College students at First Baptist in Naples, Florida gather to pray for their church in the days after the vote for a new pastor did not reach the required 85% affirmation. The church’s search team had called Marcus Hayes, an African-American, to succeed longtime pastor Hayes Wicker but a racially motivated social media push by a group in the church led to the vote’s results, said the search committee. FBCN/Facebook
The announcement by a pastor search committee that they’ve agreed upon a candidate is typically cause for celebration. After all, the committee was approved by church members months, perhaps more than a year, prior. The group serves as an extension of the church as a whole. They are trusted to represent the congregation in determining the best pastor and leader going forward, the one who will be tasked with bringing the Word of God to them every week.
This past Sunday was supposed to be such a day for First Baptist Church in Naples, Florida (FBCN). Their candidate, Marcus Hayes, served as pastor of the Hendersonville, North Carolina campus of Biltmore Church, based in Asheville. He is currently a member of the SBC Executive Committee and North American Mission Board African-American Leadership Team.
Last weekend it appeared Hayes was set to become the next pastor of FBCN. He would succeed Hayes Wicker, who led the church for 27 years into becoming a beacon of the Gospel for the city. In March the Florida Baptist Witness reported that under Wicker, FBCN had “started as a small church with rundown facilities [to become] a congregation that runs between 3,000-4,000 depending on the time of year.”
The same article noted the addition of four ethnic congregations reaching a diverse community. The church, it appeared, had a mindset to reach the nations.
That position has been questioned after the affirmative vote on Hayes didn’t reach the required 85%, per the church’s bylaws. The church issued a statement blaming a group within the church motivated by racism against “one of the most qualified men in Southern Baptist life to be a Senior Pastor of any church in the country.”
On hearing this news my heart first went out to Marcus Hayes and his wife, Mandy. Then looking at the church’s newsletter announcing the family’s upcoming visit, I immediately settled on these names: Sarai, Amaya, and Naomi, the couple’s little girls.
Then I thought of First Baptist Naples itself. That’s the name in the numerous stories, headlines, and social media posts, but they’re far from alone. Very far. Tragically far.
The truth is, any white evangelical – such as me – who thinks racist thinking can’t be part of their church is choosing to ignore it. Yes, numerous if not most Southern Baptist churches with a Caucasian plurality have ministries to ethnic groups. In the case of FBCN, it’s unfortunate that the stigma of racism is placed on a congregation where 81% supported Hayes, an African-American, as their next pastor.
Years ago, I was asked to be part of a meeting at the school where I taught. It was my first time meeting with this group and I was a new teacher, so I was kind of excited to be there. After some discussion and my attempts to be part of said discussion, though, I came away with the impression that my input wasn’t valued at all. They needed more people to attend, and I was naïve enough to think they would listen.
After a while, I lost interest and stopped going. Had my ideas been considered, I would’ve stayed. Had the way I saw things from a different angle been appreciated, I wouldn’t have seen it as a waste of time.
Racism in our churches isn’t going to be something rooted out with a month-long emphasis. It’s going to require examinations in the mirror and a response. Sin’s nature appears to be quiet as long as we can keep it hidden. It gets very loud, though, when truly threatened.
Continue to address racial reconciliation in the church and people grow weary. You’ll eventually hear for a longing to instead focus on the Gospel as if the two aren’t connected. This is a tactic to ignore a Gospel-centric issue that speaks directly to our sin, and is why we seek to avoid it so much. They’re as connected as the Braves losing in October.
The pastor vote at First Baptist Naples is “sad” and “unfortunate,” as the church itself describes the outcome. But I fear it’s more accurately a reflection. When race prevents the best candidate from stepping behind a pulpit, there are losers, for sure.
The congregation loses quality preaching and leadership. The community loses a church capable of making immediate steps for the sake of Christ. And ears willing to hear the Gospel may decide it’s just a waste of time.