Racism allegations rock First Baptist Church Naples after failed vote to affirm black pastor
Church leaders at First Baptist Church Naples have blasted a faction of their congregation, alleging "racial prejudices" contributed to a failed vote late last month to name a black man the church's new senior pastor.
Marcus D. Hayes, a pastor from Hendersonville, North Carolina, was brought before the church congregation on the weekend of Oct. 26 and 27 by the church's pastor search committee to affirm him as the next senior pastor.
Per the church's constitution and bylaws, a senior pastor must be affirmed by a margin of at least 85% of the vote, but Hayes only garnered 81% of the vote, with 1,552 "yes" votes compared to 365 "no" votes.
Church leaders have alleged that race played a role in the failed vote to affirm Hayes, causing a firestorm of heated discussion on social media and spawning posts by religious websites and blogs.
"A portion of the 19% that voted against Marcus Hayes did so based on racial prejudices," Executive Pastor John D. Edie wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to the Southern Baptist Convention. "We know this because of the campaign that started just days before by a few disgruntled people in our church."
For the church's leadership, "it exposed a sickness in what we characterize as a cancer within our fellowship," he continued in the letter, which also asked for forgiveness from Hayes and his wife and "any other person who has been offended, hurt, or damaged by the outcome" of the vote.
"Our Pastoral Staff and leadership are deeply grieved and embarrassed," Edie wrote. "There are no terms to describe what has happened here other than sin."
Church quiet on specifics of racism allegations
Church officials, however, have been largely mum on the details of the alleged campaign and racism. Kenneth Bonnett, pastor of communications for the church, declined to offer specifics about the church's allegations, saying "it would not be proper for us to share that content openly."
The campaign, he said in an email to the Daily News, consisted of social media, texting, phone calls and a series of emails. At least four emails were "broadly sent," he wrote, with others privately sent.
Voicemails left for Hayes this week were not returned, and Neil Dorrill, chairman of the pastoral search team, referred questions to Bonnett.
But a question and answer session with Hayes and his wife held by the church on Oct. 24 offers some glimpses into the opposition that built against the prospective new senior pastor and the apparent rift between church leadership and some in the congregation.
Leading the Q&A session, Dorrill alluded to the past year for the church, which saw its longtime senior pastor, Hayes Wicker, leave amid dissatisfaction by some church members over the circumstances of his departure.
"We all realize that the year of 2019 has been very difficult in the life of our church," Dorrill said. "And, as a result of that, there have been groups who honestly feel a little disenfranchised."
Dorrill said there had been "a concerted campaign of misinformation filled with destructive and divisive content." He shared some examples, including one from a woman who said the church had failed to check Hayes' Twitter account and called him a "radical leftist."
When asked during the Q&A session whether he considers himself a conservative, Hayes said he is "as conservative as they come."
Several "inappropriate emails" were sent to Hayes' home church in North Carolina, including to his ministry assistant and his boss, the senior pastor there, "sharing and establishing that certain groups will not vote for him this weekend without a private meeting in advance to have issues of theirs addressed," Dorrill said at the Oct. 24 event.
To that point, no group had met with Hayes or the committee privately, Dorrill continued, before adding to applause from those gathered at the Q&A session: "This will continue to be a transparent search. I do not intend to allow blackmail to prevail at this point and would hope that you would support me."
In a letter to church members shortly after the failed vote, the church pointed the finger at groups called "Voices of FBCN" and "Group of Concerned FBCN Members."
Group of church members details concerns
A lengthy Oct. 24 email signed by the "group of concerned FBCN members" and obtained by the Daily News was titled "Concerns Surfacing About Compatibility with Marcus Hayes." In it, the group details questions it has about Hayes' qualifications, his tweets and beliefs.
One screenshot of a tweet included in the email centers around the fatal shooting of a black security guard by a white police officer in suburban Chicago last year. The 26-year-old guard, Jemel Roberson, was detaining a suspected gunman who opened fire at the bar where Roberson worked when the police officer fatally shot Roberson.
The shooting drew national headlines, outrage and questions about whether race factored into the officer’s decision to open fire.
