First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale implodes over challenge to pastor’s iron rule

first baptist church of fort lauderdale
First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale

By Noreen Marcus,

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.”

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Latest comments

  • Wait. So a church’s leader is financially abusing the power of his position and puts his own wants and the wants of those who also stand to gain from this above the needs of and responsibility to every member of his congregation??

    That’s not a church. That’s a cult.

  • Ask the “pastor” about his signing bonus he received to come there. Also ask about where he lives and does he pay rent? Lastly, what happened to the $100,000 curtain from the pageant? There are pictures of it in a dumpster but he told the congregation he donated it to another ministry. Very shady.

  • Welch’s decision to terminate the Pageant was done solely by him without involving the congregation, some 1000 of which participated in the Pageant in some way annually. His reasoning for doing such a thing to the church, to the community, and many beyond our borders was never justified by him. The Pageant defined Christmas for thousands and renewed their faith in Jesus Christ. His conduct is appalling and disgraceful. Certainly not the conduct of a Christian pastor. He failed miserably in representing the Christian faith and he calls himself a pastor of the word of God. He has bankrupted the church demonstrating vividly his own selfish intention. A Pastor Larry Thompson he will NEVER be. I wouldn’t want to face my Maker at which time he will be held accountable for his actions if not in this lifetime.He needs to be held accountable in this lifetime and HE NEEDS TO BE STOPPED! I pray that Cod will do for him what he obviously cannot or will not do for himself. God’s will be done!

  • JW is the spiritual leader of that church . He is responsible for how the church is led. To remove members who just always wanted a voice to be heard is just wrong . The truth is this body has gone to him on numerous occasions seeking answers and getting nothing . The Bylaws have not been followed The person who wrote the Bylaws is removed from being a deacon and a member. All of this so heartbreaking. Praying truth be revealed.

  • Goofy greedy wasp

  • Sadly, First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach (aka now Family Church) has seen very similar activity AND the pastor has become a specialist in taking over other struggling Baptist churches with assets and selling off those assets for who knows what purpose or use. People who questioned activities were shunned, marginalized, and votes of questionable merit not in agreement with the bylaws were held. Same racket. Different church.

  • You read it on the internet so it must be true?? Read this and truly believe it: First Baptist of Fort Lauderdale is alive and God is going to use Pastor Welch and the willing church body to be a powerful voice for Jesus.

  • Oh lord Jesus there’s a fireeeee

  • JW Is a thief

  • Proverbs 22:7
    Psalm 37:21

    Problem #1 “PPP” you can say you serve the Lord and trust that HIS church is in HIS hands but actions speak louder than empty words…

    Ekklessia – “the church” is a gathering with no defined number of people…church is the people not an organized congregation of paid servants. Jesus said where 2 or 3 are gathered, that’s it. Yes we should assemble and yes it is always best to do so in an organized manner, there is order written out in the NT but what in the world possesses a person to think that serving God is a vocation? That is lunacy. The Bible does not say a person should be paid this or that or that and it doesn’t say shepherding a flock warrants a salary of comfort and certainly not luxury. As Christians we all need to get over ourselves and repent of our hypocrisy. Every day we are called to wake up and serve God, no one person is more important than the other, period. We ought not to wake up and think we are in some special or entitled club either – we are not! We of all people out to be gracious and generous, dying to ourselves Galatians 2:20 and living for Christ!
    This whole thing is a shame and does not give glory to Holy God. Deuteronomy 23:14 – keep the camp clean! Joshua 7 – don’t take into the camp the spoils of the land you have conquered. That includes Cesars dollar (PPP) and everything else that the world and the devil presents before you. When sitting with rulers consider the delicacies! That’s what the Bible says! Not fight and squabble with each other over material things, take big salaries and power flex on each other over a congregation that isn’t even yours, it is the Lords church! Repent.
    And for goodness sakes don’t make covenants with Cesar (PPP) – come on!
    Lord help us all – where dear Jesus, is the church??? I beg you Lord to please convict your people and cause them to rise up and BE the church.

  • Honestly, this article and the comments are inappropriate and unnecessary. It lacks depth and content s to the real issues. Pastor Welch laid out his plan and vision from the beginning. The Pastor search committee was also aware of his plan and course him for the Church . He is a church planter. He wishes to restore our budget, he wants to serve our community and create a Jesus first life for everyone. He also said that he wanted to create artistic events throughout the year and not just at Christmas through the Pageant which put the Jesus first life on hold for many, but Covid and the pandemic happened. It should also be noted that it was likely that no matter which Pastor took over, the Pageant was going to go. Definitely disappointing but this church is a 114 years old with only 36 years of Pageant. Think about that. Those who are part of the division must examine whether they forward a Jesus first life because if you are, you’d let God. Calling him a goofy great wasp, or talking negatively about his family for example is not leading a Jesus first life and therefore your comments mean nothing other than to expose your own shortcomings. I will pray for you. God placed him here and God will be the one to take him away if that’s required but for now, he is doing the work of God. Show the picture of the curtain in the dumpster to substantiate your claims. God Bless you all.

