By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
James Welch, the polarizing lead pastor of Fort Lauderdale’s venerable First Baptist Church, abruptly left the pulpit this week, according to a church insider who shared the news with exiled congregants.
“He’s gone as of Monday. A new chapter!” Margaret Whiddon wrote Wednesday to an email server the dissident congregants maintain. Her message was shared with Florida Bulldog and a church deacon confirmed the Welch news unofficially to one of the dissidents.
On Thursday the church announced Welch had resigned effective Wednesday. No reason was offered by the church or Welch.
Welch did not respond to texted questions. Jack Seiler, the lawyer for Welch and the church, said he was not authorized to respond to questions.
In April 2021, longtime church official and former city commissioner Romney Rogers banished about 200 dissidents via email for attempting what he called an illegal “hostile takeover.” The group had voted in November 2020 to remove Welch and his hand-picked governing clique, which threatened Rogers’ own authority.
“We’re gonna rebuild this church. The jig is up for Welch,” said an exultant Brian Keno, a spokesman for the Concerned Members Group, the disaffected congregants.
DISSIDENTS WON COURT FIGHT
Ten months ago, they won a court battle to force the church into arbitration. The talks still haven’t begun.
First Baptist leaders met on Monday, according to a knowledgeable source. Whether that’s the day the trustees decided to force Welch to leave, or the day they accepted his resignation, could not be determined.
At his final Sunday sermon Welch didn’t say goodbye to the congregation he led for four years, according to Keno, who was there. He said he counted about 160 attendees, a much smaller crowd than the 1,100, on average, in pre-Welch days.
Perhaps anticipating his exit, James Welch and his family recently moved from Fort Lauderdale to Coral Springs. He and his wife signed a mortgage for a single-family house dated Feb. 21, property records show.
Though the church gave no reason for Welch’s departure, he left within months of two significant and possibly related events.
The first was the church’s sale in Augustof a 0.179-acre plot valued at more than $1.2 million for a sum that’s still a mystery to the congregation. The buyer was an unidentified Delaware company associated with the Naftali Group of New York.
Naftali has been buying up parcels for a residential tower near the main church building at 301 E. Broward Blvd. The land First Baptist sold in August could wind up in the footprint of a new highrise in the already congested downtown.
FIRST BAPTIST SUSPENDED
The second event was First Baptist’s suspension from membership in the nonprofit Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). The church joined the council, whose stamp of approval is coveted for fundraising purposes, 10 years ago.
As of October, First Baptist was suspended pending the council’s review of the church’s compliance with a fiscal standard.
It says members must “exercise the appropriate management and controls necessary to provide reasonable assurance that all of the organization’s operations are carried out and resources are used in a responsible manner and in conformity with applicable laws and regulations…”
“We aren’t surprised by the review given the sustained campaign of unsupported and unsubstantiated public criticism we have endured these last three years,” First Baptist trustee Steve Blount told MinistryWatch, which broke the suspension story on Monday.
The review goes back to at least May, when it was reported by Florida Bulldog. On Thursday Jake Lapp of ECFA confirmed the suspension but declined to reveal why it occurred.
‘WHAT DID TRUSTEES UNCOVER?’
Welch is listed in state records as “chairman” of First Baptist’s corporate entity, so presumably he was responsible for overseeing the church’s finances.
The dissidents complain that as soon as James Welch arrived in February 2019, he scotched transparency and accountability and set questionable spending priorities on his own. For example, they said, he insisted on replacing a stage curtain at a cost of $100,000 for the church’s profitable 2019 Christmas pageant, then canceled future pageants.
“What we have to find out is, why did they [the trustees] let him go, what did they uncover?” asked a former congregant who has sources inside the church. “Because they had to find something, they and ECFA have both uncovered something and I don’t know what it is.”
The former member said the trustees have berated her for exposing the church’s dirty laundry — thus her insistence on speaking out anonymously, “Are you kidding me? What is bad and wicked about telling the truth?” she asked.
“If they continue to shroud things in secrecy, nothing’s ever gonna get better,” the ex-congregant said. “They just need to come clean with whatever they uncovered so we can move on.”