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Fort Lauderdale’s First Baptist Church sold downtown lot in a secretive deal the congregation hastily OK’d

first baptist church
First Baptist Church is in the foreground. The red dot is the location of the property it sold at 501 NE Second Street.

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

First Baptist Church sold prime real estate worth more than $1.2 million in a secretive deal that raises concerns about the intentions of the leadership at Fort Lauderdale’s oldest religious institution.

The new owner of the prized downtown land is an opaque, Delaware limited liability company whose out-front representative is the Naftali Group. This private, New York-based real estate investment and development firm claims $12 billion in assets.

Naftali has announced plans for a Fort Lauderdale residential project and earlier this year paid $21 million for the site of a Tires Plus store on North Federal Highway near First Baptist, the South Florida Business Journal reported in April. The church property is nearly adjacent to that site and could wind up within the footprint of a new highrise.

The First Baptist congregation voted at a July 31 business meeting to sell property at 501 NE 2nd St., a 0.179-acre lot with a tear-down, two-story building, according to documents and multiple accounts. Church officials did not reveal the sales price or the buyer’s identity.

Observers had anticipated the sale for more than a year, while church officials denied they were planning to cash in on the South Florida real estate boom.

“The property is our most valuable asset and it’s not for sale,” Steve Blount told the Sun Sentinel last year. Blount is executive director of ministry services at First Baptist.

TINY CHURCH PARCEL, BIG DOLLARS

Located to the north of the church’s steepled landmark at 301 E. Broward Boulevard, the small, developed lot that the church sold has a fair market value of $1,223,430, its 2022 Broward County assessment states.

Brian Keno

The lot represents a little chunk of First Baptist’s seven acres, valued before the current hot market at upwards of $125 million. The acreage is likely worth more today.

The secret deal amplifies the claim of estranged First Baptist members that when Lead Pastor James Welch took charge in February 2019, financial accountability and transparency vanished. So did members’ power to chart the future of the 115-year-old church by exercising their bylaw-given rights, the dissidents say

“This is not about God anymore. This is about a business,” said Brian Keno, spokesman for the dissidents who are called Concerned Members of First Baptist Church.

He says Welch engineered a similar transaction at his former church in New Orleans, transforming it into a for-profit public events space for Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups.

“When you operate in darkness, this is what you get,” Keno said.

PASTOR WELCH COUNSELS ‘DISCRETION’

Jack Seiler, attorney and spokesman for First Baptist, did not respond to Florida Bulldog questions about the sale.

But perhaps Welch signaled his response to the congregation. He emailed a “pastor’s note” to his flock on Friday, after a stream of social media posts scorched the secret deal.

“Misinformation means the story is typically false, and if you know that beforehand, spreading it is not only gossip, it becomes slander,” he wrote. “Mishandled information is needlessly sharing shameless truth about someone without thinking through the consequences of how that information will affect the said person.

Pastor James Welch

“Just because someone did something wrong does not mean that we need to, or get to, talk about it with others,” Welch wrote. He counseled “biblical discretion.”

Everyone gave Welch a chance when he arrived at First Baptist. Still, “my spirit felt uneasy after two or three Sundays,” said a church insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because many congregants have been banished for challenging the pastor.

“Something didn’t seem right, the way he portrayed himself, the way his wife portrayed herself,” the insider said. “It just seemed it’s all about them, not the people. He didn’t seem like a warm-hearted person. He’s got a job to do. It doesn’t seem like there’s any interaction, it doesn’t seem genuine.”

CHURCH INSIDER ‘SHOCKED’ AT SECRECY

Under Welch’s stewardship the church has financial problems, dissidents and former members say.

They blame him for alienating and ejecting longtime churchgoers – along with their donations – and for ending popular programs and events, especially a lucrative Christmas pageant Welch killed after the 2019 performance.

The 501 NE 2nd St. building is symbolic of the church’s recent evolution. Before Welch, the downstairs workshop turned out props for the popular pageant; a youth group met upstairs and the kids played volleyball in the yard.

The youth group was disbanded. At the July 31 business meeting, Welch said the building is used only for storage, according to the church insider.

“It’s just sitting there, wasting away. They felt it was best to sell it and get some funds out of it,” the insider said.

“They didn’t say anything about how much it would be and who it was getting sold to,” this person said. “I was kind of shocked.”

WELCH OPPONENT SLAMS SECRECY

Welch opponent John Harris, who expects to help represent his side in court-ordered arbitration, said he could accept the idea of selling off underused property – but not the secretive way the sale was conducted.

“If I were a deacon I might say, ‘It may be a good idea, put the proceeds to good use to upgrade the facility and bank some of it.’ But I would have said, ‘Where’s the money?’ I would never have voted for anything that would be kept from me,” Harris said.

“So shame on them for voting ‘Yes,’ and of course those of us who know better have been barred from membership at this time, which was all part of the grand scheme, I’m sure,” he said.

