Randy and Paula White built Without Walls International Church into one of the brightest beacons of faith in the community. Its innovative ministries attracted such a large following that the church gained a national reputation.
Starting in May 2007, news of scandal, a U.S. Senate financial probe and divorce eroded the foundation of their spiritual sanctuary.
Paula White moved away from Tampa a year ago to focus on her television show, books and preaching. Randy, left to tend the local flock alone, cut back his preaching.
Now, with Paula's national audience dwindling and church attendance in decline, the couple have once again joined forces. Paula has returned to the Without Walls pulpit to reinvigorate the ministry and is scheduled to preach today.
But a big question remains: Will Paula be enough to rebuild the empire?
"The timing feels right for coming back to Tampa regularly, whether it's once a month or more often," Paula said via e-mail. "Randy and I both needed some time to heal and I think the congregation did, too."
The Whites turned Tampa into the heart of one of the largest megachurches in the nation, at one time reaching 22,000. They leveraged their status to mix with celebrities and world leaders, including President Bush, retired Gen. Colin Powell and business mogul Donald Trump.
Rebuilding the church could prove harder than building it, however.
The Whites remain scarred by missteps from their past and dogged by a growing number of detractors. The glare of scrutiny has revealed discrepancies in the stories they've told for more than a decade, the lore that helped build the foundation of their church.
Paula, in particular, is accused of massaging the rough spots of her life for a more dramatic born-again tale.
A Year Of Decline
The Whites and their congregation have dealt with a lot of upheaval in the past year.
On Aug. 23, 2007, the couple announced they were getting a divorce, the second for both.
Then on Nov. 5, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa launched an inquiry into the finances of the Whites' ministries and five others. Paula and Randy have largely defied Grassley's request for information, a response that could lead to a subpoena, the senator's staff has said.
Personal heartbreak came in April when Randy's 30-year-old daughter, Kristen Hernandez, died from complications of a brain tumor.
Paula, 42, left Tampa and partnered with pastor Rick Hawkins' 2,000-member church in San Antonio, Texas. She bought a $681,000 home in the area.
Randy, 50, was left tending a diminished flock in Tampa. He removed hundreds of seats in the auditorium and eliminated two of three Sunday services.
The number of visitors on the church's once-popular Web site dropped from a three-year high of 55,500 in October to about 7,200 in July, according to Web monitoring company Quantcast.
Randy declined to comment for this story.
In recent months, Paula's depleted finances forced her to pull back the number of networks on which she broadcasts "Paula Today," her television show targeted to women seeking biblical guidance for their everyday lives.
Last month, she sent a letter to her supporters, called prayer partners, asking for money to broaden the ministry. "But while giving has dropped over the summer months, the need to share the hope and life-changing message of Jesus Christ is growing!" she wrote.
Traffic dropped on her Web site, too.
In July, 21,000 people came to paulawhite.org, down from 61,000 in October, according to Quantcast.
The Untold Story
Some who knew the Whites before they moved to Tampa say the couple's tumble comes as no surprise, given the circumstances that brought them together.
When Paula tells her life story, she talks about her childhood and a brief marriage before her marriage to Randy. The story she and Randy have not widely shared involves their time before that at a small church in Damascus, Md., when they were married to other people.
Friends and their relatives who used to attend the church say they have privately boiled as Paula wrote in books and preached on the air about marrying a rock singer she barely knew and living on "government cheese." They insist Paula and her first husband, Dean Knight, were not poor and that the marriage was a loving one on Dean's behalf. They said she left him in part because she believed Randy had the charisma and talent to take her far in life.
"What we are bothered by is the hypocrisy and the lies," said Gretchen Wall, part of a group of teenage friends, including Dean, who grew up together and later embraced Paula.
Paula responded to questions from the Tribune in recent weeks. On Friday, she issued a final statement regarding the Maryland residents' account and other issues raised in the story. She said there were "numerous inaccuracies" in information the Tribune had obtained.
"Randy and I have told our story over the years to the Christian community and we stand by it. We cannot control the way our story is or has been reported, nor can we control gossip, innuendo or other people's memories of events 20 years ago. I have no further comment."
Here's how Wall, her husband, his parents and another friend remember the early years:
Paula Michelle Furr was barely out of high school when she started helping at Damascus Church of God in the mid-1980s. Her family had moved from California to the Germantown, Md., area before her senior year of high school.
Knight was a heartthrob who played in a rock band.
