Ousted FL Megachurch Pastor Sues ARC Network, Alleging ‘Conspiracy’ & Deception

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

July 17, 2023

By Josh Shepherd

Embattled pastor Stovall Weems, who was ousted last year from the Florida megachurch he founded, has sued the Association of Related Churches (ARC), claiming ARC leaders “masterminded” a takeover of his church for ARC’s benefit. The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a bitter conflict between Weems, the church he formerly pastored, Celebration Church, and ARC. Over the past 17 months, Weems has been named as either the plaintiff or defendant in five separate legal cases. 

The latest lawsuit was filed July 12 by Weems and his wife, Kerri, and several entities they co-founded, in the U.S. District Court–Middle District Court of Florida. It seeks “in excess of $75,000” in damages.

The Weemses claim leaders of prominent church planting network ARC sought to “protect and expand their church growth business interests” by “gaining control” over Celebration Church based in Jacksonville. 

The suit alleges that ARC leaders used “undisclosed agents,” including two law firms and ARC-affiliated pastor Tim Timberlake, to direct a years-long conspiracy. ARC and its agents “framed” the Weemses for financial crimes the couple did not commit, “destroyed their reputations,” and facilitated the Weemses’ removal from the multi-site megachurch, the suit claims.

The website for Stovall Weems Ministries includes the full text of the lawsuit, which the couple notes in a statement is central to their “quest for truth and justice.” The Weemses add that they are “confident the Lord will expose corruption and bring justice to God’s family, so they can experience freedom from oppression and control in their houses of worship.” 

The Roys Report (TRR) reached out to Celebration Church through a legal representative, but leaders declined to comment on the record. TRR also reached out to ARC but did not receive a response.

Founded in 1998 by the Weemses, Celebration Church, which reportedly has over 12,000 members, is a member of the ARC network. ARC has been linked to other scandals involving money or sex, and the Weemses used to be ARC Lead Team members.

Specifically, the suit names Chris Hodges, co-founder of ARC, as allegedly gaining “power and financial benefits” through ARC’s “unbridled church-growth model.” The suit notes that ARC, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, heavily promotes for-profit company GrowLeader LLC, which offers fee-based consulting generating “significant revenue” for Hodges.  

Two of Hodges’ close allies—ARC executive director Dino Rizzo and ARC founding board member John Seibeling—served as outside overseers of Celebration Church. The suit alleges these overseers, tasked with “counseling” the pastor and board rather than exercising authority, conspired against the Weemses. (Rizzo and Seibeling stepped down as overseers in September 2021.) 

In addition, the suit claims two law firms linked to ARC—Middlebrook Goodspeed and Nelson Mullins—concurrently represented both Celebration Church and ARC’s interests.

Middlebrook Goodpeed was involved in drafting Celebration Church’s 2015 bylaws and a revised version of the church bylaws installed in January 2022. The amended bylaws allegedly gave the church’s Board of Trustees “absolute, unchecked power” according to the new lawsuit, which enabled the board to dismiss the church’s founding pastor. 

Meanwhile, Nelson Mullins, which has served as counsel for ARC, conducted an investigation into alleged financial improprieties on behalf of Celebration Church in early 2022. 

Weemses “humiliated” by “sham” investigation

The Weemses claim the firm’s months-long probe was a “sham” with a “predetermined outcome” defined by ARC. The 22-page report, published on the church’s website last year but since removed, claimed that Stovall Weems committed fraud and “unjustly” enriched himself. 

According to that report, the Weemses are responsible for nearly $3.4 million missing from church accounts, plus some $430,000 in “embezzled profit” from the unauthorized purchase of a church parsonage. 

The Weemses’ lawsuit claims that two others were responsible for the $3 million embezzled from church funds. The suit names former church CFO Lisa Stewart and Kevin Cormier, a member of Celebration Church’s Board of Trustees and owner of a construction company, as culpable in the scheme. 

In addition to details of financial mismanagement, the Nelson Mullins report alleged the Weemses engaged in years-long patterns of toxic leadership and “rampant spiritual and emotional abuse.” 

