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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, 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.”

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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.”

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