Lead Pastor James Welch preached his last sermon at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale on March 5th, announcing his “desire to pursue other interests.” Welch has served at the church since 2019 and has made some controversial decisions including the cancellation of the popular Christmas pageant and a real estate sale. Disagreements led to a lawsuit between former congregants and church leadership. The church also had its membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) suspended in October, pending review of its use of resources.
Trustees addressed the congregation on Sunday, March 12, saying Welch, “has been a strong leader” for First Baptist during a “time of deep transformation for our church,” and announcing their plans to form a search committee for a new pastor and schedule a number of guest speakers to fill the pulpit in the interim.
In a phone interview, Executive Pastor Steve Blount, said “One thing we did on Sunday was honor Pastor James for the courage it took for him to make some difficult decisions that were not popular. Anytime you lead you’re going to get criticized. Unfortunately, he endured probably more criticism in his four years here than many pastors would endure in a lifetime and just came to the conclusion that he had given it all he had. It was really best for him and his family to let someone else take the helm, and I think that’s healthy.”
Easter guest speaker
During the upcoming Palm Sunday and Easter holidays, Dr. O.S. Hawkins, former lead pastor of First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, will return as the guest speaker, and Blount said, “He has a special word for us for this season of time that we’re in, so we’re very much looking forward to having him with us.”
Concerning the search for new leadership, Blount said, “This is our 17th search in our 115-year history and our current bylaws have a great process outlined for how we go about this. It starts with our deacons pulling together a pastoral search team of 9 to 12 individuals… And I think this time we’re open to using the services of a professional search firm to help us move through the process more expediently. But it’s totally subject to God’s timing and leading us to the right person.”
Asked about the ECFA investigation, Blount explained, “The ECFA has a series of standards that represent best practices in governance and stewardship. A few years ago, when James was making some unpopular decisions about the pageant, there was a group that approached ECFA and suggested there might not be some things being done correctly, so ECFA felt obliged to look at us… When they concluded, they didn’t find anything. Then we sold a piece of real estate across the street from the church we were no longer using for anything other than storage.” Blount said that purchase triggered a second investigation on whether they followed “best practices” concerning the use of those proceeds. “Because we were a little bit slower to use those funds for operating purposes, they chose to suspend our membership on October 6th while they continued researching our compliance with standard 4, which has to do with financial management and transparency… I would say we’re among the most scrutinized transparent churches in the country, and we’ve continued answering their questions.”
While some have blamed Welch’s leadership for a decline in church attendance, Blount said he felt that characterization was unfair. “We’re down from where we were before, but we’ve had to endure a global pandemic. What we feel excited about, though, is our location in such a phenomenal spot where there have been 6,000 new residents to downtown Fort Lauderdale since 2020. We’re in the heart of so much major construction, and it’s fabulous to live and do life with our neighbors. We’re blessed to have new people every week and we’re on a road to rebuilding this church.”
What does the future look like for Former Lead Pastor James Welch? Having recently purchased a home in Coral Springs, Welch said, “Right now I am chief landscaper,” however he’s considering other offers. “I can’t say enough great things about our time in Fort Lauderdale. It’s been awesome despite the conflict. I think I navigated more situations with COVID and civil unrest and the political turmoil in the country… in the midst of a church going through transition and change…I would just like to say how much I deeply love the church and staff. I think it’s a wonderful church with a storied history that has a bright future ahead of it. For us personally it’s been a great season of stretching and learning. As a couple we’re optimistic about what God has, not only for the church but also for us, as we pursue the Kingdom in separate directions.