Yet, according to the new lawsuit, that report included “private and confidential information” about Kerri Weems that had been “unlawfully gathered.” The now-removed public report from Nelson Mullins stated: “Kerri Weems has a history of clinical depression . . . People close with Kerri Weems stated that she expressed being suicidal . . . “

The lawsuit alleges that such details were included to “try to destroy (the Weemses’) reputations, humiliate them, and prevent (them) from continuing their ministry and missions.”

TRR reached out to Nelson Mullins, but a representative declined to comment. 

Conflict with ARC over ministry goals

The lawsuit filed by the Weems alleges the conspiracy and takeover arose from a ministry-model conflict between the Weemses and ARC dating back to 2018. 

The Weemses claim in the suit that Celebration Church had no contractual or financial obligations to ARC. Yet the megachurch chose to donate “$150,000 to $200,000 per year” to help fund ARC’s church-planting operations. 

In spring 2018, Stovall Weems had a spiritual experience that has been described as “the Encounter” where Weems allegedly was “physically present with Jesus” and spoke to him. This experience allegedly caused him to alter the direction of the church and question ARC’s model. 

The Weemses’ suit states that they “began to shift Celebration Church’s focus away” from ARC’s church growth model centered on “generating attendance and revenue.” Instead, the Weemses say they aimed to pioneer “missionary work” through the multi-site megachurch. 

The suit recounts a critical dialogue between Stovall Weems and Hodges. Weems said that “Celebration Church would only be willing to donate funds to ARC if they were earmarked for missionary work and helping pastors get the counseling, guidance, and treatment they needed to shift their focus to ministry and missions, rather than church growth,” according to the suit.

This “missions work” of the Weemses would be ostensibly accomplished through several business entities the Weemses established in 2019. These include Honey Lake Farms, Inc., a 565-acre hunting preserve with exotic animals and a 5,000-square-foot lodge; Honey Lake Clinic, Inc., which provided Christian-based mental health treatment services; business services management company NorthStream; and a streaming video service, AWKNG TV. 

The suit states the Weemses’ intent of “helping the poor” through “missions” but does not specify how the now-defunct entities were involved in charity, humanitarian, or aid initiatives.

Specific references to Honey Lake Farms in the suit present a narrative claiming that Hodges and Rizzo viewed the hunting preserve and pastors’ retreat center as competitive to ARC’s nascent lodge, which was announced nine months after Honey Lake Farms opened. 

The $4.5 million ARC “lodge” has been controversial for its stated mission of restoring pastors. Hodges has publicly stated that restoring morally-fallen pastors is something that he wants “to be known for.”

Last week, the controversy erupted again when local media reported on the newly opened lodge. Former church staff and experts questioned if the lodge would house pastors suspected of committing sex crimes, like former Church of the Highlands Pastor Micahn Carter. Hodges stated in a follow-up interview on Friday that no clergy accused of sexual misconduct will ever stay at the ARC-sponsored Lodge. 

A hearing on the Weemses’ case against ARC has not been scheduled. 

Weems and former church to face-off in court

Last summer, the Weemses launched a new church, Awakening Ecclesia, which meets in a rented strip-mall space in Jacksonville. 

In January, the couple reached an “amicable settlement” with a local bank regarding claims of $700,000 in unpaid debt. But the Weemses are also involved in two other ongoing lawsuits linked to their previous leadership roles with Celebration Church.

The first, filed last February, is a suit that the Weemses filed against the church, claiming the church board of trustees illegally ousted Stovall Weems from his role as senior pastor last year. Last October, claims of defamation were added to this case after a separate defamation case was dismissed

In another suit, Celebration Church is seeking to evict the Weemses from the church parsonage, which an investigation report alleges was purchased for over $1.2 million without the approval of Celebration’s board of trustees. Court filings show the Weemses continue to reside in the parsonage as their place of residence. 

A hearing on both cases is scheduled for August 3 at the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.