Hayes quote-tweeted a November 2018 tweet by an attorney who represented Roberson's family after the fatal shooting. In the tweet, the attorney, Lee Merritt, wrote in part that investigators claim "all the shooter saw was black" and said that was "exactly the problem."
"It seems all cops ever see is black," the attorney continued.
In his quote-tweet, Hayes said Roberson was in his student ministry while he was a youth pastor in Chicago. "My heart goes out to his family," Hayes wrote.
But the Group of Concerned FBNC Members, citing the tweet, said Hayes should be questioned about his relationship with first responders, specifically police, "and his thoughts on such topics as Ferguson, police shootings involving people of color, etc."
"After reviewing a little deeper we find that "social justice" and racial inequality appear to be his priority as it pertains to the church and ministry!" the group wrote. "Is that what the gospel is all about?"
Other parts of the email laid out concerns the group had with Hayes' tweets about books that deal with race and religion and questioned whether he had the necessary experience to take the post as senior pastor.
"To our knowledge, he has never handled a multi-million-dollar budget, building programs, fundraising and/or staffing issues as required by a Senior Pastor," the group wrote.
Edie, the church's executive pastor, however, called Hayes "one of the most qualified men in Southern Baptist life to be a Senior Pastor of any church in this country."
Hayes, a member of the North Carolina executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, garnered endorsements from other church leaders, including the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some church members say race played no role
To those who are part of the Group of Concerned FBNC Members, the church's allegations of racism have no standing.
"It has nothing to do with race," said William Ericksen, a member of the church for five years and part of the group.
Instead, Ericksen said Hayes has no experience as a head pastor and said that his political views wouldn't go along with a conservative church. But more importantly, Ericksen said, members feel their voice isn't being heard by church leaders.
"It's become a dictatorship," he said.
On social media, too, some church members said race played no role in the failed vote.
Gretchen Church, who said on Twitter that she has been a member of First Baptist for more than 17 years, tweeted that racism had nothing to do with voting. "It had to do with biblical principals that many questioned," she wrote.
Since the failed vote, other allegations have surfaced.
Dorrill near the end of a Nov. 2 service told the congregation that "the integrity of our election last weekend was compromised."
Two members of the counting committee, he said, have admitted to leaking confidential early voting results from Saturday night to a lay leader in the church "who then used that information, we believe, to compromise the process."
Dorrill did not elaborate on how the process was compromised, and Bonnett did not answer emailed questions about the matter.
Dorrill said at the Nov. 2 service that disciplinary action "towards church members who have violated our church covenant by causing dissension, disruption and spreading of misinformation have been taken and are underway."
Although church leaders don't believe that all who voted "no" did so based on race, Dorrill said, "it is undeniable that race played a part in the final days leading up to this election."
More than 450 emails in support of Hayes were received by the church in the past four days, Dorrill said during the Nov. 2 service. He said the church was hopeful that Hayes would allow his name to be reconsidered as the church's next senior pastor or interim pastor.
"Marcus Hayes, a highly respected and a well-qualified pastor, remains the man that we believe God has called to be our next pastor," Dorrill said to a standing ovation from the congregation.
Bonnett told the Daily News in an email Wednesday no revote has been scheduled.
'Not a racist church'
The controversy, which quickly spread in religious circles online, has suddenly thrust the North Naples church into an unwelcome spotlight, much to the dismay of some members.
"Unfortunately our church family‘s business has become fodder for spotlight-seeking bloggers and others who are commenting about Christians whom they do not know personally, and slandering a church that they know little about," Sonya Stearns, a member of the church, said in an email to the Daily News.
Generally, at Southern Baptist churches incoming pastors are approved by a majority of the church body upon recommendation from an elected search committee and/or pastoral staff, Stearns wrote.
In 2016, under the leadership of its former pastor, the church changed its bylaws to adopt the 85% approval rule, instead of a simple or super-majority, Stearns continued. That's why Hayes was not officially approved, when in past years he would have been.
First Baptist Church Naples, she said, "is not a racist church by any stretch of the imagination."
"While racial issues were brought into play, and — horrifically — there indeed were some who did not approve Rev. Marcus Hayes based upon prejudice, our church loves all people of all colors equally," Stearns wrote. "Misinformation, fear, and ignorance of social media platforms played a role in the voting, and we, as a church family, are dealing with those issues."