First Baptist Church of Naples Florida Openly Admits Congregational Racism

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.

Marcus Hayes Letter

Some Thoughts

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.

First Baptist Church Naples Ethnic Ministry
First Baptist Church Naples Ethnic Ministry

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 some 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.

7 thoughts on “First Baptist Church of Naples Florida Openly Admits Congregational Racism”

  1. It isn’t about skin color, it is about culture. I answered an ad for a worship leader at a local church. The all-black church discovered that I was white, when I arrived to “try out”. Their friendliness to me was negligible, as they worked through their shock at the thought of having a white worship leader at an all-black congregation was entirely unacceptable! They did not want a white person leading their worship!
    Although I wanted the job, I didn’t take offense at their preference. It is acceptable if they prefer a worship leader who can intimately relate to their experiences, subtle preferences, 1,000 nuances, etc. I understood that I could not relate to them in the culturally intimate ways that would fit them.
    Were they racially prejudiced against me? Certainly some were, (obvious in their bearing) but all of them wanted a worship leader who shared more commonalities with them. And why shouldn’t they? There is nothing wrong with that.
    I was teaching music to a worship team at my church. I wanted vocalizations and pronunciations to be consistent. One black singer insisted on singing “Ax” in lieu of “ask”. I explained that the team has to have a unified sound that blends. As leader, it is my fault if the sound is bad; my responsibility. He can talk any way he wishes, but he has to blend with the team in the music. He stomped off in anger and never returned. I was astounded that he believed the whole team should accommodate him. If I was singing on a team in a black church, I would blend with their way.
    I work with spanish singers, french singers, Israeli singers, etc. They have to blend. Otherwise, I may use them for solo music, but not for the worship team.
    When the church votes for a minister, they can choose the minister whom they believe will relate most closely to their culture.
    There is an all-indian (East India) church near me. I know they would not hire me as a worship leader, because I don’t relate to the nuances and language differences of core members. This does not need to be cast as ‘racial prejudice’.
    …. same with the Ethiopian church, African-American church, the Romanian church, the Spanish church, the Haitian church, cuban church, Jamaican church, and the Brazilian church — all within 10 miles of each other. If any of them grow into large or mega-churches, their preferences are still acceptable. These groups hire leadership people who share their cultural commonalities. No one criticizes THEM as racist. The only churches accused of racism are the white churches.
    I visited a large all-black church. I was amazed at the cultural differences expressed in the way they held their church dinner, their relationship toward hierarchy and leadership in the church, etc. I hold different perspectives. Official titles seem important to them: (deacon, First Lady, deaconness). The pastor has higher status than in white churches. They would hire the leadership people who share the most commonalities with them — understandable and acceptable.

    I am a PK (preacher’s kid), so I am knowledgeable about this. (— and my mother was never ‘First Lady’). I like my cultural ways better, but am happy for them to follow their way in their churches. As the pastor’s adult daughter, I do a lot of ‘pastoring business’, but I reject a superficial title. When black people join our church, they want to institute this ‘titling’, but we dont do it – a cultural difference.

    We (white people) tried very hard blend our church with the others who met in the same building: Ethiopian church, Haitian church, African American church. But the haitian minister, the Jamaican minister, and the African-American minister, –each at different points of time — tried to maliciously oust the white minister (my father) and take over the church and gain ownership of the building. Each one ended up leaving and taking a few people with them. Each minister exhibited threat of, or actual, physical violence in the process. We had embraced them with open arms, trying to blend the churches — why should God’s people not worship together??? We continue to try with a different Haitian church, but are no longer naive to the cultural differences and all their implications.

  2. Most Black people go to all Black churches, are you going to investigate the inherent racism demonstrated by this, or will you explain it by the fact that people prefer to be around other people of their own racial or cultural background?

    • You’re comparing apples to oranges. The makeup of the congregation has nothing to do with the race of the pastor. There are many mostly black churches with white pastors. Some of them quite large.

    • Perhaps that is a problem. Perhaps there are reasons why this is a problem. Perhaps 300 years of slavery and Reconstruction full of Jim Crowism has led to this. When an entire race of human beings have been marginalized, vilified, and cut out of mainstream culture for 250 of those years, one might perchance conclude a reason why they may wish to congregate with their OWN. Shame on those responsible for an entire culture not feeling welcome. Shame on anyone who would not vote for a person based on the color of their skin. By the way, JESUS WAS NOT WHITE! You, dear one, need to go out and educate yourself in a hurry!

  3. First, there were not 3,818 voters. The letter makes it clear that there were under 2,000 voters. The 3.818 number was the attendance for the day. Second, if you or anyone else really want to hear a GREAT sermon on racism, I would suggest a sermon preached by the Rev. Kim Dorr-Tilley at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in LA on 8.13/2017. You can access it via the church website. Third, thanks for sharing this story!


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