Christine Stride is Executive Assistant to the National Leader and works at the Baptist National Support Centre in Auckland. She is part of Titirangi Baptist Church.

Of the four ‘Big Bites’ offered at this year’s National Hui, Bite #3 gave us a whole lot to chew on. What follows is a summary of this session at Hui on 4 November 2023 at Manukau City Baptist Church.

Presenter and employment lawyer Geraldine Crudge asked whether Baptist ecclesiology* was fit for purpose in 2023 given the increasing number of complex issues arising within the Baptist Church over the past few years. 

Crudge described four scenarios based on real issues she and her law firm have dealt with in recent years while helping the Baptist National Support Centre. Each scenario involved a pastor behaving inappropriately, and raised important questions as to what action the Baptist Union could take to deal with those issues and to prevent similar issues arising. (Find the pre-Hui reading containing the four scenarios here.)

The panel discussion that followed supported the idea of constitutional changes, such as compulsory registration for pastors. However, some of the Hui delegates worried those changes could mean loss of autonomy for churches and, at the extreme, even set them on a slippery slope toward acceptance of un-Christian practices.

Summary of the panel and delegate discussion

On the panel were pastor Steven Goulstone (pastor at Wellington South Baptist Church), Carey Baptist College Principal John Tucker, Northern Association Regional Leader Reti Ah-Voa and Geraldine Crudge.

National Leader Charles Hewlett opened the discussion by asking for the panel’s reactions to Crudge’s examples.

Their collective response was one of grief and sadness.

John Tucker noted that Deuteronomy talks about protecting the widows, the orphans and the vulnerable people. “This would grieve [Jesus] and it needs to grieve us.”

Grief was also on Reti Ah-Voa’s mind. “These are the shepherds of the flock. As a Regional Leader it’s been hugely frustrating not to be able to check on a church’s wellbeing and welfare. At what point do we become negligent because we can’t act because we don’t have enough intel?”

Charles Hewlett reiterated the consequences mentioned by Crudge that often arise out of local church freedom: the high expectations on elders; the fact that there is a perception that the Baptist Union can actually do something in a situation when in fact leaders can only influence; that there is no central reporting system; and that power sits with each local church meaning it is sometimes hard for there to be objectivity.

He asked whether the panel felt comfortable with that sort of freedom, and asked again if the constitution did enough in situations like these.

The panel agreed that for a local church ‘freedom’ did not mean ‘unbridled autonomy’, and that Baptists had always recognised the need for and the benefits of associating together. It was more a point of associating well - ensuring pastors and churches were well trained and well-resourced to deal with issues. 

Many pastors involved in the issues Crudge described are new to the Union or untrained, and who choose not to associate or attend pastor cluster meetings. They don’t have a good relationship with their Regional Leader, and their church may have a weak or non-existent eldership/board. 

Also, Baptist churches can be ‘catcher’ churches with many people coming from other denominations meaning they can include those whose understanding of church practice is informed by their previous churches, which can create vulnerabilities.

A further issue was that of public perception of the Baptist Union. The public believe the Baptist Union has power to take action but according to our constitution all it can do is suspend a church from the Union which is an extreme option. 

The public expect justice and believe the church holds itself to a higher moral code, therefore they expect churches to have higher standards than a secular organisation. 

While some people may not like the word ‘compulsory’, as in ‘compulsory registration’ for pastors, a compulsory system looking out for the safety of people is both for those being accused and for the victim. 

John Tucker noted that compulsory registration is not a revolutionary idea: most Baptist Unions around the world require registration and certain standards to be met for someone to become a minister in a local Baptist church.

We anticipate the report and recommendations from the New Zealand Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, to be released in March 2024.

One of our college lecturers said abuse and patriarchy often went hand in hand - something the Baptist church should be addressing and which it had the theological tools to address. This comment received applause.

The following statement was shown to delegates:

Our faith community supports the Baptist Union developing a mechanism that might override aspects of our autonomy, in order to help keep our people and places safe. 

The panel were all in favour of the statement, however delegate reactions were mixed. Some wanted to make registration compulsory for pastors right now, others desired consultation first, several were completely against it. 

Those who supported the statement did so because they saw the need for a safety net – for themselves as well as potential victims.

Another delegate and recently appointed elder said they felt “deeply exposed” in the eldership role and questioned how the church could even expect to attract elders and youth leaders under these current circumstances.

One delegate was concerned about possible centralisation of the churches in the Baptist Union, worrying it could lead to extreme situations. “Registration could create a Trojan horse for many different things. How do we avoid that?”

However, another delegate said there was no perceived breach of independence in compulsory registration or a central reporting or vetting system. “There is more of a problem if a body outside the [local] church thinks it can dismiss a pastor, because that outside body is not [the pastor’s] employer.”

Another delegate believed weak leaders and depowered congregations were more an issue than loss of autonomy of the local church and spoke against giving the Baptist Union power over pastoral appointments.

There was overwhelming support from the Assembly for the National Support Centre to develop a mechanism to help keep our people and places safe, starting with creation of a Working Group.

This Group has been formed and has begun developing options for Assembly Council to consider.

Access the pre-Hui read for ‘Big Bite 3’ by Geraldine Crudge: A mechanism to ensure our people and places are safe.

*Ecclesiology is the study of the church which includes the structures and procedures a church or denomination puts in place to organise itself.

Photo: 'Big Bite 3' panel at the Baptist National Hui 2023. Taken by Morgan Dews

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