Faith & Religion Lifestyle

Mega Pastor accused of embezzlement, ‘narcissistic’ behavior and emotional abuse

Celebration Church, one of the biggest churches in the Jacksonville area, on Monday released findings from an internal investigation into its founding pastor, Stovall Weems.

The church and Weems have been in a civil court battle that includes allegations of financial misconduct and fraud.

“The single word used most frequently to describe Stovall Weems was ‘narcissist.’ Nearly every witness we interviewed used that specific word,” the report stated.

The church said it interviewed more than twenty current and former senior leadership, staff, former trustees, other advisors, and consultants.

“Many witnesses detailed, often through tears, instances when Weems personally belittled and humiliated them for minor mistakes or misunderstanding Weems’ inconsistent and confusing directives,” the report reads.

The church said one witness detailed, often through tears, instances when Weems personally belittled and humiliated them for minor mistakes or misunderstanding Weems’ “inconsistent and confusing directives.”

Another reported that Weems instructed an employee to drive to a liquor store late at night and deliver a bottle of bourbon to his house because he “did not want to be seen purchasing liquor.”

Another recounted that an employee was instructed to purchase a car for Weems and deliver it to his home. “After the employee delivered the car

as demanded, Weems told him to find his own ride home,” the report reads.

The investigation said many witnesses described “intense personal anguish and pain caused by working for the Weemses.”

Lavish lifestyle

The investigation said as the church became more successful, the “lavishness of the Weemses’ lifestyle also increased.” It said there were private charter flights to exotic locations, a full “house staff” to assist in maintaining their mansions, and personal assistants required to attend to the Weemses’ every demand.

The report states the Weemses’ compensation, staff, travel and expense accounts comprised approximately 10% of the church’s total revenue.

“Despite these privileges, the Weemses treated people who attended to them as inferior,” the report reads. “In 2020, Weems drafted a document that instructed the Weemses’ assistants on how they were to keep each of the three residences so the Weemses would not be bothered during their transitions between homes. This was so the Weemses could focus on their “spiritual acuity” at all times.”

The report states the Weemses also posted schedules of their required food and beverage service so that their employees would know how to serve them food and drinks.

“These instructions included specifications on the times of day the items were to be provided, exact requirements for each item, and a description of how the items were to be presented to the Weemses (on “real dishes” presented on a “serving tray”). These instructions — similar to over-the-top green room riders required by celebrities — reflected the Weemses’ immense entitlement and self-importance,” said the report.

Turning point following 2018 encounter

The church said things changed following a Seder service on Passover in 2018, where Stovall Weems said he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

“Witnesses to the events at the Weems residence in the days following the Encounter describe Weems as visibly shaking and sobbing. They also confirmed that Kerri Weems was distraught and overwhelmed by her husband’s behavior,” said the report. “Kerri Weems has a history of clinical depression, a topic which she openly discussed. People close with Kerri Weems stated that she expressed being suicidal as a result of the Encounter and Weems’ behavior following it. Despite repeated requests by many, the Weemses refused to take any meaningful time off after the Encounter to process the event.”

The report said over time, Weems used the encounter to justify his authority and maintain control of the church.

“If questioned, Weems would respond by saying that this direction was given to him by God through the Encounter,” said the investigative report.

The report said for months following the 2018 encounter, Weems struggled to form words or communicate effectively. It said he disengaged in business meetings with staff and cried frequently. The report said Weems began making strange comments about sweeping changes he intended for the church’s ministry.

“At one point he suggested the Church needed to learn how to function without any buildings,” said the report.

The church investigation said during this time, Weems appeared physically and mentally unwell. Members of the senior leadership team were so concerned, they convened a meeting to confront him about his

mental health and the impact it was having on the church’s ability to function effectively, according to the report.

The report said the meeting went well initially but ultimately had no lasting impact and Weems “continued to spiral.”

‘Complete disruption’ during pandemic

The investigation said the COVID-19 pandemic led to a “complete disruption” of the church’s operations.

It said the disruption was further complicated by Weems’ plan to “separate the business from the church” by spinning off several ministries as stand-alone corporate entities.

“Friction between Weems and the board grew. While the church’s revenues were 15% short of projections, Weems advocated for the Board to approve $14 million in new debt,” according to the report. “When the trustees questioned him about the details of his plan … Weems responded with frustration and indignance.”

The report said when the trustees asked for a five-minute break to ease the tension, the Weemses walked out.

Church’s finances dropped

The report said the church’s cash balance dropped from $9 million in October 2020 to $6 million in December 2020 to $2 million in March/April 2021.

“Weems never had a grasp of where the money went and would oscillate between negligent attention to financial details and aggressive demands for voluminous information,” said the report.

The investigation said Weems could “never keep all of the parts straight in his head and blamed this confusion on the providers of the information.”

Allegations of misuse of federal funds

In 2020, the church applied for and was granted a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The first loan was for $2.2 million and used to pay staff salaries. The report said that loan money was properly used and documented.

The investigation said the second PPP loan the church received was not used for permitted expenditures.

It said Weems directed the funds be spent on the following:

  • $100,000 to invest in TurnCoin, a digital currency with which fans can “invest in talented people in all passions of life,” on behalf of the church
  • $856,033.33 transferred to Honey Lake Farms’ First Citizens Missions Account. $150,000 was used to buy TurnCoin on behalf of Honey Lake Farms and $150,000 was used to buy TurnCoin on behalf of AWKNG.
  • $100,000 transferred to church’s missions account to cover a transfer of $100,000 to an unrelated church ministry in Nevada.

The report said in total, $500,000 of PPP loan proceeds were used to purchase TurnCoin with no notice or authorization by the Board of Trustees.

STATEMENT REGARDING INVESTIGATION OF FORMER SENIOR PASTOR

Celebration Church Family and Staff:

It is with heaviness of heart that we inform you of the difficult decisions that the Board of Trustees has made concerning the investigation of former Senior Pastor, Stovall Weems. As many of you are aware from public records and public statements made by Stovall and Kerri Weems, the Weemses filed a lawsuit against the Church after Stovall was placed in “not good standing” by the Board pending an Investigation into instances of pastoral misconduct. Pastoral misconduct was found to be present based on facts and corresponding documentation. The Church’s attorneys conducted a months-long investigation, interviewing more than 20 witnesses and reviewing thousands of documents. Stovall and Kerri Weems were asked multiple times to participate in the Investigation, but they refused. On April 24, 2022, the Board met to review the Investigation Report. In the report, the Church’s attorneys recommended 7 action steps, all of which were approved by the Board. Those steps are:

1. Accept the resignation of Stovall Weems and Kerri Weems as employees of Celebration effective April 15, 2022 without further compensation or benefits.

2. Pursue the removal of Stovall Weems and Kerri Weems from any positions of authority relating to the Church, Honey Lake Farms, Honey Lake Clinic, and AWKNG. 

3. Require Stovall Weems and Kerri Weems to account for and return to the Church all funds misappropriated by them.

4. Remove Stovall Weems and Kerri Weems from the parsonage and sell the property.

5. Require Northstream Management, Habitat for Wholeness, Honey Lake Farms and AWKNG to repay all receivables and loans made by the Church to those entities.

6. Report these findings to the appropriate authorities to determine whether criminal charges should be brought.

7. Engage in the Christian Conciliation Process outlined in Celebration’s bylaws.

To ensure the transparency of this process and promote healing and restoration, the investigation report is being made public. It can be found here. We trust that God will continue to work in and through Celebration Church, and we are grateful for each and every one of you that calls Celebration Church home.

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