Before the end of Welch’s second year as pastor, Harris and other opponents won a no-confidence vote that threatened his $250,000 job.

Church leadership declared the vote invalid.

‘DISMEMBERED’ CHURCH MEMBERS PERSIST

The dissidents say Welch struck back by sidelining all the deacons and trustees who questioned his authority.

In April 2021, First Baptist trustees expelled an estimated 200 members for “attempting a hostile takeover of the church through illegal meetings,” church official Romney Rogers explained in an emailed statement. Also, the rebellious faction “refused to respond with repentance to Church discipline.”

The “dismembered” members, as they called themselves, have been fighting to regain their pews and influence ever since.

“We want to get to the point where somebody in authority says, ‘Yes, this pastor has been voted out,’ ” Harris said.

Weeks after the purge, lawyer James Geiger, a 50-year First Baptist member who was among the exiled, sued the church in Broward Circuit Court to force arbitration.

Geiger and his supporters won their case three months ago. But Seiler, representing the church, has been making moves that impede them in court and with the Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC), the designated referee.

SEILER: CHURCH SEEKS RESOLUTION

“Seiler’s really good at throwing up smoke,” Harris said. “He did it as long as he could in court and now he’s doing it with the administration of the ICC.”

Seiler has said the church wants to resolve disputes with the dissident faction – inhouse, preferably – and he’s only trying to clear up confusion about the scope of the arbitration.

Meanwhile, the Concerned Members group is scrambling to raise money and keep going.

“We won’t rest until the lead pastor’s been removed,” Harris said. “Anything else is just peripheral.”

In an interview with Florida Bulldog after Judge Jeffrey Levenson ordered arbitration, Seiler rejected the idea that the dissidents could get Welch fired. If that’s their goal, he said, “the whole thing is just spinning wheels.”

FIRST BAPTIST’S QUICK-TURN SALE

The looming arbitration, which must be top of mind for Welch and his coterie, affected the timing of the property sale, Harris said.

“You just have to assume they felt arbitration could hamper the deal so they whipped it up in a hurry,” he said.

The congregation’s July 31 vote apparently was the pro forma approval of a done deal. July 31 is also the sales date listed on the property assessment. The warranty deed that was recorded Aug. 2 shows 501 NE 2nd St. changed hands for a nominal $10.

Now church members wonder about the actual sales price. Does it depend on the new owner flipping or developing the property?

“We know it can’t be $10; it just can’t be,” Keno said. “It was sold in one of the most mysterious ways that one can imagine. Incredible. That just blows my mind.”

FEARS FOR CHURCH’S FUTURE

Earlier this year Naftali entered the downtown Fort Lauderdale market via the Tires Plus acquisition.

A plat map shows the 501 NE 2nd St. parcel sandwiched between two empty lots owned by developer Jim Ellis; one of them borders Tires Plus.

Strung together, the four individual lots total about 1.36 acres, Keno said. That may be enough land for another monolithic tower in an area that’s already full of them.

The church insider fears First Baptist will be the casualty of mismanagement and building fever.

“I hate to feel this way, but I have a feeling that if things don’t work out, Welch will say we don’t have enough cash to carry on,’’ the insider said. “I don’t think it’s gonna stop with that one property. It may take some years, but I don’t think it’s gonna stop there.’’

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Latest comments

  • After years of turning a blind eye to financial mismanagement while on the City Commission in Fort Lauderdale — oversights that led to millions of gallons of raw sewage flowing into the waterways and lawns of Rio Vista and other neighborhoods — Romney Rogers and Jack Seiler are putting the band back together to screw long-time Fort Lauderdale residents once again. Tragic, but totally foreseeable. Mammon rules.

  • The new God is Money….

  • James Welch, Steve Blount, Romeny Rogers can you please explain to us how a congregational led church can operate like this. What is the price of sale and who are the officers of this LLC company? As a member that was removed for no reason (along with many others) I demand an answer. Waiting for the answer Thank you.

  • WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?
    What Will James Do?

  • What would Ham Forms rule?

  • Meant Ham Forman.

  • Once he’s drained FBC, methinks Pastor Welch has a future in Republican politics.

  • James Is a life long Dem. But perhaps changed to independent. Not sure since his Florida move 3 years ago.

  • JW has never cared about this congregation he has kicked out long time members with no regard for them. He preaches love but kicked out long time Deacons. If you ask questions to Welch you get kicked out . Really who does this ??? Wake up people.

  • Make that Rino politics

  • JW is not a Pastor. He preaches love but he allowed long time members and deacons to be kicked out . FBFTL is a congregational led church . The Bylaws have not been followed. This church has been destroyed but people are blind to it . Wake up who does this to long time member??? Saddest thing ever. FBFTL I had a history of Integrity, Love and compassion until he showed up . Someone was definitely sleeping at the wheel to allow this to happen.

    Shameful that this congregation has been torn apart. God will have the final word.