  • honestly if you believe the things that come out of James Welch’s mouth you have no critical thinking skills and don’t know how to think for yourself. you’re simply his puppet in his schemes against the church. i highly suggest you take a minute to see the bigger picture and think FOR YOURSELF about what’s true because it’s going to be real sad when you have to stand before the father and attest for these things. JW is a liar and a thief and is most definitely NOT a leader! I wouldn’t trust him to hold my purse let alone run a church…

  • In reference to “Will” and his comment above? No, I don’t believe it just because I read it on the internet. I believe it because I’m a member and I’ve seen with my own eyes what’s going on at FBFTL. Something is definitely amiss. Both sides of this debate have acted poorly. We are all sinners. But the devil is absolutely at work on the corner of Broward and 3rd. Look around you on Sunday morning. Where did everyone go? And it’s not because of Covid. Every other church in the area is full. John 12:40 says, “The Lord has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts— so that their eyes cannot see, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and have me heal them.”
    This may be why you believe JW is doing great things. He refuses to tell the truth. Do a little research for yourself. Don’t just follow blindly.

  • NY – The Austrian was put in the dumpster. It was a $200,000 waste to dump the curtain and then rent one just a few months later.
    Ask yourself these questions:
    Can HUNDREDS of people be wrong?
    Have you seen any financial statements in the last 2 years?
    Have you seen genuine humility and repentance from James Welch?
    Has James Welch attempted to restore any of those he has disciplined? (no, he hasn’t)
    James Welch is the spiritual leader of FBC. He has only taken a defensive posture instead of attempting reconciliation and restoration. This is his responsibility and ultimately he will have to answer to God.

  • FCL, this unfortunately seems to be a trend in SBC churches. Pastors come in, change the bylaws of the Church and assume total control with only a handful of pastoral chosen minions. Which do nothing to hold them accountable. So, unfortunately this will get worse before it gets better and will likely cause a church split.

    But we all know God’s in control and can use a bad situation to His glory.

  • You are always welcome at the First United Methodist church, which is just as old, and sitting on prime property as well.

  • The constitution must be different than most Baptist Churches. Trustees have no power except what they are explicitly given by the body, on a one time basis. They are not a committee.

  • This is why my church lives in my own soul and I’m a giver back to humanity instead of “ the business of church” which precisely what it is. Here’s a quick how to Guide for heaven. Golden Rule/ donate of your valuable time to noble causes/ use your God given talents in ways to help others. That’s it. You’re so welcome and yes .,., God Bless.

  • This is my church. I do not recognize being disciplined for doing absolutely nothing wrong. I will attend on Sundays with peace in my heart for the Lord. No man has this right to tell me where to attend. I respectfully disagree and I am a member in good standing and I request for be thought of as such by the Trustee leaders of my church. We are congregational led church. The Body of Christ within us all. Not one man or Trustees who makes decisions for all. I request my church to restore ALL memberships to deacon body and congregational body retroactive to July of 2020 with this all started. All we ever asked for is a voice and a vote. This is not complicated. We were denied within our bylaws to Arbitrate with a third party to decide our fate. This is our church and God shall protect the truth of this matter. Amen.

  • Religion is the opiate of the masses.

  • To paraphrase Lt. Renault’s words to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, “You shouldn’t discard church members so easily. They may be scarce someday.”

  • Romney & Jack vs. The Pastor.

    Reading the story, looks like the church is in trouble on both sides.

    Former City of FTL Romney & Jack “dais sitters” have proven they are all about their own special interests.

    God help FBC.

  • N.Y This pastor is a joke. If you take your spiritual guidance from a man who lies and steals from the church you deserve what you get. I’m wondering how the search team hired him in the first place after he ruined the church he was at before. False prophets everywhere.

  • As a local Fort Lauderdale native and member of the church I see first hand what is going on. There is a small minority of the church trying to bully and smear our wonderful pastor who has given up so much to lead our flock. James Welch and his entire family have been a true blessing to our church and we the church body (the overwhelming majority) support and will defend him forever. He has done so much for the community and has blessed our congregation so much. The small group attacking him are only doing so because he made a smart financial decision (canceling the Christmas pageant that was draining money from the church) that the majority of the church felt was best for the church which they the minority didn’t like. He is a man of God led by God and a truly inspiring individual. We will not allow cancel culture to invade our church like the poison these people are trying to spread. This small group of individuals are not following the book and are being directed by the email works of the devil blindly. I will pray fir them and continue to support our great shepherd. WE LOVE YOU JAMES WELCH!!!

