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A Key Biscayne church that once hosted a U.S. president and helped build a major Presbyterian denomination is now adrift after its pastor spurned a 50-year-old relationship, over the role of women in the church. 

But a former top leader says Crossbridge Church’s decision to leave its denomination is more about empire building than a faith disagreement over pastoral principles. 

Rev. Felipe Assis persuaded the congregation at Crossbridge Church Key Biscayne in December to leave the Presbyterian Church in America after he faced discipline for having women preach and teach at another campus.

“This is about platform and power. He doesn’t like to lose. And if you get in his way, he will take you out,” said Jesse Carbo, executive pastor at Crossbridge from 2015 to 2019, serving as Assis’ right-hand man.

Assis is building a large high-tech church in Pinecrest in a growing network that includes campuses in Homestead, Brickell and Miami Springs — and two churches in Brazil. 

 “This building will future-proof us. It will launch us into the exciting future God has in store for us,” Assis says in a video on the Crossbridge Church Pinecrest website. The video shows him wearing a hard hat and reviewing construction plans.

“Help us be a part of God’s provision,” his funding plea continues, as an aerial shot shows the Key Biscayne church steeple against the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay. 

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Assis pulled off a $14 million land swap with private Gulliver Prep school to facilitate the new church. He is now trying to raise $1.5 million through donations on the website due to cost overruns.

“He’s a spin doctor. He’s really good at spinning the information in a way that makes him look good. He’s charismatic — super charismatic,” Carbo said. 

Talks to develop Crossbridge’s bayside property

Assis last month tried to steer the Key Biscayne congregation into consolidating all decision-making power into its Session — the church’s small board of directors — with himself being president. If it had been successful, the Session could have developed the Harbor Drive property — assessed at $28 million — without a member vote. 

The measure to rewrite the corporate charter was withdrawn from an April 14 congregational meeting after the Independent published a story on the vote. Assis told congregants at the meeting that recent news reporting was “fake news.” 

“I sat in multiple meetings where the exact conversation was how do we develop this property to get the most out of it financially,” Carbo said. 

Jesse Carbo, executive pastor of Crossbridge Key Biscayne, seen in a streaming service, March 25, 2018 (KBI via Facebook)

Assis confirmed there were talks with charter schools and an assisted living facility, but Carbo said there were other conversations, such as with the owner of the Porsche Design Tower in Miami.

“He and I dreamed about apartments and how we could have church-planting residents live in those apartments and of revenue that could come in,” Carbo said of the property, one of the last open waterfront spaces on the island.

Assis took Key Biscayne by storm in 2017. Tall and captivating, Assis is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, married and a father to four daughters – a postcard family for the new South and Central American demographic on the island. 

Assis forged a partnership with the longstanding Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church with its beloved school – which had given early starts to generations – bringing it into the Crossbridge family. He lived in a church-owned house.

Assis said he had developers ready to invest in a meeting with then-Village Manager Andrea Agha in 2019 when the church was considering a deal with Key Biscayne to lease its property for playing field space, a participant at the meeting said. 

President Richard Nixon, left, shakes hands with Rev. John Huffman, Jr., after attending Easter services with his family at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Fla., April 6, 1969. With the president are first lady Pat Nixon, center left, and daughters Tricia Nixon and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, center. Partially hidden behind Julie is her husband, David (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)

Assis, who responded to questions by text message, said he wasn’t the first to consider development, saying long before he came on the scene the elders of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church “were entertaining a few partnership options.” 

He didn’t recall any conversations with the owner of the Porsche building. “No proposals have been submitted since 2020 that I’m aware of,” he said.

“My desire is that Crossbridge Key Biscayne will continue to be a church in its property for the many decades to come,” Assis said. “That church is a beacon of light in the community.”

The Crossbridge Church Pinecrest under construction. The church did a $14 million land swap with private Gulliver Prep school to facilitate the new church. (KBI Photo: John Pacenti)

Carbo acknowledged he did not leave on good terms with Assis. He also said Assis should have been more mindful in the transition of the Pinecrest campus to their temporary facility. As a result, Carbo alleged that later, Assis used his influence with Gulliver Schools to have his new church — Christ Family — booted from its Sunday morning space while the construction project proceeded. 

“This kind of behavior is not becoming of ‘brothers in Christ’ or of a church that claims to have the value of being ‘city positive,’” said Carbo, who now runs the Digital Missions Project, which helps churches access Google grants.

Gulliver did not return an email seeking comment.

church spire with cross
Crossbridge Church in Key Biscayne, Fla. Aug. 8., 2021. (KBI Photo/Theo Miller)

Carbo is not the only former church leader raising concerns about the historic church, where a bell on the front lawn recalls visits by President Richard Nixon and a ceremony ending the Vietnam War.

