What does gospel faithfulness look like when a state Baptist Convention provides support and leadership to a children’s and family ministry home? That is the very question Kentucky Baptists have been discussing over the past few weeks.
Let me be clear – I stand and agree with Kentucky Baptists who have demonstrated convictional and doctrinal faithfulness through the recent concerns pertaining to the hiring practices of Sunrise Children’s Services, a Kentucky Baptist supported organization. As you may or may not know, the President and CEO of Sunrise, Bill Smithwick, asked the Board of Trustees this past August to consider lifting the ban of hiring homosexuals as a preemptive move to avoid potentially losing some 26 million dollars from taxpayers. After the issue was leaked to Kentucky Baptists, an outpouring of opposition from the state’s churches ensued and the Board of Trustees ultimately decided to maintain the current hiring practices. Last week at the Kentucky Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, a vote of “no confidence” was made concerning the leadership of Bill Smithwick. I affirm the overwhelming position of Kentucky Baptists who are saying we must never compromise our biblical convictions out of fear of losing government funding. This is the right move for a Kentucky Baptist ministry and another example of how government funds combined with faith based organizations will ultimately cause concern – rightfully so.
And yet, my spirit is restless.
My concern is with what I am hearing celebrated among Kentucky Baptists as gospel faithfulness. After Dr. Paul Chitwood, the Executive Director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, received a standing ovation for his strong leadership in this matter (which was appropriate, Chitwood is a faithful, Christ-honoring leader), it seemed to me as if Kentucky Baptists were, in a sense, celebrating victory. I began to see tweets and Facebook status updates speaking of the gospel faithfulness at the Annual Meeting for how the Sunrise situation was handled. Gospel faithfulness. Yes, absolutely. But in part. Not in whole.
Gospel faithfulness goes beyond “keeping oneself unstained from the world.” It can never be anything less, but it must be something more. The Kentucky Baptist Convention did indeed demonstrate gospel faithfulness in their outspoken concern for the hiring practices at Sunrise, but there is still ongoing faithfulness required to make the outworking of the gospel complete in this issue. What am I referring to?
Kentucky Baptists were mobilized, unified, and determined when confronted with the news of the possibility of a homosexual being hired at Sunrise. But what I don’t see is mobilization, unification, and determination to address the negative impact due to the the loss of government funding. I have not heard Kentucky Baptists express sincere remorse for what will undoubtedly be a significant loss of available care to these children and potential parents. Loss of government funding means loss of state licensing. Loss of state licensing will bring deep consequences for the work being accomplished at Sunrise. It seems that we as Kentucky Baptists are so concerned about the issue of homosexuality and hiring practices that we are fearful to admit the difficult consequences for children that will be a product of this decision – as if such expressions would somehow lessen our strong stance on biblical sexuality. Perhaps conversations on what we can do from here are taking place, but I haven’t seen or heard them. A simple statement of pledging support for the program and the need to “share the gospel with the kids” isn’t enough and it certainly does not match the exuberant actions of the Convention as they stood up for what we believe is sexually wrong. Adoption is about as central as you can get for gospel faithfulness. Our victory in this issue with Sunrise is not complete. I believe part of Smithwick’s frustrations stems from Kentucky Baptists’ seemingly inability to get past the word “homosexual” to see and admit the impact this will have on their ministry. It’s not that we retreat from our position on biblical sexuality, but that we acknowledge how our firm stance will impact other aspects of Sunrise Children’s Services. Sin is a killer. Sometimes taking the appropriate stance against it will bring difficult repercussions to others. It would be nice if Kentucky Baptists would be a little more willing to acknowledge that.
During Smithwick’s 2013 report at the Annual Meeting, the messengers spent the entire allotted time asking him questions. This was in stark contrast to his 2012 report where he pleaded with Kentucky Baptists to raise awareness in their churches on behalf of the children. Not a single question was asked in 2012. And in 2013, there wasn’t enough time for the questions, but the majority of them were about the hiring issue. It is not only possible but essential that we be asking probing questions about the impact of losing government funds on the children while maintaining our convictions on biblical sexuality.
