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Florida church expels rebellious group estimated at over 150 members

James Welch, First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale
James R. Welch is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. |

A group estimated to be at least 150 members of the historic First Baptist Fort Lauderdale church in Florida who have been at odds over the direction of the church with its new pastor and his leadership team for more than a year was given the boot Friday after church leaders say they failed to settle their disagreement.

In an email sent last Friday, the board of trustees for the 113-year-old Southern Baptist Convention congregation explained that it recently voted to terminate the membership of "all" church members who have been identified with, supported or participated in the dissident “advocacy” group that voted to fire the lead pastor and board members. 

The board alleges that the members had taken actions against the church, its pastors, trustees, deacons and members.  

“The church’s patient efforts to resolve this dispute up to and including the final step of arbitration through the Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC) have been met by the Advocacy Groups or Concerned Members with repeated delays, constantly shifting positions, refusals to respond at various times, unreasonable demands upon the arbitration process, and demands for amnesty from church discipline for their offenses against the church,” the church’s trustee board wrote.

“When members of the church conduct themselves in a manner contrary to biblical standards and the church’s Statement of Faith and Practice, church discipline may be administered by the Trustee Board under guidelines established by the Pastoral Team. If biblical discipline is necessary, the Trustee Board has the authority and the obligation to place individual(s) under church discipline, including termination of membership.”

Last fall, the dissenting church members said they voted to fire their “bullying” lead pastor, James Welch, their nine-member board of trustees and half the church’s deacons. But church leaders contend that the vote had no standing and that the group is a "disaffected minority of our members.”

Welch has been in his role since the spring of 2019.

“Pastor James R. Welch has not created a stable environment, but instead has created a toxic environment and polarized atmosphere for both congregants and staff,” disgruntled members, who call themselves the First Baptist Church FTL Advocacy Group, wrote in a summary of concerns about Welch.

“Without the recognition [of] mistakes or the willingness to listen to congregants, Deacon Body or Trustee Board there is no hope for improvement and thus no way forward.”

The advocacy group argued that the church has faced declining numbers over the last two decades but showed signs of growth more recently before Welch's arrival. But since Welch came on board, they claim the attendance fell from between 1,000 to 2,000 to almost 750. 

Brian Keno, one of the expelled members, told The Christian Post that the booted members are “livid” after the most recent response from the church.  

“Look, I can speak for myself. I was extremely upset,” Keno added, noting that an 84-year-old deacon who wrote the church’s bylaws and had been a member since he was a 9-year-old was also among the members purged from the church.

“Being booted out of our church for doing nothing other than trying to be a representative of our body, a congregational-led church. That’s who we are."

Previous reporting had indicated that the dissident group was estimated at around 150 members. Keno told CP that the group is now more than 150, and another report has estimated the group to be about 200 members.

CP reached out to the church for confirmation on how many members were expelled. A response was not received by press time. 

The church board said if the members chose to repent of their rebellion against leaders and submit to a restoration process, they could be welcomed back into the fold.

The restoration process includes “a minimum waiting period of one year, the completion of a course in biblical conflict resolution through Peacemaker Ministries, reconciliation with all persons harmed by their actions, and re-application for church membership.”

However, Keno insists that no one he has spoken with plans on going through that process.

“Heck no! No of us are going to do that,” he said. “Why should we submit to this? What did we do wrong? We didn’t do anything wrong. … Nobody is going to submit to that,” he said.

As previously reported, the rift in the congregation began after Welch was hired to replace the church’s retiring pastor after a three-year search in 2019. Upset with the direction Welch was taking the church, tensions were exacerbated last November when the church’s 36-year-old annual Christmas Pagent was permanently canceled. 

The show ran from the end of November to mid-December and sold over 30,000 tickets.

According to The Sun-Sentinal, the pageant helped fund about a third of the church’s annual budget.

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