When “The Impossible” Creates an Imperative: PBC’s Tsunami of Controversy

A guest post by brad/futuristguy.

Sometimes, catastrophic events sweep us into a stress-inducing storyline that we never intended or even imagined. And the outcomes may change our lives forever. That’s the core of the story in the 2012 movie, The Impossible. Just as a family is enjoying what’s supposed to be a relaxing vacation together in Thailand, they get caught in a disastrous tsunami. It literally sweeps them apart from one another and lands them in crisis mode as they scramble just to survive – and then, hopefully, to search despite stress, find one another, and recover.

I think that’s kind of what happened to Chris Tynes this past week. I don’t know where this experience will take him, but for now, he’s ended up seemingly at the vortex of a long-term controversy involving Prestonwood Baptist Church (PBC) in Plano, Texas.

Through a series of events outside his control, he became the latest lightning rod in a spiritual electric storm that started in the 1980s and has been building toward super-spark status since 2010. He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he got shocked.

Or – if you believe that God providentially puts the right person in the right place at the right time – then Chris is yet another link in a heaven-ordained chain of people sent to Prestonwood to give them opportunities to respond to truth and justice. And pretty much all Chris did was ask questions, especially to confirm or deny some rumors that had surfaced. Here’s the new reality: Because we live in an era where allegations linger, in part because news online is “unscrubbable,” it turned out Chris read accounts from Amy Smith and Christa Brown about ongoing accusations of issues at PBC with a now-convicted sexual offender, John Langworthy, who previously served on staff with Prestonwood in Dallas. Apparently Chris asked PBC leaders “The Deplorable Question,” and it triggered what seemed to be self-protective actions by one of the largest churches in the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

As I read the reports, it seemed to me PBC stonewalled his questions and treated him harshly. The responses of church leaders and staff came across as over-the-top, perhaps even theatre of the absurd – after all, they even filed a police report saying they suspected Chris was potentially violent. So he had a conversation with a local detective on that score. All because of asking what I see as legitimate questions relevant to the church’s practices about preventing child sexual abuse and following the law about mandatory reporting of abusers. Those are absolutely always legit concerns for parents to get straight answers on. Any consequences for the unanswered questions should go to the church leaders who stay silent, not to the children who likely will stay silent if subjected to abuse. Period.

The key thing here is, this is not really about what happened this past week. This new guy just happened to be in the way when the latest sparks went off. It’s about systems. And leaders in many churches, denominations, and associations are notorious for epic failure when it comes to dealing with abuse in their midst. They don’t have strong systems in place, and/or lack training in identifying of suspected abuse and legal responsibility to report it, and/or commitment to make prevention of abuse a priority.

Being a spiritual abuse survivor myself, sometimes emerging stories like Prestonwood catch my attention. And instead of just thinking, “That’s horrible! Somebody ought to do something …” the Holy Spirit figuratively sometimes taps me on the shoulder to say, “Okay … you’re one of the somebodies …” And that’s what happened this past week. As a justice-seeker, this “Impossible” tsunami situation of PBC just created an imperative for me not only to find out more, but to do something about it. So I put on my research-writer spiritual-sonar equipment, and spent yesterday in an all-day review of online resources. I immersed in sorting through three years worth of news reports, blog articles, and editorial commentary on the Prestonwood Baptist Church/Langworthy situation. It was a day spent wading through details – but that’s how my brain works best in trying to make sense of a conflict and figure out its contours.

So, some of the results of my discovery process are available in the page for Prestonwood #pbcsilentnomore, here on Julie Anne’s blog. And she invited me to do this guest post to introduce the story and that resource – so I am. After a full day of processing, I came to two basic conclusions:

