Johnny Hunt sues Southern Baptist Convention

WASHINGTON (RNS)—A disgraced former Southern Baptist president is suing the denomination he once led, saying he was defamed by allegations he assaulted another pastor’s wife.

In a complaint filed in the federal court for the Middle District of Tennessee, lawyers for Johnny Hunt, a long-time Georgia megachurch pastor, admit Hunt “had a brief, inappropriate, extramarital encounter with a married woman” in 2012. But Hunt claims the incident was consensual and was a private matter that should not have been made public in a major 2022 report.

“Some of the precise details are disputed, but at most, the encounter lasted only a few minutes, and it involved only kissing and some awkward fondling,” according to the complaint.

The complaint said Hunt sought counseling and forgiveness for the incident, which the complaint said was “a sin.” However, Hunt never disclosed the incident to First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., where he was the pastor for three decades, or to the SBC’s North American Mission Board, where he was a vice president until resigning in 2022.

The incident became public in May 2022, after it was discovered by investigators at Guidepost Solutions, a consulting firm that had been hired to investigate how SBC leaders had dealt with the issue of abuse.

Guidepost’s investigators included the incident as part of their report and described it as a sexual assault. Those investigators said they found the allegations against Hunt credible. The former SBC president at first denied the allegations, then claimed the incident was consensual.

Claims Hunt made a ‘scapegoat’ for SBC

The complaint alleges the SBC and Guidepost engaged in defamation and libel, that they invaded Hunt’s privacy and intentionally caused emotional harm.

“The decision to smear Pastor Johnny’s reputation with these accusations has led him to suffer substantial economic and other damages,” according to the complaint.

“He has lost (his) job and income; he has lost current and future book deals; and he has lost the opportunity to generate income through speaking engagements.”

Hunt also claims he was made a scapegoat to pay for the SBC’s past sins. He said current SBC leaders and Guidepost were engaged in damage control to repair the 13-million-member denomination’s reputation.

“By focusing on the allegation against Pastor Johnny—an allegation by an adult woman that involved noncriminal conduct—and by then taking aggressive action against Pastor Johnny, the Defendants sought to create the appearance that the SBC has learned from its previous mistakes and is now working to protect victims of sex crimes,” the complaint claims.

Alleges Hunt named to ‘deflect attention’

The complaint accused current SBC leaders and Guidepost of intentionally causing him “personal anguish and harm.”

“Defendants’ decision to feature the allegation against Pastor Johnny in their public report was a strategic decision to deflect attention from the SBC’s historical failure to take aggressive steps to respond to reports of child sex abuse and other sex crimes in its past,” the complaint claims.

A spokesperson for the SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee said SBC leaders are aware of the suit.

“We are reviewing the complaint and will not be commenting on active litigation at this time,” the spokesman said in a statement.

Guidepost Solutions declined to comment.

Return to the pulpit

Hunt made a defiant return to the public in January at a Florida megachurch, after a group of pastors announced that Hunt had been through a restoration process and was fit to return to ministry after a brief hiatus.

Pastor Johnny Hunt preaches at Hiland Park Baptist Church on Jan. 15, 2023, in Panama City, Florida. (Video screen grab via RNS)

During that sermon, Hunt said “false allegations” had ruined his life. But he told the congregation that if God calls someone to do something, that calling can’t be undone—and God called that person, knowing the person might sin and fail.

“Anybody can quit,” he said. “That’s why so many do. It’s easy. I mean, it hardly takes any energy whatsoever.”

Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., which hosted Hunt and whose pastor oversaw Hunt’s restoration, could face consequences at the upcoming SBC annual meeting in June.

The church has been reported to the SBC’s credentials committee for hosting “an individual who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse, according to the standards adopted by the convention.”

Saddleback ‘prayerfully considering’ next steps, says pastor

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)—Saddleback Church is considering whether to appeal a vote of being found not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention, but regardless plans to “continue our 43-year partnership with our local association and state convention,” Lead Pastor Andy Wood told Baptist Press.

“If we choose to appeal this decision it will be based on a desire to help serve other SBC churches,” he wrote in an email.

Saddleback recently released a video featuring Wood explaining the church’s position on women in ministry.

He explained that while the church believes women can be empowered with spiritual gifts, including preaching, those gifts are exercised under the authority of the elders of the church, a role he says is limited to men at Saddleback.

At their February meeting, the SBC Executive Committee affirmed a recommendation by the SBC Credentials Committee to deem Saddleback “not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.” The Credentials Committee cited the role and function of Stacie Wood, the pastor’s wife, as teaching pastor at Saddleback for its recommendation.

Saddleback was one of six churches voted for disfellowship. Action was taken against five of the churches because they have women in the role of senior pastor or teaching pastor.

SBC Bylaw 8 states that a church may submit a written appeal “at least 30 days prior to the Convention’s annual meeting.” Such an appeal this year would need to be submitted before May 14.

Saddleback’s approach to women in ministry

In the recent video, Wood pointed to the church’s interpretation of Scripture as the basis for Saddleback’s approach to women in ministry.

