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Without Walls considers building for up to 10,000 despite troubles.
By SHERRI DAY, Times Staff Writer
Published November 16, 2007
[Zach Boyden-Holmes | Times]
TAMPA -- Amid the most tumultuous year in the history of Without Walls International Church, the church's leader said Thursday that he is looking at a major expansion of the ministry.
The church is considering building a campus large enough to accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 people in one service, said the Rev. Randy White, the church's senior pastor. The current church at 2511 N Grady Ave. can hold about 4,500 people per service.
"We've actually outgrown this facility," said White, 49. "I have to do three services on Sunday. So we're looking for property to build somewhere. We just need the right location."
The expansion announcement comes just two months after White and his now ex-wife, Paula, rocked the congregation with news that they were divorcing. Since then, 21 families have left, White said. And financial giving is down by 12 percent.
Without Walls also has been the focus of months of news stories questioning the integrity of its leaders and now is facing government scrutiny. The U.S. Senate Finance Committee launched a federal inquiry last week into the financial dealings of Without Walls and six other ministries around the nation. The ministries have until Dec. 6 to respond to the committee's request for information.
Citing advice from his attorneys, White declined to comment on the federal investigation, though he said the affected ministries have been communicating with each other.
In the meantime, White said a church steering committee has spent weeks scouring Tampa for a new site. No deadline has been set for a decision.
Church leaders also are considering a second option in which the ministry would move to a facility it already owns, but White declined to specify where.
The only property the church now owns that is large enough to accommodate the move White describes is Without Walls Central in Polk County, which would mean the church would move to Lakeland.
The confluence of negative events might stymie some ministries, but White talks like a man poised to fight back.
"I think people are thinking that we're going to go down and go under, and I don't see that at all," White said from his office Thursday. "I see that God gives you the second and third and fourth chance. And we're looking to the future. We can't keep dwelling in the past."
White planned to share news of his expansion vision with his congregation Thursday night. He said the decision to seek new environs was spurred by new developments that once erected likely will box in the church -- a former Canada Dry warehouse -- and its neighboring administration building.
Just recently, the developers of the old Metropolitan Life Insurance site on Without Walls' west side broke ground on a condominium, retail, hotel and office complex.
On the church's east side, developers have filed a petition with the city to rezone the Days Inn and a Bennigan's restaurant on N Dale Mabry Highway for a three-tower office, residential, retail and hotel development. If built according to plans, that project would include more than 900,000 square feet.
Observers say the proposed expansion is aggressive in the face of the church's numerous travails.
"Some of it may have been strategy that they've been thinking about for a long time," said Scott Thumma, a professor of religion and sociology who studies megachurches at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. "Some of it may be a symbolic move to say, 'We can be attacked and challenged, and we're going to move on and reassert our spiritual authority and presence here.' ... It'll be interesting to see if they can actually pull it off."
Church members said the possible expansion comes as no surprise, as White has mentioned developers' bids for the church property before.
"I told my wife this was coming," said Walt Walker, a machine operator who has been at the church for a year and opposes any move. "How can the church be too small when we don't even fill the church anymore? Considering the financial straits that the church is in right now, I have no doubt in my mind that this is related to the finances of the church."
White disputes reports that the church has financial problems and cannot pay its bills, pointing to a 2006 audit that shows more than $8-million in the ministry's coffers.
Fredrick Thomas, head of the church's Road to Recovery ministry for the needy and indigent, welcomes the proposed expansion.
"We do a lot of stuff that a lot of churches and social service agencies won't do," said Thomas, 42. "With expansion, it would definitely be another avenue for more social services under one roof."
The road ahead
White considers himself a man in restoration, dedicated to his church and his children.
He remains friends with his ex-wife and describes their split as amicable.
The couple finalized their divorce overseas about two months ago, said White, noting that they divided their assets equally in an uncontested dissolution of their marriage. He will keep their Bayshore Boulevard house. She has homes in New York and Texas.
One day, White says, he will likely date again. It is quite possible that he may even consider re-marriage.
But for now, he's a man on a mission, trying to steer his church through dark days.
"We're a tough church," said White. "I already see life coming back. We will survive this emphatically and unequivocally. Just stick around and see."
Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.
[Last modified November 15, 2007, 23:25:15]