I-TEAM: Celebration Church releases findings of explosive investigation into founding pastor

Stovall Weems denies report’s findings of embezzlement, ‘narcissistic’ behavior and emotional abuse

The report said 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.”

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – 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.

Attorneys for the church said they interviewed more than 20 current and former senior leadership members, staff, former trustees, other advisors and consultants.

The report 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.”

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

The report said 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.”

LINK: Full report of investigation to Celebration Church

Lavish lifestyle

The investigation determined that 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 that 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,” the report reads.

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.

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.”

Allegations involving parsonage

Celebration Church said it agreed to purchase a parsonage for the Weemses to use as their personal residence. The property in Glen Kernan Golf and Country Club was purchased in January 2020 for $1,295,000. The board approved the purchase.

The report said at some point thereafter, the Weemses decided they wanted to relocate. Weems asked if he could keep the proceeds from the sale of the Glen Kernan home. The CFO told Weems that because the church owned the property, he was not entitled to the sale proceeds, according to the investigation.

The Glen Kernan parsonage was sold on June 4, 2021 for $1,475,000.

Weems never presented the potential sale of the Glen Kernan parsonage to the board, according to the investigation, and Celebration kept the sale proceeds.

Meanwhile, on February 9, 2021, Weems Group, LLC – of which Weems is the sole member and manager – purchased a home on Shellcracker Road on the Nassau River, according to the investigation.

The report said the Weems Group purchased it for $855,000 and four months later, sold it to the church for $1,286,863 – an increase of $431,386, according to the report.

The church’s purchase of the Shellcracker property was not disclosed to or approved by the board, according to the investigation.

Sky 4 video of Stovall and Kerri Weems' home on Shellcracker Road. (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

The closing documents were signed by Weems on behalf of Weems Group and the church, the report states.

The church financed the purchase of the property by drawing on its line of credit from its primary lender. Weems executed a Mortgage Modification and Spreading Agreement, increasing the church’s debt by $1,300,000, according to the investigation.

An email sent by the attorney that closed the sale of the Shellcracker Road property indicated that the Weems Group kept the $430,000 profit it made on the sale.

The investigation said the Weemses attempted to justify keeping the profit because the money was needed for improvements. It said there is no evidence any improvements have been made to the property and the building department’s records do not show any permit applications have been filed for that property.

“Second, and more damning, when asked by the Weemses’ realtor whether any renovations would be made to the property after closing for the purpose of obtaining homeowner’s insurance, Weems sent an email stating: ‘No renovations after closing,’” the investigation reads.

‘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.

The report also said Weems bundled these funds with others so he could qualify as a “legacy investor” in TurnCoin and would be entitled to be paid back before other investors and receive 10% interest on their investment.

7 recommended action steps

The church’s attorneys recommended seven action steps as a result of this investigation. The board approved all of them:

  1. Accept the resignation of Stovall and Kerri Weems as employees of Celebration effective April 15, 2022 without further compensation or benefits
  2. Pursue the removal of Stovall and Kerri Weems from any positions of authority relating to the church, Honey Lake Farms, Honey Lake Clinic and AWKNG
  3. Require Stovall and Kerri Weems to account for and return to the church all funds misappropriated by them
  4. Remove Stovall 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

Statement from Stovall Weems

The News4JAX I-TEAM received a statement from Weems following the release of the investigative report:

“This report is completely concocted by the Trustees and their lawyer as a character assassination without real basis. The “charges” are as they always were – untrue and without a hard basis in fact, as a thoughtful investigation would show. Despite my numerous requests for the usual independent financial audit for 2021, as reflected in the board minutes, they have not done so, choosing instead to conduct their own misinformed “investigation” over months without input from those most informed. How can they claim they conducted an investigation into improper financial transactions without a financial audit? If this is now a board-led church where is their responsibility for the Church’s dismal financial performance since I allowed them to take over with a new Lead Pastor at the beginning of 2020? And where is the oversight? As I have said all along, I have nothing to hide. That has not changed. I shall continue a righteous path with a new ministry despite these shameful efforts.”

Previously, the Weemses have denied the allegations against them and said a member of the Board of Trustees engaged in financial misconduct by improperly billing the church for construction-type services that he initially said he would provide as an in-kind donation.

Weems launched a new Instagram page, Stovall Weems Ministries, dedicated to posting ministry videos. He also answered questions about the ongoing dispute with Celebration Church.

About the Authors:

Renee Beninate is a Florida native and award-winning reporter who joined the News4Jax team in June 2021.