ARC-Linked Florida Megachurch Embroiled in Legal Dispute with Founder

Por Sarah Einselen
stovall kerri weems
Stovall and Kerri Weems, founding pastors of Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida, speak during a service on July 11, 2021. (Screengrab via YouTube)

Stovall and Kerri Weems say they are whistleblowers and victims of retaliation by the church they founded—Celebration Church, a multi-site megachurch in Florida formerly part of the Association of Related Churches (ARC).

But according to a court filing by Celebration Church, the Weemses are spiritually and financially abusive predators who acted “like they owned the church and could do with it what they wanted.”

Now the church and the Weemses, who are former members of ARC’s Lead Team, are caught up in a legal battle even as an investigation is underway into the Weemses’ alleged misconduct.

In January, Celebration Church’s trustees noticed several large financial transactions by the Weemses and asked for an investigation into “potentially improper financial practices,” the church’s court filing states.

In the days following that action, Stovall Weems removed one of the trustees and tried to remove two others, court filings show.

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Then the trustee board suspended Weems and hired a law firm to investigate the Weemses’ alleged financial mismanagement and spiritual abuse.

In February, after Stovall Weems was suspended, the Weemses filed suit against Celebration Church, alleging the church retaliated against them for reporting financial misconduct.

The Weemses, who have been ARC leaders for more than a decade, are no longer listed as ARC Lead Team members.

Celebration Church is ya no está en la lista as a member of ARC, either. The church was affiliated with the ARC as recently as last year.

El Informe Roys reached out to ARC, asking when the Weemses and Celebration Church were removed and why, but did not immediately hear back.

Scandals have lately surrounded ARC-affiliated churches and even the ARC itself, arguably North America’s biggest church planting organization.

Trustees accuse Weemses of financial misconduct

Stovall and Kerri Weems founded Celebration Church in 1998 in Jacksonville, Florida, and grew it to some 12,000 members across several campuses.

However, in 2020, the Weemses launched AWKNG TV, a Christian not-for-profit streaming network. And in September 2021, the Weemses officially transitioned from their position as lead pastors at Celebration to founding pastors.

At that time, Stovall Weems said the church had “laid hands on” Tim and Jen Timberlake two years previously, naming them successors to the Weemses as lead pastors. He also said the Timberlakes had effectively been functioning as lead pastors for about a year by the time the transition became official.

Celebration Church weems
A multi-site megachurch, Celebration Church has its main campus in Jacksonville, Florida. (Screengrab via YouTube)

Sometime early this year, AWKNG TV apagar. El Informe Roys has not been able to get any comments on the record about why AWKNG TV folded.

Stovall Weems was suspended from Celebration Church in January, according to the Weemses’ suit against the church. An investigation is underway.

The investigation is “largely focused on two different aspects of the Weems’ leadership,” said Lee D. Wedekind III, a partner in the law firm Nelson Mullins.

One part of the investigation concerns financial transactions made between January and June 2021, “when there were no board meetings conducted,” Wedekind said.

The church alleges in a response to the Weemses’ suit that trustees discovered millions of dollars misspent through “several large financial transactions” the Weemses made in 2021 without telling the trustees.

The alleged misconduct included:

  • Transfers of church funds to new businesses the Weemses were going to manage
  • The church’s purchase of a parsonage for over $430,000 more than Stovall Weems’s company had paid four months earlier when it bought the property
  • An advance of seven months’ salary to Stovall Weems and nine months’ salary to Kerri Weems even though neither one carried out the duties those salaries were for
  • Improper use of more than $1 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loan monies.

The church received $2,153,702 in federal stimulus monies which were later forgiven, data collected by ProPublica espectáculos

The church claims the Weemses used PPP monies to fund a business they managed and to buy cryptocurrency. The Weemses denied misusing the PPP funds and the other alleged financial missteps in an extensive statement to News4JAX.

They said through a spokesperson that the price difference on the parsonage reflected extensive updates, repairs and housing-related expenses they had paid for before selling it to the church. They also said the crypto investment was for a retirement fund for church employees, and wasn’t made with PPP funds.

Employees allegedly abused

The other part of the church’s investigation concerns “the spiritual leadership of the Weemses,” Wedekind said. “There are certain allegations regarding what I can best characterize as spiritual abuse.”

The Weemses are accused of spiritually abusing church staff members, Wedekind said. He did not say how many staff members are alleged victims. But Wedekind estimated more than 50 people worked at Celebration’s multiple Jacksonville locations.

While the investigation consists mostly of reviewing documents, Wedekind estimates a dozen to 15 people have been interviewed as well.

The findings could be presented to the church trustees as early as next month, he said. After that, it will be up to the trustees to decide whether—or how much—of the findings to make public.

“My recommendation to them may be to produce something publicly,” Wedekind said, whether the full findings or a summary of some sort.

Weemses claim retaliation in civil suit

The Weemses sued Celebration Church the month after the church launched its investigation. In the suit, they allege trustees suspended Stovall Weems in retaliation for reporting financial misconduct by a church trustee and the church’s former CFO.

Stovall Weems dismissed the trustee in January over the alleged misconduct, according to the Weemses’ lawsuit. He also took steps to remove other trustees a few days later, the suit indicates. Then the trustees suspended him.

The trustees didn’t have the authority to discipline Weems, according to the Weemses’ lawsuit. “Apostolic oversight” of the senior pastor is entrusted to church overseers, the suit argues—not the trustees.

