A Florida Baptist church that has been embroiled in three years of internal controversy has been suspended from membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability pending a review of compliance with membership standards.
ECFA is a nonprofit organization open to membership by Christian ministries, including churches, that commit to abide by certain practices of financial transparency. Founded in 1979, ECFA is best known for the seal of approval membership gives nonprofit ministries that rely on fundraising. Churches and denominations also are allowed to seek membership, although a search of the group’s database showed only 31 Baptist churches listed as current members.
Ministry Watch reported March 6 that First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been suspended from ECFA membership pending a review of its compliance with the group’s Standard 4, one of seven standards.
Standard 4 states: “Every organization shall 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, such conformity taking into account biblical mandates.”
The Fort Lauderdale church has been an ECFA member since 2013.
“First Baptist Fort Lauderdale certainly understands ECFA’s review, and we aren’t surprised by the review given the sustained campaign of unsupported and unsubstantiated public criticism we have endured these last three years,” Steve Blount, executive director of ministry services at the church, told Ministry Watch.
The Southern Baptist church has been embroiled in a series of controversies since the arrival of Lead Pastor James Welch in 2019. A large group of members claim the pastor has taken control of the church, mishandled finances and disregarded governing documents.
An early flashpoint was the pastor’s cancellation of a hugely popular Christmas pageant put on by the church for years.
In 2020, a group of about 200 church members claimed to have voted to fire Welch, although that action was disputed and Welch remains pastor of the church. The church’s website says the congregation is “led by Lead Pastor James Welch and his wife Amy.”
In August 2022, the church sold a piece of its real estate to a New York developer for an undisclosed amount, reportedly upon an authorized vote of the congregation but without details shared with the congregation. That secretive sale also was challenged by church dissidents and cited as another sign of Welch’s purported lack of financial transparency. The tract of downtown real estate was valued at more than $1.2 million — part of the church’s historic 7-acre property valued at $125 million.
The Florida Bulldog reported in 2022 that Welch’s opponents in the church were sidelined from any church leadership roles in retaliation for opposing the pastor.
The Bulldog explained: “In April 2021, First Baptist trustees expelled an estimated 200 members for ‘attempting a hostile takeover of the church through illegal meetings,’ church official Romney Rogers explained in an emailed statement. Also, the rebellious faction ‘refused to respond with repentance to church discipline.’
“The ‘dismembered’ members, as they called themselves, have been fighting to regain their pews and influence ever since.”
James Geiger, a 50-year church member who was among the dismembered, sued the church in Broward Circuit Court to force arbitration. He won that case but the current status of that arbitration is not known.
Critics say church attendance and giving have dropped precipitously since Welch arrived as pastor and that he seeks to sell off valuable church real estate to make up for the operating losses.
Welch is a Missouri native who is a graduate of Campbellsville University in Kentucky. In 2005, he moved to New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and eventually started a church there, Harbor Community Church.
From there, he was called to the Fort Lauderdale church, which hired him after a three-year interim pastorate and search process.
The unity and joy of that moment quickly turned sour, however, as Welch ran afoul of longtime church members who found him to be authoritarian and cavalier with money. They also found him to be lacking in pastoral sensitivity.
In a 2021 letter to the congregation about why they left the church, longtime members Dan and Deanna Wielhouwer cited all these reasons. They illustrated with this: “Shirley Klass, a member dying of cancer, was rebuked from the pulpit because her oxygen machine was making a clicking sound. She was ushered out of the sanctuary and never returned due to the embarrassment. She died a short time later.”
The dissident members also contend Welch has a history of mismanaging church funds dating back to Harbor Community Church in New Orleans.
The dissident members also contend Welch has a history of mismanaging church funds dating back to Harbor Community Church in New Orleans. An extensive investigation by the conservative Capstone Report contends Welch lied to the pastor search committee at Fort Lauderdale about the size of his New Orleans church, which peaked at 71 people in attendance, not the 400 Welch claimed.
Harbor Church and Welch were supported initially by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. After Welch moved to Florida, the small New Orleans congregation did not call another pastor but merged with another church. The building previously occupied by Harbor Community Church reportedly was sold to a friend of Welch’s for $100, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
That building today functions as a shared workspace and rentable meeting space for congregations under the name Harbor Community Collective.
According to multiple media reports, Welch has repeatedly denied all the allegations against him and has portrayed the 200 dissident church members as troublemakers who had to be purged from the membership. He has accused them of gossip and slander.
First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale has a storied history dating to 1907.
Among its former pastors is O.S. Hawkins, who served there for 15 years (1978-1993) before moving to the pastorate at First Baptist Church of Dallas, then to become president of Guidestone Financial Services. His successor was Larry Thompson, who served as pastor 22 years and now heads a leadership and coaching ministry called Faith Foundry.