Pastor Stovall Weems claims Celebration Church backed out of deal to pay $48M to his nonprofit
Founder of Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, Pastor Stovall Weems, remains unhappy that the current leaders of the church he started more than 20 years ago reneged on a deal to pay his nonprofit $48 million over 15 years and then cut him out of the church's power structure when he tried to transition out of his senior pastor role.
"It took me 23 years to build these things. I think about this. It's like ... how does this happen? Let me ask you a question. How does this happen? How does a man and his wife that have built and founded an organization in a city they have plenary power according to the bylaws— it means basically that I have the authority," Weems told News4Jax in a recent interview about the way he and his wife, Kerri, were forced out of leadership.
In February 2022, Weems alleged in a lawsuit that Celebration Church's board of trustees illegally ousted him from his role as senior pastor, which gave him significant power according to the church's bylaws.
The founding documents, he argued, allowed him to "use complete plenary authority, control, and responsibility for directing missions and spiritual activities of the church."
The bylaws, Weems contends, tasked him with serving as president and chief executive officer of the church, which gave him authority to direct all of the church's day-to-day operations, including establishing budgets, raising funds and directing monies.
Weems' comments suggest the way the church's power structure was organized allowed him to operate with a high degree of autonomy while appearing to answer to the authority of his trustees.
"I have all authority, and I have two checks and balances. I have the trustees, and I have my overseers," he told the news outlet.
The overseers, he explained, were nominated by him and "approved by the trustees." When asked how the trustees were selected, he said they were "Nominated by me."
When it was pointed out to him that the arrangement under which he led "might not be a lot of oversight," he disagreed.
"No, you know, what I see? ... Thank God that I did that for 23 years, or maybe this kind of coup would've happened earlier," Weems said.
The coup Weems is referring to erupted over an alleged financial dispute with Kevin Cormier, a church trustee. Weems argued that the dispute led to Cormier turning the Celebration Church board against him, and he was accused of financial and leadership abuse.
Responding to Weems' interview, Celebration Church told News4Jax that its leaders are "confident the legal system will produce the correct result."
"Our main focus is advancing the kingdom of God and moving His church forward," the church's statement reads.
In a lawsuit filed by the church, it is alleged 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, which they say violates 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 improper use of $1 million worth of Paycheck Protection Program loan funds to purchase a speculative digital currency known as TurnCoin.
The Weemses filed a defamation lawsuit against Celebration Church, which remains ongoing while the church is seeking in another lawsuit to evict their founders from their million-dollar waterfront parsonage because the couple resigned from all work with the church in April 2022.
The defamation lawsuit follows the release of an internal investigation commissioned by the church that painted the couple as abusive leaders who exploited church staff and finances until they were forced to resign.
"The single word used most frequently to describe Stovall Weems was 'narcissist.' Nearly every witness we interviewed used that specific word," a 22-page report on the investigation produced by the Nelson Mullins law firm reads.
Weems, however, rejected the allegations he is a narcissist in his recent interview with News4Jax.
"Do narcissists give away 90% of their power and authority and resources?" he asked.
Though he admitted to making some charter flights during his time as a leader, he rejected the allegation that he was living lavishly.
He said he "traveled on chartered flights for hunting trips with donors and took his family on vacation on a propeller plane," News4Jax said.
"It was one of those types of planes where, with our kids, where it was one of those props that would have been the same price as a first-class ticket," Weems admitted.
"I want to clear my name," Weems said regarding the defamation lawsuit. "I want to restore dignity to my wife and my kids."