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Fort Lauderdale judge orders pastor at First Baptist Church to talk to dissenting members he sought to banish

first baptist
First Baptist

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

A Broward judge answered the prayers of estranged First Baptist Church members by giving them a chance to reclaim their pews and place in Fort Lauderdale’s oldest religious community.

Last month Lead Pastor James Welch and church officials defeated in-house opponents in a court contest. Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson even barred the losing party from trying again.

But by May 19, Levenson had changed his mind. He ordered church leaders to arbitrate their dispute with a group called Concerned Members of First Baptist Church. The Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC) will referee.

Concerned Members includes up to 200 congregants who were expelled by First Baptist in April 2021. They had questioned Welch’s domination of the steepled landmark at Broward Boulevard and Northeast Third Avenue downtown.

James Welch

“The chronology shows First Baptist ‘dis-membered’ us as a tactic to do things the way they wanted to do them,” said John Harris, a Concerned Member who will help represent his side in the arbitration.

CHURCH IS ‘OPEN TO ARBITRATION’

Jack Seiler, attorney and spokesman for First Baptist, said the church is “open to arbitration” – as long as it’s conclusive and binding on everyone to avoid endless repetition. He has asked Levenson for clarification on this point.

Welch’s critics say he operates secretively so no one except his inner circle can examine his financial choices. Notably, Welch caused an uproar when he abruptly canceled a popular Christmas pageant that brought in one-third of the church’s revenue.

Soon after Welch moved to First Baptist from a much smaller New Orleans church in February 2019, the new pastor took a unified, congregation-led flock and divided it into pro-Welch and anti-Welch factions, some churchgoers said. They didn’t like the tone he set.

“The spirit of our church went from being kind, giving and caring to cold, aloof with a perception of spiritual haughtiness,” Deanna and Daniel Wielhouwer, a former deacon,  wrote in a Jan. 24, 2021 note to the congregation explaining the couple’s decision to leave First Baptist.

The Wielhouwers wrote that the 114-year-old church had entered “an irreversible spiritual, relational and financial nosedive” starting on Welch’s watch and before the pandemic struck.

CHURCH BANISHED DISSIDENTS

History suggests that Welch should worry about alienated congregants airing their grievances. In November 2020, the last time his authority was seriously questioned, they passed a no-confidence vote that could have cost him his $250,000-a-year job.

Jack Seiler

Seiler said the vote was invalid because it wasn’t conducted at an official church meeting. “Nobody at the church had a no-confidence vote, it was just the group that splintered off,” he said.

In any event, the church leadership responded by closing ranks. They accused the dissidents of attempting a “hostile takeover” and expelled them and their supporters in April 2021.

Two months later, 50-year church member James Geiger—the first to be ejected—filed a petition in Broward Circuit Court to enforce an arbitration clause in the church’s governing bylaws.

Concerned Members wants full reinstatement to the congregation; then they’ll take steps to make sure Welch is terminated, said Brian Keno, a spokesman for the group.

CONCERNED MEMBERS: FIRE WELCH

“We want him fired because we did everything correctly,” Keno said, referring to the church bylaws that Geiger, an attorney and former deacon, authored.

Harris spoke of the Concerned Members’s mission in religious terms. “Our ultimate goal is to recover the church for the Savior,” he said. “We just need to reclaim the pulpit.”

Seiler responded with a question: “If a minority group never had the church, how can they reclaim it?”

He said the Concerned Members can’t fire Welch. “It’s the trustees’ decision, they don’t have the authority. They need the votes, they don’t have them.”

If getting rid of Welch is their goal, Seiler said, “the whole thing is just spinning wheels.”

LAND RICH BUT CASH POOR?

As the owner of seven acres of prime real estate worth an estimated $125 million, First Baptist has a sizable footprint in a hot market. The disaffected members say the church is land rich but cash poor, with dwindling resources.

Attendance, along with tithing donations from congregants, dropped since Welch took over, several who keep track told Florida Bulldog.

Average Sunday attendance, which stood at about 1,100 when Welch arrived in 2019, has fallen to just over 200 total for 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services, Keno said he observed firsthand recently.

“They do let me in,” he said. “They removed me, but I never resigned.”

Seiler said he believes the church has between 1,000 and 2,000 members.

A TURNAROUND IN COURT

Keno has accused Welch of angling to sell off First Baptist property and replenish its revenue. The leadership reportedly discussed selling a maintenance building at 501 NE 2nd St. and part of a parking lot.

