Lawsuit challenges leadership of New Destiny mega-church

Riva Tims filed legal action just before announcement that Paula White is the Apopka church's new pastor

Orlando Sentinel/December 29, 2011

A struggle for control of New Destiny Christian Church erupted today with the appointment by the church's directors of Paula White to succeed Zachery Tims as the new pastor and a lawsuit filed by Riva Tims challenging the church leaders' authority to do so.

In a press conference announcing her lawsuit, Tims compared the conflict over spiritual ownership of the church to the biblical story of the baby claimed by two mothers.

"I am here today to declare that as founder of New Destiny Christian Center that I am the real mother," said Tims, who co-founded the church with Zachery in 1996.

Tims claims that, according to church by-laws, she is the rightful heir to the church following Zachery Tims' death in August. The cause of his death at 42 has not be released.

The lawsuit was filed in Orange County Circuit Court shortly before the church announced White was taking over as senior pastor. Get Orlando Sentinel's exclusive shuttle calendar.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against New Destiny, prohibiting it from naming White as pastor. The suit also alleges that members of the board of directors and White engaged in a conspiracy to "control, monopolize and manipulate" the selection of a new pastor to the exclusion of Riva Tims.

It claims White was $26 million in debt in 2006, and thus unfit and incompetent to run New Destiny, which has more than $4 million in assets.

Riva Tims contends she was wrongfully dismissed from the church following her divorce from Zachery in 2008, but remains favored by the congregation to succeed her ex-husband.

The church says the lawsuit is without merit.

"In the wake of her divorce from Pastor Zachary Tims in 2009, Pastor Riva willingly signed legal documents releasing all claims over New Destiny Christian Center and left our church to begin her own ministry, literally just a few miles away," said a statement released by the church. "So we are surprised to hear her now say, three years later, that she should become Senior Pastor of New Destiny Christian Center."

Regardless of the lawsuit, New Destiny said White, 45, will assume her duties as senior pastor during the church's New Year's Eve services on Saturday.

"We believe Pastor Paula will continue to make New Destiny a church for all people, reaching out to the hurting and the lost by touching lives and helping individuals overcome the disabling challenges of life," said Board Member Elder Marguerite Esannason in a statement released by the church.

White, senior pastor of Without Walls International in Tampa, identifies herself as Zachery Tims' "spiritual mother." She preached the first sermon in the church after his death, again at his funeral, and served on an advisory board during the search for his successor.

Members of New Destiny said they have nothing against White, but object to the exclusion of both Riva Tims and the congregation in deciding who is best to lead the church after Zachery.

"The people need to be respected," said Demetrise Begic, 46, who joined New Destiny eight years ago. "We're the tithers."

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