Was her ministry about God — or about Gwen?
Gwen Shamblin Lara, who created a Christian diet plan that became its own religion, died in a plane crash back in May. That crash also killed her husband and five leaders of her Brentwood church, the Remnant Fellowship.
But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that Shamblin's last will and testament — involving an estate potentially worth millions of dollars — is reviving old questions about her ministry — and her money.
"It suggests to me — perhaps I'm cynical — it suggests to me that the accumulation was not for God, it was for Gwen," said veteran Nashville lawyer Gary Blackburn, who sued Shamblin over allegations that her company fired people who would not join her church.
NewsChannel 5's investigation first raised questions about Gwen Shamblin 20 years ago, but the rest of the country is getting to know her through a new HBO Max series, "The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin."
Shamblin left behind a legacy, stemming from her days as founder of the Weigh Down Workshop, of false claims about her own wealth.
“This money, half of it goes to the government, the other half goes to keep it going so that someone else can be helped," she told then-CNN host Larry King back in 1998.
In a July 2001 interview, NewsChannel 5 Investigates pressed her on that claim.
“Half and half leaves nothing for Gwen Shamblin. That’s not completely true, is it?”
“Yes," she insisted, "it’s completely true.”
Yet, Blackburn had succeeded in getting Shamblin to admit under oath that the money was going to her and her husband, David.
“I hate to say this to some degree because she's deceased," the Nashville lawyer continued, "but she struck me as 100 percent phony, as a grifter, a huckster.”
Yet, it was a story that her daughter, Elizabeth, had continued to perpetuate as recently as four years ago.
"She practically handed mine and Michael's inheritance away," Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah told an audience in 2017.
But NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained Shamblin’s will, a will that leaves everything to her two adult children, Elizabeth and Michael.
The will, signed in 2011, originally left everything to David Shamblin, with Elizabeth and Michael listed as successors. Because the couple divorced in 2018, Tennessee law provides that the ex-husband was no longer eligible to be the beneficiary of the will.
Like Gary Blackburn, NewsChannel 5 noticed one glaring omission in the will itself.
“How much money was left to Remnant Fellowship?” we asked.
Blackburn's response: "I've looked at the will a couple of times, and I haven't seen any.”
Remnant Fellowship provided the following statement to NewsChannel 5:
"In regards to Gwen’s estate, Gwen, Michael, and Elizabeth decided almost two decades ago to give approximately $10 million of what would have been Michael and Elizabeth’s inheritance to the building and grounds of Remnant Fellowship Church. Gwen also donated Weigh Down Ministries and its proceeds, as well as all her intellectual properties over to the church. This was an incredible gift of generosity from Gwen and her family’s inheritance, and the church would expect no more."
It's not clear why the church needed to sign a mortgage for $2,341,225 in July 2014.
At the time of her death, Shamblin was one-third of the way through a nine-week video series on greed — a series in which she urged Remnant followers to prepare to give up all of their wealth.
"It was never intended to be accumulated, but rather used as one small tool to build up the kingdom of God," Shamblin said.
“If you cling to your money, you’re going to lose it. But if you give it up, you’ll find it again.”
Ironically, in 2018, less than two months before Shamblin married Tarzan actor Joe Lara in an elaborate Remnant Fellowship wedding, she entered into a divorce agreement with her first husband.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered that Shamblin suddenly agreed to that settlement after David Shamblin's attorneys filed a subpoena to require Remnant Fellowship to reveal all payments and fringe benefits provided to her and to Joe Lara, as well as any non-disclosure agreements that the church has signed with current or former members.
That divorce settlement, filed in court, details how the couple would split 18 separate pieces of property.
Those properties, our investigation discovered, are now valued at more than $20 million.
She also had to pay David another $3 million out of her own pockets.
“To accumulate that much money means two things," Blackburn said.
"One is you have tremendous cash flow and, secondly, you're not contributing a whole lot of it to mission work or other work of the church.”
Among the properties that the woman of God got to keep in the divorce, our investigation discovered, was an elegant beach house in Destin, Florida — a house that a real estate listing described as, quote, “gulf-front living at its finest.”
Located right on the Gulf of Mexico, Shamblin’s beach home — with its four bedrooms and five baths — was located in a gated community known as Destiny by the Sea.
Property records show the Shamblins paid almost $2 million for it in 2010.
It is now valued by Zillow at more than $4 million.
An old real estate listing for the home boasted of its master bedroom with a gulf view, with his and hers master bathrooms and a lavish library.
Among Shamblin's YouTube videos, one appears to have been recorded from the balcony of the beach house. Included is a discussion of Joe Lara's love of scuba diving.
Back in Brentwood, just down the road from the church, the divorce settlement shows Shamblin also got to keep the couple’s pre-Civil War plantation home, known as Ashlawn.
The current value of that property: about $7 million.
This is what Shamblin told us in 2001 about her luxurious home and fancy cars: “If it was needed, I would sell that car, I would sell that house.”
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, “But you haven’t.”
"It’s not needed yet, Phil.”
We pressed, “There’s no one who could use the money?”
“No, I’m talking about this ministry — and it may happen. Believe me, that house is God’s.”
Yet, right after her remarriage, property records show Shamblin began transferring her real estate holdings not into Remnant's name, but into the names of various trusts, effectively shielding the real identity of the owners.
The beach home is listed as the 4714 Ocean Trust.
Ashlawn is now owned by the 902 Franklin Trust.
And lake property along Center Hill Lake is listed as the Highway 56 Farm Trust.
In her video about greed, the Remnant Fellowship leader warned: "Most of the world has abandoned true religion and are now converts to building up their own pocket books. Yet God is a god of justice, and he will not be mocked."
Less than four weeks later, Shamblin would die in that plane crash.
As a result, we may never get certain answers about how much wealth she really accumulated, about why her will fails to even mention her beloved Remnant Fellowship.