“This case arises out of a continuing unlawful conspiracy masterminded by the Defendants to protect and expand their church growth business interests and endeavors and the substantial income they generate by destroying plaintiffs and eliminating them as perceived threats and competitors, which included engineering a takeover at Celebration Church of Jacksonville, Inc,” the complaint alleges.
In 1998, Stovall and Kerri Weems founded Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida. The congregation grew to about 12,000, but that all changed in 2022 when Weems announced on social media that he was resigning from every role he held with the church.
That announcement came two months after he filed a lawsuit against the church’s board of trustees and officers over who controlled the congregation’s assets.
In the 42-page July 12 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida’s middle district, the Association of Related Churches (ARC), Chris Hodges, Dino Rizzo and John Seibeling are all named as defendants.
The Weemses accuse all of the above of “continuing unlawful conspiracy” in a scheme that framed the couple and damaged their reputations, according to the lawsuit, saying the defendants “were consumed by greed and the desire to advance their own financial and business interests.”
According to the lawsuit, Pastor Weems felt his church “had become too ‘corporate,'” as it focused on generating attendance and revenue. He explained the church needed to put more concentration on “helping the poor, missionary work, equality, and simplifying the church.”
Pastor Weems also noted the negative mental impact on pastors, saying, “the modern church growth system and its constant pressure to grow attendance and generate more and more revenue to keep the corporate ‘machine’ running was having significant negative psychological and health impacts on pastors.”
Hodges, Rizzo, Seibeling and the ARC are accused of spreading the word that the Weems were under investigation for “financial mismanagement,” along with claims that the couple was abusive toward staff members.
“Defendants intentionally caused substantial financial and other irreparable harm to the Plaintiffs through a pattern of unlawful and often criminal acts that included extortion, bribery, psychological abuse, wire fraud, and computer crimes,” the complaint, which is seeking a jury trial, says.
When Pastor Stovall Weems decided in 2018 that he would not make donations to the ARC unless that money was going towards missionary work, the defendants began conspiring to replace him with Tim Timberlake, an ARC agent, “who they could control,” the lawsuit says.
Church of the Highlands officials reached out to News 19 after the publication of this article to share a statement from Chris Hodges.
“I am saddened by the false and misleading allegations made by Stovall Weems in his lawsuit against the Association of Related Churches and its leadership. ARC is a non-profit with the singular mission to help new churches as they get off the ground and develop. Hundreds of ARC churches are loving and serving people in their communities because of the support and resources they have received. Any claims mischaracterizing the actions or mission of ARC will be proven untrue.”Pastor Chris Hodges
The lawsuit is also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.