First, it appears that a cluster of key unanswered questions has long surrounded what the PBC staff found out about Mr. Langworthy’s molestation activities and/or proclivities, when, who, and how it related to his being fired, and who did/didn’t report this pedophile as Texas law requires. And if ANYONE on staff knew but did not report or anyone blocked the report … that is super-serious, because Texas has had relatively strict laws in place since 1971. Texas statutes include mandatory reporting of known/suspected sexual abuse, within 48 hours of finding out. This includes mandatory reporting by clergy members. And, as best I understand, failure to report is itself a crime, not just a choice. It blocks the prevention process designed to protect society from further abuse, especially its most vulnerable members: children. And Mr. Langworthy went from Dallas to Mississippi, where he worked with Morrison Heights Baptist Church and elsewhere. Did he perpetuate his perpetration of abuse there? What if he’d been stopped in Texas by a PBC police report instead of leaving the state? What if the Southern Baptists dealt with sexual predators in more consistent ways, such as through a predator registry, as has been suggested to them for years as part of a systems solution?

Frankly, I think if I had kids, and I were going to PBC (or any other church) and found a very long series of news agency reports, analysis articles, and online news commentary saying this church apparently failed to report a sexual predator – I’d be asking for answers too! And if they refused to answer … even if they had some kind of written policies and procedures in place … I think I’d be legitimately quite suspicious of what actually happens despite what’s on paper. After all, if it’s ever shown they willfully refused to follow the written code of state law, why should I trust them to follow their own internal policies and procedures? But what if they refuse to respond to questions – what do they leave me to assume?

Second, many people before have attempted to prod Prestonwood leadership into clarifying the situation and taking responsibility for alleged failure to report Mr. Langworthy, which might thus have prevented exposure of other children to potential sexual abuse. Two of those prior key questioners are Christa Brown of Stop Baptist Predators, and Amy Smith of Watch Keep and the Houston representative of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). Ms. Brown’s efforts include working to establish a Southern Baptist Convention registry of sexual predators who seek out ministry positions, and this has challenged Prestonwood – a flagship Southern Baptist church. Ms. Smith’s diligent advocacy for victims of sexual abuse helped ensure Mr. Langworthy was indicted and convicted. Both of these their’ stories are amazing for their courage, tenacity, and articulate advocacy. Without people like them, I don’t think toxic systems issues like those peeking out from behind the scenes here would ever float to the surface of our awareness. I’m thankful for them and their Spirit-sustained ministries.

So, there’s that. And, as I mentioned earlier, it turns out there is a very well documented trail of issues and unanswered questions in the Prestonwood/Langworthy situation. If you’re interested in understanding the larger context that led up to the current harsh responses from PBC, then I’ve selected five articles that I think give you a pretty good “MRI” composite of the situation. Here’s what I recommend to read. (And I put them in an order that starts with the big picture and then gets into progressively more detail. So if you read only the first article, you’ll still have an excellent overview of the whole thing.) I selected articles by or about key people whom God’s providence has swept into the Prestonwood storyline, and also share why I think each particular article is important.

