TAMPA – Days after its founders announced they plan to divorce, Without Walls International Church got back to business Sunday.
The 9 a.m. service drew about 1,000 people – a typical crowd for the early service during summer months. After a typically high-energy service, few members wanted to talk about the impending split between Randy and Paula White, though.
One woman who did speak after the service, Katrina Singleton, 35, of Brandon, said the couple’s separation might affect the church. Some members tend to follow Randy, while others follow Paula, she said.
“I was really surprised,” Singleton said.
After a rare joint appearance Thursday night, when the co-founders delivered the news to a stunned congregation, Randy White returned to the pulpit alone, as expected. White told the Tribune last week that his wife had returned to New York Friday morning, after they made their announcement.
That wasn’t unusual. In the past year, as her own ministry has evolved, Paula White’s appearances at the North Grady Avenue church have become sporadic.
No mention was made of Thursday’s announcement at the 9 a.m. service, where White preached for a few minutes before turning over the pulpit to Ralph Messer, a Messianic rabbi from Denver who teaches about the Hebrew roots of the Christian faith.
Messer preached about the Torah and Jewish entrepreneurship and spoke again at the 11 a.m. service, where he led the congregation in a prayer that ended emotionally for White.
“I declare today that my bishop has entered into a new season, a new season, a new season,” Messer intoned, prompting White’s followers. “Now, give him glory. Praise God.”
As emotions in the sanctuary reached a high point, Messer hugged White, telling him, “I love you. I love you so much.” White, a prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, stood clutching a Torah scroll, head bowed, with a pained expression on his face.
Then White made his way to the podium, as his congregation cheered, buried his face in a black cloth and appeared to sob. Shortly after receiving a supportive hug from Messer, White appeared to crumble completely. His shoulders sagged, and he laid his head on his arm at the podium and gave way to even deeper sobbing. Eventually, Messer and a host of black-suited ministers gathered, laid their hands on White and formed a tight prayer circle around him.
On the video monitor behind White, the words “international church” appeared to hover over White’s prostrate body, as though he were carrying them on his back.
Intended or not, the symbolism may prove prophetic.
In his interview with the Tribune last week, White said he plans to resume his role as the church’s senior pastor and that he has put on hold plans to start another church in Malibu, Calif.
The Whites founded Without Walls in 1991 as the South Tampa Christian Center. Since then, the church has become one of the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing churches, boasting 23,000 members and nearly $40 million in revenues last year.
The Whites, who’ve been married nearly 18 years, said last week that the split is amicable and comes after visits to counselors over several years.
They blame two lives going in different directions.
Now, they will have to find a way to separate their interests without damaging the church they built.
Those logging on to Without Walls’ Web site Sunday to watch services saw no signs of a separation. The site continues to display a picture of the Whites together and to promote Paula White Ministries, which contributes between $50,000 and $80,000 a week to the church, Randy White said last week.
White said his wife would come back as a guest speaker and continue supporting the church for a while.
She will have bases in New York, and San Antonio, Texas, where she has homes, and in California. White said he would remain in the couple’s Bayshore Boulevard home.
The couple, who are using the same law firm for their divorce, plan to file as soon as they can work out the details of dividing their assets, Randy White said. That could happen as early as this week, he said.
Reporters Michelle Bearden and Jason Geary contributed to this report.