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Shortly after being saved at the age of 18, Paula Furr left her first husband and ran off with Randy White, her Maryland church's pastor, who was at the time married with three young children – a fact she does not include in her redemption testimony. The couple moved to Tampa and, after doing some youth work with a local church, set out to establish their own congregation from scratch, which succeeded spectacularly.
At the height of their popularity, Paula and Randy White reported generating $40 million a year from her broadcast ministry and their Without Walls International Church in Tampa. The racially diverse congregation, in two locations, claimed a membership of 28,000, with the co-pastors taking together between $600,000 and $1.5 million a year in compensation.
White says she owes her national speaking career to T.D. Jakes, the influential African-American pastor of the 30,000-member Potter's House Church in Dallas, who plucked her out of a post-revival receiving line. Jakes, who White refers to as her "spiritual daddy," has for years featured her at his national arena women's conferences, which draw predominantly African-American audiences.
"There's no question he made her," says a longtime observer of Jakes. White returned the favor, in part, with the gift of a $200,000 Bentley convertible on Jakes' 50th birthday.
White has lived exceedingly well, thanks in large part to donations from her TV viewers. For a time, she lived in a $2.2 million waterfront Tampa Bay home, driving one of her several Mercedes and, when in New York, staying either at her Trump Park Avenue condo or her Trump Tower digs.
But the Whites' ministry hit tough times in the mid-2000s, a direct result of a series of hard-hitting investigative stories by the Tampa Tribune.
Soon, the Whites and their ministries were the subjects of an IRS investigation in 2004 and a U.S. Senate probe in 2007, led by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. NBC Nightly News and CNN devoted segments to the ministry's woes. The church's Gulfstream jet had to be sold. In 2009, Paula and Randy divorced, and Paula left the Tampa pulpit, devoting all of her time to broadcasting, although her ratings and outlets declined sharply.
Things got even worse for Paula. A sensational tabloid exposé on the cover of the National Enquirer linked Paula White with fellow (and separated but still married) televangelist Benny Hinn in a romantic tryst in a five-star Rome hotel. Hinn, another prosperity gospel proponent, was registered in the presidential suite under the biblically suggestive name "David Solomon." White denied the affair, but Hinn later acknowledged an "inappropriate relationship."
In the wake of the accumulated notoriety, attendance at Without Walls in Tampa also plummeted. A satellite church in Lakeland, Florida, with a 10,000-seat sanctuary, was shuttered and abandoned in 2012. The Tampa church filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Around this time, White has told audiences, she suffered a stroke, which led to a renewed addiction to prescription drugs.
"Paula represents everything that is wrong with American religion," says Ole Anthony, founder of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a religious watchdog organization. "No accountability, the jet-set lifestyle, divorces and affairs that seem to never end. She's left a trail of destroyed churches behind her."
F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, there do appear to be second acts in American religion. Despite White's checkered career, in early 2012 her appeal was enough for New Destiny Christian Center, outside Orlando, to pass over five African-American preachers to call her to their pulpit. New Destiny is no stranger to scandal. Before he was saved and reformed, founding pastor Zachery Tims, by his own account, was a drug dealer and gang member from Baltimore who was once charged with attempted murder. Tims became a rising star in the Pentecostal world by building New Destiny into a 9,000-member megachurch in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.
But in 2010, Tims began a downward spiral. He confessed to an affair with a Vietnamese woman he met in a Paris strip club and was later accused of other infidelities closer to home. Down came the idyllic billboards of Tims and his co-pastor wife, Riva, along I-4, inviting drivers to join the growing congregation. Zachery divorced Riva and forced her out of the church, which began a precipitous decline in membership and support. Then, in August 2011, the minister was discovered dead in the tony W Hotel in Times Square, a glassine envelope of white powder in his undershorts pocket.
Since 2012, White has made New Destiny her "comeback pulpit," gradually repairing and growing the dispirited congregation back to the 10,000 members it boasted during the Tims' heyday, a claim that cannot be verified.