By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Standing in the pulpit of First Baptist Church’s historic sanctuary, Lead Pastor James Welch praised this “beacon of hope in the heart of Fort Lauderdale.”
It was May 2, the first Sunday after the church’s trustees expelled an estimated 200 members. The group, Concerned Members of First Baptist Church, had tried to exert the influence that church bylaws promise congregants, only to be blocked at every turn.
A mere 160 in-person worshippers — attendance fell before the pandemic, then plummeted – heard Welch broadcast a warning.
“Talk to me but don’t talk about me” or his family or church leaders, Welch said, according to audiotaped excerpts obtained by Florida Bulldog.
“This gossip, this slander, it’s going to end. People of God are done with it,” he declared.
But the rebels aren’t leaving quietly. In public statements and interviews with Florida Bulldog, they described the church’s descent from spiritual haven into hostile camps in the two years since Welch took over.
Latest ‘totalitarian’ move
They blame the head pastor and his enablers for wielding raw power instead of engaging with the congregation to improve failing finances. They say they don’t know of a previous instance when 114-year-old First Baptist suffered a dramatic drop in attendance or split into warring factions.
“A lot of them voted with their feet. That’s why there’s such a mass exodus,” said Michael Smith, a former deacon and 35-year member who tried to represent the dissenters in arbitration.
He said when Welch arrived in February 2019, average Sunday service attendance was about 1,100. In March 2020, before the church closed due to COVID-19, 760 attended. On May 2, combined attendance at Sunday services was about 260, Smith said.
Smith was among those the trustee board “dis-membered,” as he put it, on April 30. “That was cause for sadness but maybe not a surprise considering the totalitarian steps that have been taken so far,” he said last week.
Welch and First Baptist responded to repeated requests for comment only by sending Florida Bulldog the April 30 termination announcement. It accuses the dissenters of attempting a “hostile takeover” of their own church and violating the bylaws. One of the targeted members, a former trustee, wrote the bylaws.
Smith’s personal response was to “pray for everyone that’s involved and just seek God’s guidance on what the next step should be for all of us.”
Welch’s New Orleans experience
The dissenters counted casualties: families driven away after decades of service; a popular Christmas pageant eliminated; a spirit of kindness suppressed; a tradition of democratic governance ignored, and a resilient bottom line trampled.
They say all those things, plus what they’ve learned about Welch, suggest First Baptist’s $125-million earthly treasure is at risk. The church at Broward Boulevard and Northeast 3rd Avenue owns seven acres of prime downtown real estate.
Welch, 46, came on board after a three-year search to replace an interim lead pastor. He moved from New Orleans, where he ran the much-smaller Harbor Community Church.
On his watch the church property lost its tax status as a religion and was redefined as a “collective” that rents out space. The few remaining Harbor Community congregants were sent to another church.
Orleans Parish records show that in August 2018, the Harbor church property valued at $1.3 million was transferred for $100 to an LLC associated with the mailing address of a tax accountant named Tim Baudier. Welch has described Baudier as his friend.
After Welch started at First Baptist, Baudier made an appearance as a “consultant” and the church paid him “thousands of dollars,” Smith said. He asked Welch about Baudier’s expertise, and the pastor said it was “finances or procedures or something.”
NOLA accountant a paid ‘consultant’
“I asked what did we get from Baudier and that was all that was revealed,” Smith said.
The dissenters wonder if Welch values Baudier for his knowledge of how to turn a profit from what was a nonprofit religious institution.
“I believe that’s what he did in New Orleans,” said Brian Keno, a spokesman for the dissident group. Keno researched Welch’s background in New Orleans.
The dissidents also wonder about Welch’s construction industry connections, including Bob Moss, the co-builder of the former Marlins Park and Brightline rail stations among other big projects. Welch and his family live in a house that is, according to property records, assessed at $2.4 million and owned by Moss. He did not respond to Florida Bulldog voice messages left with his assistant.
Smith described Moss as a longtime First Baptist member who is known for his generosity. “I think he looked at this as an opportunity to serve the Lord by providing the new pastor and his family with comfortable accommodations,” Smith said.
Financial accountability review
A former First Baptist member said the leadership has discussed selling two potential development sites: part of a parking lot and 501 NE 2nd St., a building used as a workshop for repairing pews and other items.
Selling off parcels of land could become necessary to resolve the church’s financial problems. The dissenters say Welch and subservient church leaders created these problems.
“A for-profit company in this situation would demand a forensic audit to determine the amount of waste and misuse of funds—executive employees would be dismissed and face an investigation,” says a Jan. 24 letter from Dan and Deanna Wielhouwer to the congregation.
The couple had just left First Baptist after 30 years. He was a deacon; she worked for the church running Christmas pageant ticket sales.
First Baptist is the subject of a formal compliance review by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), Jake Lapp of the council confirmed last week. ”We are unable to provide further comment while the review is ongoing,” he wrote in an emailed response to Florida Bulldog.
Church opens a line of credit
ECFA accredits churches, giving them an independent stamp of approval, former deacon Smith explained.
“It doesn’t make or break you, but it does add to your credibility,” he said. Accreditation can be yanked if a church fails to meet certain fiscal standards or provide requested information.
