Ex-SBTS prof. accused of 'grooming' former student in decade-long abusive relationship

The campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention, located in Louisville, Kentucky.
The campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention, located in Louisville, Kentucky. | Facebook/The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

A former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student has come forward to detail how former professor David Sills, who resigned last year, engaged in an inappropriate and "abusive" sexual relationship with her that lasted for over a decade.

Jennifer Lyell, who now works as an executive for LifeWay Christian Resources, posted a confession online last week claiming how Sills, who has been married for 30 years and has three grandchildren, sexually abused her and even groomed her from the time she was a master of divinity student until just a few years ago.

David Sills

In her post, the 41-year-old Lyell said that the tenured professor of missions and cultural anthropology first “sexually acted” against her during a mission trip in 2004. She stated that the pattern “continued and escalated for more than a decade following that trip.”

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Sills resigned from the Kentucky-based school last May shortly after Lyell presented her claims to SBTS President Albert Mohler. But at Lyell’s request, SBTS, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, did not make the details behind Sills’ resignation public at the time.

Lyell explained that she decided to go public with her story after hearing that Sills was appointed to serve as a missionary with a mission agency not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. 

Individuals who knew her story alerted that particular mission agency to the details behind Sills’ resignation from SBTS and Sills is no longer listed as a missionary for that organization.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

Jennifer Lyell

Lyell wrote that she first shared her story with her boss at LifeWay and then with Mohler. She praised SBTS for acting swiftly after she contacted Mohler.

According to Lyell, the reason she waited so long to come forward with her claims is because she was afraid that her coming forward could cause “collateral damage” impacting people she loved.

By the time Lyell had come forward publicly with her story, she had been in counseling for over two years.

“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,” Lyell wrote. “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,” she continued. “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.”

Lyell built a strong relationship with Sills’ family over the years as she spent many of her weekends and holidays with them.

“[I] became an ‘aunt’ to their grandchildren, and their grown children became like siblings to me,” she wrote. “It looked idyllic on the surface. Except the pattern of inappropriate sexual activity continued throughout the relationship.”

Lyell wrote that when she presented her claims to Mohler, she also shared “the responsibility" for being “compliant” at times and for “idolizing the idea of a whole family.”

“I protected [the family] despite what was happening within it,” she wrote.  “I am not a sinless victim. But I am a victim nonetheless.”

Upon hearing Lyell’s claims last May, SBTS immediately took action. Sills admitted to engaging in inappropriate sexual activity and tendered his resignation.

"She relayed to me what had happened to her. And so, we invoked our policies and procedures," Mohler told The Christian Post in a phone interview. "Dr. Sills was out of the country traveling internationally. And we met with him within hours of his arrival back in the United States since our policies call for an immediate conversation."

As a result of the conversation upon Sills' return, Mohler said "he was no longer a member of the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from that time."

Mohler assured that he stands behind Lyell and her statement. He said that he is "brokenhearted over the reality" of the situation.

"I think she was courageous in making those statements and I think it sets an example for how others should also demonstrate an equal courage," Mohler said. "So I want to make very clear that I stand with her in that statement." 

According to Baptist Press, Lyell was involved in the relationship with Sills from the time she was 26 until she was 38. 

The outlet additionally reported that Sills has also resigned as a trustee of the SBC International Mission Board and his position on IMB's presidential search committee.

Sills is also an author. InterVarsity Press, which published one of Sills' books, removed Sills' biography page from its website and the webpage for Sills’ book Changing World, Unchanging Mission: Responding to Global Challenges.

“Based on the credible [Baptist Press report], which I learned of on Friday evening, we suspended inclusion of Sills’s book on our site as we did more investigation,” InterVarsity Press Publisher Jeff Crosby told CP in an email. “As of earlier today, we declared his one IVP title (in both print and digital formats) as out of print.”

Sills’ local church, Ninth & O Baptist Church in Louisville, confirmed to Baptist Press that Sills is no longer a member and that the church acted “swiftly and firmly” after hearing the accusations.

At SBTS, Mohler assured that the institution's biblical and moral standards "aren't up for any renegotiation."

"We hold unquestionably to a biblical standard of sexual morality and personal morality and we expect that of any who would teach but also even as students. So that's not up for renegotiation," he explained. "[O]ur policies and procedures work and we work hard to make certain that they are up to date with best practices. Anytime time you have to invoke these procedures is heartbreaking but simultaneously necessary."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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