August 16, 2022

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The Legal System

Celebration Church founding pastor steps down amid legal battle

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The founding pastor of Celebration Church, one of the largest churches in Jacksonville, announced Monday he’s resigned from his positions amid a legal battle with the church’s trustees.

Stovall Weems posted a letter on Instagram that stated the resignation was effective Friday, April 15.

He listed his positions as senior pastor, president and CEO, chair and member of the board of trustees, and registered agent of CCJ (Celebration Church Jacksonville).

RELATED: I-TEAM investigates legal dispute involving Celebration Church & founding pastors

“I have spent much time in prayer and received counsel from other pastors here in the city, the region, and around the world,” Weems said. “The Trustees’ actions leave me and my family with no choice but to legally separate from CCJ and continue our ministry elsewhere, placing ourselves under the proper accountability and oversight of a council of apostolic pastors and elders in our city, nation, and world that understand and model biblical governance.”

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Weems said his resignation is “absolutely necessary” if he is to continue to honor the Lord and be true to what he believes.

“I shall not and cannot be legally connected to any church in which the leadership abandons the clear biblical principles and scriptural qualifications for spiritual covering, spiritual authority, and ecclesiastical governance and oversight,” Weems wrote.

Weems and his wife, Kerri, founded the church in Jacksonville in 1998 and it grew to have multiple campuses around Florida and the world. They filed a lawsuit for injunctive relief against Celebration Church in late February. The injunction includes allegations of financial misconduct by a church trustee. It said the trustee was improperly billing the church for construction-type services at its Honey Lake Farms property in Madison County and turned the other trustees against Stovall Weems, leading to his suspension.

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The injunction said the trustee pledged $1 million of in-kind construction-type services to the church’s mission at Honey Lake Farms but began billing the church for a total of $700,000.

It also said the trustee’s for-profit company was charging the church money to rent the church’s lodge for a church-related event.

The News4JAX I-TEAM reached out to that trustee for comment after the injunction was filed but has not heard back.

MORE: ‘Your church is OK’: Celebration Church pastor reassures congregation amid legal dispute

Celebration Church responded to the injunction, saying this is the “latest chapter in a campaign of deception, manipulation, distraction, and abuse of power by Stovall and Kerri Weems against Celebration.” Celebration’s motion also alleges the couple improperly used over $1,000,000 in PPP loan proceeds to fund an entity they managed and to purchase TurnCoin, a digital security.

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The church’s motion said 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.”

Celebration Church said the Weemses have “sought desperately” to avoid accountability and transparency.

The trustees analyzed the church’s “weakening financial position” in December 2021 and discovered the Weemses made several large financial transactions earlier in 2021 without notice to or authorization from the board, according to the church’s motion. These included:

  • Multiple large transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weemses intended to manage going forward

  • Church’s purchase of a parsonage (in which Stovall and Kerri Weems were to live rent-free) for $1,286,863.30 that a company solely owned by Stovall Weems had bought four months earlier for $855,000

  • Advancement of nine months’ salary to Kerri Weems and seven months’ salary to Stovall Weems in violation of Florida statute and the church’s own internal policies, despite neither Stovall nor Kerri Weems performing the duties of the offices that purportedly justified those salaries

  • Improper use of over $1,000,000 in PPP loan proceeds to fund the Weems-managed entity Honey Lake Farms, LLC and to purchase TurnCoin, an illiquid, speculative digital currency

Celebration Church said none of those financial transactions were disclosed to or authorized by the board, as required by church bylaws.

MORE: I-TEAM: Celebration Church pastors deny misuse of PPP money

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The Weemses deny misuse of PPP money. A spokesperson for the couple released a lengthy statement to the News4JAX I-TEAM:

“No PPP funds went to Honey Lake Farms, LLC. Honey Lake Farms, LLC (which is different than the non-profit Honey Lake Farms, Inc.) is a for profit entity that was formed on the advice of the Church’s attorneys at Holland and Knight. It is a non-operational entity to which no money was ever transferred and in fact, has never had a bank account. No PPP funds were utilized in the Turncoin investment. The Church’s 2020 audited financials certifies that the Church utilized the PPP funds in accordance with their legally allowed purposes. Administration of the Church’s PPP funds was controlled by the Church’s CFOs. The 2021 PPP funds were completely used up by the Church’s payroll. Neither the PPP funds nor the Turncoin investment also had anything to do with Pastor Stovall’s salary advance. Pastor Stovall invested approximately $100,000 in Turncoin, an SEC approved investment, for the purpose of creating a retirement fund for long-time Celebration Church employees. Currently, that investment is worth more than $1.5 million. Pastors Stovall and Kerri never intended to receive any money from this investment. The restricted usage of these funds is documented with the Church’s Human Resources department,” Sara Brady, spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems

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Tim Timberlake, who was installed as Celebration Church’s senior pastor in September 2021 to succeed Stovall Weems, acknowledged the civil court case during a Sunday service last month.

“I could have never imagined as we transitioned, me and Jen, into leadership that things would unfold the way that they have,” said Timberlake to the congregation. “To be honest with you, it’s our board of trustees and our church’s attorneys’ desire to keep those matters private that are now public. Not to hide anything, but just because we care about the former leaders. Unfortunately, other parties involved did not desire to do those things.”

Timberlake assured the congregation that he’s not going anywhere, and the church is okay.

The Weemses filed a request for Celebration Church to produce documents, texts, notes, receipts, etc. to support its claims. The church filed a motion in response, saying the court does not have jurisdiction over this matter and asking for the complaint to be dismissed.

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A court hearing on the case is scheduled for May 20. No charges have been filed against anyone involved.

Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax – All rights reserved.

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