott, the church deacon. “We could jump to conclusions and dismiss him, but what if we’re wrong? We’re just a bunch of average people trying our best to live by God’s word.”
Smith’s sermon Sunday resonated with that struggle. Just as the Gospel of Matthew promises heavenly forgiveness to those who forgive, so, too, does it spell out consequences for those who refuse.
“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
“Salvation,” Smith told his flock, “is conditional.”