At a meeting with Keno, Welch denied he plans to sell anything and said he wants to expand the church, Keno reported. No expansion or contraction has appeared to date.

In court, Seiler briefly convinced Judge Levenson that Geiger had no legal support for his arbitration demand. And anyway, there was nothing in writing from ICC arbitrators saying they needed a judge’s order to get started.

After a hearing, Levenson dismissed Geiger’s petition with prejudice, meaning it couldn’t be fixed and filed again.

But then Geiger’s lawyer, Justin Carlin, showed the judge a supportive email and letter from the ICC. Levenson reconsidered his first decision and reversed it.

JUDGE’S SURPRISING RULING

There will be arbitration after all.

Why Levenson switched course is unclear. His May 19th decision relies on the First Baptist bylaws and state law he had already considered, not the ICC correspondence he had just seen.

Keno sent Concerned Members his own explanation: “God is not finished! God is at work. He loves the body of believers who have called FBC their home for decades.”

Seiler said Levenson may not understand that First Baptist took the initiative to mediate and seek arbitration, but a different group of disgruntled congregants thwarted that earlier attempt to quietly resolve all outstanding issues.

“We’re not looking to do this in a public forum, that was the choice of the other side,” Seiler said. “We spent a lot of time and money handling this in a confidential private manner. We would love to have this resolved amicably and have it resolved in the church.”

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Latest comments

  • Another very nice exclusive by Noreen.

  • Paying a Pastor $250,00.00 makes a complete mockery of Christianity. Compare this to salaries for leading schoolteachers..
    No wonder church attendances are dropping in the western world except so called mega churches. These are all just businesses using Christianity to avoid tax.

  • Except so called mega churches pay their pastors the most…

  • As a member for over 20 years, I’d like to state : This congregation with its century old impeccable legacy, deserves a true people’s pastor (as it has had historically), NOT a religious politician! (as self admitted by him from the pulpit as he’s natural bend).

  • “…in a confidential private manner” also defines precisely how Jack Seiler liked conducting business when he was mayor, which practice often had the consequence of leading to law suits against the city – three to be precise – in response to his elitist homeless criminalization regime. If anyone in the city is not to be trusted, it’s Seiler. Recently he had the audacity to bemoan in a Sun-Sentinel story the fact that the civil rights lawyers who successfully sued on behalf of Food Not Bombs in their First Amendment case were demanding large, but completely reasonable, attorney’s fees. “Outrageous” is what he called their rightful claim for $1.5M in fees for that seven year legal sojourn. But what Seiler would never admit is that he was central to the creation of that unconstitutional law, and then to continuing the case longer than necessary. Clearly Seiler hasn’t changed.

  • This stemmed from a lack of discernment in choosing a search committee. The current pastor is a reflection of what they sought after. When they sent out “updates” over the course of a 2 year search, it was obvious they were looking for prestige in the community, to compete with the other mega church egos in Fort Lauderdale. Sadly, they didn’t humbly and with earnest intention, consider the call or life of Jesus. Not surprising at all.

  • It is a darn shame when
    atheists follow the teachings of the Christ more so then the majority of these self described Christians.
    Unfortunately, just like the goverments in the US, ( city to the federal) the Christian Church is corrupt to the core.
    I am not sure what shocked me more in this article, the $250,000 salary or the fact that this “church” charges & charges enough to watch it’s Christmas program, that it amounts to 1/3 of the budget !!
    I stopped going to church years ago when I could not tell the difference between listening to US politicians & Sunday sermons.
    This is a what real journalism looks like. Something no longer seen in the US media today.
    Thank you

  • I became a Christian in this church in 1973 as a 17-year-old high school student. I married my college sweetheart in 1980 and attended FBC until 1986 when we moved to Virginia. I see a lot of 5-star reviews that list the amenities, the music, etc. etc, but not as much on the pastor himself. From what I hear from friends that have attended since the 1980’s, (many of whom have left) this pastor, James Welch has caused great division, attempted to “banish” members that have disagreed with him, and basically driven this once great church into the ground. It’s so pathetic, and so sad. It’s become such an issue in town that a local judge has even ordered the pastor to talk with dissenting members that he sought to banish. What kind of man is this anyway? His behavior sounds anything but Christian to me. If the current attendance is down to 200 from over 1,000, how can those who have been “banished” be in the minority? I’ve listened to a couple of his sermons, he sounds like a wimpy Joel Osteen, nothing like the past three pastors, including Bill Hinson and O.S. Hawkins.

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