I-TEAM: Celebration Church in legal dispute with founding pastors

Stovall and Kerri Weems founded Jacksonville megachurch in 1998

Stovall and Kerri Weems founded Jacksonville megachurch in 1998.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The founders of Celebration Church, one of the largest churches in the Jacksonville area, are in a legal dispute with the church that involves allegations of financial misconduct and fraud.

Stovall and Kerri Weems, who founded Celebration Church in 1998, filed a lawsuit for injunctive relief against Celebration Church on February 23, alleging a church trustee was improperly billing the church and was setting the scene to oust Stovall Weems from the church he built. The Weemses also said they’ve been threatened with arrest if they come onto church property.

Celebration Church responded saying this is the “latest chapter in a campaign of deception, manipulation, distraction, and abuse of power by Stovall and Kerri Weems against Celebration.” Celebration’s motion also alleges the couple improperly used over $1,000,000 in PPP loan proceeds to fund an entity they managed and to purchase TurnCoin, a digital security.

Stovall and Kerri Weems’ Injunction

The injunction said Kevin Cormier, who later became one of the church’s trustees, told Stovall Weems in 2018 that he intended to donate $1 million of in-kind construction-type services to the church’s mission at Honey Lake Farms, a non-profit in Madison County that was founded and initially funded by the church. Honey Lake Farms remains in-part funded by the church and its leadership largely overlaps with the church, according to the injunction.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, Cormier’s companies performed construction work and land management services at Honey Lake Farms, according to the injunction.

Stovall Weems appointed Cormier as a church trustee in January 2021 and he was confirmed in June 2021.

Meantime in 2021, Stovall Weems transitioned out of the Senior Pastor role and into a Founding Pastor role. Tim Timberlake was named Weems’ successor to lead the nearly 12,000-member church.

READ: Injunction filed by Stovall and Kerri Weems

Stovall Weems said he believed Cormier’s construction work was part of his $1 million pledge and believed the church’s Chief Financial Officer was accounting for Cormier’s donation. That CFO ended up leaving her position in January 2021 and transitioned to solely working for Honey Lake Clinic, which offers behavioral health treatment services and is located two miles from Honey Lake Farms. Honey Lake Clinic is also a non-profit that was founded and initially funded by Celebration Church, according to the injunction.

The church began receiving an influx of billing invoices from Cormier’s entities, totaling approximately $700,000, according to the injunction. Stovall Weems said Cormier was overbilling or improperly billing the church.

Stovall Weems confronted Cormier in April 2021 about the billing concerns and Cormier told Weems he reneged on his pledge to donate $1 million of in-kind services to the church and “admitted he never let Pastor Stovall know,” according to the injunction.

Stovall Weems said Cormier began feeding other trustees and senior church members lies and misinformation and misleadingly convinced the other trustees that it was Weems who committed misconduct, according to the injunction.

“Little did Pastor Stovall know that Kevin Cormier was setting the scene to oust Pastor Stovall from the very church that Pastor Stovall built,” the injunction reads.

The injunction said on January 7, 2022, Stovall Weems was compelled to remove trustees as a result of their intent and within an hour, the trustees sent Weems a letter notifying him that he was not in good standing and was suspended as the church’s senior pastor as a result of “possible improper financial practices and/or failure to fulfill duties and responsibilities as Senior Pastor.”

The News4JAX I-TEAM reached out to Kevin Cormier for a response to the allegations, and haven’t heard back. We will add his response to this story as soon as we get it.

Celebration Church’s Response

Celebration Church filed a motion to dismiss the Weemses’ injunction.

“This action presents the latest chapter in a campaign of deception, manipulation, distraction, and abuse of power by Stovall and Kerri Weems against Celebration,” reads Celebration Church’s motion.

The church’s motion said the Weemses over time came to act like “they owned the church and could do with it what they wanted without the management and oversight required by Florida law and the church’s governing documents.”

READ: Celebration Church’s motion to dismiss

The church said when the current board of trustees discovered the Weemses “engaged in a series of questionable financial transactions without board knowledge or authorization, they requested an investigation.”

Celebration Church said the Weemses have “sought desperately” to avoid accountability and transparency.

The trustees analyzed the church’s “weakening financial position” in December 2021 and discovered the Weemses made several large financial transactions earlier in 2021 without notice to or authorization from the board, according to the church’s motion. These included:

  • Multiple large transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weemses intended to manage going forward
  • Church’s purchase of a parsonage (in which Stovall and Kerri Weems were to live rent-free) for $1,286,863.30 that a company solely owned by Stovall Weems had bought four months earlier for $855,000
  • Advancement of nine months’ salary to Kerri Weems and seven months’ salary to Stovall Weems in violation of Florida statute and the church’s own internal policies, despite neither Stovall nor Kerri Weems performing the duties of the offices that purportedly justified those salaries
  • Improper use of over $1,000,000 in PPP loan proceeds to fund the Weems-managed entity Honey Lake Farms, LLC and to purchase TurnCoin, an illiquid, speculative digital currency

Celebration Church said none of those financial transactions were disclosed to or authorized by the board, as required by church bylaws.

The News4JAX I-TEAM looked into what Celebration Church received in PPP money. It was approved for $2,153,702 on April 6, 2020. This is how Celebration planned to use the money, based on data from the lender when the loan was originated:

  • Payroll: $1,615,276.50
  • Rent: $269,212.80
  • Utilities: $269,212.80

The Weemses filed a request on March 15 for Celebration Church to produce documents within 30 days to prove its allegations. They’re also seeking restoration of their base salary, benefits and back pay.

The Weemses also said the church threatened to arrest them if they came onto church property.

Kerri Weems Instagram post (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Celebration Church released a statement to News4JAX on Wednesday:

“Celebration Church has grown and thrived since Pastor Tim Timberlake became the church’s spiritual leader in September 2021. Celebration’s board of trustees recently suspended Pastor Stovall Weems pending an investigation into certain decisions made by him in early 2021 that were not in the best interest of the church and were not approved by the board. As that investigation remains ongoing, the church does not intend to make any further comments about it at this time. Celebration is praying for a resolution for all parties involved, and is confident in God’s plan for the church and that ultimately the truth will prevail. We remain focused on advancing the kingdom of God.” --Wayland Wiseman, Executive Pastor, Celebration Church

Stovall and Kerri Weems released a statement to News4JAX on Wednesday:

“We could never have imagined that the church we started and nurtured for nearly 25 years would be seized by individuals whom we believe are prioritizing their individual interests in power and money ahead of their duties to Celebration Church and its mission. We have nothing to hide. We are being retaliated against and have been denied a proper investigation according to long-held church by-laws. Meanwhile, the substantive allegations made in our Complaint about financial improprieties perpetrated by current Board members have gone unanswered. We reject the utterly baseless and false allegations made against us. Celebration Church members have a right to know what is happening in their church and we have a right to be treated fairly.”

Stovall Weems wrote in an Instagram post that they are grateful for the overwhelming support they’ve received and look forward to being welcomed back to the church they founded.

A court hearing on this case is scheduled for May 20.