I-TEAM: Former pastors accuse Jacksonville church of taking ‘cult-like position’

Stovall and Kerri Weems in legal battle with Celebration Church

Stovall and Kerri Weems

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The former pastors of Celebration Church accused the church of “taking a cult-like position” on an issue of their church membership in their latest court filing. The pastors also accuse the church of violating their rights to religious freedom.

Stovall and Kerri Weems are in a legal battle with the church they founded in Jacksonville in 1998.

The legal back-and-forth began earlier this year. The Weemses filed for injunctive relief against Celebration Church, telling the court that the church trustees staged a “coup” to push them out. The church hired a law firm to conduct an internal investigation and released a report detailing allegations of financial misconduct, emotional and spiritual abuse and narcissistic behavior involving Stovall Weems.

The Weemses filed a defamation suit against the church after the release of that report.

Since then, Celebration Church filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the Weemses’ case because it says the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters.

The Weemses filed a response to that motion on Friday, opposing the church’s request to dismiss the case.

“Defendants cannot refute the operative facts of this case, so they are desperately trying to prevent it from being heard,” the Weemses’ response reads.

COURT DOCUMENT: Weemses’ response to motion

The Weemses also said Celebration Church incorrectly claimed that the church is a “hierarchical” church. “They even take a cult-like position that Plaintiffs are still and will remain ‘members’ of Celebration Church until the Trustees decide to let them leave,” the Weemses’ response states.

The Weemses said they severed ties with Celebration on April 15 when Stovall Weems submitted his resignation. They also said forcing church membership on them violates their fundamental rights to freedom of religion.

“Defendants are trying to hide behind ‘religion’ because they know they falsely accused Plaintiffs of committing financial crimes to destroy them in the court of public opinion,” the Weemses’ response reads.

The Weemses’ response also refers to media reports on the legal battle, including a News4JAX I-TEAM report. The pastors said the church “knew and intended” that their “false and defamatory statements would be widely viewed, disseminated publicly, and reported on in the press.”

The pastors’ court filing said, “the harms suffered at Defendants’ hands are substantial.”

Eviction notice

Celebration Church issued an eviction notice to the Weemses to get them out of the home where they have been living on Black Hammock Island. The church owns the property and said that since Stovall Weems resigned, he does not have the authority to live there. The church said the Weemses “refuse to vacate.”

Stovall Weems initially bought the home on the Nassau River and then sold it to the church. The Weemses said the home was part of a compensation and retirement package, and they should not have to leave.

A court hearing on the eviction case is scheduled for Sept. 22.

Celebration Church’s investigative report

The church hired a law firm, Nelson Mullins, to conduct an internal investigation earlier this year. It interviewed more than 20 current and former senior leadership members, staff, former trustees, other advisors and consultants.

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

The report said that since at least 2019, the Weemses’ leadership has been “inconsistent and unbiblical.” It said Stovall Weems’ leadership was “marked by rampant spiritual and emotional abuse, including manipulation, a profound sense of self-importance and selfishness, superiority and entitlement, overbearing and unreasonable demands on employees’ time, a lack of accountability or humility, and demands of absolute loyalty.”

The Weemses have repeatedly denied the allegations in the report. They have described it as a “sham investigation” in court filings.

“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’ response states.

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.

The next court hearing in this legal battle is scheduled for Aug. 9.

New ministry launched

Stovall Weems is moving forward. He recently launched “Stovall Weems Ministries” and has been posting video messages on YouTube. He’s also held informational meetings with people interesting in being part of his new ministry.

Weems also plans to lead a group of people on a trip to the Holy Land in early 2023.

Celebration Church’s current leadership

Senior Pastor Tim Timberlake has been leading Celebration Church since September 2021. He was tapped to succeed Stovall Weems last year so Stovall Weems could focus more on global missions and other projects.

When the legal battle went public, Timberlake spoke to the congregation about it, reassuring them that he is not going anywhere, and the church is OK.

Celebration Church released this statement to the News4JAX I-TEAM in March 2022: