Leaders of the historic First Baptist Fort Lauderdale in Florida have been accused of discreetly selling a prime piece of the church's downtown property worth more than $1.2 million for just "$10 and other good and valuable considerations" to the Naftali Group, a New York City-based global real estate development and investment firm.
Documents of the sale made earlier this month and reviewed by The Christian Post shows that the 0.179-acre lot sold by the church is located at 501 NE 2nd St and has a fair market value of $1,223,430.
The real estate deal is now a point of contention because it comes after more than a year of an ongoing conflict between a couple hundred former members of the 115-year-old Southern Baptist church and Lead Pastor James R. Welch and his team.
The pastor was accused of seeking to plunder the church's seven acres of prime real estate previously valued at more than $125 million, according to Florida Bulldog, which first reported on the sale.
The dissident church members were expelled more than a year ago. The church's board said they could be welcomed back into the fold if they repented of their rebellion against leadership and submitted to a restoration process.
The restoration process included "a minimum waiting period of one year, the completion of a course in biblical conflict resolution through Peacemaker Ministries, reconciliation with all persons harmed by their actions, and re-application for church membership."
The group rejected that proposal, accepting their punishment. But they have not stopped advocating for transparency and accountability in the church.
In an Aug. 17 email from a group identified as "concerned members" of the church shared with CP, they accused Welch, who was hired to pastor the church in 2019, of exploiting another church for its real estate prior to his arrival at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale.
"It is noteworthy that a similar sale took place by James Welch with his former church in New Orleans. The NOLA property, valued at over $1 million, was sold for $100 to an LLC run by Tim Baudier, a good friend of James Welch," the group argued.
"In 2019 Tim Baudier was brought to FBC as a 'consultant'. It is reported that he was paid a large sum of money, yet it is unknown what his consulting was for," they continued. "The possible sale of FBC property has been a concern of members since James Welch arrived in 2019. Lack of financial transparency has also been a serious concern. It is also of serious concern that, as of today, James Welch and the Trustees still refuse to follow the FBC governing documents by participating in arbitration. Arbitration was ordered by the Broward County Court on May 19, 2022."
Calls made by CP to First Baptist Fort Lauderdale seeking clarification on the sale went unanswered Thursday. Romney C. Rogers, an attorney who prepared the warranty deed for the sale, was also not immediately available to respond.
In a "pastor's note" to members on Friday cited by the Florida Bulldog, Welch reportedly urged "biblical discretion" as discussion about the sale began emerging on social media.
"Just because someone did something wrong does not mean that we need to, or get to, talk about it with others," Welch wrote.
"Misinformation means the story is typically false, and if you know that beforehand, spreading it is not only gossip, it becomes slander," he added. "Mishandled information is needlessly sharing shameless truth about someone without thinking through the consequences of how that information will affect the said person."
First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, which had been facing declining numbers over the last two decades, showed some signs of growth in recent years. But since Welch's arrival, the dissidents said that attendance in 2020 fell from between 1,000-1,200 to almost 750.
In January that year, Welch also moved to permanently cancel the church's then 36-year-old annual Christmas Pageant, an award-winning, Broadway-style show that tells the Christmas story.
In 2019, the show, which runs from the end of November to mid-December, sold more than 30,000 tickets.
The sold lot, according to the Florida Bulldog, houses a building that served as a workshop that created props for the pageant. A youth group also met in the building while children would play volleyball in the yard.
A source told the Florida Bulldog that at a church business meeting on July 31 where the decision was made to sell the lot, Welch said the building was now only being used for storage.
"It's just sitting there, wasting away. They felt it was best to sell it and get some funds out of it," the source said. "They didn't say anything about how much it would be and who it was getting sold to. I was kind of shocked."