  1. Prestonwood saga shows clergy abuse database is overdue, by Christa Brown, Associated Baptist Press (August 19, 2011). This gives an important historical framework of Prestonwood/Langworthy details, plus explains why, as Ms. Brown states, “a systemic problem requires a systemic solution” – like a registry of ministers who have been sexual predators. Note: There are two broken links in this editorial. Because they are crucial to this overview and timeline of events, they are restored here: (1) Paragraph #2: “The danger was revealed most recently in news about a former minister of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas.” (2) Paragraph #3: ” When this ‘disturbing revelation’ made headlines, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, acknowledged that, in 1989, Prestonwood had received an allegation that Langworthy ‘acted inappropriately with a teenage student.’”
  2. Does the SBC Fear Women Pastors More Than The Molestation of Children? by Dee Parsons, The Wartburg Watch (August 12, 2011). This historical overview and analysis also catalogs leftover core questions that are still being asked today because of PBC’s apparent failure to report. It includes an important quote from Wade Burleson, Southern Baptist Convention pastor and advocate of an SBC sexual predators registry and other elements for a “systems response” to sexual abuse and prevention. The link is broken to Pastor Burleson’s original post from which the quote was drawn. However, that August 10, 2011, post is available on the internet archive Wayback Machine: Full Circle: Why the SBC Child Predator Database Is Needed Now More Than Ever.
  3. Memories Don’t Know Time: Shining the Light on Child Sexual Abuse, by Amy Smith, Watch Keep (October 13, 2011). In this key article, Ms. Smith documents the events and evidence in the case of John Langworthy/Prestonwood Baptist Church, for approximately the previous year, beginning in August 2010. If it had not been for her personal pursuit of justice in this case, it’s unlikely Mr. Langworthy would have been stopped anytime soon. She also offers a range of practical help and recovery resources for survivors of abuse.
  4. Prestonwood Baptist vs. Chris Tynes: Something is Very Wrong! by Dee Parsons (March 8, 2013). This offers a historical overview, plus information on emerging issues that brings things up to date. It also contains Ms. Parsons’ critical analysis of ongoing questions about the Prestonwood/Langworthy situation, and how PBC treats questioners and reporters.
  5. Lessons in Dealing with a Disgruntled Member, by Wade Burleson (March 3, 2009). Wade Burleson is a Southern Baptist pastor who “gets it” about survivors of spiritual abuse and other forms of abuse, and empathizes with how difficult the process can be for recovery from the emotional and spiritual trauma that these wounds inflict. He has posted a number of constructive resources, and been a ceaseless advocate for hope and healing. His article addresses practical issues for church leaders, with sections on: secret meetings and secret complaints; compassion, not confrontation; transparency, not terseness; and when leadership cares about people. Pastor Burleson also uses as a case study the reprehensible responses of leaders at First Baptist Church Jacksonville, Florida, to questions being raised by a then-anonymous blogger at FBC Jax Watchdogs. This situation resulted in significant bad press for the church, due to their own actions, and a lawsuit which was settled out of court. This is all relevant to how Prestonwood Baptist Church leaders and staff seem to have dealt tersely with questioners and reporters in recent days.

So, there it is. Thanks for reading this … and if nothing else, maybe take a moment to thank God for Christa, Amy, Wade, Dee and Deb from The Wartburg Watch, and the many others who continue to pursue a course of Kingdom justice, for the sake of intervening in current situations like at PBC, plus toward preventing child abuse in the future. And perhaps pray for leaders of Prestonwood Baptist Church to become more than just local leaders by clarifying the situation, taking responsibility appropriately, and becoming advocates for system solutions to stop sexual predators in churches – both within the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond.

12 comments on “When “The Impossible” Creates an Imperative: PBC’s Tsunami of Controversy

  1. Thank you, brad.

    So really—it’s about unaccountable ecclesiastical systems.

    How do we call and hold these churches to account?

    Well, for PBC, it was the security guy flanked by two others who told Chris, “I’m just asking you to do it the proper way if you don’t mind…”

    So be it.

    Now let us all help properly expose this darkness to the light.

    i smell a Christian Spring in the air

    Like

  2. Brad, you have written an engaging article on many levels. Your word-smithing is crisp and clear. You have given people a consolidated, yet comprehensive, overview of this breaking story. You have put the time into a worthy report of the facts for others to ponder. This article ought to help many people to dig deeper for themselves in order to process what can go on behind the scenes in certain ecclesiological establishments.

    Like

  3. Preston Baptist brought this on themselves, and now they get to deal with it.

    What’s interesting is this Sunday the preacher there spoke about parables that Jesus used. The preacher was saying how some will ‘get it’ as far as the point of the parable, and other’s wouldn’t. How this is a sign of a Christian.

    Funny how they couldn’t grasp their Christian duty to do what was right in this case, and no doubt others. WOOSH is how the pastor put it for those whom don’t get it. You have to wonder how he characterizes this behavior.

    Their behavior alone shows guilt. There is nothing wrong with questions, but when you act like they did when you want some answers? Especially when he DID go about it the right way? Their character, integrity, and discern skills show something is truly lacking.

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  4. Hannah – This kind of behavior makes no sense to me – especially from a mega-church that has plenty of money and resources available to have the best system in place as far as safety structure for children.

    Where are the people in this church demanding for answers? Why are they remaining silent. People of PBC, if you attempt to get answers on this situation and do not, it’s time to shout the bullhorn and vote with your feet: leave that church and stop tithing.

