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Defiant Florida church members vote to fire 'bullying' pastor but board disputes decision

Defiant Florida church members vote to fire 'bullying' pastor but board disputes decision

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

After more than a year of contentious disagreements, nearly 150 members of the historic First Baptist Fort Lauderdale church in Florida say they have voted to fire their “bullying” lead pastor, James Welch, their nine-member board of trustees, and half the church’s deacons. But leaders say the vote has no standing.

“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. 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,” disgruntled members of the 113-year-old Southern Baptist Convention church, who now call themselves the First Baptist Church FTL Advocacy Group, wrote in a summary of concerns about their new pastor, who has been in his role since the spring of 2019.

“We feel Pastor James R. Welch has a lack of attention to experience and qualification for, or appropriate prioritization of, the ministerial requirements and interests of our entire church community, as well as a failure to recognize and respect the expertise of professionals in our community,” the group added.

The group confirmed with the Sun Sentinel that they met after services a week ago and agreed to fire Welch and his supporters in leadership. But Welch assured the church that the vote has no standing.

“They called an unofficial business meeting. It was off-site and private,” Welch said in a video message cited by the Sentinel that was emailed to the congregation. “I need you to know that none of the decisions they made at that meeting have standing in our church.”

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In a statement to The Christian Post Monday, the First Baptist Fort Lauderdale Board of Trustees called the advocacy group a "disaffected minority of our members" and said Welch had their "unanimous support."

"The FBFTL Trustee Board affirms our ongoing and unanimous support of Pastor Welch and further confirms that no official action has been taken with respect to the removal of him or other church leadership," the board said.

"A separately incorporated Advocacy Group claims to have called and held a special meeting of the church that adopted various motions to fire the pastor, remove trustees and deacons, and censure leaders with whom they disagreed. However, Church Bylaws for governance and resolving member grievances contain no provisions for removing the pastor to be initiated by a Vote of No Confidence from (any portion of) the congregation," the board noted.

Any vote by a non-representative member group without authority or standing held apart from a sanctioned church business meeting, such as the next one scheduled for January 10, 2021, "was conducted outside of the due process prescribed in the Church Bylaws, which were approved and adopted by the congregation."

The board further noted that many of the members in the "the self-appointed 'Advocacy Group' ... have neither attended nor participated in ministry activities for months or have been put on church discipline."

The advocacy group argued in documents shared on their website that Welch’s leadership had resulted in significant financial mismanagement, staff departures and the loss of hundreds of members.

In addition to concerns raised about his leadership style and general management of the church finances, the group argued that Welch unilaterally decided in April 2019 to give $10,000 to his former church, Harbor Community Church in New Orleans, and gave $10,000 to Vintage Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, led by his friend, Rob Wilton.

He also is alleged to have given $20,000 to the Broward Business Council on Homelessness “whose public policy may be inconsistent with FBC’s faith and practice statement.”

The group claimed that while Welch has been liberally giving away church funds and pushing congregants to “give generously” and “be faithful in their tithe,” he only tithed $2,000 in 2019. 

The advocacy group argued that while Welch is passionate about ministry, he tends to act unilaterally and leads like a CEO instead of a pastor.

“James has been described in glowing terms as a hard worker, highly intelligent, a good preacher, has the best of intentions, passionate personality, and a visionary who makes a wonderful impression. However, James has also been described as having a blind spot when it comes to cooperative leadership,” the group said.

They argued that he is unable to humbly admit mistakes, unable to project love and care to the flock and has trouble accepting responsibility. His “bullying” leadership style has allegedly created a “toxic” work environment for the past year.

A student ministry that boasted 90-100 students in April 2019 fell to 68 students on Feb. 23, and since the pandemic is now down to between 10 and 12 students weekly.

The church, which had been facing declining numbers over the last two decades, had been showing some signs of growth recently but since Welch’s arrival, they claimed, attendance fell from between 1,000-1,200 to almost 750.

In January, Welch also moved to permanently cancel the church’s 36-year-old annual Christmas Pageant, which is an award-winning, Broadway-style show that tells the Christmas story. Last year, the show, which runs from the end of November to mid-December, sold more than 30,000 tickets.

“For the past three decades, we have seen the gracious hand of God directing the efforts of committed Servant Leaders who, year after year, contributed countless hours of service in the Award-winning Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant,” Welch said in an email sent to congregants in January, according to the Sun Sentinel. “After seeking direction from God in prayer for months, the Executive Team at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale has decided to transition from the Annual Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant.”

Welch, explained that the church decided to end the Christmas Pageant to focus resources on other community-serving initiatives, including a year-round arts ministry.

“We firmly believe that God is leading us into a new day that will take us on a path to become a more outward-focused church, placing more emphasis on a variety of evangelistic and discipleship initiatives outside the physical walls of our church,” Welch wrote.

The board argued on Monday that the advocacy group was not happy with the cancellation of the play, which had over the years become a financial burden to the church.

"The Advocacy Group are co-belligerents who are upset and bound together by
their loss of compensation, creative license and control related to their involvement in an annual holiday church production. A popular tradition in the community for decades, in recent years attendance for that program consistently declined and had become a significant drain on church finances, personnel and resources," the board said.

Advocacy Group member Deanna Weilhouwer, who oversaw ticket sales for the pageant for 24 years, said the proceeds from the pageant helped fund about a third of the church’s annual budget.

“An astute business person, especially a pastor, does not go into a spending frenzy and make changes before they assess programs, the facilities and get to know the people/congregation,” Weilhouwer noted in a September letter to trustee and church administrator Steve Blount.

Church rules prohibit the use of secular lawsuits to resolve disputes but Todd Payne, a lawyer for the advocacy group, told the Sentinel they were considering their legal options.

The board noted, however, that "Advocacy Group representatives all agreed at the outset of their church membership that both mediation and arbitration are the sole remedies for any controversy or claim. To that end, last week group leadership was served with a letter from counsel engaged by duly elected FBFTL Trustees to properly and legally address the Church’s rights, remedies, interests and defenses concerning the recent claims, demands and actions of the Advocacy Group on social media relating to the Church’s governance and oversight."

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