TAMPA - Randy and Paula White, the founders and co-pastors of what has been one of the nation's biggest and fastest-growing churches, plan to divorce.
Members of Without Walls International Church reacted with tears and a chorus of "Oh, no's" after the Whites' announcement at Thursday night's service.
Randy called Paula to the podium about an hour into the service. He was somber; Paula appeared choked up.
"It's the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in my entire life," he told the congregation, describing Paula as an exceptional woman, mother and preacher.
She pledged to return frequently to preach.
Viewers who tuned in to a live webcast of the service missed the announcement; the video and audio were cut off for about 10 minutes.
The most shaken members left the service and went into the entryway to cry or call loved ones. Most said the news came as a shock, but it didn't shake their faith in the ministry.
"It's like hearing the news from your parents," said Frank Murillo, who has attended the church for 10 years. "They are great people. We all go through stuff. Pastor Randy will be here, and I will be here."
Kerran Fuller has attended the church on and off since the beginning of the year.
The announcement "didn't weaken the church in anyway," he said after the service. "I'll definitely keep going."
The Whites, who've been married nearly 18 years, said in interviews that the split is amicable and comes after visits to counselors over several years.
They blame two lives going in different directions.
Randy, however, said he takes "100 percent responsibility" for the breakup.
"I want to apologize for the poor decisions I've made in my life, to my congregation and to the body of Christ," he told The Tampa Tribune. "I think I've let a lot of people down."
Those regrets, he said, include how he has treated some people, lifestyle changes and being seen in public with women other than his wife, even if it was innocent.
He and Paula said the split involves no third party on either side.
Randy will stay at Without Walls as senior pastor while Paula concentrates on her ministry, which includes a TV show broadcast on several national networks including Black Entertainment Television, conferences, and book and video sales.
She'll remain based in Tampa, with satellite operations in California, New York City and San Antonio.
Church attendance "will take a hit" from the news, Randy predicted. Without Walls reports having 23,000 members.
Its finances also will be affected: Paula's ministry brings in about $50,000 to $80,000 a week, he said. An audit put total church revenues at nearly $40 million last year.
Although Paula will continue to financially support the church, the Whites are in the process of separating operations.
The couple have pursued individual goals in recent months, rarely preaching together at the church on North Grady Avenue near Raymond James Stadium. They've also had to deal with the illness of Randy's grown daughter, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in December.
Paula, 41, is frequently on the road for her for-profit and nonprofit ventures. One of those, Paula White Enterprises, changed earlier this year when Randy's name was removed as a director, according to Department of State records. In February, she created a new nonprofit, PWM Lifecenter, listing as directors herself, church CFO Norva Carrington, and Rick Hawkins, founding pastor of the Family Praise Center in San Antonio, Texas.
She has made many speaking trips recently to San Antonio and this month purchased a $681,000 home there. She serves as "oversight pastor" to Hawkins' son Dustin, who now leads the church.
Paula also frequently travels to New York City, where she has a Trump Tower condo and leads monthly services at her new Life by Design Empowerment Center.
Randy, 49, has spent several months commuting to Malibu, Calif., where he signed a one-year lease on a beachfront dwelling. He had told his congregation he planned to start another church there, but now says those plans are on hold.
This is the second marriage each for the Whites, who came to Tampa after marrying in Maryland in March 1990. They have four grown children - three from his previous marriage, one from hers.
Without Walls church board member Alick Clarke of Acton, Calif., a longtime friend, said the impending divorce is sad news.
"They were like my heroes. I really love them," he said. "But I'm also a little pissed off. I didn't help them build their dream to have them throw it all away."
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 revenues at $40 million last year, the church was $22 million in debt.
"That's just not right."
Other questions about the Whites' financial dealings arose in stories published by the Tribune in May. Those included the couple's failure to repay a $170,000 loan from an elderly widow, money borrowed in 1995 as a down payment on a house. The couple sold the house in 2006, but still had not repaid the loan to Ruth McGinnis by May.
This week, McGinnis told the Tribune that "everything's been settled financially between Pastor Randy and me."
