TAMPA – They say God told them to come here.
So Randy and Paula White, broke but on fire for the Lord, packed up a U-Haul with their few possessions and headed south from Maryland in 1990 to win souls in a city where they knew no one.
A few supporters turned into dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. The Whites’ church, founded in 1991, became Without Walls International. Its motto: “the perfect church for people who are not.” It is ranked one of the largest and fastest-growing independent churches in the country, according to Church Growth Today, a consulting company.
As it grew – at one time offering more than 200 outreach missions, programs for poor, urban children and single moms in need of job training – so did the Whites’ perks. They travel in a $1.9 million business jet. They own a home they purchased for $2.1 million on Bayshore Boulevard and a $3.5 million Trump Tower condo in New York. Randy rents a waterfront villa in Malibu, Calif.
Their careers continue on upward, if divergent, trajectories. Randy wants to launch a church in Malibu, one where he can “influence the influencers,” the “movers and shakers in the movie industry,” as he told his Tampa congregation last month. Paula is nurturing a thriving television career while producing books, DVDs and conferences for her New York-based Life By Design ministry.
At the foundation of it all is Without Walls, a church that claims 23,500 members on two campuses and nearly $40 million in donations and other revenue last year. It, too, has undergone a transformation. Appearances and money – giving it and getting it – have become a focus.
And problems have arisen:
- One elderly church member said she was left with a depleted savings account, a promissory note and a broken contract to be cared for “for life.”
- Some businesspeople complained the Whites reneged on deals and didn’t pay their bills. In the past seven years, five lawsuits or claims of lien filed against the couple or the church were settled or resolved in court in the plaintiffs’ favor.One, an interior designer, said Paula, 41, used the church’s tax-free status to buy furnishings for her personal use.
- Randy, 49, who uses the titles “doctor” and “bishop,” does not have the degrees – earned and honorary – from the schools cited in his autobiography and on a former church Web site.
- In the past 18 months, more than 60 church associates, some on staff and some unpaid, have left or been “released” from their jobs.
“Mansions, big planes, money, fame. That’s what it’s all about now,” said the Rev. Hector Gomez, a former Without Walls staff member who left in 2000. “There are prophets for God, and there are prophets for profit. That’s the category they fit in.”
Steven List remembers the early days, when the Whites began their church in a storefront. His Seattle-based organization, International Support Ministries, served as a mentor of sorts, giving guidance and spiritual input.
“They had nothing but a few hundred dollars, that’s when I knew them,” he said.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
That has changed.
Without Walls, including its Lakeland campus and Paula’s broadcast ministry, took in $35 million in tithes and offerings last year, according to a recent audit by Lewis, Birch & Ricardo CPAs.
The audit was posted online last week – the first public accounting in the church’s history – after The Tampa Tribune requested a copy.
How much of the revenue goes to the Whites, the couple won’t say. The audit lists more than $5.5 million in salaries for 2006. The church declined to say how many employees were on the payroll.
In January, the couple arrived for a service in their blue Mercedes sedan. They entered the sanctuary, a former warehouse at 2511 N. Grady Ave., watched over by a security contingent of solemn, beefy men wearing sunglasses and communication devices. Surveillance cameras kept watch from all corners.
“We deal with a lot of people coming out of a dark part of society,” Randy explained later. “We have to be careful.”
An assistant pastor took the stage first and talked about the importance of tithing, about how God’s law directs members to give a certain percentage of income to the church.
“Tithe is 10 percent of your gross income, not your net,” Randy has reminded congregants.
On this night, a contemporary band pumped up the volume, and the mood in the pews became jubilant. Staff passed the collection plates. Some in the congregation jumped up and down with excitement. A few sobbed. The plates filled with cash and envelopes.
Then Randy and Paula White – golden hair, bronzed skin and bright-white smiles – stepped briskly to the stage. She wore a businesslike suit; he wore jeans and an untucked black shirt. The cheers and applause swelled to rock-star adoration.
The church is “like what heaven must be like,” member Shantae Thomas, 36, said later. The registered nurse from Riverview said her pastors are “true shepherds who hear straight from God” and set an example of Christian service to the congregation.
“It’s all about the word. It’s all about the Bible,” she said.
The couple told the crowd to rejoice that they had come on a special night; the Whites have gotten so busy, they rarely preach together anymore.
The collection plates were passed for three more offerings, one specifically “for the pastor.”
Such a designated collection is not unusual in megachurches, said R. Drew Smith, scholar in residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“They [megachurches] seem to operate out of the corporate paradigm, where pastors are treated more like CEOs,” Smith said.