However, the word “complement” or a variation thereof isn’t used in the video. When asked by email if that was intentional, Wood said: “The intended audience for my recent video is the Saddleback Church family. In the video, I stated our beliefs without using terms that could be unnecessarily confusing or divisive.”

In the video, Wood said it is important to look at God’s original design versus the dangers of sliding into a “trajectory hermeneutic” that places Scripture in a secondary role to culture’s influence.

“We’re trying to go back to God’s intended design of what he teaches in Scripture and his intention for the local church,” said Wood.

The Saddleback pastor cited their interpretation of Bible passages such as:

Romans 16, which mentions Phoebe, a deaconess, and Priscilla and Aquilla, who were influential leaders in the early Church, and
Romans 16:6-7, he said, notes a woman named Junia as among the early apostles.

The passage 1 Timothy 2:12 often comes up in these discussions, said Wood, and he believes it is helpful for discerning between the office of the elder and the gift of teaching.

“An elder can empower women and mobilize women to use their spiritual gifts in the local church. And we see this from a descriptive angle all throughout the course of the New Testament,” he said.

“Conservative, Bible-believing theologians” interpret the passage differently, Wood said. He believes the text is about the authority elders have in authorizing who can use gifts, such as teaching, in the local church.

“Just like Paul gives order in a home with a husband being the head of a household, he’s saying, ‘I don’t permit a woman to come in and seize that role.’ So, when a woman teaches in a local church, she’s teaching in conjunction with the authority of the church … [and] uses that spiritual gift under the authority of the eldership or the leadership of the local church.”

Saddleback ordained three women in May 2021 to various ministry positions with the title of “pastor.” A little over a year later, founding pastor Rick Warren announced his plans to retire by that September and named Wood his successor.

On Oct. 9, 2022, Stacie Wood preached a message at Saddleback titled “The Courage to Slow Down.” In comments to BP at that time, Andy Wood clarified he and his wife are not co-pastors, but he serves as lead pastor while she is one of the church’s teaching pastors.

Southern Baptists’ long disagreement about women

In May 1877, Myra Graves made history.

Widow of the first president of Baylor University, Graves was the first woman seated as a delegate to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. She returned again in 1882, according to the Journal of Southern Religion.

No one seemed to notice.

The same could not be said a few years later, when two women from Arkansas showed up as delegates. A pastor from Virginia stood up, saying women had no right to be at the meeting. That led to a hasty gathering of a five-member committee to decide the issue. The committee did not want the women there, but ruled nothing in the denomination’s constitution barred their presence.

The committee’s ruling did not sit well with delegates like a certain Dr. Hawthorne of Georgia.

“I love the ladies, but I dread them worse,” he told delegates, according to the May 16, 1885, edition of the Tennessee Baptist newspaper. “If my wife was here knocking at the door of this Convention I’d never vote against her coming in.”

Delegates to that meeting eventually voted to bar the Arkansas women. Then they changed the SBC’s constitution to make it plain only “brethren” were allowed—a rule that stayed in place for decades.

Role of women revisited

Nearly 140 years later, the role of women in the SBC is back up for debate. This time, the question is whether churches with women pastors should be expelled from the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Since 2000, official Southern Baptist doctrine limits the role of pastor to men. But that doctrine had never been enforced at the national level until recently. This past February, the SBC’s Executive Committee expelled five churches—including Saddleback in California, one of the largest churches in the SBC—for having women pastors.

Several of those churches are expected to appeal at the SBC’s annual meeting in June.

The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, longtime pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., one of the churches kicked out alongside Saddleback, told The Tennessean newspaper she was surprised her role at the church became controversial recently. She said a number of SBC leaders have preached at the church during her three decades as pastor, including the chair of the committee that recommended disfellowshipping Fern Creek.

“If our convention continues to make ‘minor things’ the ‘main thing,’ there will soon not be many churches left in the convention,” she told that committee in a letter last October, according to The Tennessean.

Saddleback pastor Andy Young also released a video this week outlining the church’s view on women leaders.

The current SBC debate over women pastors has been fueled, at least in part, by a 2019 tweet from bestselling author and Bible teacher Beth Moore about speaking at a church on Mother’s Day. Her social media post sparked a wave of controversy that eventually contributed to her leaving the denomination.

At the time, the SBC also was dealing with a major crisis over sexual abuse and some felt the alarm bell over women preachers was being used to distract from that crisis. The news of Saddleback’s expulsion likewise has overshadowed decisions around paying for abuse reforms.

Opposition to women pastors and preachers

Delegates to the June meeting, known as messengers, may also debate a potential constitutional amendment to officially bar churches that “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”

Virginia Baptist pastor Mike Law proposed the constitutional amendment last year, but the SBC Executive Committee has yet to decide whether to let it move forward. Any changes to the SBC’s constitution would have to be passed two years in a row.

Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church, said several SBC churches close to his congregation have women pastors. That prompted him to write to the Executive Committee last May, seeking clarification about the SBC’s rules.

His email also had a personal side. Arlington Baptist Church, where Law began serving in 2014, had at least two women pastors in its past. Having women as pastors, he believed, put the church at odds with the SBC’s doctrine.

