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Church Fears Racism Cost Strong Candidate the Pastorate

First Baptist Church Naples

Update: The leadership of First Baptist Church Naples gave an update to the congregation on Saturday, November 3, 2019 about Marcus Hayes and the voting process that they believe was compromised. You can read about that here.

Any church that has gone through hiring a new senior pastor with the help of a pastoral search committee knows it can be stressful. Disagreements between laypeople, elders, and staff members can abound. Usually, these disagreements blow over after a little while, even if they caused a lot of discomfort during the selection process. But First Baptist Church Naples in Florida (FBCN) might have a more difficult time overcoming their latest search for a new pastor. The church was on the final step of approving an African American pastor named Marcus Hayes when a racist campaign against Hayes entered the equation and, the leaders of FBCN believe, swayed the congregation’s vote to appoint Hayes. 

“We are grieved for Marcus and Mandy that they had to endure such vileness,” the leaders of FBCN wrote in an email to congregants. “We are deeply grieved that the wonderful name of our Lord and the reputation of First Baptist Church Naples was affected by this campaign against Marcus Hayes.”

Marcus Hayes’ Impressive Resume

Hayes, who most recently served on staff at Biltmore Church in Asheville, North Carolina, has also worked under Jack Graham at his Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. Graham, who mentored Hayes, told Religion News Service he is “very angry” about the way the vote went and the circumstances leading up to it. 

In addition to these positive points on his resume, Hayes also serves on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention as well as the North American Mission Board African American Leadership Team. He attended Moody Bible Institute and obtained an M.A. in Theological Studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

What Happened at First Baptist Church Naples?

It is a common practice among Southern Baptist Churches (the denomination to which FBCN belongs) to form a senior pastor search committee when they need to replace their pastor. In this case, Hayes was being considered to replace Pastor Hayes Wicker, who led the church for 27 years. 

Another common practice for a church, after the committee is almost positive they have found a candidate that will be a good fit for the position, is to invite that candidate to come to the church to preach and then have the congregation vote either in favor or against hiring the candidate (also known as “in-view-of-a-call”). In FBCN’s case, the leadership had spent six months searching for and vetting Hayes, and, judging by the tone of their email to congregants, were all but certain the congregation would approve. 

According to FBCN’s constitution and bylaws, the candidate must be approved by an 85 percent majority vote. The email noted a record 3,818 people were in attendance over the weekend of October 26-27 when Hayes preached. Despite the fact that “the energy and excitement was like nothing we have ever seen before,” the vote did not go in Hayes’ favor. While he garnered 81 percent of the vote, it did not meet the 85 percent necessary. The email makes no secret of the fact that the church leadership is “disappointed that the minority vote has thwarted the will and desire of the majority.” 

The email doesn’t stop there, though. It goes on to say that “unscrupulous, divisive, and false accusations” were used by some in the minority to try and sway the vote. “Last week, through social media, texting, phone calls, and emails, racial prejudice was introduced into our voting process.” The email names “Voices of FBCN” and “Group of Concerned FBCN Members” as having a hand in the racist campaign on social media. The email describes the campaign as “sinful” and calls on those involved to confess and repent. The Baptist Blogger obtained a copy of the email in full, which you can see here

What Other Leaders Are Saying

The situation in Naples, Florida has not gone unnoticed by other evangelical leaders. Pastor Derwin Gray of Transformation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, called it “demonic”.

Malcolm Yarnell, a research professor at Southwestern Seminary in Forth Worth, wrote the following:

Jared Wellman, pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church in Texas, wrote, “Any church would be blessed to have @marcusdh3 [Marcus Hayes] as their Pastor. Shameful act by those in this congregation who say they want to ‘know Christ and make Him known in SW Florida and beyond,’ yet, ironically, would not call Jesus as their own Pastor because of the shade of his skin.”

Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Enid in Oklahoma, referred to Hayes as an “outstanding preacher.” Burleson sees the church’s decision as fitting into a larger narrative that has plagued the Southern Baptist Convention since its inception. “The Southern Baptist Convention began with racism, and the Southern Baptist Convention, unless there is radical, deep, personal and corporate repentance, will continue in latent racism,” he wrote.

Toward that end, Burleson offers an unconventional solution to FBCN: Make some adjustments to their constitution to allow for a lower threshold to approve a pastor, and then vote again. In this way, they might be able to secure Hayes as their pastor after all.

Others advocate for an even more drastic approach, such as the anonymous voice(s) behind the Baptist Blogger and Pastor Dwight McKissic. This group thinks the events that unfolded at FBCN warrant an inquiry into whether the church should be “disfellowshipped” from the convention. 

As of the publishing of this article, Hayes has not offered any public comments and neither has FBCN, besides the email it sent to its congregants.