On October 7, 2019, Jennifer Lyell, a LifeWay employee, penned an open letter to Southern Baptists expressing her grief caused by what she alleges was an erroneous Baptist Press report released in March this year. The report has been subsequently taken down (an archived copy of Baptist Press' report follows below).
I have physically deteriorated. I have felt as though I’m living in an Alfred Hitchcock movie because it is so unfathomable to understand how I could be spending hours upon hours dealing with this on my own in light of all the documentation, clarity, and corroboration I have from Southern Baptist leaders. I have grieved and questioned how I could have been so naïve to trust again and paralyzed with fear to speak because I cannot tolerate any more pain.
In the open letter, Lyell is not hesitant to name those she alleges wronged her and caused her untold grief.
The most salient details that have been hidden in the darkness of my silence is that it was the initial leadership of Augie Boto, Sing Oldham, and Shawn Hendricks that led to the initial inaccurate reporting by Baptist Press in the March 8, 2019 article and then the subsequent actions of Dr. Sing Oldham, under the leadership of Dr. Ronnie Floyd, that left me without any recourse apart from further inaccuracies and escalation if I continued to pursue a correction.
According to Ms. Lyell, she was "groomed" by then, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, David Sills, into having a sexual relationship with him while she was enrolled in a missions class at the seminary in 2004. She claims, "a tenured professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, first sexually acted against me on a mission trip in 2004, a pattern that continued and escalated for more than a decade following that trip." According to Lyell, "The reason that a professor was able to continue grooming and taking advantage of his student was because I became like part of his family." Furthermore,
Having known that I experienced sexual abuse growing up, Dr. Sills assured me that the first incidents that happened on that mission trip weren’t really my fault as I naturally felt—even though I had not initiated them and was shocked as the actions took place. He explained they were because of what happened to me when I was a child. He said that he could fix it by me becoming part of his family and then once I was part of his family, that sort of thing would never happen again.
According to the now withdrawn Baptist Press report, Lyell carried on a "morally inappropriate relationship" that began when she was a 26 year old seminary student and continued for the next 12 years ending when she was 38 years old. Lyell had moved on from seminary first to Chicago then to Nashville where she presently resides and works for LifeWay. The only detail to which Lyell apparently objects is the description of the relationship as "morally inappropriate." Not that she is arguing it should be characterized as morally appropriate. Rather the description Baptist Press gave the 12 year relationship leaves the impression the relationship between her and the professor was a consensual sexual relationship which Lyell evidently denies.
Consequently, at the recent Caring Well 2019 National Conference sponsored by Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Lyell's objections were raised once again initially by a platform speaker. She was viewed as a victim of sexual abuse rather than a willing participate in an illicit sexual affair. The groundswell of support for Lyell was so swift and strong, that Jonathan Howe, newly appointed Vice President of Communications for Southern Baptists' Executive Committee* released a statement to ensure readers he agreed with Lyell's claim that Baptist Press' reporting was erroneous:
I'm very much confused concerning this statement.
Assuming a unilateral manipulative, exploitative, wrongful beginning ("grooming") of the relationship by the perverted professor, at what point does a 12 year voluntary but illicit sexual relationship between two grown adults, at times, miles apart, cease to be a unilaterally manipulative, exploitative, and wrongful relationship? Or does it? Are we to understand that a 38 year old woman who is having a sexual relationship with a married man, and does so at long distances, is doing so because she is trapped in a sexual abuse scandal in which she cannot escape?
Listen to Lyell's words again, words she wrote to describe the fiasco not words Baptist Press used to describe the relationship:
But a family relationship did develop. Over the years I spent weekends with them, my holidays with them, became an “aunt” to their grandchildren, and their grown children became like siblings to me. It looked idyllic on the surface. Except the pattern of inappropriate sexual activity continued throughout the relationship (emphasis added)
Lyell said she spent weekends with the family; enjoyed holidays with them; and became very close to their grandchildren. Apparently, Lyell must have been close to Mrs. Sills during this time. Friends. Except for one qualifying factor that made it different--Lyell continued the pattern of "inappropriate sexual activity" with her friend's husband.
Is it too much to suggest Mrs. Mills, her children, and grandchildren were victims of abuse in which Lyell herself would be, at least in some significant ways, morally accountable as the abuser? While I regret suggesting this possibility makes Lyell feel both uncomfortable and betrayed again, or even persecuted as she appears to indicate, it nonetheless seems to me one cannot escape the reasonably moral conclusion of the facts as they have been publicized.
Baptist Press caving into the pressure by Caring Well celebrities and conference attenders to both apologize for publishing and then retracting a story that fundamentally was correct remains a dangerous precedent for our news wire service.
More problematic still is the notion that the definition of sexual abuse has now been broadened to include voluntary sexual affairs by two consenting adults. It's true that powerful people in authoritative positions can exploit, manipulate, and deceive others into an initially unwanted relationship. Granted. No one is suggesting otherwise, and we rightly condemn it when it undeniably takes place.
However, to argue that an illicit relationship between two adults that started by devious exploitation of one over the over while the other was under the manipulative person's authority but continued on years later after no such authority was present remains morally absurd.