“Thankfully, the saints at Arlington Baptist have returned to faithfulness on this issue, and unity with Southern Baptists,” Law wrote in his proposed amendment. Law, who was not available for an interview because he was assisting a church member, has also set up a website for the proposed amendment, including a video explaining his rationale.

“Why is it wrong for women to serve as pastors?” Law said in the video, which was sent to members of the Executive Committee. “Because it is contrary to God’s design for his church. It is that simple. Don’t overthink this issue.”

Law also put together a list of 170 women pastors serving at SBC churches. That list includes 51 women who are senior pastors, 20 associate pastors, 47 children’s pastors, 12 elders, 11 worship pastors and 35 “other” pastors.

Acts Church in Waco

David Booker, lead pastor of Acts Church in Waco, was not aware until recently that his church was on Law’s list. But he was not surprised.

He and his wife, Kim, the church’s co-lead pastor, founded the church in 2007. The church, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the SBC, also has a worship pastor, a children’s pastor and an executive pastor who are all women.

Booker said men who hold those roles often are called pastors, and so the church just uses the same titles for the women in those roles. The church also has several women elders, a position some churches limit to men.

“I don’t know if God is that concerned about titles,” he said.

One of the current debates in the SBC is whether the denomination’s doctrinal requirement of male pastors applies only to senior pastors or to any pastoral role.

When the church was first founded, Booker said, he and his his wife—who runs a discipleship school for the church but does not preach on Sundays—and other leaders studied biblical passages about the roles of men and women. As Baptists, they wanted to do everything according to the Bible.

“We came to the conclusion that the Bible does not prohibit women in church leadership,” he said. “I can totally get how people feel different.”

According to the current SBC constitution and bylaws, a church must have a “faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.”

Booker said Acts church fits that description. The church is committed to the Bible and to what’s known as the Great Commission, Jesus’ command to make disciples around the world.

Shared beliefs expected

David Schrock, pastor of preaching at Occoquan Bible Church in Virginia, which joined the SBC, said having a shared set of beliefs makes it possible for churches in the convention to work together on missions and starting new churches. Without those shared beliefs, he said, that cooperation falls apart.

Schrock, who said Law is a friend, supports the amendment.

“If we cannot agree on who a pastor can be, when Scripture clearly speaks to the matter, we cannot cooperate in planting churches,” said Schrock.

Several pastors on Law’s list declined to comment or said their church was no longer affiliated with the SBC. One did say her church stopped giving to the SBC a number of years ago—though some congregation members still give directly to SBC missions.

Law is not the first to propose an amendment to bar churches with women pastors. In 1993, a messenger named Michael Barley from Kentucky proposed an amendment to bar “churches which have ordained women.” The Executive Committee rejected that amendment the following year.

Things have changed since then, said Law. In 2000, the denomination’s official doctrinal statement, known as the Baptist Faith & Message, was revised to state “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

“With the confessional basis for this amendment now in place, it is time the SBC took this step,” he said.

Generations bridge gap through interviews at church

GRAYSON, Ky. (BP)—An open forum discussion at First Baptist Church in Grayson, Ky., on a Wednesday night turned into an opportunity for young and older members to learn more about each other.

“I was teaching, and it was just a clunker,” Pastor Josh Schmidt said. “I said: ‘Let’s have an open forum discussion. What’s good and what’s not good at the church?’ One of the things the senior adults were concerned about was that they didn’t know anybody anymore.”

Schmidt said the church is growing, but it has been all from one demographic—under age 30. Many teachers and leaders from the high school attend church at Grayson and have invited students to come.

“The church has changed,” Schmidt said. “That (older) group is feeling left behind.”

Then came a suggestion from one of the senior adults: “What if we did like a speed-dating thing only with young people and old people?”

From that came the idea for one-on-one interviews between the under-25 and the over-25 age groups on a Wednesday night. It turned out to be so fruitful—with about 80 participating—they will continue doing it for the next six months, Schmidt said.

The groups gathered on a Wednesday night and “interviewed” each other. They had lists of questions to ask each other developed through the staff, the pastor said. Each person was to have three “interviews” with the other generation.

Getting to know you

Most of them were ice-breaker questions, but many of them went much deeper. One teenage girl accepted the Lord after meeting with an older woman in the church who held her hand during the entire interview.

“(Youth pastor) Cory (Jones) and I stayed until after 9 o’clock talking to the teenager,” Schmidt said. “We called that sweet older lady, and she was fired-up.”

Another teenager asked about baptism, and another revealed she was not a Christian but had questions. That was all unexpected fruit from the generational meeting, Schmidt said.

The pastor pumped up his senior adults to make sure they would be at the meeting, but the younger group was told what was going to happen after they arrived for a youth group meeting.

“People were kind of apprehensive at first—the teenagers more than the senior adults,” Schmidt said. “One of the things we were real intentional about was explaining why we were doing this. We both kind of started out our presentations the same way. Unless we do something tonight, the vast majority of these teens may never come back after graduating high school.”

Create intentional relationships

Schmidt said he read a report where 80 percent of teenagers never return to church after high school, but that number goes down drastically with intentional relationships, outside of parents.

