Matt Chandler's Southern Baptist Convention 'interview' shows how not to deal with bad press

Earlier this week, tmatt wrote about and spotlighted a New York Times bombshell about what certainly appeared to be the cavalier approach a major Southern Baptist megachurch took to dealing with a sexual predator in its midst.

A summation of the Times piece is further down in my post, but the damage done by this article was so extensive that the Rev. Matt Chandler, the pastor, broke away from his sabbatical to fly to Birmingham in an attempt to salvage his reputation. He showed up at a lunch meeting of Baptist pastors to answer questions from an emcee but — here’s the key — not to take questions from the audience.

The video of that “interview” is atop this piece. It’s a headshaker and a perfect example of how way too many religious leaders think journalism is supposed to be public relations. The pastor’s first sentence out of the blocks is, “I’m here because I don’t want what we’re trying to do to lose momentum and steam.”

It’s not “I’m concerned for the victim and her family,” or “I feel we messed up and I want to apologize,” but no, he doesn’t want to derail his church’s expansion plans. (Additional note - it’s been pointed out to me that Chandler was referring to movement within the SBC for a meaningful resolution on the abuse issue, not about his church’s future, so I stand corrected there.)

The Times reporter who’d broken the story tweeted that she planned to attend the pastor’s appearance. I still haven’t found out whether she managed to nab him in the hallway beforehand or afterwards.

She did run this piece on his speech:

Mr. Chandler interrupted his sabbatical to unexpectedly join the annual meeting on Tuesday.

At a panel, he said he was in “introspective mode” about what he could have done differently.

He said that he was not “running point on care” for the Braggs and allowed other pastors to handle their care because “they are 25 minutes away” and didn’t attend the campus where he was based. Ms. Bragg’s daughter was allegedly molested when the family attended Mr. Chandler’s campus.

At one point, Mr. Chandler teared up when he spoke about his memories of his daughter talking with (accused perpetrator Matthew) Tonne before her baptism. “He was a beloved man,” Mr. Chandler said.

There are some take-aways from that one event that are important for anyone covering this topic.

1. Look out for when the pastor says he’s not responsible because the victims were attending a daughter church of the main congregation. Look, when sex abuse is involved, where the family happens to attend is not an issue. All the pastor could address was that he didn’t want to be the main “point on care” guy for this family because of a technicality. How much more heartless can this man get?

Churches like these are hardly a refuge for the oppressed and afflicted. Instead, they are drive-up worship centers where there’s no contact with the pastors who think they have better things to do than spend time with members or even small groups in their congregations. As I read the New York Times story, what stood out was Chandler’s distance from the problem. He couldn’t find the time to drop by this family’s home and he certainly couldn’t set aside space to be interviewed by the Times but he had room in his calendar to lay plans for a new $70 million church campus.

Katherine Burgess, reporting for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, also attended the speech and wrote the following:

According to the article, the church removed Tonne from the staff shortly after learning his name from the Braggs, saying he was removed for an alcohol abuse problem.

“We fired him for alcohol abuse because you can’t be an associate children’s minister who continues to get drunk,” Chandler said Tuesday, not addressing whether the removal had anything to do with the abuse allegations.

He also noted that the church and the detective assigned to the case had a meeting with the parents of children at the camp where the alleged abuse occurred.

“I was dealing with it not just as a pastor, but as a dad,” Chandler said. “My oldest daughter was a cabin away from where this incident, alleged incident took place.”

2. Watch out when the pastor makes the abuse case all about him, not the victim. We get to hear how his daughter was close to where the abuse happened, but he’s not saying anything about the hapless 11-year-old to whom it did happen.

Burgess also noted how the tone-deaf pastor sidestepped a related question.

3. Search out how the church has dealt with other victims. Adelle Banks of Religion News Service brought up how the Village Church had a spectacular pastoral failure not long ago.

Chandler also admitted that the church has been accused of failing to care for a victim of abuse in the past. In 2015, he and other church leaders apologized to a former church member named Karen Hinkley, whose former husband had been fired as a missionary for allegedly viewing child pornography. When Hinkley sought to annul her marriage, church leaders threatened her with church discipline — an action they later referred to as un-Christian.

4. Watch for massive inconsistencies. The pastor went on and on about how elders had been in touch with the victim and her family and had cared for them, adding, “Up until recently, their feedback to us was that we were doing a very good job.” Really? So why is the victim’s family now threatening to sue the church?

To refresh everyone’s memories, here is the key passage from the original NYT piece:

Then, one cold February day last year, Ms. Bragg was packing the van for a family weekend at a lake with friends. Her daughter asked to talk to her on the back porch, alone.

At the Village summer camp for children about six years earlier, her daughter said, she had been asleep in the girls’ room when she woke up to some of her undergarments pulled down. A man, whom she did not name, was sitting on her bed, touching her. A light went on in the bathroom, and the man left. …

A sexual abuse survivor herself, Ms. Bragg realized her worst nightmare had come true. Suddenly so many troubles in her daughter’s life made sense. The recurring nightmares. The night she decided not to kill herself so her sisters wouldn’t find her dead. The hours of counseling and medical treatments.

Things spiral down after that. After she reported this to the church, a pastor did contact her to say they’d call the police. After that: Radio silence. The mother couldn’t wring the name of the perpetrator out of church officials; it took her daughter some ransacking of memories to come up with whom it could have been. But when the parents demanded a meeting with church leaders, none of the three senior pastors showed up.

Now, more than a year later, the top pastor made time in his schedule to attend the SBC convention and announce that, looking back, “I am not sure what we could have done different.”

Definitely read the original Times piece, then listen to the video. Does anyone still wonder why the family eventually sought out the media?

Until these pastors wise up and decide to take abuse seriously — don’t assign a junior staff member to the problem — we’re going to keep on reporting more of these cases. To paraphrase a George Santayana quote, Baptists who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it again and again and again.

Please respect our Commenting Policy