Also in May, The Tribune wrote about a young mother who said she never received the home she won in a widely publicized church contest in 2002.
On Aug. 15 she reported she and her four children had just moved into a new home purchased by the church.
The Whites have declined to say what the church pays them.
Michael Chitwood, whose financial services company devised their compensation package, said he recalled they have taken an annual salary as high as $1.5 million collectively, though most years it's closer to $600,000.
They were approved to take up to $3 million collectively, said the president of Chitwood & Chitwood of Tennessee.
Perhaps the most complex part of their divorce, being handled by Holland & Knight law firm, will be dividing up the assets, debts and business interests.
The couple's home on Bayshore Boulevard has an assessed value of $2.22 million. They have a land trust that includes two Tampa houses with assessed values of $144,800 and $257,835. The New York condo is valued at about $3.5 million.
Their multimillion-dollar ministry includes a private jet.
Randy White has said much of their wealth comes from more than 23 successful business ventures, including real estate and his role as a pitchman for Great HealthWorks' Omega XL fatty acid pills.
His main company, RAW Realty, is listed on his company Web site as being housed at 100 S. Ashley Drive, Suite 1180, in Tampa, but a law firm occupies that space. The state lists the company as being located at 2511 Grady Ave. in Tampa, which is the church address. The phone number on the Web site and listed with the state is disconnected. E-mails sent to the Web address were not returned.
White said this week the company is "very much active" in real estate, residential acquisitions and other ventures, but he's pared it down to himself and one assistant.
An 'Amazing' Start
Phil Cooke, a Los Angeles-based media strategist and consultant for religious and nonprofit organizations, said he remembers when the couple started their ministry.
"What they did in Tampa's inner city was amazing," he said. "They were creative, sharp, innovative. The track they started out on was terrific."
The church had dozens of ministries that worked with disadvantaged children, the homeless, people with substance abuse problems, single mothers and others on society's fringe.
It put on Easter services in venues such as the Sun Dome, where thousands were treated to giveaways and performances by stars such as Loretta Lynn, Lee Greenwood and Patti LaBelle. The high energy and good works attracted high-profile members including professional athletes and other local celebrities.
As the church gained members and revenue, the pastors changed. Paula built her international television ministry and became a life coach on "The Tyra Banks Show." Randy talked of performing nuptials for Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson in Michigan (they filed for divorce a month later). He boasted that he wasn't like "religious" people, posing in 2005 for a cover story in Makes and Models magazine, a publication devoted to exotic cars, motorcycles and scantily clad models. He has tattoos, collects guns and enjoys wine.
At a Sunday service in April, he introduced his former personal trainer - an attractive ex-porn star turned Christian - from the pulpit.
"We're cutting edge," he told the Tribune that month. "We do things a little bit differently than what a typical ministry would do."
This week, White promised changes are in store for the church and himself.
Without Walls will be less independent and more visible in the community, he said. He wants to team with other ministries in the city.
For personal growth, he now has three "accountability partners" who will help him concentrate on being a "good dad and great pastor."
"I've been preaching restoration for 15 years," he said. "Now it's time to live it."
Tim Storey, a Los Angeles-based minister and life coach, is a big believer in restoration; when he divorced, his ministry was scarred.
"You can rebound from it, but not everyone will go with you," said Storey, a frequent guest speaker at Without Walls. "The key is turning to God to turn the setbacks into comebacks."
Paula White said she knows followers will feel let down and disappointed by the announcement, given that evangelical Christians hold marriage as a sacred institution and a cornerstone of a godly life.
"I wish there was a magic formula that gave you guarantees in life," she said. "Now I have to draw deep into my faith and let God draw me out of this dark place."
Doreen Fawkes, a former business administrator at Without Walls, said she hates to see any marriage end, but she's not surprised by the announcement.
"They grew at an unbelievable speed. It became less about God and more about self-promotion," she said, but the congregation needs to understand it's not just about the Whites.
"The people are the church," she said. "And the presence of God is the glue that holds them together. I pray the people will see that and carry on."