Stovall Weems files lawsuit against Celebration Church amid dueling claims of financial fraud

Pastor Stovall Weems preaches at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, in a sermon posted to YouTube on Sept.10, 2019.
Pastor Stovall Weems preaches at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, in a sermon posted to YouTube on Sept.10, 2019. | YouTube/Celebration Church

Founders of the 12,000-member Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, Stovall Weems and his wife, Kerri, have filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction that would force the megachurch to recognize Weems as their chief executive officer and settle dueling claims of financial fraud involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In his Feb. 23 lawsuit, Weems claims he was illegally ousted from his role as senior pastor by the church’s board of trustees earlier this year when he tried to address financial abuse involving one of the trustees. The church, in turn, has accused Weems and his wife of financial impropriety and banned them from church property.

“Pastor Stovall and Kerri have filed this lawsuit to compel compliance with the church’s bylaws, which require disputes among church members to be submitted to non-court proceedings such as mediation and/or arbitration,” Weems’ complaint reads. “The Bylaws specifically contemplate the issuance of an injunction whereby all parties are restored to their status quo pending resolution of the dispute in accordance with the Bylaws.”

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Since the church was founded in 1998, Weems was empowered as the senior pastor in the church’s bylaws to “use complete plenary authority, control, and responsibility for directing missions and spiritual activities of the church,” according to the legal filing. 

Additionally, the lawsuit claims the bylaws tasked Weems to serve as president and chief executive officer of the church and gave him authority to direct all of the church’s day-to-day operations, including establishing budgets, raising funds and directing monies. The bylaws, the complaint says, gave Weems authority to act as chairman of the board of trustees.

The church’s board of trustees, which must be comprised of no less than five and no more than nine members, “is responsible for management and oversight of Church corporate matters and financial resources.”

According to the lawsuit, Weems expressed his intent in early 2019 to transition out of the senior pastor role in name only and assume the title of founding pastor so he could focus on church missions. He would still retain his legal authority as senior pastor.  Weems and the board identified pastor Tim Timberlake to be his successor.

“Pastor Tim assumed responsibility in March 2021 for leadership of the Church in Jacksonville and its affiliate campuses in the USA, while Pastor Stovall retained his legal position and authority as the senior pastor, president, chief executive officer of the church, and chairman of the board,” the court document alleges. 

At that time, the church hired lawyers to help develop a retirement package for Stovall and Kerri Weems.

The couple argues in their lawsuit that in 2018, a businessman identified as Kevin Cormier “entered into a collaboration whereby construction-type entities owned by him were hired by the Church to perform land and housing improvements and management services at Honey Lake Farms, Inc. and Honey Lake Clinic, Inc.” The collaboration was entered into before Cormier became a member of the church’s board of trustees. 

Honey Lake Farms, Inc. and Honey Lake Clinic, Inc. are two legally separate nonprofits that were started and initially funded by the church. Those entities are now only partially funded by the church. The business accounts for those entities were also separately managed by then Celebration Church CFO Lisa Stewart.

In 2020, Weems alleges that Cormier pledged “to donate $1 million of in-kind construction-type services to the Church’s mission at Honey Lake Farms.” And throughout 2020 and 2021, Cormier’s companies did construction work and land management services at Honey Lake Farms.

“Pastor Stovall was lead to believe that Kevin Cormier’s work was part of his $1 million pledge to the Church’s mission at Honey Lake Farms,” the lawsuit notes.

In January 2021, Stewart resigned her position as CFO at Celebration church to work solely for Honey Lake Clinic. She was replaced by a new CFO.  Shortly after, Celebration Church received “an influx of billing invoices from Kevin Cormier’s entities, eventually totaling approximately $700,000,” according to the lawsuit.

Tojy Thomas, Celebration Church’s new CFO, brought the bills to Weems’ attention, which had “vague descriptions of the work performed and included requests for significant payments for work performed on Kevin Cormier’s personal property.”

Weems alleges that he discovered that Cormier was “overbilling or improperly billing the Church for enormous sums of money for alleged services at Honey Lake Farms.”

“For example, Kevin’s for-profit company was charging the church money to rent the church’s own lodge for a church-related event. Pastor Stovall discovered that Kevin Cormier was charging the church rent for use of a residential house (‘Monticello’) and at the same time, inappropriately charging the Church $137,871 for renovation expenses to that same property,” the lawsuit explains.

It was further alleged that Cormier billed the church $18,000 per month for the church’s use of another residence individually owned by him while it was being renovated and not habitable. The lawsuit claims Weems discovered that Stewart was fully aware that Cormier was not donating any of the $1 million he had pledged for “free” and was billing the church.

“Lisa Stewart and Tojy Thomas allowed payments to be issued to Kevin Cormier’s entities knowing that no agreements were in place and that no authorization or approvals were obtained for the work allegedly performed,” Weems’ lawsuit states. 

