AMPA, Fla. — Bishop Randy White and his wife, pastor Paula White, once headed up one of the fastest growing Christian congregations in the country. In its heyday, Without Walls International Church boasted more than 23,000 members, took in as much as $40 million a year in donations and attracted dozens of professional athletes to its high-energy services.
Some of the athletes were so moved by the Whites’ message of prosperity through faith that they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars — one former player even donated a World Series ring — and showered the couple with lavish gifts, such as designer shoes and expensive suits.
In the decade leading up to 2007, the Whites amassed wealth and attained a lifestyle not unlike the star athletes who came to their church. In July 2005, the couple purchased a luxury condominium in New York City’s Trump Park Avenue building for $3.5 million. In 2006, they bought a home on Tampa’s exclusive Bayshore Boulevard for $2.1 million, according to real estate records. Randy White owns or leases several luxury vehicles, including a 2006 Bentley, according to Florida motor vehicle records. For years, the couple had access to private jets, either leased or owned by their ministry.
Major League Baseball players Gary Sheffield, Darryl Strawberry and Carl Everett and NFL players Michael Pittman, Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks were among those who attended services at a converted Canada Dry plant in Tampa, Fla., a short drive from the Buccaneers’ Raymond James stadium, according to Randy White.
Today, however, most of the big-name athletes are absent from the reserved front-row seats they once occupied as VIP members, and in recent years the church itself has undergone significant upheaval. The Whites divorced in 2007 after 18 years of marriage. Without Walls, according to several former staffers, is mired in debt and bleeding membership. The church recently staved off foreclosure proceedings, and has been the subject of a Senate investigation into its finances. Church leaders have had to contend with the resulting media scrutiny.
It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for a house of worship that was built on the prosperity gospel message — a controversial evangelical Christian doctrine that teaches members that through tithing, the practice of donating 10 percent of one’s income to the church, they’ll be rewarded, not just spiritually but financially.
“If you’re the guy flipping hamburgers or you’re the quarterback, I don’t care who you may be,” White said, “we teach that you have to tithe.”
Several former Without Walls members and staffers, some of them professional athletes, have spoken out against White’s prosperity message, calling it the “gospel of greed” and questioning whether their flamboyant former pastor targeted athletes and used church donations to bankroll what one former staffer called a “rock star” lifestyle.
“A lot of guys are brainwashed,” a former NFL player, who once attended Without Walls, told ESPN on the condition of anonymity. “They’ve been told to honor God, you’ve got to give.”
White insists every church member, himself included, must abide by what he considers the bedrock biblical principle of tithing. And despite being faced with a Senate inquiry, the evangelist who built his ministry with the help of star athletes said he and the church have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide.
“I think people feel like you get up to preach for gain,” White said, referring to his wealthy lifestyle. “If I were in the ministry for gain I could make a lot more money outside of the ministry.”