He said the hope is to create some of those intentional relationships and before the start of school in the fall have a “spiritual adoption” where the senior adults “adopt” some of the teenagers and younger adults, within some guidelines (attending games, birthday parties, church events, etc.).

The pastor said the response was good from both groups after the first meeting. They will do one a month through the summer. Both sides reported talking about more than the suggested questions in their brief meetings with each other.

“The end game is to have both parties, older adults and younger adults, to rank their top five favorite interviews they did,” he said. “We would assign the younger people to older people, and hopefully they can have that meaningful relationship.”

Schmidt said mixing the age groups it is not a unique idea nor is it anything he came up with.

“This game organically from the church,” he said.

After posting on social media about what First Baptist Church in Grayson was doing, the response from other pastors and young church leaders was strong, with many asking Schmidt how to put it together.

Man rescued from burning car after crashing into church

MACCLESFIELD, N.C. (BP)—First responders and members of a North Carolina church are being hailed as heroes after they helped pull a man to safety from a burning vehicle after the car’s driver crashed through the front of the church building on Wednesday, March 8.

A vehicle slammed through the wall of a prayer room adjacent to the foyer at Webbs Chapel Baptist Church in Macclesfield, N.C. (BP Photo)

Witnesses say the driver apparently lost consciousness and barreled through a stop sign at a T-intersection in front of Webbs Chapel Baptist Church in Macclesfield at approximately 4 p.m.

The vehicle slammed through the wall of a prayer room adjacent to the church’s foyer. Moments later, the car caught fire inside the building with the driver trapped inside.

No one was at the church at the time of the incident, but a passerby who stopped to assist was soon joined by the church’s pastor and other members who live near the church as news of the accident quickly spread.

Those initial people on the scene worked frantically to rescue the driver trapped inside while waiting for first responders to arrive. Their rescue efforts were complicated, however, by limited access to the vehicle and smoke that filled the room where the car was lodged.

Firefighters used a brush truck to pull the vehicle from the building which allowed a member of the N.C. Highway Patrol to pull the driver to safety through the passenger side door. Fire crews were then able to extinguish the flames on the vehicle and inside the church building.

The driver of the vehicle was treated at the scene and transported to a local hospital, where he remains hospitalized but is expected to make a full recovery.

The highway patrol officer who responded to the incident and pulled the driver from the car is also a member of the church, according to Pastor Stephen Duncan.

“They did some heroic things to save him,” said longtime church member Joesy Harrell, who was among the first people to arrive at the scene along with Duncan.

‘Crashed into a place of hope’

Duncan said he was able to pray with the driver before he was transported to the hospital by ambulance. The pastor visited him in the hospital the day after the crash and said he plans to continue to visit and minister to him.

“I told him that he crashed into a place of hope,” Duncan said. “We’re praying hard for him.”

After the crash, church leaders shifted that evening’s scheduled activities to the church’s family life center, where members came together to pray and process the events of the day.

Duncan said he shared from Haggai 2:9 with those who gathered, which says, “‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”

“We know that God is going to use this,” Duncan said. “We are going to move forward and still do ministry. The gospel hasn’t been prevented from going forward because of this incident. I’m excited to see how God is going to turn this for his glory.”

Webbs Chapel Baptist Church in Macclesfield, N.C., meet for worship in the church’s family life center. (BP Photo)

The church will conduct worship services in the family life center for the foreseeable future, Duncan said. The accident completely destroyed the prayer room and caused extensive fire and smoke damage to the sanctuary. Although initial damage assessments have begun, the full extent of the damage, along with the cost and timeline for repairs, won’t be known for several more days, he said.

Duncan said he has been encouraged by the show of support he has received from the community, other churches and ministry leaders. He asked for ongoing prayers for the driver of the crash and for the church as it moves forward.

“We know God is going to be faithful,” Duncan said. “We are going to move forward.”

Chad Austin writes for Baptist State Convention of North Carolina Communications.

McRaney/NAMB court date moved to August

OXFORD, Miss. (BP)—A U.S. District Court agreed with attorneys representing the North American Mission Board on March 3 that a continuance was necessary to complete the discovery process in a case brought against the entity by former state executive Will McRaney.

McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, originally filed the lawsuit in 2017. In it, McRaney stated NAMB wrongfully influenced his 2015 termination and furthermore intentionally defamed him over a dispute regarding collaborative missions efforts in the area.

Senior U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson signed the order moving the court date to Aug. 7 from the original June 5 date. March 3 was the previous discovery deadline.

NAMB attorneys filed the motion for continuance Feb. 24. Among their reasons for doing so was the addition of new witnesses and amended disclosures.

Barker asserts defamation by Ezell

An affidavit of one of those witnesses, former NAMB employee Bill Barker, was presented on Feb. 22. Barker described a pattern of behavior by NAMB President Kevin Ezell consistent with McRaney’s accusations.

“From personal experience and knowledge, I know that Kevin Ezell has used NABM’s funding and resources to control state conventions” and influence the hiring and firing of personnel, Barker said.

Neither Ezell nor NAMB has offered any public comment about Barker’s allegations.

