By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
The leadership of Fort Lauderdale’s oldest church is responding to a fresh legal challenge by disaffected members with evasion and delaying tactics.
James Geiger sued Lead Pastor James Welch and Fort Lauderdale’s First Baptist Church June 24 in Broward Circuit Court.
Last week Welch’s lawyer, former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, fired back. A master class in nit-picking, Seiler’s pleading manages to avoid addressing the central question posed by Geiger’s lawsuit : Why haven’t co-religionists been able to resolve their problems amicably?
Geiger was a deacon and the first of an estimated 200 congregants whom church trustees expelled in late April, apparently because they questioned Welch’s iron grip on the 114-year-old institution.
The church is a financial as well as a spiritual force in the community, with seven acres of prime downtown property near Broward Boulevard and Northeast 3rd Avenue valued at $125 million.
Welch’s 2 ½-year tenure has been stormy. Ever since a no-confidence vote in November tarnished his image, he’s worked hard to stifle the internal church rebellion and keep his $250,000-a-year job.
“Clearly the spotlight and the high paycheck are very enticing,” said Holly Orr, a 37-year church member who was banished in the general purge.
Church leadership styles
Orr had no formal role in church leadership, but that’s not supposed to matter. “The government of First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale is vested in the body of believers who are members of the church,” according to its ministry description on the website of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
The ministry description is incongruous with leadership actions that one longtime church member, Michael Smith, called “totalitarian.” Smith, like Orr, was “dis-membered” by way of an April 30 termination notice that accused the dissidents of launching a “hostile takeover” of their own church.
Geiger, an attorney, went to court to force church leaders to sit down with the dissidents and talk through their differences about transparency, governance and finances.
His lawyer cited church bylaws that say arbitration is the right vehicle to resolve issues between the congregation and leadership. Florida law allows a party to an arbitration agreement to seek a court order enforcing it.
Last week Seiler responded to Geiger’s complaint by parsing and disputing nearly every detail. He didn’t mention the failed arbitration.
How James Welch could win
For example, Seiler wrote that the complaint misstates the church’s name — First Baptist Church of Ft. Lauderdale, Inc., not First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale.
“Further, there are no FBC [First Baptist Church] Bylaws attached or referenced in the Petition, only the Bylaws of the named Respondent, FBCFTL [First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale],” he wrote.
Seiler asked Broward Circuit Judge Mily Rodriguez-Powell to dismiss Geiger’s complaint because of the technical errors he described.
She might agree or allow Geiger’s lawyer, Justin Carlin, to fix the glitches and refile the complaint, postponing Welch’s explanation of events. Or, she could dismiss the complaint “with prejudice,” meaning permanently.
At that point the dissidents, who are self-financing their court challenge, may run out of funds to gamble on an appeal. Welch would win without ever having to respond to the essence of Geiger’s complaint.
Seiler: Church tried to arbitrate
Seiler elaborated on his clients’ behalf in an email exchange with Florida Bulldog. He claimed Geiger filed his court petition for arbitration “in clear violation of the Bylaws” that Geiger wrote.
“The Church made numerous good faith and reasonable efforts to mediate and then arbitrate in compliance with the Bylaws, but those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful due to acts and omissions of certain individuals and entities,” Seiler wrote. He didn’t identify those individuals and entities.
Church leaders still hope “any legitimate Church governance disputes can be reconciled and resolved,” according to Seiler.
And that’s all he wrote. “The Church is not going to litigate this action in the press or in the public, and the Church is not likely to further comment on the pending litigation action,” his email says.
Geiger’s supporters spoke out on social media and to Florida Bulldog. Carlin didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Pastor’s spending priorities
The way the dissidents tell the story, they’ve done everything possible to arbitrate their concerns, a process church leaders initiated, then stonewalled. Finally Welch and the trustees expelled everyone who wouldn’t bow to Welch’s authority, leading to the court battle.
There’s a lot Welch and his in-house supporters don’t seem inclined to discuss with the congregation—money matters, primarily.
Welch suspended existing practices of distributing and discussing budgets after he arrived in February 2019, according to the dissidents. Still, they noticed his self-indulgent spending choices.
For the first time in a generation, the church had to take out a line of credit, two loans totaling $550,000. It also obtained two annual Payroll Protection Program grants totaling $1.1 million.
Welch’s handling of First Baptist’s widely popular Christmas pageant, featuring live animals and a cast of hundreds, bothered some congregants. For the 2019 pageant, he insisted on trashing an elaborate curtain and renting a new one, spending a total of $100,000.
New Orleans church sale
A few months later, Welch canceled the pageant permanently. It had accounted for one-third of church revenue.
Attendance, along with tithing donations from members, have dropped since Welch took over, according to dissidents who keep track. Average Sunday attendance, which stood at about 1,100 when he arrived in 2019, was about 260 for combined Sunday services four months ago, and has fallen since then.
Some dissidents speculate that Welch wants to do to First Baptist what he did on a smaller scale at his last post, Harbor Community Church in New Orleans.
While under Welch’s supervision, Harbor lost its tax-exempt-religion status and was transformed into a “collective” that rents out space. The few remaining congregants were sent to another church.
In 2018 the Harbor property, assessed at $1.3 million, was transferred for $100 to an LLC associated with a tax accountant named Tim Baudier, Orleans Parish records show.
A friend of Welch, Baudier later worked for First Baptist as a paid consultant. Church member Smith said he could not determine what exactly Baudier did in exchange for “thousands of dollars.”
Enlarge, or sell off parcels?
Brian Keno, a spokesman for the dissident group, has expressed concern that Welch may deplete the church by selling off property instead of trying to build it up.
Reportedly, church leaders discussed selling a maintenance building at 501 NE 2nd St. and part of a parking lot, but no action has been taken. Welch denied any such plans and told Keno he wants to expand the church.
Keno said he’s skeptical.
“I’ve studied Welch’s history at his former church in New Orleans. Based on that, and the possibility that his developer supporters would benefit from repurposing church property, I can only speculate
that he’s trying to bleed the church dry of people and resources to create a financial crisis,” Keno said.
“That would justify eventually selling it off in pieces to pay the bills,” he said. “Nothing else makes sense to explain purging hundreds of longtime members.”