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Paula White takes leadership of Without Walls church in Tampa

Randy White raises the hand of his ex-wife, Paula White, while announcing at services Sunday that she will take over as senior pastor of Without Walls International Church in Tampa.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Randy White raises the hand of his ex-wife, Paula White, while announcing at services Sunday that she will take over as senior pastor of Without Walls International Church in Tampa.

TAMPA — Randy White kept it simple when it came time Sunday to introduce the new senior pastor at Without Walls International Church.

"You ready?" he asked a near-capacity crowd in the 4,000-seat sanctuary.

"Mama's back."

The congregation rose in a standing ovation.

"Mama's here to stay," he added.

And with that, Paula White took over the megachurch she helped found 18 years ago with her now ex-husband, who is resigning because of illness.

Between services Sunday morning, Randy and Paula White said he called her seven or eight weeks ago to tell her he was leaving and to ask her to return to the church, which has gone through a couple of rocky years since their divorce in 2007.

Randy White, 51, said he had been in and out of the hospital five times in the past six months. He said a half-dozen doctors have told him to reduce the stress in his life. Among those was a doctor at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

Asked if he has cancer, White said, "I do not." But he said other doctors had suggested he see someone at Moffitt. He said he wants to keep the nature of his health problems private.

White said he will make a "clean break" from the church, focus on resting and getting better, and turn Without Walls' leadership over to his ex-wife. He does expect to work on the Kristen Renee Foundation, named for his daughter, who died last year of brain cancer at age 30.

He does not expect to return to the pulpit of the church he launched in a South Tampa storefront.

"I think my season here at Without Walls is over," he said.

After that initial call, Paula White, 43, prayed, fasted and spoke with spiritual advisers before deciding she would curtail her traveling ministry to take over Without Walls.

The Whites met at the office of the church's attorney to reach the agreement on the transition, he said.

Paula White, who has been preaching in New York, Texas and abroad, said she and her ex have different management and leadership styles. But for now, she said, she is spending time developing her thinking about the church and did not describe any specific changes she plans to make.

"It's been two years since I've been here," she said.

On Sunday morning, parishioners warmly welcomed her kinetic, rapid-fire preaching with applause, high-fives, hugs and a shout of "we love you, Paula."

"It's going to be great," said church member and theology student Leanda Fuller, 23, of the transition. "I think it's going to help build the congregation."

Without Walls could use the help. It once boasted 22,000 members and was among the fast-growing churches in the country.

But half its members left after the Whites' divorce. Though some have since returned, the church also has weathered tough media scrutiny, a Senate inquiry into its finances and an attempted foreclosure. In response to the foreclosure, Randy White said the church was always current on its payments. It negotiated a new agreement with a creditor in California.

Asked whether she thought Without Walls could again become what it once was, Paula White started by saying that many institutions in the United States, from the banking system to General Motors, have changed in the past few years.

"Will it get back to where it was?" she said. "I don't know if that's the plan of God."

But the church's future, she said, is great.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Paula White takes leadership of Without Walls church in Tampa 07/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 13, 2009 3:06pm]
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