By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, a venerable downtown religious landmark, is in full-out civil war after a year of sporadic confrontations about financial accountability and transparency.
On Friday night First Baptist trustees, seemingly under the control of Lead Pastor James Welch, released an email that expelled from membership — much like Catholic excommunication — an entire dissident faction, an estimated 200 churchgoers.
The group has been pressing for dialog about finances, the future of the property-rich institution and Welch’s controversial, top-down management style. He took control of the church in early 2019.
There could be no more dramatic example of that style than the trustees’ Friday night purge.
“All we ever wanted was to have a voice,” said Brian Keno, a leader of Concerned Members of First Baptist Church, and now, apparently, a former congregant. “We started strong. So many left in disgust.”
Following inquiries from Florida Bulldog, Romney Rogers, a lawyer for First Baptist and a longtime church insider, forwarded the trustees’ statement that exiled the dissidents.
Many grievances at First Baptist
It lists many grievances against them, saying they “attempted a hostile takeover of the church through illegal meetings … claiming to act in the name of the congregation.” Also, they “refused to respond with repentance to Church discipline.”
The trustees accuse the dissidents of engaging in “a public campaign of slander, defamation, accusations and threats against the pastors, trustees, deacons and other Church leaders.” They decided that further efforts to arbitrate disputes “will be an unfruitful waste of the church’s time and resources.”
Therefore, the trustees “recently voted to terminate the membership of all church members who have identified with, participated in, or supported any actions of” the dissidents.
The news spread fast, and members of Keno’s group expressed shock and outrage in Facebook posts. “I want to scream!” said one. “They need a dose of their own discipline,” said another. And a third: “We will have to figure out next steps. In the meantime, don’t give in to their bully tactics.”
Welch did not respond to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog. Former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a lawyer for the church, said it would release a statement. That statement, separate from the trustees’ purge announcement, was not produced by deadline.
A real estate goldmine
The 114-year-old church sits atop a real estate goldmine — seven acres off Broward Boulevard and Northeast Third Street in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The property has an estimated value of more than $125 million, which could increase if a planned government center is sited four blocks away.
Meanwhile, First Baptist seems to have financial problems. The church applied for and received federal Payroll Protection Program loans in 2020 and this year, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s PPP database. In 2020 it received $599,780 to retain 61 jobs; on March 13 it got $558,978 for 74 jobs.
A former deacon and his wife, Daniel and Deanna Wielhouwer, raised financial concerns in a Jan. 24 letter to the congregation explaining their decision to leave after 30 years. They said Welch was being paid $250,000 in salary and expenses, and described his spending of church funds as “out of control.” They also questioned why Welch is paid at least $50,000 more than the pastor of the much larger Calvary Chapel on Cypress Creek Road.
At the same time, the new pastor ended First Baptist’s money-making annual Christmas pageant, a popular tradition for 36 years, as of 2020. Deanna Wielhouwer, who worked for the church and ran pageant ticket sales, said they accounted for a third of the church’s $4.2 million budget in 2019.
The combination of financial plight and real estate riches has led the Wielhouwers, Keno and others to wonder about what closely held plans Welch and the church leadership have in mind for First Baptist.
“It’s never been clear what Welch’s vision is,” Keno said before the purge. “People don’t know what he’s gonna do.”