(RNS) — A leading candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention is under fire for ordaining a former public school teacher with a history of sexual misconduct as a deacon. The former teacher now runs a faith-based nonprofit and serves on a faith-based council that advises Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature.
Rev. Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, told his congregation Friday (April 1) that one of the congregation’s leaders was stepping down due to a past “sexual sin that could also be described as abusive.” Rice did not name the deacon, but he said church leaders had been aware of the deacon’s past misconduct and said it occurred long before they came to Calvary as a church member.
“It did not involve criminal charges, and he has never been identified by law as a sexual offender,” Rice said in a video posted on social media. “Nevertheless, it was a terrible sin, and it devastated people’s lives.”
Rice went on to say that the church leader had repented of his sins and had been open about their past. Eventually, after years of being a faithful church member, this person was made a deacon — a decision that Rice said he now regrets. He said that recently he was confronted by someone outside of Calvary who knew the deacon’s backstory and questioned why he was in leadership.
Rice was a leading candidate for SBC president before news about the deacon at his church broke. He is one of at least three candidates vying to succeed Alabama pastor Ed Litton, who decided not to seek a second year in office. The revelation comes at an especially sensitive time for Rice’s bid for the SBC presidency: Last summer, messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting passed a resolution saying that anyone who had committed abuse should be disqualified from being a church leader.
Along with electing a new president, Southern Baptists gathering in Anaheim, California, for this summer’s annual meeting will also review a report on how leaders have responded to the issue of sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The issue of sexual abuse has dominated the conversation in the SBC in recent years by way of a major investigation that revealed hundreds of cases of abuse in the SBC.
At a service this past weekend, Rice told his Florida congregation that he agreed with the SBC statement about banning those with a history of abuse from leadership and that the church would change its leadership standards. He also said it was wrong for the church to make this church member a deacon.
“We have all agreed that our brother should not continue to serve as a deacon at Calvary,” Rice said.
Rice’s church did not respond to a request for comment about the deacon or whether the pastor would remain a candidate for SBC president.
Religion News Service has confirmed that the former deacon is Jeff Ford, the executive director of Man Up and Go, a Christian nonprofit in the U.S. and overseas whose Authentic Masculinity Program “teaches men how to be protectors of and providers for their families,” according to the biography of Ford posted on the website of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. According to that website, Ford is a member of the state’s Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council.
The faith-based council “serves as a formal advisory council to the Executive Office of the Governor and to the Legislature,” according to the website for the group, and makes annual recommendations to the governor and legislature. Some members are appointed directly by the governor. Others, like Ford, are appointed by either the speaker of the Florida House or the president of the Florida Senate.
Neither Ford or Man Up and Go responded to request for comment.
Christina Pushaw, press secretary for DeSantis told RNS that Ford was appointed by the speaker of the Florida House.
“Jeff Ford is not an advisor to Governor DeSantis in any capacity,” Pushaw told RNS in a message.
In 2005, the Tampa Bay Times newspaper reported that Jeffrey Charles Ford, a 27-year-old coach and teacher at J.W. Mitchell High School, resigned after admitting to having sex with an 18-year-old student. At the time, Ford was featured in several instructional videos for football players. A website for the football video identifies Ford as a teacher and defensive coordinator for the football team at J.W. Mitchell and as a 2000 graduate of Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school.
Ford’s status as a 2000 Wheaton grad appears in his biography on a State of Florida webpage, as well as in a now-deleted biography at Man Up and Go found using the Wayback Machine internet archive. Ford has also run several mission trips with Wheaton football players. Neither of the biographies lists Ford’s time as a teacher; nor does his LinkedIn profile.
During his sermon, Rice described the former deacon at the church — whom he called a “brother in Christ” but did not name — as “an exemplary follower of Christ” and said that forgiveness is available for all who sin.
“If he’s not saved, I’m not saved,” he said. “If he’s not forgiven, I’m not forgiven.”
This story has been updated with a comment from Governor DeSantis’s office about Ford’s role.