JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The ongoing legal battle between one of the largest churches in Jacksonville and its founding pastor took another turn Tuesday.
Stovall and Kerri Weems are now suing several Celebration Church trustees and the church’s lawyer, accusing them of defamation in the wake of the church releasing findings in late April of an explosive investigation into Stovall Weems.
The report alleged narcissistic behavior, emotional abuse and financial misconduct claims against Weems, who denied the allegations.
“This case presents an egregious example of what happens when a group of people decide to weaponize false information to inflict harm and advance their personal and economic agendas, demonize someone they target as an adversary, and deceive the public into believing salacious lies are true,” Weems’ amended complaint states.
The complaint said the church and trustees created a “nefarious coup” to banish the Weemses from the church they founded more than 20 years ago. The complaint also said the church created and published a “bogus” investigative report that advanced “a scurrilous narrative and false and defamatory statements” about the Weemses.
The Weemses claim the people interviewed are “known to be biased” against them, including “individuals with axes to grind” and witness to private situations and conversations inside the Weemses’ home, who were subject to non-disclosure agreements.
According to the complaint, the “outrageous, libelous attack” was launched after the pastor had resigned and separated himself from Celebration Church, and the Weemses have “brought this action to clear their names; establish the falsity of the scandalous narrative and statements published about them” and among other things seeks to “expose how the seditionists now in control (of) Celebration Church maliciously and unjustifiably ruined” their ability to work in their profession.
The complaint also said the goal of the church and trustees was to “destroy their (Weemses) livelihood and reputation, publicly humiliate them, punish them and try to prevent them from continuing their ministry elsewhere.”
Since Stovall Weems resigned from Celebration Church, he and his wife created a Stovall Weems Ministries Instagram account, where they’ve been posting videos.
The complaint said the Weemses have “suffered humiliation, mental anguish, emotional distress and embarrassment” as a result of Celebration Church’s investigation and statements. It’s asking a jury for more than $30,000 in damages.
The church-commissioned report claims the Weemses lived a lavish lifestyle, chartering private planes to exotic vacations and employing a full “house staff to assist in maintaining their mansions.”
In response, the new lawsuit says, “Pastor Weems is by no means wealthy, precisely because he did not do the things he has been falsely accused of doing.”
The suit also takes aim at the report’s account that Pastor Weems made a $430,000 profit by buying a piece of property and selling it back to the church for nearly $1.3 million four months later.
The report states that the purchase was not approved by the board, but Weems says the church had agreed to gift the property to his non-profit. The lawsuit accuses the report of intentionally leaving out that information.
As for allegations that Weems improperly spent $100,000 in PPP loan money for a risky digital investment called TurnCoin, Weems says the money was deposited in the church’s operating account and used to help pay payroll and other qualified expenses and that he had the authority to invest church funds.
The lawsuit claims the $100,000 investment is now worth $1.5 million and will be liquid per regulation in the fall of 2022.
A statement from Celebration Church reads: “It is very disappointing that the Weems have chosen to continue pursuing legal action against Celebration Church. Their initial lawsuit in March forced into the public what was intended to be an internal investigation by the Board of Trustees. Celebration Church continues to stand by the validity and authenticity of the board investigation. We see this complaint as nothing more than a distraction from the ministry of Celebration Church. We are excited about the future and will continue to move forward.”
A spokesperson for Stovall Weems told the I-TEAM he declined to comment.
Investigation leading to complaint by Stovall & Kerri Weems
The report that’s referenced in the amended complaint was first discovered by the News4JAX I-TEAM in April, when the church released its findings from the internal investigation.
“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 report said one witness detailed, often through tears, instances when Stovall Weems personally belittled and humiliated them for minor mistakes or misunderstanding Stovall Weems’ “inconsistent and confusing directives.”
Another reported that Stovall 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 Stovall Weems and deliver it to his home. “After the employee delivered the car as demanded, Stovall Weems told him to find his own ride home,” the report reads.
The investigation found that many witnesses described “intense personal anguish and pain caused by working for the Weemses.”
The investigative report said there were “Office Hospitality” sheets that were “similar to over-the-top green room riders required by celebrities” and that they “reflected the Weemses’ immense entitlement and self-importance.”
Stovall Weems resigned from his positions in April. He said he resigned because he “cannot be legally connected to any church in which the leadership abandons the clear biblical principles and spiritual qualifications for spiritual covering, spiritual authority, and ecclesiastical governance and oversight.”
Tim Timberlake has been leading Celebration Church since last year. He was installed to succeed Stovall Weems months before the legal battle was made public. Timberlake spoke at a service in March, assuring the congregation that the church is OK.