And to travel down such a twisted moral highway equipped with no brakes on the definition of "consensual sex" and such slick tires as presented here will only land us at the bottom of a deep ravine.
*Originally, I erroneously named Howe as VP for Baptist Press.
Archived Baptist Press Report follows (unless BP insists I take it down)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) -- Nine months after Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor David Sills resigned for undisclosed reasons, a woman has released a statement of allegations including details of what she says was a morally inappropriate relationship with Sills for more than a decade, beginning while she was a Southern Seminary student.
In a release to Baptist Press and others, Jennifer Lyell, now 41 and director of the books ministry area at LifeWay Christian Resources, alleges sexual contact with Sills began on a mission trip in 2004. At the time, she was a 26-year-old master of divinity student, and the alleged relationship continued until she was 38, spanning a period in which Lyell moved from Louisville, Ky., to Chicago and then to Nashville, she told BP. She graduated from Southern with a master of divinity in 2006 and enrolled in an SBTS doctoral program for one year after that.
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told BP he could not disclose why Sills' employment at the seminary ended. But Mohler confirmed that Lyell shared allegations with him in May 2018 and that Southern, as Lyell stated, "immediately took action."
Lyell said in her statement, "The denominational institutions, the local church, and the missions agency [Sills led] ultimately believed me, supported me, and took the action for which they were responsible."
BP reported Sills' resignation in June 2018 based on reporting by North Carolina's Biblical Recorder newsjournal, which cited a statement from the seminary affirming that Mohler "received the resignation of Dr. David Sills from the Southern Seminary faculty on May 23, 2018."
It further stated, "Southern Seminary is committed to the highest standards of both principle and policy. Our policies and procedures are clear and are consistently applied. Because this is a personnel matter, we cannot comment further."
Sills, former professor of missions and cultural anthropology at Southern, did not respond to BP's request for comment.
Part of Lyell's reason for remaining silent and in the relationship for as long as she did, she stated, was because she "became like part of [Sills'] family" and feared "the collateral damage that telling would cause for those around him." In her statement, Lyell accused Sills of "grooming and taking advantage of his student."
Lyell first disclosed the alleged relationship to a therapist in March 2016, she said. Just over two years later, she stated the allegations to then-LifeWay Senior Vice President Eric Geiger and Mohler.
"When I shared what had happened to me with my boss at LifeWay [Geiger] and then later with SBTS President Dr. R. Albert Mohler, I was quick to also share the responsibility I bore for being compliant at times, for not telling immediately and for so idolizing the idea of a whole family that I protected it despite what was happening within it," Lyell said. "I am not a sinless victim. But I am a victim nonetheless."
Geiger, senior pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif., confirmed to BP that Lyell shared her allegations with him. Geiger told Lyell he was "responsible to share" the allegations with Southern and invited her to participate in the process, Geiger recounted to BP. The same day, Geiger and Lyell contacted Mohler, he said.
Mohler told BP his "encouragement from the start in any case such as this is that authorities be contacted" and that only law enforcement should judge whether laws may have been violated in such situations. Yet victims who are not minors must decide for themselves whether to contact authorities, he said. Lyell told BP she has attempted to contact the Louisville Metro Police Department's Special Victims Unit.
Mohler commended Lyell's courage in coming forward. "I stand behind her in [her public statement] and believe she is acting righteously," he told BP.
The Louisville, Ky., church where Sills was a member, Lyell said, also "took action" following Sills' resignation.
Louisville's Ninth and O Baptist Church told BP it is the congregation referenced in Lyell's statement. The church said it acted "swiftly and firmly" and that Sills is no longer a member.
Sills also served as an International Mission Board trustee and a member of the IMB's presidential search committee. He resigned from his trustee post, and as a result from the search committee, in May 2018.
Lyell decided to make her allegations public, she said, when she "learned that Dr. Sills had been appointed as a missionary with a non-SBC missions agency."
"I now realize that despite SBTS handling the situation justly and as I asked -- without stating the reason for his resignation -- it led to the exact kind of scenario the SBC is now trying to prevent," she said.
"If I were not to come forward with this [statement], a church or ministry who receives Dr. Sills' [resume] and does an internet search for him would have no way to know the truth behind his resignation. There are plenty of reasons to stay silent in a situation such as this. But we must not be silent."
Geiger said he contacted the other missions agency -- which he identified as Global Outreach International -- and they removed Sills from their employment.
In June, BP reported Sills also had resigned as president of Reaching and Teaching International Ministries, a missions organization that engages in discipleship and theological education internationally. Lyell is a former Reaching and Teaching International board member.
Reaching and Teaching International told BP in a statement that they are aware of a statement by Lyell regarding her allegations involving an inappropriate relationship and "are committed to ensuring a culture of transparency and accountability."
Lyell said, "It is my hope that my story, one in which a SBC entity and its leaders acted swiftly and justly ... but in which that same individual was also in a ministry position only months later, will also help to illustrate the need for some form of a reporting tool that can ensure that those who have victimized others from a ministry position are unable to ever do so again."