Smith, the Wielhouwers and others with direct or secondhand knowledge of church financials paint an alarming picture.
For the first time in a generation, First Baptist had to open a line of credit — despite a surplus of $466,000 at the close of the 2019 fiscal year. The church secured two loans totaling $550,000.
Also, First Baptist applied for and received two Payroll Protection Program loans in 2020 and 2021 for a total of over $1.1 million, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s PPP database.
Couple questions spending choices
Yet Welch’s spending is “out of control” and his compensation is relatively high, according to the Wielhouwers’ Jan. 24 letter. They said Welch’s $250,000 salary plus expenses is at least $50,000 more than the pastor’s at Calvary Chapel megachurch on Cypress Creek Road in Fort Lauderdale.
The Wielhouwers provided several examples of questionable spending and program choices. They wrote that Welch trashed an expensive curtain used in the 2018 Christmas pageant — then had to rent another curtain for the 2019 pageant, for a total cost of $100,000.
Welch had the stage remodeled three times, they reported. Then he unilaterally ended the pageant that raised a third of the budgeted revenue.
But there was room for a $77,000 “hospitality” line item. “Each pastor had a mini-fridge stocked with Perrier and special faux foil-wrapped Cokes,” the Wielhouwers wrote.
Meanwhile, programs that the couple thought were necessary were either cut way back or eliminated, including a men’s golf tournament, a band for the teenagers and women’s Bible study.
Men’s Bible study moved to Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the Wielhouwers stated. Couples who missed their favorite First Baptist programs dropped out.
Tight control over the numbers
The church gets most of its funding from tithing, charitable self-taxation by the congregation. Fewer active members mean less income.
It also means fewer congregants asking about money. They were unaware of problems in real time because the trustees and Welch keep everything quiet.
Smith said the deacons used to get monthly reports and summaries, which the bylaws require,but that practice ended with Welch’s takeover. So did congregation-wide budget meetings.
Deacons who asked questions about spending drew rude and dismissive responses but little information, Smith and others said.
Since Welch arrived, the trustees have booted the more inquisitive deacons, almost half of the 24 men in the deacons’ group, according to Smith.
Church bylaws author expelled
“I don’t know anybody that has remained a deacon who disagreed with the direction of the leadership,” he said. “They have either resigned or been forcibly removed.”
One removal that shook Smith and others was that of James Geiger, 83, a lifelong First Baptist member, former trustee and author of the foundational church bylaws.
Geiger and Smith stepped forward to arbitrate disputes between the dissident group and church leadership.
The trustees responded April 26 by dismissing Geiger from the deacon body. Apparently he was the first supporter of the dissident group to be expelled as both a deacon and a member–all through an email.
“That’s what hurts,” Smith said. “This godly man who has given his time, talent and treasure to be just set aside without any thought or love or concern…You wouldn’t treat your employee at the gas station that way,” he said.
Dying member suffers rebuke
On May 2 Welch seemed to offer an answer to a question many have posed: What is his mission plan for First Baptist?
“When people think of what this church is known for, it’s known for bold preaching, evangelism, discipleship, loving the word of God, loving the poor, loving the disenfranchised,” he said.
But Geiger’s ejection, the purge of all dissidents and their supporters four days later and other episodes seem to contradict Welch’s compassionate messaging.
The chief pastor has changed the ambiance of First Baptist, the Wielhouwers suggested in their Jan. 24 letter. During Welch’s tenure, “The spirit of our church went from being kind, giving and caring to cold, aloof, with a perception of spiritual haughtiness,” they wrote.
For example, “Shirley Klass, a member dying of cancer, was rebuked from the pulpit because her oxygen machine was making a clicking sound,” the letter says. “She was ushered out of the sanctuary and never returned due to the embarrassment. She died a short time later.”
Complaint to police targets volunteer
In July Elizabeth Imhoff, a former church administrative assistant and the wife of Tim Imhoff, one of the deposed deacons, had to deal with a criminal complaint from First Baptist.
Romney Rogers, a longtime church insider and legal counselor, accused “disgruntled” ex-employee Elizabeth Imhoff of tapping into a computer database without authorization, according to Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Negron Rodriguez’s July 10 report.
His captain had told Rodriguez to contact Rogers, a former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner.
After Imhoff’s lawyer and Smith intervened and police investigated, the criminal complaint was dropped due to “insufficient evidence,” a supplemental report dated Aug. 28 states.
It turned out that Imhoff, who remained at the church as a volunteer, had not been denied access to the database she needed for her work.
Ex-member: Change is pointless
As a Sunday school teacher, Smith said he used the same member contact information. Imhoff was just trying to alert the congregation to an upcoming meeting, he said.
Smith got involved because “I thought that this church member was being slandered and accused of crimes she did not commit,” he said.
Rogers did not respond to a Florida Bulldog request for comment.
A Change.org online petition calling for a vote of no confidence in Welch and his loyalists drew 847 signatures.
The vote occurred in November, and Welch lost. Still, he kept his First Baptist pulpit because his supporters ruled the vote was illegitimate.
Recently, former member Deanna Wielhouwer said any change would come too late. “Even if we got rid of James Welch, there’s really no church left there anymore,” she said.