Without Walls is about 70 percent black. In the African-American tradition, there’s no shame in being generous in remunerating the pastor or in seeing him or her travel by private jet or luxury car, Smith said.
But it can create problems, he added.
“When you have a church identified with wealth and privilege and power, when so many are struggling economically and spiritually, we lose sight of the values and principles that should be in place to help people advance,” he said.
Gomez, the former member who now leads the Relationship Enrichment Center, another Tampa church, said he witnessed “more manipulation than inspiration” at Without Walls.
“A lot of drama inside and too much attention paid to getting exposure and publicity on the outside.”
The Whites preach prosperity gospel: The more you give, the more you get.
“I’ve done extremely well,” Randy said recently. But he said he’s generous, recently giving $25,000 to a terminally ill pastor in California.
Most of the couple’s personal income comes from private businesses, including a real estate company, sales of nutritional supplements and speaking engagements, he said. Since 2005, two of their businesses have sold $871,000 in books, DVDs, CDs and clothing to the church, according to the recent audit.
Financial accountability is overseen by a five-member board: the Whites; Chief Financial Officer Norva Carrington; Alick Clark of Acton, Calif.; and Zachery Tims of Windermere.
The board reports to an 18-member council – its members selected by the board.
By comparison, at another Tampa megachurch, Idlewild Baptist, members are encouraged to participate in and vote on an annual review of the budget.
The Whites say the church now supports more than 90 missions, in-house and community outreach programs, plus overhead costs. It paid more than $3.1million for “missions, outreach and benevolence” last year, according to the audit.
One beneficiary is Tampa physician Sydel LeGrande, a congregant for a dozen years. Without Walls provided 2,500 square feet of space – rent free – for her health clinic for seven years. Operation Med-Care took care of patients regardless of their ability to pay. Her new outreach, Your Place Medical, gets $2,000 a month, she said. The clinic, based in North Boulevard Homes, serves patients in the public housing complex.
“What they’ve done for this community, people have no idea,” she said. “I know they’re not perfect. I’ve heard some of the things said around town, and some of it is probably true, but this much I know: God has placed a tremendous call on their lives. It requires a lot of them.”
Yes, they do good works, said former staff member Larry DeLaRosa. But given the millions in revenue, Without Walls should be doing more, he said.
DeLaRosa and his wife, Wanda, who run a nonprofit organization for children and an outreach ministry, left the church in 2000 when the Whites’ theology “stopped lining up biblically.” They maintain that the Whites take the Scriptures out of context to manipulate people to give beyond their means.
“They’ve built an empire and used it to gain their own financial wealth,” he said. “If I had one-tenth of what they have, I could do twice as many ministries as they say they’re supporting now.”
The donations come from people such as 85-year-old Ruth McGinnis.
A church member from the beginning, McGinnis said she loves Without Walls and considers Randy and Paula White “like my own son and daughter.”
Singing in the church choir is “the joy of my life,” she said.
Her son, Ron McGinnis of Plano, Texas, and her former lawyer, William Platt of Tampa, said she lent the Whites $170,000, nearly her entire life savings, left when her husband died in 1992.
Documents obtained by The Tampa Tribune show Ruth McGinnis made that loan based on spoken promises – recorded later in a signed agreement – that were never kept.
Called “Mother Ruth” by the Whites, McGinnis said she agreed in 1995 to lend the couple money toward a down payment on a $650,000 house in Cheval, a Lutz subdivision. In exchange, they would take her into their home as a member of the family for the rest of her life.
Original receipts from her bank show she redeemed three certificates of deposit totaling $182,726.50 on April 28, 1995 – a transaction she said she made with Paula. A year later, Platt, while working on her will, learned she had no written record of the agreement. He said he urged her to get one as protection for her loan.
On June 10, 1997, the Whites and McGinnis signed paperwork that listed her as having a $170,000 lien on the Cheval house. The Whites also signed a promissory note agreeing to pay back the loan at $1,000 a month, plus 6 percent interest.
But what McGinnis wanted most was the lifetime support. A document spelled out conditions: She would live with the Whites in private quarters within their home or any home they moved to; the Whites would provide transportation for her and include her in their personal and professional travel plans when possible; she would be treated as a member of the family, not as a boarder.
The agreement also called for her to pay them $900 a month for meals and “reasonable occupancy” in the house, to be deducted from the loan.
“I took no great pride” in drafting that agreement, Platt said. He said he told his client on several occasions that it would be impossible to enforce.
