Tampa - Paula White bounds on stage to a rousing ovation at Without Walls International Church.
"I want to feed you some faith food," she says, bringing the crowd to its feet at a recent Thursday evening service. "This is an assignment of the Lord and a plan of God. We are going to take this city."
Her ex-husband, Randy, announced the new assignment this month: He would step aside as senior pastor for health reasons and Paula would return from Texas to revive the church they started 18 years ago.
Paula returns to a ministry that has lost stature and supporters after the breakup of the couple's marriage two years ago. Without Walls has endured a dwindling congregation, threat of foreclosure and a U.S. Senate inquiry into the ministry's tax-exempt status.
What has not changed is the message: God wants believers to be healthy and wealthy, and they can get there by giving generously to the church. The more congregants give, the more they will receive.
Critics see Paula's return as a last-ditch effort to fill church coffers before millions in loans come due next year. But others see her as a calm and steadying force and the church's best chance for a revival. They look forward to a renewed focus on God's word.
"I come to church to be fed spiritually," said Saul Bruno Encarnacion, who started attending Without Walls four years ago. "That wasn't happening anymore. But with Pastor Paula, I always learn something. She's a great preacher and a great teacher."
Religious experts and those who follow charismatic and Pentecostal preachers see Paula's return as a necessity for her and the church.
Without Walls stumbled in the absence of Paula, whose ministry increasingly took her away from Tampa long before she and Randy divorced.
Randy, who struggled with the death of his 30-year-old daughter from his first marriage, often left preaching duties to associate pastors or guest ministers. He talked openly about wanting to move to Malibu, Calif. Sometimes congregants were surprised when Randy's sermons included anecdotes about going to bars, cavorting with bikers and hanging out with former strippers.
Barbara Burgos, a small-business owner from South Tampa, left Without Walls almost a year ago because of Randy's "obsession with talking about strippers and porn."
"I don't go to church to hear about sex, sex and more sex," she said. "After he preached that every woman needs a pole in the bedroom to keep her husband happy, I knew it was time to go."
The Whites did not respond to several requests for an interview sent via the church's public relations firm.
Paula takes on a ministry with mounting financial problems. The Evangelical Christian Credit Union in California initiated foreclosure proceedings in November, triggering repayment of nearly $27 million in unpaid loans. The church has until next July to repay the largest loan, an $11.2 million mortgage on the Tampa church.
Randy stunned the congregation more than a year ago when he announced the Tampa campus and a large satellite church in Lakeland were for sale. He said a new Bay-area sanctuary was planned, but didn't release details. CNL Financial Group put the buildings up for sale in early 2008. By July of that year, the real estate company had put a lien on proceeds from the sale to ensure payment if the property sold.
The Lakeland congregation has tried to buy its property from Without Walls, but no deal has been reached, said Karen Steverson, an administrator at the satellite.
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa continues his probe of the ministry's finances and whether the Whites used money donated to the tax-exempt church to pay for their lavish lifestyle. The senator's staff is preparing a report on their findings, a spokesperson said this month.
Paula's career lost traction after she and Randy divorced and she moved to San Antonio, Texas, to assist with a smaller ministry, now called Place For Life. Her schedule over the past year has not included the conferences or arena events it did in the past. And she is no longer publicizing her highly touted Life by Design conferences, which combined secular and spiritual life coaching. The last major one was in May 2008 at Place For Life.
Traffic on her Web site - www.paulawhite.org - plunged to 9,000 visitors a day in June from 77,300 in October 2006.
Like Randy, Paula was floundering.
"It was a shrewd move on both their parts," said Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book "Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World."
Paula is carefully crafting a poignant comeback story, Butler said. "Among Pentecostals, this won't work without a redemption narrative."
Work to be done
Randy and Paula built the ministry into one of the fastest-growing megachurches in the nation, at one time reaching 22,000. If Paula hopes to revive it as a solo act, she faces a daunting challenge, experts said.
Paula's success has, to a degree, hinged on her simmering sexuality, Butler said. Her good looks help fill the sanctuary and get viewers to tune in. Women followers have long commented - pro and con - on Paula's designer outfits, spiked heels and trendy hairstyles.
Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians will want to see a man with a prominent place in her life and in the ministry, Butler said. The congregation won't easily forget she is a single woman, twice divorced.
Butler said she believes Paula knows this.
When she returned, Paula told the congregation, "Mama's back."
"That means there needs to be a daddy," Butler said. "There needs to be a man to make it work."
Paula will likely start introducing the congregation to a new man in her life, Butler said, perhaps Rick Hawkins.