    I highly suspect there is a team from PBC assigned to scour the internet for articles/blog posts and read comments, so if you are one of those, this is for YOU!

    Please print out this article and comments. Now is the time for Prestonwood Baptist Church to come clean – to put everything on the table, hire an outside group to do a clean sweep and train PBC on how to communicate honestly and transparently with the congregation. The more you attempt to control communication on the internet on your Facebook page, etc, the more it makes you look like complete fools – that YOUR reputation is more important than the safety of children. You can change that right NOW. Not one more day has to go on like this. Contact G.R.A.C.E. or similar group to help you. Issue a press release that from here on out, you will not stop/prevent any communication, but welcome it. Ask forgiveness for the way you have handled these abuse cases. Make the change TODAY, PBC. You are cheapening the Gospel by your behavior and will be held accountable.

    Like

  5. Barb said it better than I can. Brad/futuristguy, I look for your comments on blogs, your crisp, clear thinking not only puts issues into perspective, you motivate. Thank you.

    And Julie Anne, thank you for give B/fg space to do what he does so well.

    Like

  6. BD – Brad is always free to use this space. I love the way he writes and I have learned so much from him. He has a wonderful heart. I’m glad to call him friend.

    Like

  7. Well done, Futurist Guy!

    “Christian Spring”? … I do hope, too. We keep running into brick walls as we try to do it the “proper way.” The leadership won’t play by the rules.

    I’ve heard it said that “Sin will make you stupid.” When I see the utter blindness and lack of love through the leadership (name your org. that has concentrated power without the needed checks and balances,) this saying rings true.

    Like

  8. Brad: Such a well written article. Thank you for adding your voice to take a stand against spiritual abuse and sex abuse. God is certainly raising up, all over the country and the world, people to fight against this insidious evil that has been hidden from most of us in our churches.

    Like

  9. Pingback: When “The Impossible” Creates an Imperative: PBC’s Tsunami of Controversy | PBC Silent No More

  10. Thanks all y’all for your comments and encouragement. Here’s part of my backstory, in case you didn’t know already. (I’m copying this from part of a comment I made on The Wartburg Watch recently.)

    “Issues of child sexual abuse are crucial for the Church to get right, especially in this era where institutions that should have our trust instead give us evidence that fuels skepticism or worse. I’ve been tracking this situation for over 30 years, as my sister was, among her several social activist roles, a child sexual assault prevention trainer. She taught children and also worked with staffs and leaders on organizational strategies to promote prevention of sexual abuse. She began this in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and worked with schools, groups and clubs, community organizations — wherever there was a willingness to do something.

    “Though she was an evangelical, it seemed the theologically conservative and evangelical churches were often among the most resistant to host trainings or implement prevention strategies. They just didn’t seem to want to deal with real-world issues of childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, etc. This was a great sadness to my sister, but she carried on for the sake of survivors, and to prevent more victims, and to be available for those churches that were developing a consciousness and a conscience about the damage that victimization does.

    “Churches need to be safe houses for God’s people, and hopefully the awareness spotlight that Prestonwood Baptist church has turned on itself will bring at least a few small steps of change to the Church in the long run.”

    I do this work toward making churches safe havens, in part as a tribute to the tireless work accomplished by my sister. Beyond that, I would add that I’ve been working in and around “recovery ministry” since the mid-1980s, and have many MANY friends who are survivors of sexual abuse or incest — both men and women. I’ve seen how it affects them. I “get it” about the quote that says, “Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime” (Herbert Ward, HT this article on The Wartburg Watch). And while I’ve seen my friends struggle with heartaches of wounds and flashbacks and abuse-triggered addictions, I’ve also seen them find degrees of healing and peace and sobriety, mostly through transformation in Christ and strong relational support.

    Support and encouragement for children and adult survivors, advocacy and sometime even agitating for child abuse prevention — these things all make a difference to real people, both now and in the future. They are all people whom God loves, and worthy of whatever efforts we can offer …

    For me, much of that is now through writing.

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