I had just pulled out of Memphis when the phone rang, “Have you ever heard of Wayne Jolley?” the caller asked.
A few years earlier, I’d gotten a similar call from a woman in Georgia. Her sister had gotten caught up with a preacher by that name who claimed to have a “world-wide ministry.”
The sister had sold her house to support the ministry. But the caller could find no evidence that that world-wide ministry really existed; she thought the preacher was a scam artist, and his ministry might he a cult.
I had just started looking into the group when the woman called again. She didn’t want to talk to me anymore. If she did—her sister might cut her off for good.
Fast forward to 2015. I had been in Memphis at the funeral for the late, great Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis had befriended my when I was just started out on the Godbeat and had helped some so-so stories into great ideas. I think she was sending me one more great story.
My caller that night, Glenn Chambers, told me that his daughter had moved to Nashville to attend a local college. He’d asked a friend, Christian music producer Ed Cast, to watch out for her.
Instead Cash introduced her to Wayne Jolley. And before long, she had cut off all ties for her parents. Their sin? Questioning Jolley’s authority.
Over the next few months, I interviewed former members of Jolley’s group, watched hours of his sermons, and poured over his tax forms. I even got the best “no comment” ever—a song written by one of Jolley’s followers.
Slowly, a story emerged.
In the early 2000s, Jolley had been run out of Ringgold, Georgia, for allegedly abusing his stepdaughter and other young women. Jolley had been a traveling prosperity gospel preacher and had used his position to lure young women to join his ministry.
He’d also been good at talking people out of their money—claiming to be a modern-day prophet. (And he had lots of modern day profits). After being chased out of Ringgold, he was broke. In 2004, the ministry had $6,064 in the bank—with about $33,000 in assets—and a $15,000 budget deficit.
Then he met members of a small Bible study in Franklin, Tennessee, which included Cash, then an up and coming producer. Soon afterward, Cash had a hit record. A song he co-wrote and produced, “How Great is our God,” became one of the most popular worship songs in America.
Cash credited Jolley’s spiritual advice—and the money started rolling in.
Over the next decade, Jolley would collect more than $10 million in donations from a handful of followers. That group, known as the Gathering International, never had more than 40 people or so. But they bought Jolley a million dollar house and took care of his every need. No one was allowed to question his authority.
His critics were controlled by demons and were to be shunned. And he took aim at other churches that were run by a church board—saying those churches were run by demons too.
“That’s why we don’t have boards,” he told his followers in a sermon posted to the Gathering’s website. “We just don’t. … I am criticized for that. I am looked down upon for that. And I am called a cult leader. I really don’t care.”
And that worldwide radio ministry Jolley claimed to have? It didn’t exist. All he had a was a website with videos of his sermons. Jolley’s ministry ruined marriages, tore families apart, and led friends to betray one another.
Then I got that call from Glenn Chambers. A few months later, Christianity Today ran a story on Jolley.
Things started falling apart for Jolley after that. His followers started to desert him. His health failed. The state of Tennessee began investigating the ministry and revoked its tax-exempt status.
In the spring of 2016, Jolley passed away.
After that, some of his former followers began to put their lives back together. A few of Jolley’s followers remained faithful to the Gathering, now run by Jolley’s widow, Linda. They sold off the big house and moved out the middle of nowhere to start over. They’ve still got a website and are collecting donations.
But they’re running out of money.
For the last few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on The Gathering, waiting to see their latest tax return. They finally filed their 2016 return—the year the CT story ran. Things are not going so well. The ministry lost $822, 457 in 2016. Donations dropped from $668, 648 down to $276,969. But spending skyrocketed, from $749,396 in 2015 to $1,102,885 in 2016—including $554,825 in “other expenses” listed without any details on the ministry’s tax form.
Their bank account dropped from about $1.5 million in cash to about $600,000.
Not everything is better. Some of the families broken up by Jolley still remain estranged. But the ministry’s ability to harm people has been broken for the most part.
And that’s good enough for now.