  • It is with regret and a painful heart to hear the Carnage going on at first Baptist Church, Fort Lauderdale.
    It is my understanding that if they are part of the Southern Baptist association, that association at the national and international level can be called in to help resolve all of the difficulties.
    In my 86 years of life ( all but the first 10 years were not a part of a Church). The denomination I chosen is Baptist and although all churches are only as good as the humans that operate them. The scriptures first has always been my understanding then there all the excellent human guidelines, rules, regulations that are in place and open to man’s interpretations/manipulations to deal with such concerns, issues and foolishness.
    It is noted that one person wrote a comment asking what would Jesus do? Well, he got angry and he cleaned out the temple. If the pastor wants to keep things private and internal then he should turn to the internal Baptist association and quietly but firmly allow them to resolve this issue. Although the dirty laundry is already out in the public eye, people look for other things to entertain themselves very quickly and this too will pass. However I agree with the other person who commented that this is just the tip of the iceberg and the days of First Baptist of Fort Lauderdale, Florida are numbered. Dissident members, current members, former members, the total church community of all denominations get on your knees and ask God to intercede swiftly (arent we all sisters and brothers in Christ)? If one is hurting we are all hurting. Understand, I don’t mean “take sides”
    For those who choose to play God themselves with God‘s house you have made a horrible mistake for it has been proven time and time again those who choose to play God will be dealt with severely by God. For those who are publicly wearing the cloak of a godly man/woman/individual get yourself right with God get yourself right with mankind and most definitely get yourself right with your sisters and brothers in Christ.
    It is shocking that the church trustees did not choose to renovate or build a facility or residence for affordable housing for their membership. With the Equity available to them it would have been a done deal. I’m sorry they were not able to think out of the box “for the glory of God.”
    Last, Flordia Bulldog thank you for bringing this to the attention of the “Total Membership of First Baptist church” in such clear, understandable coverage, I’m sure they all understand now and are thankful to you for doing so. They now can make decisions with your enlightening coverage. Thank you.

  • I did prop work with others for the first Pageant in 1981, in the old sanctuary. What a thrill and honor. It seemed this was to be a ministry until the Lord comes. Hard to believe what has happened at FBC. How can it survive under the current circumstances?

  • 1 Peter 5:3

    3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

    So accordingly to the bible we should lead by example. The way that JW is leading the flock is the worst biblical example I ever seen in my Cristian life and make me sad
    It’s time to open the book and shows the truth
    Amen

  • Bruce Keno this is the never ending story. What I don’t really understand how the actual “selected” congregation from JW can be so blind.
    They should ask more questions and get honest and open answers
    This is the only church that I know struggling to the point to selling properties.
    All big churches like Calvary Chapel, Church by the Glades ecc… they have multiples services packed and First Baptist one service with an average of 200 souls ….sure better then nothing but is is a church that can fit 2500 at list
    For JW It is probably the time to stop to blame the concerned members or Covid this is unfortunately the result of bad management
    He should understand that if he had been In a private corporation a manager with this performance he would be fired immediately and is therefore legitimate for the concerned members to ask for accountability

  • Our church is undergoing a similar situation. I would love to speak with some of the members and deacons who were removed from the church. This type of action is a pattern. Churches are being targeted by investors and greedy pastors (in wolves clothing)… this has to stop.

  • Its not just the pastor, you have old time dirty politics involved. You chose to listen to Romney Rogers. You hired Jack Seiler. You get whats coming to you, with that. Don’t expect different results with them calling the shot$

  • This article is one sided in some places. For example, the Concerned Members who are demanding arbitration are the same ones that attempted a coup de ta against James Welsh, the deacon body and the board of trustees by trying to vote certain of them out of leadership. I do not think the leadership at FBC has any obligation to arbitrate with these Concerned Members in light of their attempted coup.

  • Deflection and finger pointing are not a good look for a pastor. Humility and transparency are the appropriate response. It is simple. James Welch, Romney Rogers and Steve Blount, be transparent about the sale of the property.

    To “intheson” – like it or not, FBC Leadership has an obligation to participate in arbitration. It is in the FBC bylaws as the method to settle a dispute. The fact that the concerned members held a legal, valid business meeting to vote out the leadership shows the level of distrust. They are required to follow the bylaws. They cannot pick and choose which ones they want to follow.
    Are you aware that Romney Rogers has been an officer of the church continuously for decades? There are term limits for a reason. However, Rogers has bypassed that requirement and has formed his own little kingdom. The level of disfunction and dishonesty is disturbing.

  • @INTHESON

    I don’t know what coup are you talking about, he was a legitimate special meeting called from the congregation in the presence of a parliamentarian recorded and registered as per the church bylaws
    The same members that voted at the special meeting they have been expelled from the church because they disagree with the otherwise questionable choices of the lead pastor, the deacons and the trustees.
    So please don’t call it a coup

  • Undoubtedly, Jesus would have said….

    Luke 12:15 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

    And perhaps Jesus may have made additional comments.

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