She was enthralled the moment she saw him in concert.
"Paula always gravitated to men who she thought could take her somewhere," said Mary Wall, who attended the Damascus church and is Gretchen's mother-in-law.
At 18, Paula got pregnant with Knight's child. They married a short time after the birth of their son.
Randy, eight years older, was a gregarious associate pastor of the 60-member church, which was run by his father, the Rev. Frank White.
Randy was married to his first wife, Debra, and they had three children. But the Walls and others said Randy flirted with women at the church and was widely known to keep a list of women he found attractive as a bookmark in his Bible.
Randy asked Paula to help with some mailings for Destiny Ministries, which they later brought to Tampa. Sometime in 1987, the two became romantically involved.
The romance angered several members of the congregation.
The Walls said Debra White and Knight came to them seeking spiritual guidance while their spouses had a relationship.
At one point, Mary Wall stood up during a church service and said Randy and Paula needed to repent for sinning and tearing apart the congregation.
Randy and Paula left for Fort Washington, a Maryland suburb of Washington. In 1989, the couple divorced their spouses, and in 1990, the two married.
Knight declined to be interviewed for this story. Several of his friends and relatives did not want their names used for the story but confirmed details.
The Walls admit they probably agitated Randy and Paula when the romance started, particularly when they tried to tell Frank White about his son's relationship with Paula.
They wonder whether their influence had anything to do with the Tampa church's name, Without Walls.
Randy declined to answer questions about this period in their lives. However, in an April 2007 interview with the Tribune, they both said they were "out of their marriages" when they got together.
A Stormy Start In Tampa
Paula's metamorphosis into one of the nation's most compelling preachers began after the couple moved to Tampa in 1990 to work for Bayshore United Methodist Church.
Randy answered an ad in Charisma magazine for a youth minister. The Rev. Frank Seghers was impressed by the energetic evangelist, though he admits he had doubts - a "check in his spirit" - about hiring him.
The church search committee offered him the job - and gave Paula a teaching position in the church's school, though she had no degree.
Within a few months, Seghers was ready to concede he may have been mistaken about his initial gut feeling.
"They really built the youth group," he said. "They were creative; they were charismatic."
The Whites were there less than a year when someone saw a sign in a storefront on South Manhattan Avenue: South Tampa Christian Center, The Rev. Randy White.
Seghers was taken aback. Randy had orally pledged not to start another church in the Bay area in the foreseeable future, a common practice in religious circles.
When Seghers confronted Randy about the storefront sign, "He said the sign painter wasn't supposed to do that so soon, that he wasn't ready to announce anything," Seghers said.
He fired Randy that day and terminated Paula's job.
Documents obtained by the Tribune show that the Whites were more careful about departing employees when they established Without Walls. Staff members were required to sign an employment agreement saying that if they were dismissed or quit, they would not start a church, organizational fellowship or work at another church within a 40-mile radius for at least two years.
Seghers, now pastor of a United Methodist church outside Jacksonville, said the Whites took about 150 Bayshore members with them.
Jan Hoover and her husband, Bud, were among those who left. The Whites made an irresistible offer, Jan said. If she joined their new ministry, she could become music minister.
She also worked in the office to help build the congregation. One of her first jobs was to send out more than 350 announcements to potential members - all pulled from a Bayshore mailing list. "Looking back, I thought I was contributing to a great cause by letting people know about this new and exciting church," she said. "Now I realize it was just plain wrong."
Jan no longer attends a church and believes the Whites' ministries are spiritually bankrupt.
"It was the death of a vision, the death of a dream," she said. "I bought into something that turned out not to be real."
Her husband said the Whites' marriage seemed indicative of the ministry.
"The marriage never seemed like a real thing to me," he said. "It always seemed more like a business."
Paula Soars, Stumbles
Fran Badger, another Bayshore member who followed the Whites, watched as the church grew from storefront to warehouse to giant tent to an oversized dome to the 4,000-seat sanctuary it now occupies on Grady Street.
She preferred the smaller church, when the congregation was like a big family and the Whites were accessible. But "it all got too big, too fast," she said.
Paula, meanwhile, began to blossom as a preacher. She traveled the country, making appearances at churches and conferences. Once quiet and deferential to her husband, she became a national figure in her own right within Christian evangelical circles.
"Randy used to say, 'I taught her everything she knows.' And I think he did," Badger said.
