Megachurch Wars With Ex-Pastor Over Claims of Diva Behavior

·10 min read
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Instagram/GoogleEarth
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Instagram/GoogleEarth

In April, Florida’s Celebration Church released a bombshell report on its founding pastor, claiming he was a “narcissist” who belittled staff and treated them like servants while he and his wife enjoyed a luxurious, jet-setting lifestyle and multiple mansions.

Now the embattled former megachurch leader, Stovall Weems, is waging a legal brawl against the organization he founded in 1998, claiming its board of trustees staged a “nefarious coup” to make him and his wife Kerri “pariahs” to their flock and destroy their ability to form ministries elsewhere. The non-denominational church, based in Jacksonville, has locations as far-flung as the Netherlands and Paris, and boasts about 20,000 members.

The 52-year-old Weems, who for months has denied any wrongdoing, filed a defamation suit against Celebration, some of its trustees, and the church’s lawyer last weekend in the latest salvo of a months-long clash in the courts and in the press.

“This case presents an egregious example of what happens when a group of people decide to weaponize false information to inflict harm and advance their personal and economic agendas, demonize someone they target as an adversary, and deceive the public into believing salacious lies are true,” opens the complaint, which was first reported by local TV station News4JAX.

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Celebration’s damning report on Weems was posted on the church’s website, about two months after Weems filed for a temporary injunction to be reinstated into his job.

The document also accused Weems of making improper financial transactions, including flipping a house and selling it to the church for a $430,000 profit—and using $500,000 in federal COVID-era Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds to invest in TurnCoin, an illiquid digital security that could be used by fans to buy or sell NFTs. (Weems denies these claims and also argues half the church’s board and others in church leadership invested in TurnCoin, too.)

“Many witnesses explained that the first rule to survive at the Church was ‘We don’t say no to Pastor.’ In this way, he was able to impose his will on others to force their compliance with his demands,” reads Celebration Church’s narrative. “Neither Stovall nor Kerri Weems served anyone at the Church. Instead, they demanded others to serve them—the antithesis of Christ-like personal sacrifice and service to others.”

“Spiritually, the Weemses have acted with arrogance, pride, deception, manipulation, selfishness, dishonesty, greed, entitlement, conceit, and unrepentance,” the church adds.

Weems and his attorney, Shane B. Vogt, who represented former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in her failed defamation suit against The New York Times, could not be reached for comment.

In a March 22 Instagram post, Weems wrote, “I have not done anything wrong or unethical. My conscience is clean before God. However, Kerri and I are no longer welcome in the church we founded and have nurtured for 23 years. We have been shamed, shunned, and cut off by people who have disregarded our church bylaws and have slandered me with a variety of false and defamatory accusations about my leadership of Celebration Church and its mission.”

“To this day, my accusers haven’t asked me even one question or talked to me one time about any matter of concern,” he added.

Celebration Church, in a statement to The Daily Beast, said: “It is very unfortunate that the Weemses have chosen to continue pursuing legal action against Celebration Church. Their initial lawsuit in February forced into the public what was intended to be an internal investigation by the Board of Trustees. Celebration Church continues to stand by the validity and authenticity of the board investigation. We see this complaint as nothing more than a distraction from the ministry of Celebration Church and we will continue to move forward.”

According to Weems’ latest complaint, trustees notified him that he was suspended and under investigation in January. The pastor was soon “banned” from his own organization, threatened with criminal prosecution should he set foot on its properties, and instructed not to contact anyone associated with the church.

The complaint calls Celebration’s probe a “sham” and claims the main interviewees included a church employee with “a well-known history of animosity” toward the Weemses, “other individuals with axes to grind, and people who witnessed private situations and conversations inside the Weems’s home and were also subject to non-disclosure agreements.” The couple claims they offered repeatedly to be interviewed by the church but were ignored.

Faced with “an all-out war,” Weems says he resigned on April 15 in an attempt to protect his family from public attacks. (The church’s narrative was posted online days later.)

“The Defamatory Report was intentionally worded to falsely portray Pastor Weems and K. Weems as rich, living in mansions, and lining their pockets with the church’s money while engaging in unauthorized acts they were concealing from the church,” the filing alleges. “In reality, Pastor Weems is by no means wealthy—precisely because he did NOT do the things he has been falsely accused of doing.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Stovall Weems and Kerri Weems in front of Celebration Church Jacksonville.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Instagram/GoogleEarth</div>

Stovall Weems and Kerri Weems in front of Celebration Church Jacksonville.

Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Instagram/GoogleEarth

For his part, Weems claims he became a target after challenging a future trustee about alleged funny business with the church’s coffers.