The living arrangement was sporadic. McGinnis said she never traveled with the Whites after signing the agreement; they were often gone, leaving her feeling lonely. She returned to her south Tampa home for days or weeks at a time so she could be closer to her doctors. After bouncing back and forth, she moved back to her house permanently when the Whites moved into their Bayshore Boulevard home in 2002.
The Whites made two of the monthly payments, she said. They sold the Cheval house in 2006 for $1 million; McGinnis said she didn’t know they had sold the home and received nothing from the sale.
That could be because in 1999, according to memos Platt kept, McGinnis told him “the preacher had asked her to sign a document so they could refinance the mortgage to retain a lower interest rate.” She said she recalled the Whites taking her to an office to sign papers, but she never received a copy of the paperwork or understood what it was.
Her signature is on a 1999 satisfaction of mortgage document.
Frustrated that McGinnis ignored his advice about signing paperwork without consulting him, Platt told her he could no longer represent her.
When asked about the documents last week, the Whites released a statement through a public relations spokesman: “After the original agreement for lifetime support was in place, Ruth McGinnis requested that the lifetime support agreement be cancelled, and financial arrangements were made to accommodate that request. In connection with that agreement, Ruth returned to her own home where she has lived ever since.”
They declined to show the Tribune any supporting documents.
The statement said “the Whites and Ms. McGinnis continue to be very close; however, the Whites are hesitant to give out any other information about financial arrangements because this is a private matter” between the two parties.
McGinnis’ son, who speaks to his mother regularly by phone but rarely sees her anymore, said her involvement with the Whites has strained their relationship. He wanted her to have money in the bank so she didn’t have to worry about finances.
As for his mother’s dealings with the Whites, Ron McGinnis was always skeptical. “I don’t care if the intentions were good, which I don’t think they were. The bottom line is that ethically, it looks bad. It just stinks.”
Now, Ruth McGinnis said, she’s living on less than $1,200 a month.
Except for holidays, McGinnis said she rarely sees the Whites outside the pulpit. She said she has been trying to get a private appointment with “Pastor Randy” for two years; he did visit her last week after the Tribune inquired about their relationship. She finds rides every Wednesday to choir practice and to church Sunday mornings and evenings. She has accepted that she’ll never live in the Bayshore house.
Still, she has framed pictures of the Whites throughout her house. “My love for them is like God’s love. It’s everlasting,” she said.
Others don’t view the Whites as charitably. Some remain bitter after business dealings with the couple or the church. Since 2000, court records show five business deals that soured after the Whites refused to pay.
Jacqueline Knight, who runs a Tampa public relations and marketing company, said, “We’ve moved on and we’re friends again” after she placed a lien on the church for $16,782 in unpaid bills in April 2002. She was paid an undisclosed sum before it got to court.
Interior designer Charles Cox, also in Tampa, is still fuming.
County Court Judge Paul Huey ordered the church to pay Cox-Feivelson Antiques and Design Gallery $10,217 for unpaid bills in November.
“They made no attempt to resolve the problem to avoid legal action, not even a phone call,” he said. “I expect more of high-end clients, especially Christian ones.”
Cox also did work at the couple’s Bayshore home. His invoices include purchases by Paula, using the church’s tax-exempt status, of two tables and a wingback chair totaling $2,893.
He said she told him to use her tax-exempt status; she said she did not.
After reviewing documents provided by the Tribune, Paula said she did not know why sales tax was not charged on the items. She said it was owed and arrangements were made to pay it.
“This certainly was an error on someone’s part that has since been corrected,” she said.
That’s a good thing, said Pete Evans, a senior investigator with Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit agency that monitors televangelists.
“That would definitely be unethical and immoral – and as far as legality goes, she’s treading on very thin ice with the IRS,” Evans said.
Another businessman who sued – and remains angry about the experience – is former airplane broker Todd Bates, who lives outside Detroit.
When Randy told his congregation the church hoped to buy a private jet, Bates’ in-laws, who attended Without Walls, put the pastor in touch with their son-in-law. Bates said he and Randy began talking on the phone in February 2002. He recommended a small business jet, and the two repeatedly discussed features and costs. The church wired a $15,000 deposit.
Randy asked that the landing gear be overhauled before the sale, and, as the aircraft sat jacked up in the middle of the maintenance, Bates said Randy stopped returning his calls.
“I left several messages saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to close this deal,'” Bates said. “But it was like he just vanished.”
About that time, Randy announced to his congregation that he had purchased a jet – from another pastor, Randy Gilbert, according to a Sept. 23, 2002, deposition.
Bates sued the church in Oakland County Court in Michigan, seeking $100,000 in damages, the commission he would have received on the deal. The church ended up settling for even more: $125,000.
