a group of people standing outside of a building
Church officials called the police on Sunday, July 30, when concerned parents of Sunbeam students showed up at the church service to question the pastor’s decision to close the daycare and preschool. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The impending Aug. 4 closure of a Key West child care center and preschool has the parents of more than 50 children — from 8 weeks to 4 years old — panicking, while asking the pastor of the church that operates the facility to reconsider. 

Sunbeam Christian School, owned and operated for more than 40 years by Fifth Street Baptist Church, notified parents on July 28 that “our program will close at the end of the business on Friday, Aug. 4 due to staffing issues.”

Those staffing issues, according to several parents and teachers, were caused by the church’s pastor, Josh Dryer, who reportedly required the school’s teachers and director — who are of varying religious denominations — to sign a 22-page personnel manual in which they would commit to living a “Biblical lifestyle,” as defined by the conservative, born-again Christian denomination and donate 10% of their income to the church, a religious tenet known as tithing. Employees of the school were also expected to sign a statement about any other jobs they have. Second jobs are common in the Florida Keys, where the cost of living is among the highest in the country. “Any outside employment that contradicts the faith and values of the Fifth Street Baptist Church is forbidden,” the manual states.

All nine teachers received a letter on July 28 confirming their termination, effective Aug. 4.

“Fifth Street Baptist Church is terminating you due to your unwillingness to sign and abide by the Fifth Street Baptist Church personnel manual. … We communicated that your reception of and abiding by the manual was a condition of your employment. … Please remove all personal belongings from your classroom and return all property belonging to Fifth Street Baptist Church at the end of business day on Friday, Aug. 4. … We will be in prayer for you as you search for your next place of employment.”

Church bylaws

According to the 33-page “Constitution & Bylaws” document that governs the church, non-pastoral employees, meaning those who are not ordained, need not be members of the church, but must “endeavor to live a Christian lifestyle,” and must acknowledge receipt of the church’s bylaws, the document states. It also states that the pastor and personnel committee have authority to hire and terminate non-pastoral employees.

The constitution and bylaws of the church also state that every active member of the church, aged 16 or older, may vote on matters pertaining to the church and brought forth for consideration. Only members aged 18 and older may vote on matters pertaining to property owned by the church, which includes Sunbeam. 

The Keys Weekly asked Dryer in an email whether the congregation, personnel committee or church council had voted on the closure of the school and termination of its teachers, but received no response. 

Parents protest; pastor calls police

Parents initially were notified on July 24 that the church was “considering” closing the school and daycare. Four days later, the employees and parents learned the center would close less than a week later. 

“There’s about 56 children currently enrolled, not counting the new ones who had signed up for the coming school year,” said Pamela Lopez, a former director of Sunbeam who now operates The Learning Center child care on Truman Avenue. “I’ve had Sunbeam parents call me for placement of their children. But Sunbeam is the only facility left in Key West that takes infants due to the higher required staffing ratio for babies.”

The July 24 and July 28 letters to parents were not signed by Dryer, but rather ended with the email addresses for “pastor@fcbckw.org” and “personnel@fsbckw.org.”

Repeated emails to both addresses, voicemail messages left on the church’s main phone number and knocks on the church office door by the Keys Weekly on July 28, 29 and 31 were not answered. 

Sunbeam parents signed a petition and showed up at the church’s Sunday, July 30 service despite asking the church to reconsider the closure. When their concerns grew heated on Sunday, church officials called the police on the parents. Dryer, saying he had a service to preach, did not step outside to meet with the parents or police, but instead sent another church leader. That church leader said Dryer would be available the following day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to meet with parents. 

When that time came, the pastor distributed a sign-up sheet and said he would meet with parents individually, but told each of them that he would not reconsider his decision, according to parents who met with him.

“No parent would place an infant in daycare if they didn’t need to work,” said Kimberly Sprague, who has no child care for her infant daughter as of Aug. 4. “I just came back to work after maternity leave and I can’t find a place for my daughter. I don’t understand why he would do this. There are so many kids there. And the homepage of the church’s website talks about ‘serving the community.’ I’m just shocked.”

Sprague added that she and her husband moved to Key West seven years ago and have made it their home, but they have no family in the area that can help with child care.

Another Sunbeam parent, Angelica (who didn’t want to include her last name because of her husband’s job in the community) is a sixth-generation Conch whose daughter loved her years at Sunbeam.

“The staff there is so loving,” she said. “The new pastor came from Jacksonville a few years ago and has been changing everything, including making the Sunbeam staff tithe. I think when parents and teachers started pulling back from the church’s requirements, the pastor decided to shut it down. But it’s got to be a revenue source for the church.” 

Families pay $200 to $320 per week for child care at Sunbeam for one or two children, according to Sprague.

“In his letter announcing the closure, the pastor said the decision had been made ‘with much prayer and consideration,’ but he definitely doesn’t seem to have the Key West One Human Family attitude,” Angelica said.

The electronic sign in front of the church also states, “We exist to evangelize the lost, equip the saved and serve the community.”

The church’s Constitution & Bylaws also outline its commitment to Christian education, stating, “As a church, we will conduct Biblical based education efforts such as Bible studies, social activities, church schools and other such functions.”

The closure letter to Sunbeam parents ends by stating, “Laurie Dunn, the Monroe manager for the Early Learning Coalition offered assistance to help you find a new childcare program. You may reach her at ldunn@elcmdm.org and 786-397-3088.”

Pastor Josh Dryer

Pastor Josh Dryer came to Fifth Street Baptist Church from Jacksonville, Florida in 2018. He had been in Jacksonville for three years, according to a 2021 article on the Florida Southern Baptist Convention website that touts his consulting experience that helps other churches analyze their area’s demographics to better serve their communities and grow their congregations.

“For some churches, the consultations have led them to start childcare ministries for the young families in their communities and others have started Christian education programs to connect with those families,” the article states

Dryer and his wife, Darlene, live in a 2,700-square-foot home on Eagle Avenue that is owned by the church trustees, according to county property records.

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.