Simply put, I guess I’m just a little bothered that I’m not hearing more about the kids. I’m hearing a lot about hiring homosexuals.
To be certain, part of caring for orphans as a Baptist ministry is strongly connected to the hiring practices. As Dr. Chitwood has written, “Pray with me that the board of trustees will continue to put the kids first and provide them with caregivers who share and model the gospel.” (emphasis mine). We believe that part of the care given to the children at Sunrise is uniquely tied with those who are working for the organization and their commitment to Kentucky Baptist principles. That makes sense. Yet, putting the kids first means we are passionate for both the hiring practices and the legitimate issues raised by Smithwick on how the loss of government funding and state licensing will negatively impact the number of kids we can reach and the available options for those we still can. From Smithwick’s perspective, gospel faithfulness is getting these troubled children into Christian homes who will share the gospel. He calls this “home missionaries.” Although it should not be at the expense of our convictions on sexuality, we must not reduce that same passionate perspective for these children to something that is somehow sub-gospel faithfulness.
I would like to see Kentucky Baptists say this: “Bill Smithwick was out of line Scripturally on this possible solution to a probable financial hit for Sunrise. We need to hold him accountable for that. But we both appreciate and understand where he is coming from – we are deeply concerned at the possibility of substantial funding being removed from Sunrise so that their ministry will be adversely impacted and the children suffer. So, how can we as a Convention both uphold our biblical sexual convictions while taking seriously Smithwick’s underlying concerns? How can we begin conversations to discover what options are available to us to increase funding and attempt to avoid any loss of ongoing funding?”
Instead, it seems I heard something more like this: “Bill Smithwick is not a competent Kentucky Baptist leader for Sunrise Children’s Services and we do not trust him. We celebrate the decision of the Trustees to maintain the current hiring policies. Although we regret Sunrise potentially losing a significant amount of government funding, we will just have to work with what we have. We have done it before without 26 million dollars and we can do it again. We can still help the kids out even if we are on a much reduced budget. The most important thing, after all, is that they hear the gospel.”
I understand that no matter what our efforts, replacing some 26 million dollars is obviously not going to happen through increased church support and it won’t solve the licensing issues. I also understand that other agencies will be able to help reach the children who will slip through the cracks if Sunrise loses funding. Additionally, Kentucky Baptists are already engaged in multiple ways, including an annual Thanksgiving Offering, that provides financial support to Sunrise Children’s Services. I certainly do not want the concern of this article to suggest the Kentucky Baptist Convention ignores the children under the care of Sunrise Children’s Services. Far from it. My concern is that we have seemed to allow an important issue keep us from acknowledging the ramifications of our actions, and the lack of real acknowledgment necessarily means we are not pursuing solutions in various ways. Perhaps no other solutions are possible (it does seem that Smithwick implies that a reversal of the hiring practices is the only solution), but gospel faithfulness demands we seek them out.
So, let me once again reinforce two things. First, I applaud the KBC for standing firm on biblical convictions with this hiring practice. Second, it is quite possible that important and quality conversations, besides a blog post or a comment pledging support, are taking place and will take place among Kentucky Baptists in regard to how we can best increase our faithfulness to Sunrise Children’s Services and take Smithwick’s concerns seriously. I just haven’t seen or heard them yet. These things take time to develop, I understand, but the world was quick to hear about our attitude of celebration at the Annual Meeting and not so quick to hear about our broken hearts.
Here is the small, simple step I am going to take as a pastor and a Kentucky Baptist. I am going to inform my flock of the possible hit Sunrise Children’s Services will take in the future if government funding is removed due to the hiring practices at Sunrise. My church currently participates in the Sunrise “Mile of Pennies” campaign to help support their ministry. It isn’t enough. So, the Mission Action team at Graefenburg, along with a couple of other folks who I know have a heart for Sunrise, are going to begin discussing how we can step up our support in various ways for Sunrise. At least that will be a start.
With that in mind, here is a call to see complete gospel faithfulness for Sunrise Children’s Services in the year 2014.