Randy said there was never a contractual agreement, and early discussions with Bates were conducted by a church volunteer.
On advice of the church attorney, Randy said, it would be cheaper to settle out of court.
The jet and the furnishings are part of a lifestyle that emphasizes appearances. That, too, may have led to problems.
In his autobiography, “Without Walls,” and on a 2002 Web profile, Randy said he enrolled at the former Lee College in Cleveland, Tenn., and earned a bachelor’s degree in ministerial studies and a master’s in divinity. He said he was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va.
Representatives from both schools said he did not receive degrees there, though Lee confirmed he took two classes.
According to documents Randy gave the Tribune in April, he received a doctorate of humane letters from Commonwealth Assistance Foundation Institute of International Studies in Alexandria, Va., in May 1993. An in-depth Internet search found no mention of the school. There is no telephone listing for it.
Randy does have a bachelor’s degree in theology from the International Bible Institute and Seminary, a correspondence school in Orlando.
On Sept. 11, 2005, Randy took on a new title: He was installed as a bishop by T. L. Lowery, founder of the T. L. Lowery Global Foundation, an international ministry service organization. He’s also a longtime denominational leader with the Church of God.
But Lowery said Randy is not a bishop in the Church of God. The title is good only at Without Walls, he said.
The evangelist said he’s not surprised by Randy’s success, lauding his “infectious personality and tremendous spirit.” On May 31, Lowery will honor his former protege by naming a new building at his ministry “The Randy White Mentoring Auditorium.”
“He donated a large sum of money to the building fund,” Lowery said. “This is a way to show my appreciation.”
The trappings are physical as well. Both the Whites have undergone cosmetic surgery, seeming to grow younger over the past five years.
“We’re on television, and you’ve got to look the part,” Randy said.
Otherwise, their styles differ. Paula, with a global broadcast image and recurring role as a life coach on “The Tyra Banks Show,” chooses her words carefully. She wears designer suits and stiletto heels but never misses an opportunity to tell her audiences about growing up poor and being sexually abused in Mississippi. When the Holy Spirit moves her, glamour gives way to spiritual fervor, her mouth rapidly moving as she speaks in tongues.
Randy seems to relish the role of funky, flawed and edgy preacher. He admits that he doesn’t pray before meals, bears several tattoos and enjoys wine. He said strip club owner Joe Redner should have been elected to the Tampa City Council in November (“He would have been good for this city”), and his gun collection includes an AK-47 automatic weapon.
“Guns are a good investment,” he said.
In January 2005, he was featured on the cover of Makes and Models Magazine, a glossy publication devoted to exotic cars, motorcycles and scantily clad female models. Associate editor Rodney Burrell, then a church member, wrote a glowing story about Randy called “Riding for Souls.” Although putting Randy on the cover – he stood posed next to his wife’s Mercedes SL55, valued at more than $100,000 – was Burrell’s idea, the church had to buy $7,500 worth of magazines for the privilege.
“I think they thought it would be a good witnessing tool,” Burrell said.
Other local ministers felt otherwise, he said.
“They wanted copies of the magazine. Not to read, but to pray over.”
Concerns about the couple have accelerated as the Whites pursue their separate callings. They spend less and less time at their church. In fact, for some weeks at a stretch, they aren’t in the same city.
They acknowledge rumors have been flying for a long time about their relationship. Randy said the two are best friends and will always remain so.
Asked whether they’re contemplating divorce, he said, “No one can predict the future.”
If they’ve appeared distracted lately, they said, it’s because they are focused on a serious, personal crisis.
In December, Randy’s 29-year-old daughter, Kristen Hernando, a mother of two, was diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor.
Dealing with her treatment and recovery has put “tremendous pressure” on the couple. So much that Randy told his congregation during the church’s Sun Dome Easter service that he has gotten rid of his e-mail and changed his cell number.
“The best way to reach me now is to see my secretary,” he told the packed arena, “and she’ll give you to somebody else.”
He appointed his wife as senior pastor, putting her in charge of the congregation, so he could take time to “collect my thoughts, to process and spend time with my daughter.”
He’s also spending time in Malibu, where, he has said, he plans to start another church. In April, he told congregants that the church he was in negotiations with once had 6,000 members including “people like Mel Gibson and Pamela Anderson and [singer] Kid Rock.”
But a spokeswoman for Malibu Christian Fellowship, formerly Malibu Vineyard, said the talks have ended.
“His vision is not our vision,” associate pastor Dorothy Burton said of Randy. “We’re not selling.”
No matter, Randy said when told of that comment, there are at least three other churches he’s looking at. At least “300 people have contacted me, wanting to start a ministry in that area,” he said.
