Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, and a candidate to become the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has removed a deacon from leadership, citing the denomination’s ban on individuals who have committed sexual abuse from church leadership roles.
“As pastors of Calvary, we believe in the resolution passed by the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention at its annual meeting that dealt with sexual abuse and said in part 'resolve that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention believe that any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor and that we recommend that all affiliated churches apply this standard to all [positions] of church leadership,'” Rice said in an April 1 video announcement.
Rice did not identify the deacon in the video. But Religion News Service identified the man as Jeff Ford, a faith advisor to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who serves as the CEO of Man Up and Go, an international nonprofit organization that inspires men to fight for the fatherless.
The Christian Post reached out to Ford for comment on his removal from his role at Calvary Church Tuesday. A response was not immediately received.
A December 2005 report in The Tampa Bay Times said when Ford was 27 and worked as a language arts teacher and an assistant football coach at J.W. Mitchell High School, he confessed to being in a relationship with an 18-year-old female student while he was married.
Scott Schmitz, the school’s then football coach, said at the time: “He’s a good person, he’s a great teacher, he’s an outstanding football coach, but he made a very wrong decision.”
Schmitz said Ford disclosed the relationship because he is a “deeply religious guy” who had “a lot weighing on his conscience.”
Rice said when Ford joined his church several years ago, he disclosed his past and shared his journey into faith.
“By God’s grace, his marriage survived. And several years after that, he came to Calvary and he did not hide his story. It was a part of his testimony and it was a story of God’s amazing grace,” Rice said.
“Because of our brother’s past, we did not allow him to serve in ministries with children or students, but he did become [active] in other areas of our church life. And over the course of many years, he demonstrated, as much as we were able to judge those things, the genuine fruits of a repentant life,” Rice explained.
“After several years of him being a faithful member in good standing, and having served in multiple ways and having borne great fruit in his life, our church ordained this brother to the office of deacon, and there have been no issues during his service at our church.”
A week before Ford’s removal, Rice said that a pastor in another state raised concern about the deacon’s past and thought about how this knowledge would be viewed in light of his church’s increased profile in public SBC life.
“When this pastor contacted me last week, we realized the need to reevaluate his [Ford’s] role as a deacon. We were challenged to think more accurately about our leadership structure, and allowing him to serve as a deacon was inconsistent with our desire to stand against all forms of sexual abuse,” Rice said.
“We’ve all agreed that our brother should not continue to serve as a deacon at Calvary. Over the last three or four years, we have grown in our understanding of the dynamics of sexual abuse and predatory behavior. If we were making the same decision today after all we’ve learned, we’d obviously have chosen different. But we’re all in agreement with that. Moreover, we are in full agreement that, going forward, we will strengthen the nominating process for our deacon body.”
In their resolution On Abuse And Pastoral Qualifications passed in June 2021 that disqualifies persons who have committed sexual abuse from church leadership roles, Southern Baptist messengers agreed that pastors, elders and overseers should be “qualified by Scripture” and are to be “above reproach” in line with 1 Timothy 3:2 and “blameless” in accordance with Titus 1:6.
“In the future, we will go beyond previous guidelines and will include additional inquiries into any history of sexual abuse. We have learned so much in recent years about the dynamics of sexual abuse. We listened, we learned and we try to lead,” Rice said.
“We’ve learned a great deal as to what should be categorized as abusive behavior and we grieve that we did not recognize some of these things sooner and apologize for our lack of compassion or concern for the victim. Calvary strongly supports the broader efforts of our Southern Baptist Convention to make sure church leaders have not ever engaged in activities that would be considered as abuse.”