Photo by Joni B. Hannigan/New York cathedral

The bombshell investigative report of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee by Guidepost Solutions comes as no surprise; given each of the items mentioned are hardly new. What is new is that these items have been “objectively” considered by a third party and gathered into one document that lays bare Southern Baptists propensity to cover-up sin at the highest levels in order to maintain a façade of being without perpetrators and bullies.

It’s about time we come clean with our own accounts of “un-friendly” fire that are neither mistakes nor are they anything but deliberate withholdings of information that should cause those in the pews to pause at what our appointed and elected leadership consider of no import for the rest of us to know.

Key in this is the responsibility of our communications teams and those who lead them. Many have looked the other way while some have provided misleading or incomplete information that skirts critical issues facing our denomination.

Some have purposefully sabotaged the truth in order to push their own agendas – claiming they are doing the “Lord’s” work.     

“Doublespeak” is a phrase tossed about in our SBC world. This goes beyond even doublespeak, however. It has been deliberate and ambiguous at the same time.

In 2018, just as I sought to resurrect my career as a Southern Baptist news writer, having taken time for therapy and restoration following a series of devastating traumas worsened by sexual assault that occurred years before in the military – I was sidelined by one of Southern Baptists most popular current leaders.

Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, apparently took exception to the fact that I placed his name in a post-convention news analysis, “Was SBC #METOO resolution on abuse a band aid for larger issues?”  I posted on my own fledgling new website.

The charismatic, Mr. Friendly, church planting leader threatened to sue me for libel.

Within hours of posting a story about the abuse resolution passed by messengers in Dallas at the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting – I received a threatening text message to my cell phone from Mike Ebert, NAMB’s executive director of public relations.

“Joni-I think you have put yourself into a potentially libelous situation. I am asking you and encouraging you in the strongest way possible to remove what you have posted about Kevin. I wish you had called to discuss this with me ahead of time.”

Out to dinner with my family, I quickly glanced at the message and then promptly lost my appetite. I was somewhat confused at first. Never would I have so casually referred to Dr. Ezell as “Kevin.”

I was pretty dumbfounded a man wielding such a great amount of power threatened to come after me for a few paragraphs analyzing previously written news stories. But by this point I had an epiphany and wondered if Ezell was also the reason I was offered no classes as an adjunct at a Southern Baptist College where I’d taught 24 classes in two years, or whether he was the reason I had virtually no contract work with Southern Baptists, despite just two years previously having earned top awards for my newswriting and coverages.

It also struck me that months before, at the 2018 annual meeting, the Baptist Press newsroom editor told me I might be invited back to work with the team if I didn’t write any more “Will McRaney” updates. I dismissed his remark out of hand because I had written only one, for a state paper editor who asked.

As for my news analysis, it did not spare other top leaders by name. It includes, among others, Frank Page, Paige Patterson, Albert Mohler, and C.J. Mahaney. It includes a quote by SBC Resolutions Committee Chairman, Jason Duesing, and refers to then Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s, Russell Moore. The story includes references to Boz Tchividijian and Rachael Denhollander, along with Willy Rice, a Florida pastor and NAMB trustee.

My reference to Ezell concerned a situation that occurred at the church he pastored before he went to NAMB in 2010. According to documented news reports and court records, he was asked to appear before a Grand Jury in 2004 to testify in the case of a subsequently convicted child molester who had served at the church’s ministry and school for more than a dozen years. At the center of the issue was the use of clergy/penitent privilege, something that had been invoked in this case – and something about which Ezell has given various reports. At that time, Ezell also apparently told media he did not expect the church would announce the attacker’s arrest to the congregation.

Given that no others had objected to my analysis and NAMB had not responded to a brief description I wrote and posted Feb. 3, 2019, of the ominous text message sent by Ebert – I was beyond surprised at what happened next.

A document entitled “Background information from Kevin Ezell” was distributed at the annual meeting of State Baptist papers and editors on Feb. 12; and emailed to the same and others.

