Sanctuary Faces Closure
TAMPA – The future of Without Walls International Church is in question now that a credit union wants to foreclose on the megaministry.
The church defaulted on a $1 million loan due in August, prompting the California-based Evangelical Christian Credit Union to file foreclosure proceedings Tuesday.
The filing also includes a $12 million loan made in December 2003, when Without Walls was looking to expand its ministry headquartered at 2511 N. Grady Ave. On Thursday, the credit union initiated a similar foreclosure proceeding involving two additional loans for the church’s branch in Lakeland. The credit union declined to release details of those loans.
Without Walls issued a statement Thursday that said it has done its best to meet ministerial goals and financial obligations in the wake of the economic downturn and adverse publicity.
Touted in 2004 by Church Growth Today as the nation’s second fastest-growing Christian congregation, the ministry took in as much as $40 million a year. But it has faced many hurdles in the past couple years. Among them: an ongoing U.S. Senate inquiry into its finances; the divorce of cofounders Randy and Paula White; and a dramatic drop in attendance.
For months, there have been signs of financial struggles at Without Walls.
In August, the church’s controller resigned citing serious concerns, according to a copy of his resignation letter obtained by The Tampa Tribune.
Church accountant Camillo Gargano wrote in the Aug. 28 letter that the ministry was in “turmoil.”
“Handling of finances by upper management is contrary with my fiduciary responsibility,” it states.
Management didn’t seem bothered by the financial problems, and used “bullying, excessive force and verbal abuse as a management style,” Gargano wrote.
“Not only is it unconscionable for me to work in such a hostile environment, but it is also physically and mentally debilitating to work under such stressful circumstances,” he wrote.
Gargano said he later submitted a second, less-critical letter at the request of church staffers.
He resigned after Randy White ordered him to pay White’s $24,000 American Express bill, even though it would mean the ministry couldn’t make payroll for the week, Gargano said in a September interview.
Part of the credit card bill was a $13,000 payment for mirrors installed in the church. The rest included personal expenses that White told Gargano he would pay back to the ministry, the controller said.
White sent text messages to Gargano insisting he pay the credit card bill. Gargano saved the messages.
Gargano, who attended church elsewhere, said during his 17 months employed there he constantly scrambled to find money to pay salaries and bills, and that little or no money went for ministerial work.
La Tour said it’s “extremely rare” for his lending organization to initiate foreclosure proceedings. He said it has happened less than 10 times in the organization’s 44-year history. The credit union provides financing for churches, Christian schools, other evangelical ministries, and missionaries in more than 100 countries.
In its statement Thursday, Without Walls said it will continue to hold services and activities as usual.
The Tampa Tribune’s special report, Without Walls Church: Of Faith, Fame And Fortune, includes past converage of the church. One story, on the then pending divorce of the church’s founders, includes comments by Without Walls church board member Alick Clarke of Acton, Calif., a longtime friend:
An Australian-born businessman, Clarke said he’s given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the church since it was founded by the Whites in 1991 as the South Tampa Christian Center.
He partially blamed the couple’s breakup on their devotion to preaching a prosperity message, exhorting followers to give more money to the church in order to be blessed with greater wealth.
‘Too many ministries have become big business. That message is desecrating the church today,’ said Clarke, adding that he was disturbed to learn that with revenue at $40 million last year, the church was $22 million in debt.