Jan Hoover remembers Paula as "an impressionable young woman with a little-girl quality, star-struck and enamored of Randy. And he was the director of her life, telling her how to behave. It was a Svengali-like relationship," she said, comparing Randy to the hypnotist in George du Maurier's 1894 novel, "Trilby."
"She just grew out of him."
Her stories have grown, as well.
In a 2003 video broadcast, Paula preaches before a crowd of thousands about the struggles of raising the four children that "came out of my birth canal."
Paula has one child; Randy has three.
She also appears to have repackaged the truth in a glowing profile called "Paula's Purpose: Helping others unlock their potential" in the May/June issue of Celeb Staff, a magazine that targets the "gatekeepers of the rich and famous."
Written by chief operating officer Beth Torre, the profile recounts several examples of Paula helping orchestrate "amazing transformations" in people from all walks of life.
She cites the case of Tareon Alvarez. In 1996, the then-14-year-old and a friend threw acid on a fellow student's face at a bus stop and cut the girl with a razor blade. The attackers were charged as adults with aggravated battery and pleaded guilty. They got seven years in prison, but the judge suspended the sentence, giving them one year of house arrest and nine years' probation.
Alvarez ended up attending Destiny Academy, a former private school run by Without Walls. She also joined the church's dance team and youth group and spoke publicly about rebuilding her broken life and dreams of becoming a hairdresser.
But Paula's involvement was so overstated in the article, Alvarez repeatedly asked for published corrections. When she didn't get a response, she got a lawyer to write a letter to the magazine's law firm.
Paula never put her through private school or cosmetology school, and she was never Paula 's hairdresser, the letter stated, contradicting the article.
She had contact only with Randy and his staff, the lawyer's letter stated, and only after she had already been sentenced.
When contacted by the Tribune, Alvarez said she stands by her contention in the letter that she was never a beneficiary of "Ms. White's philanthropy." However, she decided to drop the matter and "move on with my life."
Torre said the magazine would have "no comment regarding the story."
Paula told the Tribune: "I respect Tareon's decision to move on."
A Secular Shift
Paula's appearance in Celeb Staff hints at her transformation into something other than a preacher.
She now describes herself as a life coach, motivational speaker and author. She was featured at real estate and wealth expos alongside Donald Trump.
Those who study evangelicals say it's common for prosperity preachers such as Paula to embrace a gospel of materialism.
"It has been easy for those so inclined to further de-emphasize the spiritual aspects of Christianity in favor of legitimizing full-bore materialism," said Bill Martin, a Rice University professor. "In such a climate, a growing number of preachers see - and experience - no problem with acknowledging that many people regard them as motivational speakers or life coaches first, and preachers second."
The Resurrection Question
As Paula attempts to repair the Tampa church, questions about the Whites' ministries ripple beyond Tampa.
Broadly, the purpose of Grassley's inquiry could result in tougher rules governing the finances of large media ministries, the senator has said. Televangelism has evolved, the senator points out, but IRS rules have not.
Paula's shift from church leader to national television personality was the turning point in her transformation, said former Without Walls board member Alick Clark.
In March, he resigned his board position after 17 years. A longtime friend of the couple, he said he got "fed up" with the Whites' lack of accountability and the board's not being told of ministry developments.
"Twenty years ago, she was just a girl, full of hope and her eyes on Jesus," Clark said. "Then she gets in TV and the focus changes. You have to feed that monster [television], and it's pretty darn expensive."
At the community level, followers must decide whether they can forgive the disappointment of the past and rebuild the church's weakened foundation. Time will tell whether Randy and Paula can return to their earlier prominence.
Marguerite Boudreaux is hopeful.
She still attends Without Walls and hasn't forgotten how the Whites supported A Life Not Wasted, the ministry she began years ago to show love and appreciation for homosexuals.
"They were there when other religious leaders wouldn't do such a thing," she said. "I know they're only human, and they will make mistakes and commit sins like anyone else. But no matter what is said about them, I know they are good people."
At the same time, Paula is taking her own advice as a life coach.
She has a new book coming out this fall called, "Move On, Move Up." The book reflects the message she preaches to her followers: "To not give up in tough times and to trust in God even when we don't understand what is going on around us."
To the world, an optimistic Paula presents a sunny outlook, refusing to let a year of turmoil and an uncertain future dampen her faith. Where life goes next is out of her hands, she said.
"I'm continuing to do what I have always done, which is minister to people with the ultimate goal of fulfilling God's plans for my life and ministry," she said. "As always, I am receptive to whatever doors God may open."