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Southern Baptist leaders will decide the fate of congregations with women pastors

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Southern Baptists are gathering in New Orleans for their annual meeting. The largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. faces disputes over women serving as pastors and fallout from sexual abuse within its ranks. Joining us is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Thank you for being with us.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: Let's start with women pastors. What's driving that issue?

DEROSE: Well, earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention expelled several congregations in which women serve as pastors. Now, the denomination has a strict rule - women cannot be senior or lead pastors. And that's because they believe that the Bible prohibits women from teaching men and having authority over them. And a few of the churches expelled do have senior pastors who are women, in violation of church rules. And at least one of those congregations is appealing its removal. And that appeal is being considered during the meeting.

RASCOE: What about women who are pastors but not the head of the congregation? Is that allowed?

DEROSE: Well, a number of Southern Baptist congregations, in fact, employ women who perform all sorts of ministry, but they're not senior pastors. For instance, they could be the education pastor who oversees Sunday school - lots of women in that position. They may teach boys and girls and other women, but they may not teach men. And those congregations say that this work is all done under the leadership and authority of a senior male pastor. So they argue it's permissible. That's the situation at a well-known church, Saddleback Church in Southern California. That megachurch has a woman who serves as a teaching pastor, and it was also expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this year. And it's also appealing that decision.

RASCOE: There's also the issue of sexual abuse that has been uncovered in the Southern Baptist Convention. What's the latest on how it's being addressed?

DEROSE: Well, you'll remember that last year the church's sexual abuse task force released a very strongly worded report that detailed how Southern Baptists had mishandled sex abuse claims and mistreated victims. During this meeting, the church will hear a report about what it's done since then. It's developing a database of abusive clergy, so if a congregation wants to hire someone, it would be able to see if there were allegations of misconduct elsewhere. The task force is also creating a toolkit for how to handle abuse - say, how best to report it to the civil authorities, how to conduct an internal investigation, how best to care for the victims. And keep in mind, Ayesha, that parts of this church are under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department because of the way it handled earlier sexual misconduct. And all of this is happening at the same time as an election to decide the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The incumbent is facing a challenger for the office.

RASCOE: Jason, given all of this, are Southern Baptists as influential as they once were?

DEROSE: Well, there is a demographic answer to that question. Southern Baptists are losing members. A recent study shows about half a million fewer members between 2021 and 2022, and it's lost 3 million members since the year 2006. It's still the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with just over 13 million people, but smaller than it used to be. However, the conservative beliefs and values of Southern Baptists still make up a huge part of the Republican political agenda, such as opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights. So it's still influential.

RASCOE: You know, talking about these issues, of course, makes me think about a very prominent Southern Baptist minister, Pat Robertson. He died on Thursday.

DEROSE: Well, Pat Robertson was arguably among the more influential people in American public life over the last 50 years. He founded the Christian Broadcasting Network. He hosted the "700 Club" TV show for decades, from 1966 to 2021. He founded a conservative Christian university, ran for president, and steered conservative evangelical Christians more deeply into politics over those years. And that conservative religious presence in public life is something we'll continue to see play out heading into the 2024 presidential election.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Jason DeRose. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.

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