Without Walls Church faces foreclosure of two properties

St. Petersburg Times/November 6, 2008

Tampa - The future of Without Walls International Church, once one of the fastest-growing congregations in the country, is in jeopardy as the church faces foreclosure of its Tampa property.

The California-based Evangelical Christian Credit Union holds the church's mortgage, and filed foreclosure proceedings against Without Walls Tuesday. Court records show the church defaulted on a loan that was due in August. The credit union is demanding immediate repayment of that loan and the $12-million mortgage on Without Walls' Grady Avenue property.

The Rev. Randy White, Without Walls' pastor, said he is shocked by the move. The pastor said church officials thought they were actively negotiating with the credit union as late as Tuesday afternoon when they received an e-mail from credit union executives.

Church leaders have been in talks with the company for months, twice flying to California to negotiate. He said the church leaders presented the credit union with an agreement from a buyer who intends to purchase a small piece of the church's property for $1.4-million, more than enough to cover repayment of the $1-million loan, a line of credit.

White also said the church had been told the credit union would move the due date on its $12-million mortgage from January to June. As proof of the church's ability to pay, he showed the credit union a signed contract for a $33-million offer to purchase one of the church's assets. Should the sale go through, the proceeds will allow Without Walls to pay off its debt, White said.

The pastor said he erred in showing the credit union the sale contract and suspects the foreclosure proceedings are motivated by greed.

"In my opinion, it's nothing more than greed from a Christian bank who's supposed to be working with Christians," White said. "I don't think Bank of America or SunTrust would ever do what this bank's done. I think it's because they're drowning, they're pulling so many people in with them. They're scrambling."

Credit union spokesman Jac La Tour said the company does not call in loans cavalierly.

"We worked with them for a number of months to reach an agreement," La Tour said. "When that process was unsuccessful, we had to file foreclosure. It wasn't a quick decision."

La Tour denied the accusation that the 44-year-old credit union is trying to foreclose on the church to confiscate the property after learning there was a waiting buyer, saying his company aims to help ministries, not sell real estate.

Word of the possible foreclosure at Without Walls comes as the internationally known megachurch and its celebrity pastors are undergoing one of the ministry's most difficult years.

In the last year, White has divorced, lost a daughter to brain cancer and seen attendance at his church decline sharply.

He said in August that when he and his wife split up, 50 percent of the 22,000-member congregation left in the aftermath, but some have begun to return.

A sagging economy and layoffs have also weighed on church members and their ability to donate, dragging income down by 30 percent, White said.

Without Walls owes $13-million on its Tampa property, and $12.5-million on the church's Lakeland branch, the church's chief financial officer, Norva Carrington, said.

Negotiations between the two parties seem to have stalled when the credit union asked Without Walls to agree to several loan modifications in the fall. The stipulations included provisions that the church would not file for bankruptcy and would agree to relinquish ownership of intellectual property, White said. Church leaders balked at the request.

The credit union has also initiated foreclosure proceedings on the church's Lakeland branch.

Without Walls' board members, who include White's ex-wife and church co-founder Paula White and Carrington, are devastated, the pastor said.

"This is just really shocking," Carrington said through tears. "We're not in a major financial default on our loan. We've (been) 100 percent compliant with that loan for over 7 1/2 years. This is just unbelievable."

Despite the church's apparently gloomy financial situation, White promises a fight. He has directed his lawyers to ask federal regulators for an investigation of the California credit union.

"We didn't throw the first punch, but the fight is just starting," White said. "Because I think right is right, and wrong is wrong."

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