Johnny Hunt, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and longtime pastor in Georgia, plans to return to ministry after completing a restoration process overseen by a group of four pastors who served as Hunt’s accountability group.
Hunt, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, and a former vice president at the North American Mission Board, was named earlier this year in the Guidepost Solutions report on sexual abuse in the SBC. The report alleged that Hunt had sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010. Guidepost, a third-party investigation firm, found the claims credible.
“We believe the greatest days of ministry for Johnny Hunt are the days ahead,” said Steven Kyle, pastor of Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida, and a member of Hunt’s accountability team, said in a video released last week.
In the video, Kyle said he and other pastors had observed Hunt’s “genuine brokenness and humility before God” and deemed him fit for ministry in the future.
Kyle, along with pastors Mark Hoover of NewSpring Church in Wichita, Kansas; Benny Tate of Rock Springs Church in Milner, Georgia; and Mike Whitson of First Baptist Church in Indian Trail, North Carolina, said they had worked with Hunt and his wife on an “intentional and an intense season of transparency, reflection and restoration” in recent months.
The group of pastors is not affiliated with FBC Woodstock, according to Jeremy Morton, the church’s current pastor, nor with the SBC, according to current SBC President Bart Barber.
Barber issued a statement today (Nov. 30) responding to news of Hunt’s restoration process.
Barber noted a resolution adopted by messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting “On Abuse and Pastoral Qualifications.” That resolution reads in part, “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.”
The resolution also recommends “that all of our affiliated churches apply this standard to all positions of church leadership.”
Barber said the four pastors involved in the process do not speak for the Southern Baptist Convention, and he questioned the procedures by which the pastors were selected and operated as an authoritative group.
“For those Southern Baptist churches who practice ordination to ministry, the authority to ordain is generally considered to arise from the congregation, but no indication has been given that any of these four congregations have consented to or given their authority to this process,” Barber said. “Also, Jeremy Morton and FBC Woodstock have explicitly stated that they had nothing to do with this process.
“Although Johnny Hunt’s church membership has apparently been at Hiland for several months now, FBC Woodstock is the church at which the offensive actions took place. The idea that a council of pastors, assembled with the consent of the abusive pastor, possesses some authority to declare a pastor fit for resumed ministry is a conceit that is altogether absent from Baptist polity and from the witness of the New Testament. Indeed, it is repugnant to all that those sources extol and represent.”
Barber said the pronouncement of Hunt’s restoration is best viewed “as the individual opinions of four of Johnny Hunt’s loyal friends.”
“These four pastors do not speak for the Southern Baptist Convention. The voice of the Southern Baptist Convention is best found in the text of the resolutions adopted by the messengers and referenced above,” Barber said.
Barber also expressed concerns about the use of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the video announcement regarding Hunt.
“Pastor Tate, his voice breaking with emotion, cited Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, saying that he didn’t want to be guilty of leaving Johnny Hunt wounded on the side of the road,” Barber noted.
“The wounded person on the side of the road is the abuse survivor, not Johnny Hunt, and she received no mention at all by this panel — she was passed by, in a way, by this quintet. I do not know her, but I don’t want to be guilty of leaving her on the side of the road. I am praying for her, I have heard her, and I believe her,” Barber said.
The allegations against Hunt caught his many admirers by surprise. At the time of the Guidepost report, Hunt was a popular speaker and a vice president at the SBC’s North American Mission Board and was beloved by many SBC leaders.
“I’m heartbroken and grieving,” Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, told Religion News Service in May, after news of the allegations against Hunt was made public.
Hunt denied the allegations at first, then claimed the incident, which was said to have taken place at a vacation condo, was a consensual encounter.
“I confess that I sinned,” Hunt said in a letter in May to FBC Woodstock, where he was the pastor for three decades. “I crossed a line.”
Neither Hunt nor Kyle responded to RNS’ request for comment.
No mention of victim
Though the victim of Hunt’s alleged assault was not mentioned in the video, the pastors said Hunt had gone through a process of counseling in 2010 after the alleged assault occurred, which involved “confession to those involved.”
After serving as SBC president from 2008 to 2010, Hunt took a leave of absence due to health concerns. The alleged assault and his initial counseling process are said to have happened during that leave but no details were made public.
First Baptist Church in Woodstock, where Hunt is no longer a member, had no involvement in the restoration process, current pastor Jeremy Morton confirmed to RNS.
In the past, First Baptist had hosted an annual men’s conference led by Hunt, but the church will not host that conference in 2023.
Hunt, who now attends Kyle’s church in Florida, was recently featured on the church’s “Unchangeable Truth” podcast, where Hunt, Kyle and another pastor talked about the lessons Hunt had learned.
In the video, Hunt mentioned his work in restoring pastors who had made “terrible mistakes” and thanked Kyle and the other pastors for being kind to his family.
“I can’t change the past,” he said. “If I could, believe me, I would. But I can only learn from it and move into the future better for it, thanks to the hope of the gospel.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was reported by Religion News Service with additional reporting by The Alabama Baptist. This post was updated Dec. 1 following news that Johnny Hunt was asked to step aside from the lineup of speakers at a conference scheduled for late February in Florida.