JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The founders of the 12,000-member Celebration Church are suing the Jacksonville megachurch’s hand-picked trustees to avoid being ousted over claims of financial irregularities.
Global Senior Pastor Stovall Weems and his wife, Kerri, say in their lawsuit that Weems was wrongly suspended from his post in January after a trustee “falsely claimed that Pastor Stovall was improperly manipulating and misdirecting the church’s finances.”
In reality, the suit argues, Weems had confronted the trustee after discovering “fraud on the church” and the trustee reacted by “feeding the other trustees and senior church members lies and misinformation.”
The suit and a response from a church attorney trade dueling claims of improprieties, including:
- $700,000 in improper billing by the trustee;
- misuse of more than $1 million from the federal government’s pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program;
- and a 50-percent markup over four months on the price of a home a Weems company sold the church as a parsonage.
Weems and his wife are asking Circuit Judge Marianne Aho for a court order that, among other things, would restore Weems to his lead role at the church the couple founded in 1998; restart his salary with back pay since January; and discard changes to church bylaws the trustees approved then that created a route to suspend him.
The couple want to “allow for a full and thorough investigation of any and all wrongdoing involving the church’s board of trustees, present and former officers, employees, and other parties and organizations that contributed to the dispute,” said a suit filed last month by the Weemses’ attorney, Christopher J. Greene.
But a lawyer representing the trustees says the dispute is none of the court’s business, and that having a judge decide a fight about church leadership would violate protections in the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th Amendments.
“At stake is control of the church — the essence of a religious controversy into which this court is prohibited from intervening,” attorney Lee Wedekind III wrote last week when he asked Aho to dismiss the case.
A hearing on the dismissal motion is scheduled for May 20.
The dispute’s effect on church operations has been limited because the lead pastor role switched last year to Senior Pastor Tim Timberlake, who conducts services and is the face of the church for many.
Headquartered off Baymeadows Road near Interstate 295, Celebration has grown exponentially to include locations in Amelia Island, Orlando, South Florida, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., plus operations in Europe and Africa. A spokeswoman for Weems said the church has about 300 employees.
Church officials said Weems is in 'not good standing' during investigation
Church officials haven’t publicly announced the rift with Weems but prepared a statement for members who inquired that said trustees had placed Weems in “not good standing” while an internal investigation was done. That was nearly completed when the lawsuit was filed, the statement said.
“Our desire was for this internal conflict to remain a private matter, and we are saddened for the pain this situation has caused for so many,” the statement said. “…Our investigation is ongoing and will not be impeded. We are confident in God’s plan for Celebration and that ultimately truth will prevail.”
The church’s executive pastor, Wayland Wiseman, said in written remarks Tuesday that Celebration has thrived under Timberlake and the church doesn’t plan to comment while its investigation continues.
“Celebration is praying for a resolution for all parties involved,” the statement said. “We remain focused on advancing the kingdom of God.”
Details haven’t been released about financial arrangements mentioned in the suit, but portions of court filings mention them ominously.
Included as an exhibit to the trustees motion to dismiss, a Jan. 4 email apparently sent from Weems to trustee Kevin Cormier and copied to other church leaders speaks of “behavior related to fraudulent billing, criminal usury and possible embezzlement.
“This is serious 2nd degree and 3rd degrees [sic] criminal felony behavior,” added the email, which said the message was notice to Cormier of “me dismissing you immediately” from the trustees.
Wedekind’s motion to dismiss said that, in December, the trustees had learned of worrisome financial transactions including the church’s purchase of a parsonage from a company that Weems controlled.
The church paid just under $1.3 million for the home on Black Hammock Island in June 2021, about 50 percent more than Weems’ company paid for the home in February 2021, according to property records. During that same four-month period, the median sales price for a Jacksonville-area single-family home rose 17 percent, to $330,000, according to the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors.
In written answers to Times-Union questions, Weems's spokeswoman said Tuesday that the home needed updates when it was bought in February and that those had been "contemplated all along by all parties involved." City building inspection records don't reflect any permits issued at the house last year.
Motion claims PPP loan funded 'Weems-managed entity'
The motion to dismiss also asserted that more than $1 million the church received as a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program was used to fund a “Weems-managed entity” and to invest in a digital currency system.
None of the questionable transactions were approved by the trustees, Wedekind wrote, although the Weemses’ lawsuit said the parsonage was approved by the church’s compensation committee, which included trustees.
The spokeswoman for Weems said the church's audited financial reports certified that the PPP money was used for purposes the law allowed. She said Weems invested $100,000 in the digital security platform TurnCoin to create a retirement fund for longtime church employees and that the investment is worth $1.5 million now, but that none of that was done with PPP money. The spokeswoman said the Weemses never intended to get any money for themselves from that retirement fund.
The “Weems-managed entity,” Honey Lake Farms LLC, appears to be part of a web of similarly named organizations surrounding a behavioral health clinic in Madison County created through Celebration five years ago.
Honey Lake Clinic advertises offering “a Christ-centered program that practically heals past wounds and equips people with Godly decision-making skills to transform their lives.” It’s a nonprofit that operates alongside Honey Lake Farms, founded in 2017 as the nonprofit Celebration Care Ministries Inc. and still partially funded by the church.
The Weemses’ lawsuit says Cormier, the president of a company that installs underground fueling systems, pledged to donate $1 million worth of in-kind services to Honey Lake Farms, where companies that Cormier controls were contracted for construction and land-management work beginning in 2018, before he was a trustee.
Instead of working for free, the suit says, Cormier billed the church about $700,000 early last year through a string of invoices with “vague descriptions of the work performed and included requests for significant payments for work performed on Kevin Cormier’s personal property.”
The couple’s suit says the church was billed $18,000 per month as rent for a home Cormier owned that was being renovated and wasn’t habitable. Cormier also rented the church another house, but billed the church $137,871 for renovations, the suit said.
“The church should not have been funding renovations to a home that was owned by Kevin and not by the church,” the lawsuit adds.
Cormier said by email Tuesday that the claims against him are baseless.
"I have and will continue to cooperate with the church’s investigation which has included the collection of documentation" about the claim, Cormier said. "Celebration Church has been mine and my family’s church home for close to ten years. I look forward to a solution that honors God above all else."