In a recent story from Religion News Source (RNS) it was revealed that First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida, failed to elect a new pastor because he was black. First Baptist’s charter requires an 85% congregational vote when selecting a new pastor. One dynamic candidate that failed to meet the 85% threshold left the church dumbfounded.
Pastor Marcus Hayes delivered a very well received candidate sermon which seemed a sure sign for his hire. However, he only received a vote of 81%, by about 2,000 voters. Church leaders sought feedback from those that voted and discovered that a number of voters rejected him simply because he was black. Church leaders have since released a memo detailing their disappointment with the racism within the congregation.
A formal statement by current leadership was recorded by RNS thusly,
“Please know that specifically your Pastoral Staff is deeply, deeply grieved,”
“We are grieved for Marcus and Mandy that they had to endure such vileness. 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.”
A full reading of the letter can be found below.
Leadership is blaming the congregation?
One of the least preached about issues at primarily white churches is racism. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s just not fun. I’ve literally never heard one. We like to believe that we live in a more enlightened society than our forefathers, but change takes time and intentionality. Furthermore, the church is roughly 99% white. Not a single person of color is on any level of their leadership team. The staff listing on the First Baptist Church website is a basket of white-bread. Even their “Ethnic Ministry” is lead by white folks.
So, a megachurch in Naples, with a weekly attendance of about 3,200 people AND their own ethnic outreach, doesn’t staff a single person of color? What message is that sending to the congregation? It says, “we want you to meet Jesus but don’t start thinking you’re one of us".
Know your audience
The other problem is that the leadership was obviously living in a bubble, an alternate universe. Even a cursory scan over the Church’s promotional material and website, gives one the notion that it’s a church for old white people. According to survey, most church goers prefer to go to a church where they are somewhat represented in the leadership. What that means is that a church lead by a bunch of old white guys will attract old white people to it. A church with a young black pastor will attract young black people. People like to believe that the leaders understand their specific needs and that they can speak to those needs. Is it any wonder that a church filled with all white leaders and nearly all white congregants would turn down a pastor because he’s black?
First Baptist Church Naples should have expected that մոտ level of racism was present in the congregation. After all, the church (and Naples, Florida) is full of old-timers that come from an era where racism was accepted. A church congregation almost always is a reflection of the community in which it exists. That is why First Baptist should have been working on the issues of racism a long time ago, not pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Even in my own town, here in Ohio (Akron), my own neighbor and friend once told me I was living in sin because I was married to a woman who wasn’t white….. In Akron! Church leaders must not live in a dream bubble where racism is a thing of the past. It’s real and it’s alive and it needs dealt with.
The problem isn’t the congregants of First Baptist Church, it’s the church leadership. They are the one’s setting the tone and the message.