Barker, who directed Appalachia Regional Ministry with NAMB from 2001 to 2017, alleges in his affidavit that Ezell “made statements that were false and bullying in nature.”

After Barker said he was “forced into early retirement” from NAMB, he continued to work with the renamed Appalachian Mountain Ministry through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. However, Barker claimed Ezell continued to pressure the state convention to fire him.

Barker asserted Ron McCoy, a former NAMB trustee and past president of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, confirmed Barker was “the victim of an intentional smear campaign.”

“McCoy told me that Ezell was behind the campaign and then proceeded to name those at NAMB who carried out the smear campaign on Ezell’s behalf,” Barker said. McCoy died in December 2018.

NAMB’s legal team stated the Feb. 22 affidavit—filed a little over a week before the discovery deadline—made the continuance necessary. The judge agreed.

With additional reporting by Managing Editor Ken Camp.

Ridgecrest to host summer staff reunion in June

NASHVILLE (BP)—Decades of memories will be on the agenda for former summer staff of Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center at the group’s annual alumni reunion June 1-4.

The decision to incorporate a Southern Baptist “assembly” in 1907 led to the purchase later that year of 1,100 acres near Black Mountain, N.C., by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention and SBC Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources). The same engineering firm that developed the Biltmore Estate in nearby Asheville joined the effort.

By 1909, about 600 people took part in the first summer program of Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center.

In 2020, Lifeway reached an agreement to sell the conference center and its summer camps, but the location has remained one of activity for Southern Baptists like the thousands who have worked on the summer staff.

Registration is $50 per person through June 1. Additional attendees age 6 to 18 will be $10 each with a paying adult. Those 5 years old and younger can attend for free.

On-site nightly accommodations are available at Pritchell ($70), Rhododendron ($89), Mountain Laurel West ($99) and Mountain Laurel East ($109). Individual meal plan options are also available.

Check-in will begin Thursday, June 1 with dinner following at 5:30. An opening session slide show at 7 will feature images from summers past, devotional/testimony and group ice breakers before an evening fellowship at the Nibble Nook.

Plenty of free time makes up the Friday and Saturday schedules, alongside volunteer opportunities, worship with current staff, devotionals and S’mores at the fire pit. Magician David Garrard will be the featured entertainment for the Friday night dinner.

The weekend will conclude Sunday, June 4, with worship and a slide show of the event.

For more information or to register, email [email protected]. Summer staff alumni updates can be found by subscribing to the group’s newsletter or joining their Facebook page.

Ukrainians, Tennessee Baptists bond through online ESL

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (BP)—As Russia declared war on Ukraine, Eunege and his wife Julia rushed to buy a car as their vehicle of escape from Chernihiv, ground zero of the onslaught.

Billy Hoffman, co-director of missions for First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., reached Eunege on the phone. The two were conversation partners in a Ukraine-U.S. English-as-a-Second-Language group co-founded by Hoffman, a former International Mission Board executive.

“I just was feeling concerned one time, and I called them on What’s App, and they were actually getting in the car and leaving Chernihiv, at that moment,” Hoffman said a year later. “She was really panicked, being in the basement and everything,” Hoffman said of Julia, “and he was able to go buy a car and they left.”

Newlyweds, Eunege and Julia accepted Christ and were baptized together just four months before the war began. They have been discipled while honing their English through their relationships with members of First Baptist in Nashville who serve as conversation partners from afar.

Eunege was among about 12 members of the ESL group who met on Zoom on the war’s first anniversary, including members from Ukraine and members of First Baptist in Nashville. He has enlisted in the Ukrainian military and is stationed in western Ukraine, while Julia finds safety in Japan.

“I remember sometimes at night was so light like the day, because every bomb, as I understand, was dropped on our city,” Eunege told the group as they remembered the war’s beginning. “Yes, for me it was very dangerous, and especially for my wife.”

 Eunege had grown up near a military base and was better equipped to handle the sound of war, but his wife was very afraid, he told the group. It was too dangerous to leave with Russian troops patrolling the roads, but the couple escaped after a few weeks by intricately evading soldiers.

The ESL group had last met on Zoom Feb. 22, 2022, two days before the war began. The members were then scattered.

Shocked by war, grateful to United States

Ukrainian group members expressed shock at the war, but thanked the United States and other countries for their support.

Valeriy Ryakukha, who helped Hoffman found the ESL group before the COVID-19 pandemic, now is in Virginia after fleeing Odessa.

“Ukraine would be already dead” were it not for America’s support, Ryakukha said.

Hoffman met Ryakukha in 2010 when Ryakukha was enrolled in the one-year Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, a competitive international leadership program run by the U.S. State Department.

Ryakukha was developing a program he could use in Ukraine to help middle school students avoid drug abuse. Hoffman and his wife Ruth served as Ryakukha’s American friendship family, about five years before Hoffman retired as director of development at the International Mission Board.

“When I first met Valeriy, I started a conversation about faith and his comment was interesting. He said, ‘I have feelings but no knowledge,’” Hoffman said. “He was exploring faith through the year, but he did not confess Christ until he went back to Ukraine.”

Olga lived amid bombing and street fighting in Chernihiv for weeks before finding an opportunity and means to flee to Europe.

