Leading Candidate for SBC President Under Fire for Ordaining Abuser

By Bob Smietana
Willy Rice SBC
The Rev. Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, in an April 1, 2022. (Video screen grab)

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 as a faith adviser to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Rev. Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Florida, told his congregation Friday 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.

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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.

Neither Ford, Man Up and Go, nor the governor’s office responded to request for comment.

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.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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14 thoughts on “Leading Candidate for SBC President Under Fire for Ordaining Abuser”

  1. If you read the link to the original news story, Mr. Ford came forward on his own to report himself after having sex with an 18 year old female & resigned for reasons of conscience. Read the quotes from others who knew him at the time & what becomes apparent is he’s someone of seemingly excellent character who made a huge mistake that cost him a lot. But he went on to found a ministry to help other men & has led an open & exemplary life in the past 17 years, so much so he was appointed deacon.

    What is the meaning & place of his genuine repentance & God’s forgiveness when the church removes him as deacon because of present publicity rather than past behavior he was both open about & repented of? How much time has to pass for forgiven sin to no longer disqualify one to be a deacon?

  2. Steven Simonyi-Gindele

    Hi Alan. The issue should not be “how much time has to pass?:” after confession and repentance but does fornication and abuse of authority for sexual conquest PERMANENTLY disqualify Jeff Ford for life from serving God as an elder or a deacon in a local church? . Does the Bible provide clear instructions? . Yes it does. 1 Timothy 3 :1-16, and Titus 1:6-9 have specific minimums spiritual, moral and conduct qualifications for elders and deacons. The spiritual and moral qualifications for elders and deacons is the same. Both persons “must be above reproach” inside and outside the church. The issue for Wiley Rice and his suitability is questioned because Wiley Rice holds his opinion of Jeff Ford above God’s requirements for deacons of the church where Bro Rice is the pastor. Brother Rice does not understand or believe in the principle of “Sola Scriptura”. Man Up and Go is not a church and the Bible does not provide any authority or direction for non biblical religious institutions. Obviously Bro. Ford’s life and work has proven his repentance and restoration to the Lord and he should continue with his leadership activities outside of the local church.

    1. Steven, the way I read your comment, you simply changed Alan’s question from “how much time should pass from forgiven sin” to “how much time should pass from repented and forgiven
      sin worthy of reproach”

      I think the “above reproach” would mean present tense or atleast presently unrepented while in leadership. Otherwise none of us would qualify except Jesus. Paul’s role in the persecution of the church and the killing of Stephen and Peter’s role in denying Christ and His hypocrisy with the gentiles in eating with the jews, and the list could go on down to every single follower of Christ. We have all done things that are worthy of reproach. That isn’t the point Paul is making with Timothy and Titus.

      It is that the reproached behavior should have been repented of and not continued since. I believe that is the point of redemption and regeneration in Christ. Anything else leads to self righteousness and hypocrisy.

    2. Actually, the text you quote applies the “above reproach” only to elders, not deacons. Indeed there are moral qualifications for deacons as well, but your specific claim (the only one you could even remotely try to apply) is directed towards elders.

      So does adultery permanently disqualify (that is the sin he is guilty of, not the nebulous modern category of “abuse”) him? If murder didn’t permanently disqualify Paul, it’s hard to believe that adultery would for this man.

      1. I agree that repented and discontinued sinful behavior in the past doesn’t disqualify a follower of Christ from fulfilling Christ’s calling through their lives, regardless of what thier past sin was.

    3. Scott Leonard

      You would be astounded by how many godly men and women know Jeff and his wife, and who know he has for many years re-established himself as a man “above reproach”. To this day, king David is a “man after Gods own heart”. And Jesus is still “the Son of David.” Do your homework and bite your tongue.

  3. Noel Lokaychuk

    My question is… why? Why do so many men (and women) insist on being “leaders”? Why can’t we be humble and live quiet lives witnessing to our neighbors? Why does everbody and his brother have to monetize and advertize their faith with a “non-profit” or “ministry”? Go, minister- quietly to your neighbor, your children, your friends at work- where you work a real job and do not sell digital products or vomit your thoughts and opinions on an audience. If this man is repentant- go and sin no more, and do not be as the world is, lording it over one another.

  4. This is what toxic journalism does. The man came forward on his own to confess a grievous sin. The sin was called, biblically, adultery. The age gap has nothing to do with its sinfulness. The fact that he was a teacher at the school where the girl attended also has nothing to do with its sinfulness (we don’t even know that he was her teacher, just that she attended the school). People may find those things “icky” and we may impose laws that also make them criminal, but as it relates to God’s perspective as revealed in His Word, it is evil and grievous, but not more so than the 50 year old man who cheated on his wife with a 50 year old woman. We have artificially, and without biblical warrant, somehow declared this as “abuse”. This is new great evil in American society simply because some advocate on the internet declares it to be, and men who have committed said “abuse” are pariahs who can be forgiven by God, but not by anyone else. And if they dare do, like Willy Rice sought to do, they are written about by allegedly Christian journalists as “abuse enablers”.

    You’re not doing God’s work, Julie, when you post destructive things like this.

    1. Scott Leonard

      Amen, Steve. The fifteen minutes of fame afforded by Twitter to bottom feeders like these is so alluring to those who long for public notoriety even if it requires gossip and avoidance of Matthew 18 to get their juicy stories out. Scripture does not recognize tabloid “journalism” of this kind.

  5. Curtis Dupree

    I appreciate so much about what this website does, but this story bothers me a bit. Think of how this headline would read:

    “Church in Antioch under fire for promoting persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus to ministry.”

      1. Curtis Dupree

        How so? (Genuine question, not meant to sound snarky!)

        1 Cor 6:9–11 might apply here, especially if, as I heard, these sins were pre-conversion.

        If anyone’s interested, Doctrine and Devotion has a great podcast on this issue.

  6. Meredith Nienhuis

    Not one of us is without sin. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and repentance to forgiveness. Worldly sorrow leads to death. (2 Corinthians 7) Discipline and restoration takes place by the elders within a body of believers. And the elders are held to greater account before God Almighty. The Accuser of the brethren tempts believer and nonbeliever alike to do his work.

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