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Jax Daily Record Sunday, Sep. 8, 201901:18 PM EST

First Baptist Church ‘in cardiac arrest,’ to downsize its Downtown campus

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Leadership cites maintenance and lower attendance in unveiling a $30 million project to consolidate within one city block.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

First Baptist Church Jacksonville Senior Pastor Heath Lambert thought it would be difficult to convince his congregation that a $30 million loan is the best way for the 181-year-old church to address a debt crisis and stop “bleeding from its pores.”

“Here’s what I’m telling you — First Baptist Church is in cardiac arrest,” Lambert said during his sermon Sunday.

“And if we don’t jolt back to life with a loan, we’re not going to make it. We can die and be irrelevant and have 500 people sitting in this room thrilled to be a part of the memory of the miracle of Downtown Jacksonville,” he said.

“We can die without a loan or we can live with one.”

Lambert said Sunday the church will consolidate its ministry from 10 city blocks Downtown into one, reducing its real estate holdings. It’s based at 124 W. Ashley St.

First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Heath Lambert sought and won the congregation’s approval Sunday to take out a $30 million loan to consolidate its Downtown campus.

Church leaders proposed a $30 million plan to move its ministry into a 182,000-square-foot facility bounded by Church, Hogan, Laura and Ashley streets.

That block includes Hobson Auditorium, which was built in 1904.

Lambert unveiled the plan, called “A New Generation of Miracles,” to the congregation during the 10:30 a.m. service Sunday.

The congregation voted Sunday to authorize First Baptist Church leadership to take out a $30 million loan to finance a renovation and retrofit of “The Hobson Block.”

The work will feature upgrades to Hobson Auditorium, which will once again serve as the First Baptist Church worship facility, as well as enable new youth and child education and worship facilities and parking.

That block does not include its main auditorium and the Lindsay auditorium —named for former First Baptist Church pastors and leaders Homer Lindsay Sr. and Homer Lindsay Jr.

Lambert said the loan will be repaid by proceeds from the sale of First Baptist Church assets and property as well as donations and a giving campaign within the church.

Lambert told the congregation that no decisions have been made about what properties would be sold or when.

A meeting scheduled Monday will finalize details, including the possible hiring of a real estate broker to assist First Baptist Church.

“The plan would be to take it to the open market here in the last quarter of this year and see what we can get,” Lambert said in an interview after Sunday’s service.

“We’ll have about three months. We imagine things will happen fairly quickly,” he said.

Lambert said the tentative timeline is to open the consolidated facility Downtown in the first half of 2021.

The First Baptist campus in Downtown Jacksonville.

The holdings of First Baptist Church

Six of First Baptist Church’s 10 Downtown blocks are contiguous and three are split within a larger area.

Lambert said there has not been an appraisal of the land First Baptist Church plans to market, but church leaders expect the proceeds will cover the $30 million loan.

“It took our church 181 years to assemble that much real estate. So, for a few months, it’s going to be available and it probably won’t be available again in our lifetime,” Lambert said.

Attendance lagging

Eleven straight years of decline dropped average attendance at First Baptist Church to about 3,200 as of 2018, Lambert said.

He showed the fall in a line graph to members Sunday. At its height, Sunday attendance averaged 10,000 with 30,000 members — one of the largest congregations in the United States.

Since 2010, FBC has seen varying levels of reduction in turnout for worship services from .08% in 2013 and high as 8.18% in 2010.

In 2019, there was a 3.42% increase in attendance, but Lambert said that’s not enough to reverse a decade-old trend.

“Our location, which has always been a strength, has been rendered weak by the spread of the surging areas of growth out away from our campus,” Lambert said.

The Twitter post from First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Heath Lambert about the announcement.

“For 20 years our church has existed in an overall pattern of decline. For the last 10 years, we have been in an acute pattern of decline,” he said.

First Baptist Church Jacksonville was established in July 1838, the third church to open in the city. The Great Fire of 1901 destroyed the original church building.

Lambert, who was elected senior pastor in 2017, compared the fire and a 1941 debt crisis to its current financial struggles.

The church opened its 20,919-square-foot First Baptist Church South Campus this year in Nocatee, on a site at the Duval and St. Johns County line, as Jacksonville’s population center continues to move south.

Lambert said Sunday that facility has seen nearly 50% growth in attendance since opening.

Maintenance deferred

First Baptist Church’s immediate issue is maintenance, Lambert said.

The church is spending $5 million per year on the maintenance of its more than 1.5 million-square-foot Downtown complex.

That is 37% of First Baptist Church’s total operating budget.

First Baptist Church Pastor Heath Lambert showed this map to the congregation.

Deferred maintenance is even greater. The church’s total maintenance need is $7 million per year, or 57% of its budget, and the entire 10-block complex has deferred maintenance needs of $37 million, Lambert said.

Those maintenance costs have prohibited the church from funding mission trips in 2019.

Lambert said with the $5 million per year in savings on maintenance that a renovated and smaller campus would produce, First Baptist Church would have money to expand its reach into new satellite ministries.

Like the move into Nocatee, Lambert said a new approach is needed in FBC’s “ministry model.”

He did not say if that expansion would include buying or leasing additional suburban real estate.

An artist's rendering of the First Baptist Church welcome center.

A Downtown neighbor

The pastor emphasized that First Baptist Church always will be a presence Downtown.

Lambert said the $30 million plan will create a more usable space for the congregation and help with broader revitalization efforts Downtown Jacksonville.

“I want to stop the decline of the Downtown church and want to be a better neighbor to Downtown. I think this plan allows us to simultaneously do both,” Lambert said.

The church has been discussing the sale with leaders of the Downtown Investment Authority, and Lambert said there is interest from potential investors.

He would not provide further details Sunday.

DIA CEO Lori Boyer said she spoke with First Baptist Church leadership this year when she was a District 5 City Council member. Her term ended June 30.

As she redrafted Downtown design standards approved in April by Council, church leaders wanted to make sure the new compliance codes would keep their 1.5 million-square-foot holding marketable, Boyer said.

Boyer said she has not spoken with the church specifically about Sunday’s announcement, but compared the potential of the site to other large Downtown properties, like the Shipyards or The District neighborhood on the Downtown Southbank.

She said the opportunities presented by the property are significant. “We don’t have many catalytic sites still available,” she said.

If Downtown planners wanted to add elements, like a medical innovation campus or higher education facilities, a contiguous multiblock area is needed for development, Boyer said.

“And there aren’t many of them,” she said.

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