The letter, forwarded to me by a former colleague (I resigned my position at Florida Baptist Witness in 2014), addresses a “news analysis” posted on a “blog” and mentions two accusers. There is no doubt Kevin Ezell, in the document sent out, is referencing me and Will McRaney. McRaney the day before had e-mailed NAMB trustees a letter which included a reference to Ebert’s text message to me.

In the document, Ezell states: “Neither of the people circulating misinformation about me contacted me to ask for my side of the story. By their actions, I must conclude that at least part of their goal is to assassinate my character, attack my credibility and undermine my leadership of NAMB, so I am obliged to address these attacks, regardless of how unethical the tactics of those who are attacking.”

In fact, Mike Ebert goes further to malign me in an e-mail sent to NAMB partners at the same time and says NAMB welcomes “any questions,” but follows up by offering the same document, from Ezell’s personal viewpoint, which Ebert says, “[I]s an example of a situation that was handled well by a church and a pastor.”

However, there is no report in Baptist Press of Ezell’s excellent handling of this sex abuse situation, if indeed it is such a shining example of how a church and pastor are to operate, nor is there a report in any other news outlet of which I am aware, of the perspective he presents. I am astonished by this glaring lack of news reporting, given the current climate of churches and the reporting of sex abuse and safety.

Indeed, my brief reference, in the context of #MeToo and the resolution passed at the 2018 SBC in Dallas, simply glanced on issues I believe continue to be problematic. Chiefly, I asked the question of the resolutions committee chairman about “Clergy/Penitent Privilege” because I suspect many younger people might not even know of its existence or use.

To ignore the question seemed reckless and misguided, or at the very least, ignorant.

A news analysis provides a perspective that goes beyond basic newswriting. It could be said an expert considers the facts and draws a conclusion. Inferences can be made, and typically are made. Events that occur could be explained in particular ways. A news analysis can also address consequences.

I shared the same information in an e-mail I copied to members of the SBC Executive Committee Dec. 12, 2019, briefly describing the threatening text from NAMB following my disclosure of mistreatment by Baptist Press personnel and publication of my story about the sex abuse resolution at the 2018 SBC annual meeting. Included in the e-mail were Jonathan Howe, Ronnie Floyd, Mike Stone, Rolland Slade, and James P. Guenther.

I am not the most learned person in any given room, but I will claim some knowledge in this field. I have been a writer for over 40 years. I have taught journalism at the collegiate and high school level and trained interns. I was managing editor of a Baptist state paper for nearly 12 years and editor of a religious paper for another two. I have covered the SBC annual meetings from 1987 until 2018 and served as news editor in the Baptist Press newsroom for the Executive Committee during SBC annual meetings from 2002 until 2009.

I am also a sexual assault survivor. My attacker was both a Naval officer and a Southern Baptist deacon. I knew how important it was for me to heal after years of therapy and how I attempted to move on and to do what God has gifted me in. Writing.

It took one text, preceded by years of Baptist bullying, to knock me back down.

Dallas might seem distant now, it was the last time I went to the SBC annual meeting; but I simply cannot be victimized time and again by the thoughtless and senseless folks who have no apparent compassion for those of us who unconsciously and consciously carry the scars of abuse.

My heart still aches with bittersweet memories when I think of how much I loved telling the stories of the Good News of God’s people at home and around the world, and for that opportunity, I will always be grateful.

It is bitter, however, to realize that instead of learning from our mistakes, my worst fears have come true. The Guidepost report has revealed Southern Baptists did merely put a band-aid on a far larger problem. No, certainly not, dear Jonathan Howe, now leading Baptist Press, I don’t wish to “burn down” anything, nor did I ever. I gave my life to building the Kingdom. And as for Johnny Hunt and the trustees of our entire North American Mission Board, and indeed, our entire SBC leadership, you have some housecleaning and repenting. I hope you get to it.

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