The legal filing further claims that when Cormier was asked to substantiate his bills, he failed to do so while Stewart allegedly fed “false reports” to Weems and misrepresented balances in the church accounts.

“Lisa Stewart’s financial and operational mismanagement of Honey Lake Clinic and its agreements with the Church caused irreparable harm and hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial damages to both the Church and Honey Lake Farms,” the lawsuit argues.

Weems eventually confronted Cormier about the situation in April 2021. The lawsuit contends that Cormier confessed that he had “reneged on his pledge to donate $1 million of in-kind services to the Church” but failed to inform the pastor.

When Weems highlighted “inappropriate billing,” Cormier responded by announcing that “God spoke to him just then and inspired him to donate the $550,000 of fraudulently billed work.” He allegedly also pledged to donate the Monticello house the church had been renting from him.

Weems said he accepted that as a biblical response from Cormier and thought he had repented. But Weems’ lawsuit accuses Cormier of setting in motion a plan to turn the board of trustees and senior church members against Weems with “lies and misinformation.” Within two weeks, Weems was accused of misconduct.

“Kevin Cormier falsely claimed that Pastor Stovall was improperly manipulating and misdirecting the Church’s finances or was guilty of some unspecified and vague wrongful conduct,” the lawsuit alleges. 

“In reality, Pastor Stovall had the Honey Lake Farms’ bank accounts transferred to another financial institution to stop Kevin Cormier’s wrongful access to the accounts and to protect the church and Honey Lake Farms from Kevin Cormier’s financial abuse.”

On Jan. 3, Weems said he used his authority as senior pastor to remove Cormier as a trustee. On Jan. 7, the lawsuit states that Weems was “compelled to remove Trustees as a result of their intent, based upon false and inaccurate information, to undermine the Church’s basic [governance] protocols.”

On that same day, the board voted to suspend Weems from his role as senior pastor after a series of further confrontations.

Celebration Church filed a motion to dismiss Weems’ lawsuit on March 10. The church claims his lawsuit is “the latest chapter in a campaign of deception, manipulation, distraction, and abuse of power by Stovall and Kerri Weems against Celebration.”

“Having founded Celebration, the Weemses over time came to act like they owned the church and could do with it what they wanted without the management and oversight required by Florida law and the church’s governing documents,” the church’s filing argues. “When the current board of trustees discovered that the Weemses had engaged in a series of questionable financial transactions without board knowledge or authorization, they requested an investigation.”

“Since that time, the Weemses have sought desperately to avoid the accountability and transparency that the church’s board is committed to pursuing for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom,” the motion added. “For the reasons discussed below, the complaint should be dismissed.”

The church alleged that “management and oversight of the church is provided by a board of trustees, who ‘have plenary power to manage and govern the affairs’ of the church.”

“The trustees ‘have the duties and the responsibilities generally associated with and exercised by a corporate board and as such, are the only governing body within the Church,’” the motion argues.

The church’s filing claims that trustees analyzed the church’s financial position in December 2021 and discovered that the Weemses made “several large financial transactions earlier in 2021 without notice to or authorization from the board.”

These transactions included “multiple large transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weemses intended to manage going forward.” The motion claims that the church had purchased a parsonage for $1.2 million that a company owned by Stovall Weems had purchased four months earlier for $855,000.

Additionally, the board took issue with “the advancement of nine months’ salary to Kerri Weems and seven months’ salary to Stovall Weems in violation of Florida statute and church policies “despite neither Stovall nor Kerri Weems performing the duties of the offices that purportedly justified those salaries.”

The couple was also accused of using $1 million worth of Paycheck Protection Program loan funds improperly to purchase a speculative digital currency known as TurnCoin. 

“Celebration Church has grown and thrived since Pastor Tim Timberlake became the church’s spiritual leader in September 2021. Celebration’s board of trustees recently suspended Pastor Stovall Weems pending an investigation into certain decisions made by him in early 2021 that were not in the best interest of the church and were not approved by the board,” Celebration Church Executive Pastor Wayland Wiseman said in a statement to News 4 Jax on Wednesday.

“As that investigation remains ongoing, the church does not intend to make any further comments about it at this time. Celebration is praying for a resolution for all parties involved, and is confident in God’s plan for the church and that ultimately the truth will prevail. We remain focused on advancing the kingdom of God.”

In their statement to the news outlet on Wednesday, the Weemses said, “we have nothing to hide.”

“We could never have imagined that the church we started and nurtured for nearly 25 years would be seized by individuals whom we believe are prioritizing their individual interests in power and money ahead of their duties to Celebration Church and its mission. We have nothing to hide,” they said.

“We are being retaliated against and have been denied a proper investigation according to long-held church by-laws. Meanwhile, the substantive allegations made in our Complaint about financial improprieties perpetrated by current board members have gone unanswered. We reject the utterly baseless and false allegations made against us. Celebration Church members have a right to know what is happening in their church and we have a right to be treated fairly.”

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