While her husband commutes to California, Paula is also on the go, a sought-after speaker at Christian programs, women’s retreats and success seminars. She just launched a health and fitness program, “10 Commandments of Health and Wellness,” and in July, she’ll launch her “Life by Design” workshops across the street from Madison Square Garden. Her companion book, “You’re All That: Discovering God’s Design on Your Life,” comes out in October.
They understand some question their union, the second for both. Randy said he knows people talk when he is seen around town with attractive women, including his two grown daughters. Likewise, Paula acknowledges there have been rumors romantically linking her and some of her associates.
Still, the couple said they believe firmly in the sanctity of marriage and have been true to their marital vows for 18 years.
“We do what we’ve always done – a ministry of evangelism and restoration,” Paula said. But “when you get a call saying your 29-year-old daughter is going to die within a year and she doesn’t know it or understand, … that’s the bottom line. Has that put pressure on us? Oh, yes.”
“She’s my pride and joy,” Randy said of Paula. “To know that she came from a trailer and to now see her on CNN, and see her preach to 60,000 … and to know I was part of it, that’s better than anything I’ve done my entire life.”
‘Change Is Good’
At a meeting in January of a training program for aspiring pastors, Randy told his students, “There’s some transition that’s gone on, but that’s OK. Change is good. Tap your neighbor on the shoulder and say change is good.”
In chorus, they repeated: “Change is good.”
At one point during the meeting, when some of the students bristled at his seemingly impious ways, Randy quipped: “You all can’t hang; you are all too religious for me. That’s why I need to go to Malibu, to get away.”
Randy recently dismissed any suggestion that morale at the church is suffering. Staff cuts he said were recommended by efficiency consultants may have been premature.
Things are going so well, Randy said, “We’re looking at adding additional staff members. People are happy. The sheep are happy.”
List, the evangelist who helped the Whites’ ministry in its early years, hopes it stays that way.
List was in Tampa a few weeks ago but never connected with the Whites.
“I talked to them a few years back, but they’re real hard to get a hold of these days,” he said.
He has heard about their ministry’s vast reach, the multimillion-dollar revenue and the couple’s personal accumulated wealth.
List is not saying people shouldn’t have those things. But he has seen what happens when people come from nothing, hit the big time, then get overcome with making more. For 27 years, he and his wife have lived in the 2,100-square-foot house where they raised their four children.
All this talk of financial security and gaining bountiful riches isn’t how Jesus lived, List said.
“Never forget where you came from,” he said. “That’s the teaching that’s not emphasized enough.”
Sidebar: CHURCH’S HISTORY
1989: Randy White, a 30-year-old evangelism director for the National Church of God in Fort Washington, Md., marries Paula, 22, a part-time staff member dealing with outreach and children. He has three children from his first marriage; she has one.
1990: Paula and Randy White move to Tampa, where they serve a year at Bayshore United Methodist Church.
1991: The Whites launch South Tampa Christian Center, a nondenominational church, in a strip mall on Manhattan Avenue.
1994: With nearly 2,000 members, South Tampa Christian Center becomes the nation’s fourth-fastest-growing church, according to Missouri-based research center Church Growth Today.
1995: The church buys the former Canada Dry warehouse on North Grady Avenue. The new building can seat about 5,000.
1997: South Tampa Christian Center is renamed Without Walls International Church.
1999: Abundant Life International Church, a satellite ministry of Without Walls, opens in Lutz.
2000: A truck driving school, REACT, sponsored by Without Walls, is shut down, and its director eventually goes to prison for circumventing licensing laws.
2001: Paula launches Paula White Ministries.
2002: With membership at an estimated 15,000, Without Walls strikes a deal to use the 10,000-seat Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland to expand to Central Florida. Without Walls eventually buys the church complex.
December 2003: Paula White and other church members, including former baseball player Darryl Strawberry, meet with pop star Michael Jackson at his California ranch shortly after the singer was charged with lewd and lascivious conduct.
June 2005: The Whites file a civil suit to force Strawberry and his wife to move from the Whites’ home in Cheval, a Lutz subdivision.
June-July 2005: Without Walls becomes the nation’s fastest-growing church.
September 2005: The new satellite, Without Walls Central, moves from Auburndale to the former Carpenter’s Home Church.
July 2006: Strip club owner and Tampa City Council candidate Joe Redner attends a Sunday service and speaks to the congregation.
October 2006: Donald Trump appears on Paula’s TV show, “Paula White Today.”
Sources: Tribune archives, wires, www.withoutwalls.org