JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Newly filed court documents show Stovall and Kerri Weems want the court to dismiss an eviction notice they’ve been served by Celebration Church -- the church they founded in Jacksonville in 1998 and grew into one of the largest in the city.
The eviction notice was delivered last week to the home on Shellcracker Road where the couple has been living on the Nassau River.
The Weemses initially bought the home in the Black Hammock Island area of Duval County and then sold it to the church.
The church said the Weemses do not have any authority to live there anymore since Stovall Weems resigned his positions with the church on April 15 amid a legal battle that includes allegations of financial misconduct, spiritual abuse and defamation.
Celebration Church said it issued eviction notices to the Weemses on three occasions to vacate the property by May 31, 2022. The church said the Weemses “refuse to vacate” the property and refuse to pay any rent.
But the Weemses say the home was part of a compensation and retirement package, and they shouldn’t have to leave. They’re also arguing that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over a church matter like this.
The pastors’ new court filing says, “This group is abusing this court’s time and resources by filing a facially deficient complaint for eviction and damages for the sole purpose of further smearing the Weemses’ names and reputation in the public perception.”
An attorney for Celebration Church said the Weemses’ attorney sent him a letter on May 13 that stated the Weemses were allowed to live in the Shellcracker home until their deaths. The church’s attorney said that’s incorrect and the Weemses “have no right, title or interest in or to the Shellcracker property.”
Celebration Church is seeking damages up to $30,000. It said it’s entitled to rent for the period of April 15, when Weems resigned from the church, until the day the Shellcracker property is vacated.
The church said the board suspended Stovall Weems after discovering several questionable financial transactions it didn’t know about.
It also accuses him of misusing government COVID relief funds.
The Weemses have repeatedly denied the allegations and say a church trustee and former CFO are responsible for financial mismanagement.
The purchase of the Shellcracker property is part of the ongoing legal battle.
The church hired an attorney to do an internal investigation and the findings were released in April 2022. It said Weems Group, LLC, of which Stovall Weems is the sole member and manager, purchased the home in February 2021 for $855,000.
The investigation said Weems sold it four months later to Celebration for more than $1.2 million – an increase of $431,000. The church said Stovall Weems signed the closing documents as the seller (Weems Group, LLC) and the buyer (Celebration Church). The investigation said the purchase was not disclosed to or approved by the board of trustees.
Weems filed a defamation suit against Celebration Church in late May. The Shellcracker property was addressed in the suit. It said the property was a retirement home for Weems and was never intended to be a parsonage. Weems said he spent more than $458,000 to make repairs and improvements.
The defamation suit said Weems, church trustees and the church attorney began putting a retirement package together for him and as part of that, the property was going to be given to Celebration Global, Weems’ missional nonprofit, as a gift.
“This was very clear, in writing, and was agreed upon by all parties,” Weems’ defamation suit said. The suit said the church’s internal investigative report omitted a lot of these details.
The church’s internal investigation said Weems made several questionable financial transactions without board knowledge. It also accused him of misusing government Paycheck Protection Program funds, which Weems has repeatedly denied.
The internal investigation also outlined what it calls spiritual and emotional abuse of staff. It said many witnesses described “intense personal anguish and pain caused by working for the Weemses.” The investigation said they treated people who attended to them as inferior and created a culture where “you don’t say no to pastor.”
The church’s internal investigation concluded with this statement: “Weems violated the law by breaching his fiduciary duties to Celebration, committing fraud, unjustly enriching himself at the expense of the church and failing to meet the fiduciary duties and standards of care required by his office.” The investigation also said Weems has “brought Celebration to the brink of insolvency.”
In the Weemses’ defamation suit against the church, they said they worked tirelessly over the past couple of years to bring stability, structure and consistency to the church’s staff, congregation and organization and worked to improve the church’s financial position. The Weemses said they did this “unaware of the festering plot against them.”
The Weemses are facing a separate lawsuit from First Citizens Bank. The court filing said the couple owes more than $716,000 and they have “failed, neglected and refused to pay.”
The Weemses have until June 12 to provide a written response to the court.
The News4JAX I-TEAM reached out to a spokesperson for the Weemses on Monday about the eviction filing. She said the couple did not have a comment.
Celebration Church has been under new leadership since 2021. Pastor Tim Timberlake was installed to succeed Weems so that Weems could focus on missions and other initiatives, prior to Weems’ suspension and eventual resignation. The church issued a statement to the News4JAX I-TEAM in late May that said it’s excited about the future and will continue to move forward.