Like many ARC churches, Celebration Church’s bylaws require overseers, who must be ordained pastors at other churches. Two former overseers, Dino Rizzo and John Siebeling, resigned in September 2021, and the church argues that a third, Scott Volk, wasn’t qualified.

Rizzo is the executive director of ARC and missions pastor at Church of the Highlands, another scandal-plagued ARC church. Siebeling is a senior pastor at The Life Church, an ARC-affiliated Tennessee megachurch, and Volk runs his own nonprofit Together For Israel.

The Weemses are asking the court to force Celebration Church to reinstate them and give them back pay, along with certain other measures.

El Informe Roys reached out to Stovall Weems for comment, but did not hear back. He and his wife told News4JAX that they had “nothing to hide.”

“We reject the utterly baseless and false allegations made against us,” their statement read in part.“ Celebration Church members have a right to know what is happening in their church and we have a right to be treated fairly.”

Celebration Church responded to Weemses’ lawsuit by asking the court to dismiss it, partly on religious liberty grounds. Its motion to dismiss states the Constitution doesn’t give a secular court the authority to tell a church how to run its affairs.

The church argued that the couple’s suit “presents the latest chapter in a campaign of deception, manipulation, distraction, and abuse of power by Stovall and Kerri Weems against Celebration.”

The church included emails between Stovall Weems and trustees that it said backed up its version of events.

“These emails establish . . . that this dispute is fundamentally a religious one” over how the church should be run and how its leadership should be held accountable, the church’s motion argues.

A hearing in the case is set for May 20, court records show.

This article has been corrected to accurately describe the church’s relationship with ARC.

Sarah Einselen es una escritora y editora premiada que vive en Texas, EEUU.

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13 pensamientos sobre “ARC-Linked Florida Megachurch Embroiled in Legal Dispute with Founder”

  1. Another one in the never ending line of evangelical power and money seekers that has (and will) left hurt, traumatized, abused people in the wake.
    And people wonder why “the nones” continue to grow while those affiliated with evangelicalism and Christianity decline.

  2. Marcos Gunderson

    This sounds like hurt all around.

    The allegations of spiritual abuse are kind of a head scratcher because that doesn’t just happen when you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar. That suggests a long term pattern, so why is that part only coming out in light of the financial issues?

  3. Peter’s words are so true! On both sides! Wells without water clouds without rain, they are the foam of the ocean washed up upon the shores !

    Shameless , Thankless, money grabbers, arrogant, self willed , Covetous, proud, indulgent , deceptive, eyes full of adultery (spiritual)and empowered by doctrines of devils blind degenerate souls!

    All of them ! The leadership as a whole sucks and the unsaved world lives better

    Open sin with no sense of remorse or wrong doing !

    These are they that Peter says we’re born for hell before they were conceived !

    No more needs to be said for a House of Hell reserved for. Everlasting Punishment!

    And He will say to them in that day if judgment! Depart from me you evil doers of iniquity for I NEVER KNEW YOU!

  4. Richard Donaldson

    A generation ago, Ted Koppel of Nightline used these words to describe the PTL scandal: “a decidedly unchurchly rhubarb” (I had to look it up and learn “rhubarb” also meant “a noisy dispute.”
    This story is another example of “unchurchly.” Suing to get your power position back, over a church? Give me my job and salary back, even if you hate me? Honestly? This isn’t Apple, Coca-Cola, General Motors, etc.!

    1. Actually Richard it is like apple or any other corporation. What sickens me is these churches got tax payor money and don’t pay a dime of taxes.

  5. The infamous denial of the mega church pastor continues, “We reject the utterly baseless and false allegations made against us,” Complete lack of leadership accountability once again. Missing with ARC (among others) are the requisite qualifications laid out in 1 Tim. 3:1-8. They appear to be nothing but a footnote written in sand and long forgotten.

  6. Sherman Stanley

    I have first hand knowledge of the spiritual abuse within this organization. They created a cult like following of the “pastor”, who absolutely designed the organization to operate in that manner. They targeted young, impressionable, new believers who didn’t have the spiritual maturity to see the leaders for what they truly are. They pushed out many of the older, spiritually mature folks because they felt threatened and knew they would be exposed. Many of those older folks, like me, gave years of our lives to help grow that church, only to be pushed aside. It’s always been about the money, down to the precise timing of the services to get as many people in and out. When the wolves all surround themselves with other wolves, and are accountable only to those wolves, what should we expect? There has been zero, qualified accountability with this group. It’s a shame because at the start, they had the right concept, but absolute power and money corrupt absolutely.

    1. Sherman, I went there for about a 2 years because I wanted to see what my grandchildren were being taught. I watched the pastor move away from dependence on Christ, to emphasizing the muzzuzah, and hand signs. It was a blessing when visiting pastors came because at least the Word preached at church that week. I left because the Word was replaced with Michael Heiser teachings. Anyway, just wanted to encourage you that what you did for the Lord there is lasting. I pray under Timberlake, maybe they can return to preaching the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  7. Oddly enough, I can certify that Celebration was listed as an ARC-affiliated church as little as one week before this was published.

  8. What I have witnessed is more pastors are using their authority to control the narrative. This can be a good thing but it takes away their accountability. The other thing is when pastors believe their accountability should be in light of other pastors. I think this is wrong. Familiar minds think alike. Other pastors don’t spend much time looking after other pastors; it is the board and leadership that witnesses this every week. Too many are yes men and by the time they see something, they realize it should’ve been nipped a while back.
    I just want a humble and hungry people to be around. It is so few because people want a relevant pastor and church.

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