Responding to withering allegations that church leaders discreetly sold a prime piece of real estate in downtown Fort Lauderdale worth more than $1.2 million for just "$10 and other good and valuable considerations," First Baptist Fort Lauderdale leaders revealed late Thursday that the land was sold for “considerably higher than the appraised value.”
Romney C. Rogers, an attorney who prepared the warranty deed for the sale of the 7,796-square-foot parcel of land located at 501 NE 2nd Street, explained in a five-page Q&A shared with The Christian Post late Thursday and subsequently posted on the church's website, that the church was compensated generously for the sale due to Fort Lauderdale’s hot real estate market.
The church is prevented from revealing the exact sale price because the buyer, who brokered the deal through New York City-based global real estate development and investment firm, Naftali Group, “required confidentiality as a condition of sale.”
The process was so confidential the church said not even some 100 members of the congregation who voted “unanimously” to sell the land at a regularly scheduled church business meeting on July 31 were told the exact sale price.
“The sales price is known by all Budget/Audit Team members, Trustees, and Deacons. All of these duly-elected groups worked together to maximize the value for the greater good of the church. At the buyer’s request, there is a confidentiality clause in the purchase and sale agreement that does not allow us to disclose the purchase price,” the church said.
In the Q&A, the church leaders said they didn't intentionally set out to sell the land as alleged by critics of the church’s leadership, but as Fort Lauderdale’s real estate market sizzled in recent months, multiple offers came knocking until it was too difficult for them to say no.
“Fort Lauderdale has recently enjoyed a time of rapid business and population growth. At the same time the amount of land available for development downtown is getting smaller and smaller. Because of these things, land prices recently rose dramatically,” the 115-year-old Southern Baptist church said in explaining why the congregation was moved to sell a small fraction of the 7 acres of land it owns in the city, which spans nearly two complete city blocks.
“For context, a retail tire store 50 feet from our parcel sold in October 2021 for $7.7 million and then sold just seven months later for $20 million. In the context of that real estate boom, we received multiple unsolicited offers for 501 NE Second Street,” the church continued. “We cannot contractually disclose the price of the sale, but it was considerably higher than the appraised value. We were advised by outside counsel that the Board of Trustees had a fiduciary responsibility to seriously consider this offer. The church did, and that’s what prompted the sale of the property. “
A group of dissident church members who were expelled more than a year ago have argued that First Baptist Fort Lauderdale’s new Pastor James C. Welch and many on his leadership team have been after the church’s multimillion-dollar real estate portfolio.
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."
Church leaders explained that the sale of the land was necessary to help them generate income to maintain their sprawling campus.
“Ultimately it comes down to stewardship. Our campus spans nearly two complete city blocks in the most strategic location in Fort Lauderdale. It requires not only scheduled maintenance, but also rejuvenation, and these require money. Selling the unused property which is not even contiguous to our main campus allows us to take care of our campus and use it even more effectively to draw people to what we call ‘the Jesus first life,’” church leaders said. “The money will be used for emergency repairs and replacement of capital items at our downtown Fort Lauderdale campus.”
First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, which had been facing declining numbers over the last two decades, showed some signs of growth in recent years. 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.
Leaders said in the Q&A that the pageant had become “a large financial burden to the ministry in its later, declining years.”
It was previously reported by CP that at least 150 dissident church members were expelled from the church for rebellion while other reports said the number of expelled dissidents was upwards of 200.
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.
"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" are required for the restoration process the board previously noted.
The group rejected that proposal and have continued lobbying against Welch.
First Baptist Fort Lauderdale leaders insist, however, that they will not back down on church discipline.
“While we know it isn’t popular, we are a church which practices church discipline in accordance with biblical principles and according to our bylaws. These are bylaws that the church chose and voted to approve in 2018,” church leaders said. “Some among those whom we parted ways with for various reasons in recent years have a different view of all of this, and they’ve chosen to share their view, as is their right, but their view isn’t informed by the actual facts. We pray that they may find peace.”