“A lot of bombs. We hear a lot of weapons above our heads,” Olga told the group. “I understand every kind of weapon I heard. … A lot of bombs killed a lot of people from Chernihiv. … All my relatives say, we are from Soviet Union. Russia is our brothers. This not happen; it’s not real.” Every second, she supposed it would stop. “But it continued and continued, this time.”

No chance to escape

Mykhailo Barabanov had no time to escape as the war began.

“Our village was captured the first day. Our village located the shortest way from Russian border, to Chernihiv Oblast then Kyiv,” he said. “I was shocked. I was scared. We did not have any chance to escape because all bridges were destroyed.

“We stayed in our village. Russian troops stayed in our village. They captured the center of village. Part of our village was completely blocked. We just thought how to survive these circumstances.”

Residents ate whatever food was not confiscated by Russian soldiers, Barabanov said, in the 36 days he remained before escaping.

“Russian troops robbed all shops. They captured small clinics in our village,” he said, although pharmacists were able to hide some medications to treat Ukrainians. “One man in our village was killed the first day, and then nobody was hurt, as [far as] I know.”

Anastasia lived with her son near the Russian boarder. She knew the war was possible, but was shocked when a friend called in the early morning hours to say it had begun.

She and her son each filled backpacks and piled in the car with friends to flee, first to Kyiv and then further west. They stayed in the car the two days it took to find lodging.

“It was our little home. We were exhausted. We wanted to sleep on the bed, but it wasn’t possible.”

She and her son stayed in another city a week before fleeing to Poland. She was worried for her mother, who remained in a village under attack in Chernihiv. Her mother lived in a wine cellar with neighbors, the Russian military not allowing them to flee. Her family home was destroyed in the war.

“I was terrified at the beginning of March (2022),” she said. “But I couldn’t do anything, because I was in Poland. … I’ve lost my childhood house and we lost everything.”

Anastasia lived with four others in a tiny room in Poland before finding a hosting family in the U.K., where she now resides.

Finding solace in prayer

Christina Bondarenko is the twin sister of Julia, Eunege’s wife. Bondarenko was in Germany when the war began. Afraid for her mother and sister in Ukraine, she tried to convince them to flee days ahead of the war. When the war began, Bondarenko said her sister cried daily.

“My sister, she called me on the 24th of February and said, ‘Christina, the war has begun, and we are hearing shooting.’ And I was absolutely shocked. I was so devastated. I could not believe it really happened and especially was angry with myself that maybe I wasn’t persistent enough,” she told the group. “I didn’t persuade them to come over to Germany, and now they had to hide themselves in a very cold food storage.”

First her sister and then her mother fled the war zone, sharing a tiny room before her sister made it to Japan. “At least it was better than hiding themselves in that cold food storage, underground.”

Prayer offered Bondarenko solace.

“There was only one thing left. Praying. And I was praying, my sister she was crying. She called me and we talked and she said, ‘You know Christina, I feel like God doesn’t love me.’ She said, ‘God loves you, but he doesn’t love me because I’m … in this war,’” Bondarenko told the group.

“I told her to don’t ever, ever think that God doesn’t love you, and there is a purpose for everything, and you must believe that. The enemy wants you to believe God doesn’t love you, because as soon as you believe in his lie, he will be able to manipulate you.”

Every day family is alive is a ‘good day for me’

Svetlana joined the Zoom reunion for a portion of the call. Her family is separated between Ukraine and Germany.

“Every day my family members, my relatives, my friends are alive, and their house exists, it is good day for me,” she said.

Hoffman’s friendship with Ryakukha gave him the idea ESL conversations could be used to help spread the gospel abroad. With Ryakukha, a licensed ESL teacher, the two launched the program in Ukraine.

The group first met in a public library with Hoffman participating on Zoom. He recruited members of First Baptist in Nashville as conversation partners. Hoffman continues to meet weekly with Eunege on Zoom, but others in the group are not always able to meet weekly.

Hoffman believes conversation partners could be used to spread the gospel in places where Southern Baptist missionaries are already active.

“If all of our missionaries around the world who are teaching ESL as a way to spread the gospel, if they would incorporate a way for Americans over here—since we can now technologically do that—to be conversation partners, that would just be another voice of sharing the gospel,” he said.

Training, education and safeguards could be incorporated into the program.

“I know there are literally hundreds of thousands of Christians in America that would be happy to engage in that conversation and be able to share their own testimony and God’s love,” Hoffman said.

“As far as being able to be a partner in 30 minutes a week, having a conversation with somebody and being able to share their story and hear (the other’s) story, and being able to be a friend to them, it’s amazing how your heart gets wrapped around.”

BJC acquires Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has acquired the Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation, a Virginia-based entity that billed itself as “a theological think tank for building beloved community.”

The center grew out of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., which opened in 1991 as an alternative to the six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries and closed in 2019.

The BJC—an 87-year-old coalition of 15 Baptist groups based in Washington, D.C.—is adding the center as the home for its Project for Race and Religious Freedom, launched in 2021.

The BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation will host a new program called the Religious Freedom Immersion Experience, scheduled to launch in early 2024. The center also will continue its annual Religious Freedom Mobile Institute.

