DALLAS – Southern Baptists have elected a new leader to help them find new ways to confront serious problems within the church.
On Tuesday, voting members at the convention chose Pastor J.D. Greear of Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, as its next president.
He told CBN News he plans to tackle #ChurchToo sexual abuse and other issues like race relations in a spirit of love.
"The Spirit of God is into diversifying His church. And we can't do that if we walk away. So, I'm hoping that there will be a generation of people that will be willing to put up with difficulty… and walking forward together," Greear said.
Tough Issues to Confront
From immigration to opioids to racism, the agenda at this year's annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention addressed many of today's toughest issues.
But the topic that weighed most heavily on the minds of its leaders and the more than 7,000 attendees was sexual abuse and the value of women in the church.
The SBC took a proactive approach and dived right into the challenging discussion after months of media attention related to abuse and misconduct by some church leaders.
SBC Leaders to Sex Abuse Victims: 'We Hear You'
Before the annual meeting officially kicked off, they hosted two prominent sessions featuring Southern Baptist leaders, including advocates for sex abuse victims and outspoken authors like Beth Moore and Jamie Ivey.
"It is time for church leadership and people in our churches to say we hear you, we believe you, and we trust you," Ivey said of sexual abuse victims during a standing-room-only panel discussion.
Trillia Newbell, who works with the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which also sponsored the event, spoke about her experience of being sexually abused as a college student and how it affected her ability to trust people – specifically men.
Newbell told CBN News that there can be healing and wholeness in bringing these painful experiences to light.
"What we hope will happen is that they will go back to their local church and begin to evaluate what they have done well, maybe where they are missing things, [Notes:and] look at their policies so they will know how to handle sexual abuse and sexual assault," Newbell added.
The discussions, seen as a step in the right direction, had the potential of being overshadowed.
The Paige Patterson Controversy
Longtime SBC leader Paige Patterson had been scheduled to deliver the main sermon at this week's two-day summit held at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas.
Patterson spared the annual gathering from appearing insensitive, deciding to back out after weeks of scrutiny following allegations that he failed to appropriately handle a reported rape case while he served as president of Southwestern Theological Seminary.
Patterson also faced criticism for past statements he made about domestic violence and women's physical appearance.
Russell Moore, who leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, expressed a completely different tone, saying, "It's not a burden when we have a sister who's been abused." He added, "That's what the church is for."
Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, told CBN News he's proud of how the leadership is responding.
"It's one thing to criticize us for being late, which is fair. But at the same time, I'm all for moving forward and learning from mistakes," Inserra explained.
'Words Don't Mean Anything Without Action'
Many at the conference agree that religious leaders need more proactive measures to guard against future abuses.
"I'm glad to see that people in the Southern Baptist Convention leadership are talking about abuse, but words don't mean anything without action," said Ashley Easter, an abuse survivor who helped organize a rally outside of the convention center where the Southern Baptists were meeting.
"We're hoping to see those words followed up by action, and that's how we will really know if there's real change," she said.
Easter wants the SBC to create a sex offender database and mandatory training for pastors and church leaders, a feeling echoed by some who attended the Baptist summit.
Some attendees see the shift in the attitude towards women by the male-dominated leadership as a sign that will lead to major changes.
"To hear that reinforced from a man standing up and saying, 'Women we love you; we value you; we know you have gifts and callings that the church can benefit from,' I think it's just encouraging," said Lauren Ashford, a Southern Baptist from Raleigh, North Carolina.
"I think it really energizes a lot of women to be able to stand up and want to be a part of what the church is doing," she added.