By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org
When flash floods of near biblical intensity swamped Fort Lauderdale in April, the waters didn’t spare the downtown landmark First Baptist Church.
The damage was so bad that Sunday services had to be moved from the steepled sanctuary on Broward Boulevard to a separate building on First Street called the Event Center.
The storm-related disruption at First Baptist Church (FBC) is only temporary. But despite major changes at the 116-year-old house of worship and a call for healing, hundreds of congregants who were banished two years ago may never return even as the church embraces new leadership.
That doesn’t jibe with the fact that their “Concerned Members Group” has had two significant victories. Also, an outside auditor signaled they were right to wonder about the church’s financial situation.
Still, it’s apparent that entrenched church managers who predated and survived the era of James Welch, the recently departed lead pastor, have outlasted all would-be reformers and every challenge to their authority.
“We’re a congregation-led church but we’ve had no voice,” said Concerned Members Group spokesman Brian Keno. “As long as church leaders keep acting like political power brokers, nothing will really change.”
AUDITOR TARGETS ‘RESOURCES’
Concerned Members chipped in for costs and attorney fees and pursued a lawsuit against the church. Last year they won a court order that was supposed to force FBC to arbitrate issues involving financial control and transparency.
Then in March Welch, who they blamed for the church’s overall decline, abruptly left his pulpit. Concerned Members had been trying to get rid of him since November 2020.
The following month a nonprofit auditor dropped First Baptist from its membership rolls. The independent Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) no longer accredits the church.
ECFA “terminated” FBC on April 14, citing violation of a standard called “The use of resources and compliance with laws.” It did not specify which resources or laws allegedly were misused or broken.
The auditor’s action “is a serious and troubling sign of what is occurring with FBC finances,” says a Concerned Members Group email.
A year ago the church leadership sold a 0.1790-acre parcel worth more than $1.2 million without revealing the name of the buyer or the sales price.
“When you operate in darkness, this is what you get,” Keno said about the secretive land sale.
CHURCH LOST BUT WON
The church has about seven acres of downtown property valued at over $125 million before the market escalated, making FBC a serious player among private owners of prime real estate in Broward County.
Steve Blount, the church’s executive pastor and designated spokesman, did not respond to detailed questions from Florida Bulldog.
Jack Seiler, the church’s lawyer in the arbitration case, lost in court but won as a practical matter by using procedural tactics to postpone the arbitration start date.
The talks never began. Finally, on June 9, the Concerned Members Group withdrew its lawsuit.
When Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson ruled against the church and ordered arbitration in May 2022, Seiler scoffed at his adversary’s stated goal of reclaiming FBC, starting with Welch’s departure.
“If a minority group never had the church, how can they reclaim it?” Seiler asked aFlorida Bulldog reporter. He said church trustees would have to fire Welch, which wouldn’t happen; so if the objective was getting rid of him, “the whole thing is just spinning wheels.”
Ten months later, when Welch left without saying goodbye to his congregation, the church announced he’d resigned.
LAND DEAL ‘SHOCKED’ VOTER
Seiler works closely with Romney Rogers, a powerful FBC fixture and Seiler’s ally from the time he was mayor of Fort Lauderdale and Rogers was vice mayor and a commissioner. Rogers is a real estate and business lawyer.
Rogers and Welch presented the sketchy land deal to congregants for their approval on July 31, 2022, according to one who attended the meeting and described it anonymously.
“I was kind of shocked” at the lack of detail, said the congregant, one of several who abstained from voting. The deal was called “confidential.” The pitch was that “they felt it was best to sell and get some funds out of” the underused property.
The Naftali Group, a New York real estate firm, represented the buyer, an unidentified Delaware limited liability company. Naftali is planning a residential high rise in downtown Fort Lauderdale that’s almost certain to include the former church property.
Broward County property records show that Rogers prepared the deed for the church lot at 501 NW 2nd St. The sale was dated July 31, and the deed was recorded two days later on Aug. 2, 2022.
Asked in an email about his compensation, Rogers wrote, “my legal services to the Church were gratis, as they have been for quite some time.” He did not respond to additional questions giving this reason: “I don’t know who are the actual individuals that are calling themselves the concerned members now.”
CHURCHES ENTER PARTNERSHIP
Earlier this month Rogers, who led the search for a new head pastor – repeating the process that recruited Welch – introduced Lead Pastor David Hughes to his expanded flock. First Baptist has agreed to partner with Hughes’s Coral Springs congregation, Church by the Glades at 400 Lakeview Drive.
The two churches will remain independent, First Baptist’s June 11 announcement says. “The collaboration … will foster shared resources while allowing each church to maintain its autonomy. This approach will enable the congregations to maximize their impact on the community while maintaining their individual identities and missions.”
Still, their relative stature suggests that First Baptist is merging into the more prosperous Church by the Glades. During Welch’s four years at First Baptist, Sunday attendance dwindled from more than 1,000 to a couple of hundred; Church by the Glades has over 6,000 active supporters, according to the June 11 announcement.
Keno said he’s optimistic about the change in pastors and he’s not alone – an enthusiastic crowd of about 1,000 people turned out to greet Hughes at FBC last Sunday. Keno drives 20 miles from his home to attend services at Church by the Glades and hear Hughes preach.
“He’s the real deal,” Keno said of Hughes, crediting him with rebuilding his home church over the 24 years he’s been lead pastor there.
Hughes did not respond to a phone message Florida Bulldog left at Church by the Glades.
THE OLIVE BRANCH TEST
Based on what he knows of Hughes, Keno said, the pastor understands the need to invite exiled FBC members to return and help the bitterly divided church reunite and heal.
“ ‘No perfect people allowed’ is Hughes’s motto, so he should welcome everyone back,” Keno said.
But he’s worried that on this issue, church management won’t let Hughes do as he pleases. And that would be a dealbreaker.
“They’ll have to extend the olive branch or I’m not returning,” Keno said.
One likely obstacle is Rogers, who seems very much in charge at FBC and doesn’t come across as an olive branch-waving kind of person.
He was instrumental in the April 30, 2021 email blast that banished not only the 200 church members who had voted to fire Welch, but even their sympathizers. This broad contingent later formed the Concerned Members Group.
Days after the purge, Rogers forwarded the trustees’ emailed statement to Florida Bulldog. It lists grievances against the dissidents, saying they “attempted a hostile takeover of the church through illegal meetings … claiming to act in the name of the congregation.” Also, they “refused to respond with repentance to Church discipline.”
The trustees accused the dissidents of engaging in “a public campaign of slander, defamation, accusations and threats against the pastors, trustees, deacons and other Church leaders.” The trustees decided that further efforts to arbitrate disputes “will be an unfruitful waste of the Church’s time and resources.”
Therefore, the statement says, the trustees “recently voted to terminate the membership of all church members who have identified with, participated in, or supported any actions of” the dissidents.