“Across the organization, BJC recognizes that religious freedom has been white too long,” BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler said. “BJC acquiring the center deepens our commitment to working for racial justice as a critical part of our mission to ensure religious freedom for all.”

Sabrina Dent

Sabrina E. Dent, president of the center since January 2022 and cohost of the “Sister Act” podcast, will be director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation. Dent served on the BJC board of directors but resigned her board post to join the staff. She was a BJC fellow in 2015.

Dent worked previously as curator of education in Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative, as senior faith adviser with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and in several roles with the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. She is a former president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond.

“The BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation will broaden the conversation about religious freedom,” Dent said. “For too long, we’ve had a narrow understanding of religious freedom that has shut too many people out of the conversation.

“Religious freedom impacts so many issues, including voting rights. How can we ensure religious freedom without equal access to the ballot box? Who benefits when religious freedom is ideologically boxed off from other issues? These are the types of questions we ask as this work continues into a new phase.”

Lynn Brinkley, chair of the BJC board of directors, said she was “thrilled” about the acquisition of the Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation.

“This gain will strengthen BJC’s mission, educational programming and influence by embracing a more inclusive understanding of religious freedom,” Brinkley said. “May this accomplishment lead to a more unified world that is just and reconciled.”

With information provided by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons of BJC communications. 

GuideStone trustees affirm strategic plan

DALLAS (BP) – GuideStone trustees affirmed a new strategic plan during their regular meeting Feb. 27-28 in Plano.

“The strategy pursues stronger, more efficient and effective SBC ministry partnerships in order to expand our kingdom reach,” GuideStone President Hance Dilbeck told trustees.

Hance Dilbeck

“A year ago now, when [former president] O.S. Hawkins passed the baton to me, he reminded me that the chair of his search committee told him, ‘Take something great and make it greater.’ We’re placing this new strategic plan under the word, ‘Reach.’ That’s what the word ‘reach’ is about—taking something great and making it greater.

“We’re thankful for the foundation that we are building on so we can make an even greater impact for our members and ministry partners.”

The Reach Strategy flows from the GuideStone vision—“Every servant of Christ finishes well”— and its mission—“We enhance financial security and resilience for those who serve the Lord.”

 “The reason we say ‘enhance,’ is because we can’t do this for our members or ministry partners,” Dilbeck said. “We can lead, advocate and guide, but at the end of the day, they have decisions to make.

“Financial security is our lane. Our place in the kingdom is to help those who serve Christ with financial security. It means freedom from anxiety and freedom to pursue what God calls you to do.

“The reason we say ‘resilience’ is we want to help our churches and ministries connect financial security with that larger idea of wellness. Resilience is the capacity to bounce back, to endure unexpected hardship. Living with enough margin to get through the hard times.”

Dilbeck tied the mission and vision to 1 Timothy 4:16, which reads, “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching; persevere in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

“Most pastors do a good job paying attention to their teaching, but we want to come alongside them and make sure they’re also paying attention to themselves and their households.” Dilbeck said.

Time of transition

Trustees reelected John Hoychick Jr. (La.) chairman and David Cox (Mich.) vice chairman.

With the retirement of longtime chief operating officer John R. Jones, the board elected Chu Soh to succeed Jones and Nadeena Kersey to serve as chief insurance officer.

Kersey joined the ministry last year, and Soh joined GuideStone as chief insurance officer in June 2020. Jones will serve the remainder of 2023 as special assistant to the executive office.

“2022 and 2023 are years that, if we had to sum them up with one word, that would be ‘transitions,’” Dilbeck said. “Transitions are a big deal, so we have approached these transitions —from O.S. Hawkins to me and from John Jones to Chu Soh—with humility, intentionality and bathed in prayer.”

Emergency Grant Fund named for Hawkins

Trustees recognized Hawkins, president emeritus of GuideStone, by renaming a special fund, the O.S. and Susie Hawkins Emergency Grant Fund. The Hawkins fund was established to provide the emergency needs of the financially poorest Mission:Dignity recipients. Those emergency needs could include hearing aids, eyeglasses, dentures, medical bills and home repairs. Today, Mission:Dignity recipients in this income level earn an average of $1,033 monthly.

“One of the dear pastor widows we serve makes even less,” Aaron Meraz, director of Mission:Dignity, told trustees. “Her monthly income is less than $900, and recently she needed new eyeglasses that would cost her $550. We were able to come alongside her because of these grants and help ensure she could have the glasses she needs.”

Meraz told trustees the Hawkins Emergency Grant Fund is in addition to gifts given to continue to provide monthly grants to more than 2,800 retired pastors and their widows.

“Our history as the people of God brings both humility and hope,” Dilbeck said. “We didn’t get here without the Lord’s good hand on us. Since he’s been faithful to us in the past, we can trust he will continue to be faithful in the future. I believe our best days are very much in front of us.”

Guidepost Solutions rep discusses Ministry Check database

NASHVILLE (BP)—Samantha Kilpatrick of Guidepost Solutions answered questions about the organization’s new Faith-Based Solutions division and plans for the upcoming Ministry Check database.

