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.
“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.
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.”