My Story of Sexual Abuse & Response in the SBC

Jennifer Lyell

Just over nine months ago I heard the story of Megan Lively, the former Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary student who had reported her 2003 sexual assault to Dr. Paige Patterson and SEBTS. Megan attests that Dr. Patterson did not take proper steps reporting the sexual assault or caring for Megan in its aftermath. Records regarding her allegation show that in 2003 she very clearly reported a nonconsensual sexual act performed against her person.

 When I heard this story, something broke in me. Something that had been held tightly for years. I walked into the office of my boss at LifeWay and told him what I’d just heard about Megan’s story. I don’t remember what he said in reply, but it was something along the lines of how shocking it was. Except I wasn’t shocked; if anything, I was shocked that he was. I remember thinking, “God is purifying His church. God be glorified” and then I spoke. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, “I was sexually abused by one of my seminary professors.”

My boss was shocked and appalled. That one sentence I uttered began a rapid sequence of events that modeled the best of what advocates of sexual abuse response reform are calling for in the Southern Baptist Convention. I was asked many questions to get clarity around what I was alleging as well as who was responsible. I shared how Dr. David Sills, then 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.

By the time I shared about my abuse, I had been in counseling for more than two years, which had given me the tools and support I needed to extract myself from the situation. I had told my counselor, closest friends, as well as my pastor and his wife. I had not disclosed this to SBTS or the missions agency Dr. Sills led (on which I had previously served on the board) because of the very complicated, messy nature of the relationship and my fear of the collateral damage that telling would cause for those around him. That collateral damage was the reason that the abuse had continued for so long. 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. This wasn’t by accident; I believe it was by design. 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. I now wonder if the only reason that a family relationship was ever presented as an option was to ensure I wouldn’t tell what had happened in those first instances.

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.

So that day when I shared what had happened to me with my boss at LifeWay 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. I am not a sinless victim. But I am a victim nonetheless.

Dr. Mohler and SBTS immediately took action. After receiving my statement, they waited for Dr. Sills to return a couple days later from an overseas trip and met with him. I was told following that meeting that he had admitted, at least, to inappropriate sexual activity and tendered his resignation. At that time I requested very strongly that SBTS not share anything about the reason for his resignation as I was trying to protect his family who I knew was about to be reeling. They took that path, which is the standard protocol for employment matters, and the Baptist Press article noting his resignation did not reference a reason for his resignation. Following the seminary’s action, Dr. Sills’ church also took action. The denominational institutions, the local church, and the missions agency he led ultimately believed me, supported me, and took the action for which they were responsible.

Over the past nine months, I have walked through the aftermath of the disclosure, which has been traumatizing itself, at times. I have lost some of the relationships dearest to me and have sat ensconced in a grief that can only be caused by sin. I have come forth now, though, because I recently learned that Dr. Sills had been appointed as a missionary with a non-SBC missions agency. Multiple individuals who knew what happened with me heard about this and notified the missions agency of the reasons for his departure from his previous positions while letting me know they were doing so. As a result, he is no longer listed as a missionary with this agency.

But, 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.

If I were not to come forward with this letter, a church or ministry who receives Dr. Sills’ CV 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. We must clearly tell the truth so that our churches and ministries are safe and as pure as they can be.

It is my hope that my story, one in which a SBC entity and its leaders acted swiftly and justly to remove an abuser, 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. The only way I know to do that is to come forward myself. So, this is my way of doing just that. May God be glorified.