His complaint claims a man who later became a trustee entered into an agreement with the church in 2018 to perform construction and land improvements on its affiliated properties, including a religious hunting retreat called Honey Lake Farms. The lawsuit says that in 2020, this trustee told Weems he planned to “donate $1 million of in-kind construction-type services” to the Honey Lake Farms mission.

But when the church began to receive invoices totaling $700,000, Weems confronted the man for allegedly “overbilling or improperly billing the church for enormous sums of money.”

The lawsuit says that while the man “appeared contrite” and vowed to ultimately donate his unpaid work, “behind the scenes he was taking steps to oust Pastor Weems and K. Weems from the church they built.” Weems’ complaint also accuses this churchgoer of “feeding the other Trustees and senior church members lies and misinformation, falsely claiming that Pastor Weems was improperly manipulating and misdirecting Celebration Church’s finances or was guilty of some unspecified and vague wrongful conduct.”

While Celebration Church has yet to respond to the amended complaint, its lawyers did file a motion to dismiss in late April, arguing, “This action presents the latest chapter in a campaign of deception, manipulation, distraction and abuse of power by Stovall and Kerri Weems…”

The church notes that “the origin” of the dispute between the Weemses and Celebration dates back to March 2018, when “Weems claims to have had a first-hand encounter with Jesus Christ” during an evening Seder service. The filing alleges that Weems said “the Lord ‘deposited’ in him a divine business model on how to restructure the church and many of its ministries.”

According to Celebration’s motion, Kerri told the board of trustees in December 2020 that her husband's “revelation” mandated that the church “separate certain ministries into new, for-profit, companies that would be managed by the Weemses to keep the church—as the bride of Christ—pure.” In June 2021, the filing alleges, Weems told the board that crafting his business plan was “one of the most sacred things that has been done here.”

Indeed, the church underscored Weems’ supposed divine meeting with God in its online report, calling it a “pivotal moment in Celebration’s history.”

“Guest pastor Paul Wilbur, a messianic Jew, came to explain and reenact the ancient Hebrew/Judaic Passover Supper at Celebration,” the report alleges. “At the event, Weems became transfixed on a piece of bread he was holding. Weems stared blankly at the bread for a long time and then appeared bewildered, stunned, and speechless as his attention turned back to the events on the stage.”

After the event, the report states, Weems claimed to have “been transported to the Last Supper” and that he was “physically with Jesus Christ and that Jesus spoke with him, directing his attention to the future and what Christ wanted for the Weemses to accomplish on Earth.”

“This report takes no position on whether the Encounter was real. There is no way to confirm or deny—legally or factually—what was going on inside Weems’ mind during that time,” the document continues, before adding that Weemses were “under a tremendous amount of personal stress during this time that may have impacted Weems’ mindset that evening.”

Since then, Celebration claims, Weems “used the Encounter” to “justify his authority and maintain control of the Church.”

The church report also detailed instances where the Weemses behaved imperiously with employees and alleged that about 10 percent of the church’s total revenue went to their compensation and expenses. “Despite these privileges, the Weemses treated people who attended to them as inferior,” the document alleged, adding that the couple created instructions for their assistants on how to maintain their residences “so the Weemses would not be bothered during their transitions between homes.”

“This was so the Weemses could focus on their ‘spiritual acuity’ at all times,” the report states.

According to the narrative, the pastor and his wife gave staffers “schedules of their required food and beverage service so that their employees would know how to serve them food and drinks,” and instructions on how the meals should be served, such as on “real dishes” on top of a “serving tray.”

“These instructions—similar to over-the-top green room riders required by celebrities—reflected the Weemses’ immense entitlement and self-importance,” the church’s report argues.

Anonymous witnesses featured in the church’s account described how they were at the Weemses’ beck and call, leading one person to leave church “due to crippling anxiety and panic attacks.”

“One witness reported that she had to beg for one hour per day in which she was not required to immediately respond to text messages,” the report alleges. “Another reported that Weems instructed an employee to drive to a liquor store late at night and deliver a bottle of bourbon to his house because he did not want to be seen purchasing liquor.”

“Another recounted that an employee was instructed to purchase a car for Weems and deliver it to his house,” the document continued. “After the employee delivered the car as demanded, Weems told him to find his own ride home.”

Meanwhile, the Florida Times-Union, a daily newspaper in Jacksonville, reported that Weems and his wife are being sued by a bank that says they owe $716,000 on loans opened by businesses they run. Weems declined to comment for the outlet’s report.

In an April Instagram video, Weems and Kerri seemed unfazed when addressing the church drama by answering questions from their followers.

“It’s illegal, it’s unlawful, it’s setting a terrible precedent of lawlessness in the church in America,” Weems told the camera. “They should have never, they should have never, they never should have done it, and the trustees… and anybody else involved, they will be held accountable for their actions, regardless of what happens to us.”

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