The embattled pastor of a once-prominent Florida Baptist church resigned suddenly last week, just days after public reports that the church was being investigated by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
The congregation of First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale was notified by the trustee board and deacon body Wednesday, March 8, that Lead Pastor James Welch had resigned “to pursue other interests.”
The Florida Bulldog reported that Welch and his wife, Amy, already had purchased a home in Coral Springs, Fla., located about 30 miles away from Fort Lauderdale. That purchase closed Feb. 21.
An email to the congregation announcing Welch’s departure did not offer any explanation, nor did an announcement about his departure after morning worship Sunday, March 12. The latest Sunday service does not appear to have been livestreamed, but a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was present and reported on what was said.
Attendance at the historic church reportedly had dropped from 1,100 when Welch arrived in 2019 to fewer than 200 people the last week Welch preached, March 5. That week he preached the third in a four-part series with no mention this would be his last Sunday.
On Instagram, after his departure was known, he posted a photo with a baptismal candidate with this note: “This was a picture from Sunday and our last Sunday serving at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale. What a way to wrap it up, a message on the Holy Spirit, a full altar, and a baptism. I submitted my resignation the next day Monday, March 6th. Life is full of seasons. Some come to end sooner than expected.”
By reports of those present that day, the 2,500-seat sanctuary was occupied by about 160 people.
First Baptist of Fort Lauderdale is not only a historic church (100 years old) but in the past has been an influential congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention. One of its former pastors, O.S. Hawkins, left there to become pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas.
Congregants were told yesterday that Hawkins will be among those filling the pulpit during the interim period.
Congregants were told yesterday that Hawkins will be among those filling the pulpit during the interim period. He’s no stranger to difficult interim circumstances. He’s now retired from heading Guidestone Financial Services, an SBC agency, but last fall was called to duty as special adviser at his alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, when the president there resigned abruptly and left behind a shrunken enrollment and serious financial liabilities.
That’s eerily similar to the situation in Fort Lauderdale, where Welch became a polarizing pastor nearly from the day he arrived. Hundreds of people have left the church or simply stopped attending, and Welch led in removing as many as 200 people from membership for contesting his leadership.
Many of the questions have involved lack of transparency about church finances — a fact that finally caught the attention of the ECFA. That nonprofit is a ministry watchdog group churches and ministries voluntary join and by doing so pledge to be held accountable to certain standards. Any violation of those standards is a serious breach.
It’s not clear who is in charge at the church right now, as court-ordered mediation between Welch and about 200 dissidents never had started. As of March 12, the church website still listed Welch as lead pastor and did not list any other staff members.
“Be assured that the work and ministry of FBFTL, as directed by God’s word, and illuminated by way of the Holy Spirit, will not be deterred. As always, we will continue gathering to edify, equip and encourage one another,” said the email to congregants.
Leaders of the dissident group who opposed Welch’s leadership told media outlets they are eager to see their church return to true congregational governance and transparency. But that will have to begin with explaining why Welch suddenly left, they said.
After three years of turmoil, Fort Lauderdale church’s finances under ECFA scrutiny