Caring Well: A Survivor’s Reflections on the ERLC Conference on Abuse

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Caring Well conference overwhelmed attendees with information, but failed to care for the suffering in its midst or call out the wolves present.

Essay about Caring Well conference

Editor’s note: The following article discusses the 2019 ERLC National Conference on abuse in a way that may trigger those who have suffered abuse, especially sexual abuse within the church.


I had the privilege of attending the ERLC National Conference entitled Equipping Churches to Confront the Abuse Crisis from October 3-5. I say privilege not in reference to the candor of the organization (Southern Baptist Convention) or the content of the conference, but rather, privilege because my church paid for 100 of its members, predominantly laypeople, to attend the conference. Our church is often considered to be a liberal one, though liberal usually doesn’t say much in the way of progress if it’s referring to a Southern Baptist church. But even our preexisting skepticism, our Gen X scrutiny, and millennial disillusionment didn’t curb the grave disappointment the ERLC conference would bring.

The term hypocrisy feels outdated and insufficient to describe this conference. What took place during that weekend can only be categorized as either mind-blowingly ignorant or deeply disingenuous. The shorthand title of the conference, “Caring Well,” was a grievous, troubling misnomer. I must tell you about that “caring well.” This national conference was one eight-hour day, followed by a 13-hour day, followed by another four-hour day with an onslaught of information. This was nonstop content showcasing explicit retellings of survivor abuse stories, child rape, adult abuse, rejection, abandonment, and deceit. There were back-to-back sessions of the most triggering and retraumatizing material a survivor of abuse, like myself, could encounter. Of course, conference organizers would never use the word “trigger.” The extent of the trigger warnings provided was a disclaimer before two videos of testimonies from an abused child and an imprisoned abuser were shown. The last sentence of the warning simply said, “This video might not be for you.”

Surviving Without Care

It was interesting to hear many speakers quote the statistic of how many people experience sexual abuse (1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men, according to the CDC). By their own account, at least a quarter of those in attendance were survivors of abuse (the Baptist Press reported that “more than 1,650 registered for the event”). Some of us, still only feeling like victims and not survivors, sat tightly in our seats, gripping the sides, and convincing ourselves that we should be strong enough to take it, to do it, to listen to it, to watch it, that we should be over it. That we had to for the sake of our future safety, the future protection of our children and our churches. Some attendees I spoke with said the experience was like drinking from a fire hydrant, but for me, it felt more like waterboarding.

There were no counselors provided on site. There were no mechanisms in place at the conference for attendees to actually report abuse. There were no set times for us to ask questions or voice concerns, nor moments for us to sit before the Lord together in silence and weep. There was no time for the Holy Spirit to fall on us with His great comfort, and scarcely any time for prayer. There was a prayer room set up at the conference, but it was not the ERLC who planned and prepared it. A conference attendee on staff at an SBC church independently contacted the ERLC and asked to set up a prayer room after learning of the conference’s subject matter. In that prayer room, person after person streamed in. Many were tearful, some weeping, others having panic attacks, pacing back and forth. Others still were quiet and disassociated, entering the room tight-lipped and hazy-eyed as if to keep composure ⁠— but really just trying to survive and be OK in the face of their most painful memories.

The prayer room was staffed by volunteer laypeople who, though yearning to show the great compassion of Jesus Christ, were less than equipped for these encounters. I was one of those volunteers. I longed to provide the right words and prayers, right touch or non-touch to the women who sat before me and said, “I have never told anyone before, but here are my stories of abuse.” We tried to ask them about counseling: Did they have access to it? Might they consider it? We handed out a list of abuse hotline numbers and instructions on how to search for a counselor. The women we prayed with would then leave the confessional. They seemed relieved, believing that what they whispered to a stranger, huddled in a corner they were pushed into by the suffocating stream of information, would keep them from unraveling.

Worse yet is the reality that when some of the women walked back to their conference seats, they were walking back to their abusers. We walked past the faces of those who may have covered up abuses, those who, if not sexually, then spiritually and emotionally abused us. Those men sat listening to the stories of abuse, looking stonily ahead as if to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like these other men” (Luke 18:9-14). There was not a singular moment acknowledging the wolves that were surely present in the midst of that very conference. Protection was not offered, only theorized; shelter only provided in the ethereal, and care? Caring, well…

Finding the Light

In 2 Corinthians 4:8 it says that we are pressed on all sides, but not crushed. Attending this year’s ERLC National Conference felt pretty close in some ways. And yet, as one who trusts in the mighty and unending love of God, it cannot be so for me, nor for the church. Not even for Southern Baptists. I’ve had to focus on the contradictions of this conference because it is time for accountability. Education on abuse did occur, but caring well did not.

However, I will not fail to point out that there were incredibly bright moments at the conference as well. I mean a kind of bright that is so piercing and revelatory it hurts your eyes. Among them were Beth Moore, Megan Lively, Jackie Hill Perry, Diane Langberg, Rachael Denhollander, Brad Hambrick, and other valiant women and men who shared their stories, called out the sins of the convention and the church, and authoritatively called us all to action. They were the bright lights of the conference and are lights of the church. Watch the sessions led by these heroes, and step into their light. We must not enter complacently, hoping their beams will somehow last and be all that we need. It is not fair to these leaders, and it will not be enough for us. Instead we must, like solar panels, absorb the rays of Christ shining through his people. In this way, we can be charged, re-energized, and empowered to spark and carry currents of change in our communities and churches. Meanwhile, we must rise up in prayer, asking God our Father to push the darkness away through the power of the Holy Spirit and the victory of the Son because He, in fact, does care for us and does so unendingly well (1 Peter 5:7).

Watch the ERLC session interviewing Rachael Denhollander. What are the answers to Denhollander’s questions regarding accountability when applied to the SBC? Your own church?


If you are currently experiencing abuse, go to https://www.rainn.org/ or call 800.656.4673 to get help 24/7.


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    Participant

    Written by Sheiliann Peña

    Sheiliann Peña is a Puerto Rican ghostwriter who has recently decided to come out for the haunt. Passionate about exploring the interdependent nature of justice and love, Sheiliann has a degree in Communication Studies and is unafraid to use it. She has over a decade of experience working for nonprofits to promote volunteerism worldwide. Sheiliann is a mother and a wife, and best of all, a daughter of He Who Sits on the Throne.

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