In 2007, Paula added the now-divorced Hawkins to the board of one of her companies, PWM Lifecenter Inc. in Tampa, joined his ministry in San Antonio and bought a home nearby.
"Somebody will emerge," Butler said. "Maybe she'll bring him in as a guest preacher. It will probably come in the next three to six months."
Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, a leading publication for evangelical Christians, agrees Paula will have a tough time leading a large and complex ministry.
"So many congregations in America are not that open to women in senior leadership," said Grady, who has been outspoken in his columns about the turmoil surrounding the Whites and their church. "And she faces an uphill battle because of her recent divorce."
Bill Keller, founder of Liveprayer.com, a call-in show that broadcasts live from Largo on the Web and on radio station 860 AM, said he doesn't expect Paula's star to shine as brightly as it once did.
"In this business, you get one shot. And if your integrity takes a hit, you will lose your credibility," said Keller, who served 30 months in a federal prison for an insider-trading scheme. While incarcerated, he said he found Christ and got into the ministry after his release.
Keller expects Paula to attract a crowd. "She will always have a following. I call them miracle chasers," he said. "But that's just a small fraction of Christendom."
Some supporters believe that Paula is the last, best chance for Without Walls to thrive and become a force in the community again.
Burgos, who left the church because Randy's pulpit messages got "too off-track, too bizarre," watched Paula's first Sunday back at Without Walls on the Internet. She was reminded of her former pastor's speaking gift and knowledge of the Bible.
"If I'm meant to go back, God will let me know," she said. "I need to see if it's still all about the money."
If a comeback is in Without Walls' future, Burgos has no doubt the right person is in charge.
"If anyone can pull this church back up, it's Paula White," she said. "You can go to the bank on it."
Encarnacion said he "was almost in tears" when Paula returned. He had considered leaving in recent months. He said he was tired of listening to Randy discuss his personal life from the pulpit; tired of the public scrutiny of Without Walls and the declining membership.
"I was worried about my church," said Encarnacion, 51, a technician at Hillsborough Community College. "I could sense a real lack of spirit there."
He knows that some conservative Christians might have a problem with a single, twice-divorced woman as the church leader.
"I would never judge her. Who am I to criticize? I've been divorced," he said. "What I do know is that the message is strong again and the spirit is back. My hope and prayer is that this church will be full and strong again."
Jessica Morrison began attending the church three years ago after watching Paula on TV.
"She gives me goose pimples," said Morrison, a Tampa preschool teacher and mother of two. "After she left, I kept going, but not as regularly as I should have. Sometimes, I was just sitting there and going through the motions."
Now she vows to be in the pews every Sunday.
"Paula is the cherry on the cake," Morrison said. "She's sincere and inspirational. And she offers hope. You can be in such a down place, and she knows how to lift you."
Some critics are concerned about Paula's message, not her gender or marital status. They say Paula's return is about money, not restoring spiritual order.
"In the end, it's an audience retention operation," said Michael Spencer, a Baptist pastor in the ministry for 30 years who wrote a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor about what he sees as evangelicals' coming implosion. "The Christian mission has been traded in for a financial scam."
Spencer doesn't consider the Whites to be evangelicals. "These are motivational speakers and financially motivated quacks playing on the materialistic desires of Americans and their worship of greed over God."
For those reasons, Without Walls will fail and serve as a cautionary tale to others, Spencer said.
"There is much here for evangelicals to learn from, at least those who are ready to learn, that large churches need a big mission and a firm foundation, not a hot Bible blonde and the promise of a gold-plated destiny," he said.
A minister and author suggested Paula White abandon the prosperity gospel message.
"Scripture passages are taken out of context," Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove said of the evangelicals' message.
"I would love for people to truly understand what Jesus said about money," said Wilson-Hargrove, author of the book "God's Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel."
Wilson-Hargrove, a Baptist associate minister in North Carolina, calls it "gross abuse" for religious leaders to get rich off their congregants' offerings. He points out that nothing in the Bible says religious leaders should travel on private jets, live in mansions and drive luxury cars.
"People in the pews see what their leaders have, and they want it, too," he said. "Almost always, this message is an exploitation of the poor."
'Bring me my purse'
During a recent midweek service, Paula talked about being tested the past few years. She warned: "Our dilemmas are going to be on display." She alluded to the glare of media coverage: "People are going to see all your faults, your problems."
Then she repeated what has become something of a mantra since she rejoined the church July 12. "There is glory in this story. There is glory in this story."
The crowd applauded, reached their hands in the air and high-fived one another. Paula said there would be a second, final offering for the night.
"Give $10,000 or give $1,000. If you can't do that, give $100."
Just before the microphone went dead, she gestured offstage: "Bring me my purse."