  • I believe in Love. I believe Jesus said let him who has no sin cast the first stone.

    Let your actions spread love.

    If you disagree, then that is ok. We can disagree. But to spread hate is not Christ like.

    I do not know the truth of the situation, but the end goal is not to be right, but to spread the Love of Jesus.

    I wish this situation would be left into Gods hand. He controls everything and everything happens for a reason.

    Peace is the only road to walk

  • I am not a member but I was Truly saddened to learn the Pageant will be no more. I took many every year Some who gave their hearts to Christ as a result. It’s even more disheartening to read what is going on with the Church and its members…and you wonder why people don’t want to go to church?! This is a perfect example!
    So, they excommunicated 200 members (probably mostly leaders who’ve given much to the church) and the Pastor hasn’t gone after any of them? What happened to leaving the 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep? Not much of o Pastor’s heart nor spirit of fellowship. Well @250K, he’s more of an Executive or CEO, right? May God restore the hearts of all those involved.
    Whoa be unto You!

  • BOTH sides are wrong and must repent! Pastor came in heralded as a “Rock Star” and had a vision but strong armed everyone and has not been transparent!
    The resistance is equally at fault. Some of the leaders of the group were behind the changing of the Bylaws which was completed PROOR to the calling of Pastor JW. The changes which did away with a personnel committee gave Pastor JW complete and absolute authority to hire and fire whomever he wanted. The changes also emboldened the unBiblical and controversial Trustee Board! The former Executive Pastor John Jones was behind all this and manipulated those in the resistance. Jones also was behind former Pastor Thompson’s sudden “retirement “. Jones and a few of the leaders in the resistance were running things for years outside of the Deacon’s sight and behind the scenes.
    With the new Bylaws enacted in 2018 BEFORE Pastor JW came, these Bylaws made eunuchs of the Deacons, strengthened the Trustees and gave absolute authority to whoever the new Pastor would one day be. Well done Pastor Jones and Company!!
    Unexpected problem now was the new Pastor JW did not behave and bow down to this small handful of men which bruised their egos and started the rift.
    Canceling the pageant needed to happen, as this event had become quite the Idol, but certainly not in the manner Pastor JW did without any input from the Deacons (who used to be the leadership of this church). However, let’s remember, he had absolute authority thanks to the Bylaws change of 2018!
    Pastor JW then took personnel matters into his own hands and terminated some staff who had been there for decades and probably needed to retire. This could have been more delicately accomplished, but so be it. Without a personnel committee, no debate or discussion was required.
    The last straw was the termination of Executive Pastor Jones. “How dare he” and “he can’t do that”! Oh but, poetic justice demonstrates how the man behind the Bylaw change in 2018 was bitten by his quest for power! Pastor JW could and did act within his authority when he terminated Jones and other employees.
    Consequently an “Advocacy” Group developed and held 2 hour “prayer” meetings, where they prayed for 5 minutes and tarred and slandered Pastor JW and his Deacon and Trustee supporters for the remaining 2 hours.
    This mess has certainly become a circus with no winners except one…Satan!
    God is sovereign and has a plan, hopefully to clean this church up from top to bottom.

  • You have a criminal psychopath running the show who just secured loans for $600,000 to pay his salary now that he’s bit the hand that feeds him. I’d run a criminal background check on him immediately. There is no such thing as an “illegal” church meeting, for Pete’s sake. James, don’t write to defend yourself to Bulldog in this comment section. Your attempts to justify your crimes is obvious. Try this: apologize and bolt. You will wind up in prison if you continue your charade. You realize that.
    These Floridians aren’t as gullible as those poor folks you swindled back home. “Dissidents”? Nice try. Folks, stop tithing and giving to these guys. Who signed for the loans committing you to indebtedness for over one half million while you owe this felon $250k a year? They should be identified and held accountable, not “The Church.” Quickly ask local and state police to investigate. Also, ask the FBI to assist. His crimes extend out of state. Hurry. This criminal shows signs of hunkering down.

  • “[John Contini] has helped me navigate some challenging times and some different conflicts…”
    – Pastor James Welch

    Mr. Cantini was removed as a judge for ethics violations.

  • Welch is the leader, and putting all the dissention aside for a moment, the buck stops with him regarding church performance. This alone will be the deciding factor. In today’s metrics driven world, the church is a business (unfortunately), and he will be held accountable by the numbers themselves.

    Leaders of any organization have to drive RESULTS. If the current numbers (i.e., revenue, budgets, membership, etc.) don’t improve substantially, he will seal his own fate.

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