In a video interview with Marshall Blalock, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, released online March 1, Kilpatrick discusses her experience working with Guidepost.

Kilpatrick has a background in law, operating a private practice designed to advise, represent and consult abuse survivors navigating the criminal justice system.

She worked with Guidepost as a part of the organization’s investigation into alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims by the SBC Executive Committee, and was recently named to lead the organization’s newly established faith-based division.

“I was familiar with Guidepost’s work and had followed some of the investigations that they had done in the past, was very impressed with their work,” Kilpatrick said.

“To just see the professionalism, see the care and concern for this area of practice, both for survivors and for churches and ministries to get this right. I just feel like God just prepared the way for me to do it. I’m greatly humbled by it. I’m excited about it. I’m very passionate about it.”

Understanding both polity and beliefs

Kilpatrick said Guidepost places a huge emphasis on the religious values of the client they’re working with.

“Guidepost has been doing this work for a while,” Kilpatrick said. “We do this work across all types of denominations and faith-based groups, but we’ve done a decent amount of work in the Orthodox and conservative evangelical communities.

“One of the things that we do, no matter where we’re working, is we try to really get in and understand both the polity of the system that we’re working in, but also the theological beliefs. How they work and how that may have implications in our work.”

The implementation task force announced during the latest SBC Executive Committee meeting its recommendation to the convention’s credentials committee to use Guidepost to establish and maintain a Ministry Check database for those in the convention who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.

The credentials committee and Guidepost currently are in contract negotiations regarding the database.

The Ministry Check website was one of two approved recommendations the implementation task force was commissioned to accomplish by messengers to the 2022 SBC annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

‘Proper protections’ for survivors

In the interview, Kilpatrick talked with Blalock about the considerations that go into such a database.

“This is a big project, and it’s got a lot of different facets to it,” she said. “Some of those are just from a legal standard and a professional standard of just evaluating information that comes in, and creating a standard and a process for how that information gets categorized for inclusion.

“Also making sure that the proper protections are in place for survivors as we continue to receive reports through the hotline and what other avenues that might come in. Other experts at Guidepost are going to come alongside me with this piece of just the privacy and security piece of hosting an offender database on the internet. There’s a lot to do around that.

“And then also making it user friendly. Making it something that Southern Baptists can use. Making it something that Southern Baptists can actually gain good information from. What we want to do is we want to prevent abuse by preventing an offender from working somewhere else where they would have access to children.”

Also a part of the conversation was Heather Evans, director of a counseling practice in Pennsylvania, who served as a consultant on the previous Sexual Abuse Task Force.

Evans agreed to assist the implementation task force with its work, saying it is crucial to the mission of the local church.

“I’m here because I believe it’s worth it,” Evans said. “I believe it’s necessary. It’s worth it because the survivors are worth it. People made in the image of God are worth it. Truth and justice are worth it, because that’s really at the heart and mission of Jesus Christ.”

Southwestern Seminary agrees to Carroll Park sale

FORT WORTH (BP)—Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary accepted a nonbinding agreement to sell 15 acres of its B.H. Carroll Park to the City of Fort Worth for $11 million.

The seminary accepted the offer from the Fort Worth Housing Finance Corporation, the city’s housing development arm, during the Fort Worth City Council meeting Feb. 28, Interim President David S. Dockery announced.

“This agreement with the City of Fort Worth to move forward with its purchase of 15 acres of the Carroll Park property is not only welcome news for Southwestern Seminary; it is the next chapter in a 115-year partnership between the seminary and the city we call home,” Dockery said.

Mayor Mattie Parker expressed gratitude “for the historic partnership between Southwestern Seminary and the City of Fort Worth.”

“The seminary’s commitment to serving our city has been made even more clear in the work it has taken to make this project possible,” Parker said.

The partnership includes the City of Fort Worth and two primary non-profit organizations who will manage the project—One Safe Place and Samaritan House. Other philanthropic organizations, including the Rainwater, Morris, Amon Carter, Sid Richardson and Paulos foundations will provide support.

The city plans to use the property to provide housing for 140 vulnerable families, including victims of domestic violence and homeless families.

“We are overjoyed that this property so many seminary families have called home over the decades can now be used to meet a critical need in our city—housing for the most vulnerable among us, including families experiencing homelessness,” Dockery said.

“We remain committed to ensuring a smooth transition for our students who are still living at Carroll Park as we work with the city and other partners to finalize this historic transaction.”

Dockery noted plans to sell the property, announced at the seminary’s October 2022 board of trustees meeting, have been under consideration several years. Other housing on the main campus can better accommodate the needs of the institution than the Carroll Park property, which is not contiguous with the campus, he added.

Since the trustees meeting, campus leaders met in town hall meetings with Carroll Park residents to address questions and provide information for student housing.

Parker called the project a “perfect example” of Fort Worth’s “commitment to families and ensuring every child has the support they need to be successful.”

“As we face a crisis of family homelessness across the country, we are fortunate in Fort Worth to have nonprofit and philanthropic partners that are committed to working alongside the city to ensure we are investing in the needed housing and services for our most vulnerable,” Parker said.