Thom Mozloom was an elder at Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church from 2001 to 2017 and left when Crossbridge and Assis took over. He said the congregation joined the PCA a half-century ago because the local congregation would control the land.

“The vote that is before the congregation right now is sort of prescient to today’s politics in America: ‘I want you to vote to get rid of democracy. Trust me, it’ll be good,’” he said.

Mozloom said the financial pressures on Crossbridge are plain. 

“They’re in the midst of a massive building project,” Mozloom said. “And they are going to need the money to do everything they want on that campus. So why wouldn’t you sell this property for $40 or $50 million and build the megachurch of your dreams?”

Assis, in the video on the Crossbridge Church Pinecrest website, blamed higher building material costs for a 35% budget overrun. “We are going to need some extra help to get us across the finish line,” Assis says on the recording.

How did Crossbridge get to the breaking point?

Key Biscayne church members voted in December to leave the PCA and explore joining another congregation, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. But they also voted explicitly to remain affiliated with the PCA for tax purposes until the church’s IRS status was clarified. 

But PCA leaders didn’t wait. They severed ties with Key Biscayne on their own. 

“They delisted themselves. The sovereignty rests with the congregation,” said Rev. Dr. David Barry, the moderator for the PCA’s South Florida Presbytery, the regional governing body. Barry also is the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs. 

Assis provided a “consumer certificate of exemption” that Barry said the PCA took as Crossbridge getting tax-exempt status on its own, apart from the national body.  However, the certificate, reviewed by the Independent — is from 2020 and relates to state sales taxes and is not an IRS document. 

Seraphic Fire, a Grammy-nominated vocal ensemble, performed in 2016 at Crossbridge Church in Key Biscayne. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

“I think it’s just tragic that this respected, historical, large, foundational church in our denomination is now lost to us,” Barry said. “The gold has become dim and how the mighty have fallen.”

Rev. Robert Olszewski, the outgoing moderator of the EPC’s regional body, said the Orlando-based denomination expects an application from Crossbridge during the summer. 

He said the EPC will hold meetings to examine its content and vote on it. The EPC allows female leaders but is similar to the PCA in many beliefs. Like the PCA, the EPC does not recognize same-sex marriage and is opposed to abortion in most circumstances.

The next committee meeting is in October. “Presbyterians are not as quick as Baptists,” Olszewski said jokingly. 

In the meantime, Crossbridge Church Key Biscayne is without a denomination. 

“This happens all the time. There is no one over them. They are looking for the right church partner — it’s like getting married,” said Olszewski, pastor at Grace Point church in Plant City, Fla. 

Accusations preceded the split 

The roots of the split go back to November 2022 when, according to church records, Assis’ home congregation in Pinecrest repeatedly authorized “unqualified persons, namely women, to preach and teach at its regular worship services contrary to our PCA standards.”

When Assis was called before the Presbytery in February 2023 — along with assistant pastors Marcus Assis and Carter Brown — they admitted to violating the standards but “remained uncertain whether or not they had violated Scripture.”

They were told to confess their sins publicly. The pastors declined.

In this image from a video posted to Facebook, Crossbridge Church Senior Pastor Felipe Assis looks on as Martha Alvarez teaches during a worship service in Key Biscayne, Fla. May 10, 2022. A difference over whether women can serve in leadership roles has prompted other congregations at Crossbridge to leave the parent denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. A similar vote is expected in August in Key Biscayne (Crossbrdge Church – Facebook via KBI)

Barry said Assis and his brother, Marcus, come from Brazil where strains of Presbyterianism are much looser in enforcing religious tenets. “They did not believe that they would be held to account, and then they were. And then we split,” Barry said.

Although Crossbridge Key Biscayne voted to leave the PCA in December, the pastors technically remained licensed to preach by the denomination. The Presbytery asked them to resign by May 14 or face removal.

“You have led the Crossbridge churches out of the PCA based on your apparent change in convictions,” Andrew Siegenthaler, the PCA’s credentialing committee chairman, wrote Assis in February. “It is inconsistent with your vows to stay connected to the PCA when you no longer commit this body.”

Olszewski, the EPC moderator, said his church group has experience welcoming congregations from other “reform” denominations. “It’s a process we are very familiar with. Presbyterians are very orderly.”

Still, a breakup with a denomination is painful for any church. “It still hurts. It can be heart-wrenching for some time,” he said.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Tony Winton contributed to this story. Winton is a former board member at Crossbridge Key Biscayne. John Pacenti had final editorial control over this story. Thom Mozloom was a former director of Miami Fourth Estate. He had no role in the reporting or editing of this story.

JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.