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Black Pastor Candidate Withdraws After Controversial Vote at SBC Megachurch

First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida, continues to investigate whether Marcus Hayes’s rejection was the result of racial prejudice or preexisting turmoil following its previous pastor’s departure.
Black Pastor Candidate Withdraws After Controversial Vote at SBC Megachurch
Image: Andrij Bulba / Flickr

A black Southern Baptist minister has withdrawn his name from further consideration at the Florida megachurch that failed last month to achieve the supermajority vote required to call him as pastor, sparking accusations of racism from within and outside the congregation.

First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida, announced yesterday in an email to members that Marcus Hayes “has asked that his name be removed from consideration to be our next Senior Pastor.” The email, signed by the congregation’s eight-member senior pastor search team, called the withdrawal of Hayes’ candidacy “a major disappointment to several thousand members and supporters of First Baptist.”

Hayes has declined to make a statement to media regarding his decision.

Search team chairman Neil Dorrill had told the congregation November 2 he hoped Hayes, an African American, would allow himself to be considered a second time as a candidate for the senior pastor vacancy.

Currently a campus pastor at Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, North Carolina, Hayes was presented October 26 and 27 as the candidate for the top leadership spot at the predominantly Anglo church. Its bylaws require “at least an 85% majority vote by secret ballot” to elect a senior pastor. But Hayes garnered only 1,552 of the 1,917 votes cast (81%).

Following the vote, FBC Naples’ executive pastor John Edie claimed in an open letter to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that there were “racial prejudices” behind the vote, which manifested themselves in a “campaign that started just days before.” The church, he said, had already begun “to make sure that this sinful cancer is dealt with.”

That week, First Baptist’s deacons voted to remove from membership at least 18 people as an act of church discipline. One of those disciplined members, Bob Caudill, a former deacon and member of the pastor search committee, was told his expulsion came as consequence of breaking the church covenant, failing to protect the church’s unity, not acting in love, gossiping, and failing to follow church leaders.

But Caudill told Christianity Today a different story. He said he and 17 others who also received church discipline from the deacons raised questions about Hayes that had nothing to do with racism but that stemmed from at least seven months of church conflict.

While the church is attempting to discern which interpretation of events is correct, the SBC more broadly has been paying attention. As the denomination continues its efforts to raise up more leaders of color, it has been forced to confront an ongoing history of racism. (Just this week a 2012 letter from former seminary president Paige Patterson was made public, indicating that he worried about a theological backslide under the denomination’s first black president.)

Southern Baptists took note of Edie’s letter regarding the FBC Naples vote and shared their reactions online. Dwight McKissic, an African American pastor in Texas, called it “shameful” and stated he may make a motion in 2020 for the SBC to withdraw fellowship from First Baptist. Former SBC President Jack Graham said it “appears that there was racism” involved in the vote.

First Baptist declined to share further details about its allegation of racism, though Dorrill said at an October 24 Q&A session with Hayes that “inappropriate emails” were sent to Hayes’s church in North Carolina. CT was not able to confirm whether the North Carolina congregation received such communications.

Additionally, a lengthy email was sent last month to hundreds of First Baptist members, criticizing Hayes’ positions on race in the church based on his posts on social media and implying Hayes espouses liberal views. When asked in a Q&A session about accusations of liberalism, Hayes said he is “as conservative as they come,” the Naples Daily News reported.

The 2,500-word message, which was obtained by CT, called out Hayes’s endorsement of Eric Mason’s book Woke Church, calling it “cultural Marxism forged in the ovens of Godless leftist ideologues.” The email cited Florida pastor Tom Ascol’s critique of what he sees as encroaching liberalism in the SBC.

In Naples, the population is nearly 94 percent Anglo, according to US Census data. First Baptist’s former pastor Hayes Wicker, who left this spring following a 27-year pastorate, told CT he never saw evidence of racism among the congregation, which grew to around 4,000 under his leadership.

“Knowing the sinful hearts of man, I am sure that some votes were racially motivated,” he said, “but from our own personal experience, our African American granddaughter was always welcomed with love and acceptance by our church body. Racism certainly exists in our world, but we sought to make our church a haven for people of all socioeconomic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.”

Caudill, the former First Baptist deacon, said the church’s turmoil dates back at least to the spring, when Wicker’s plan to transition gradually out of First Baptist’s pastorate and make way for younger leadership went awry. Some of leaders claimed Wicker, a former president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference, attempted to exert inordinate influence on the search for his successor—a charge Wicker and his supporters deny.

Wicker resigned in April due to a combination of family- and church-related concerns, and a church committee decided to make his resignation effective immediately. By the time Hayes was announced as a pastoral candidate, more than 700 church members had signed a petition requesting a special business meeting to discuss issues dividing the church. In an October 14 letter to Hayes obtained by CT, a group identifying itself as “Concerned Members of First Baptist Naples” said the church’s “pastoral leadership refuses to cooperate” with the business meeting request.

Two current concerned members and one expelled member declined to discuss the conflict on the record—the current members for fear of retaliation and the expelled member because he didn’t want “to publicly condemn the church and felt led to let the Lord handle his church.”

Disunity had compounded by the time Hayes traveled to Naples, Caudill said, and opposition to his candidacy centered on three issues: a feeling by some that he did not have sufficient experience to pastor First Baptist; a notion he didn’t “address properly” First Baptist’s disunity; and a concern about his approach to social justice and racial issues. The latter concern may have been what Edie referenced in his letter as evidence of “racial prejudices” apparent from a campaign by “a few disgruntled people in our church.”

But for First Baptist, it has become a moot point. The pastor search committee lamented in its November 14 email to First Baptist members that the church has been “tainted by negative publicity” surrounding its vote on Hayes.

Moving forward, the committee said, the church will consider calling an interim pastor as well as amending its bylaws to require only a two-thirds majority to call a senior pastor.

“Are we disappointed? Yes,” the search committee asked. “Are we discouraged? Not at all. Are we defeated? Never. We will spend eternity together with our Savior and defeat is simply not an option.”

David Roach is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee

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